Woman – The Essential Other by Natalie Weaver


Natalie Weaver editedI am writing from Oxford, England, where I am privileged to be staying this summer while attending an institute on the theme of “Otherness” in medieval Judaism.  Our readings have focused on a variety of topics, including: the development of Christian anti-Jewish polemics; the development of Jewish anti-Christian polemics; the development of medieval Christian visual representations of Jews; and the European medieval expulsions of Jews.  The well-planned program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been illuminating for all – speakers and participants alike, I think.  It has also been, at least for me, an occasion of intellectual sadness.  It is not that I am surprised by how ugly polemics, pictures, and history can be.  It is that I feel myself coming to a deeper appreciation of the dangerous power dynamics in religion, driven by political and economic aims, that strike me as the underlying cause of practical conflict, yet cloaked as principally theological tensions.

If it were not manifestly obvious that procurement and retention of resources, goods, and position drive personal/familial commitments and tribalistic frameworks for meaning and ultimacy, one of the clues – at least for me – has been the repetition of charges and accusations across polemical perspectives.  And, what is more, one unmistakable commonality in the charges and indictments seems to be the accusation of effeminacy.  This accusation need not be directly stated, such as, “Your people think like women,” or the like.  It comes across in the overlap, speaking specifically concerning Christian writings, between discussions of women and discussions of Jews.  The phenomenon, though, is not unilaterally Christian. 

I saw it first in the proto-orthodox Christian Athanasius, in his Orations against the Arians, when he accuses the “heretical” Christians of being effeminate and flippant in their singing.  Here, Medieval Christian polemicists accused Jews of a profound irrationality (since they did not accept presumably self-evident Christian logic), to the point of questioning Jewish humanity.  Jewish polemics rebutted Christian belief by arguing that it is inconceivable that God would be so defiled as to become incarnate in the base innards of a woman’s womb. Not to be outdone, Christians developed a myth accusing Jewish men of menstruating.

Irrational minds, moral weakness, physical baseness, association with women’s blood – all these charges used to discredit religious “others” are classically attached to women and used as explanations and justifications for the debased social, ecclesial/religious/ritual, and professional/economic status of women.  It seems that such charges had/have useful application to other groups as well.

We find ourselves with a few theological options when evaluating this line of thought.  One option is to accept as some combination of a priori, a posteriori, and revealed fact that women brought or bring defilement or ruination upon the world and ought to be punished, hidden, silenced, marginalized, subordinated, and so on.  It flows from this that womanish things or ways are inherently corrupt, and it is best not to be, or not to be like, women.  All men and women who accept this logic can thus appropriate androcentric norms as properly human norms.  To be woman, here, means to be aberrant.  To be a man that acts like a woman or to be in a religion that compels its adherents to act like or to rely on a woman is therefore to be even more aberrant.

But, if this does not resonate with our experience of real, living women (along with perhaps other modes of revelation and reason than those advanced by the dominant traditions), we must ask why this line of argumentation, especially when invoked in inter- and intra-religious disputations against other religious men.  What end does it serve?

One might answer that the real problem is not women but irrationality or uncleanness.  In these cases, women and religious others (male and female) are simply exemplary of deviance from human normativity or goodness.  Presumably, religiously other males don’t have to be like women, even though women are basically stuck being women unless they can conform themselves sufficiently to male norms.  It is hard to determine which is worse – to be a woman by accident or to be like a woman by choice.  In any case, one answer to the question of why this line of argumentation could be that irrationality, uncleanness, and so on are simply and legitimately bad, and women/heretics/religious others/etc., just happen to manifest these problems.

But, there is also the answer that these accusations against women justified their subordinated and demeaned status, and so too these same accusations are useful to justify the subordination of other social sets.  The dominant power, moreover, may have not only the right but also the sacred duty to maintain order!  Here’s the rub, yes?

I am left to conclude that women categorically represent the “other” since opposing forces see their opponents as essentially feminized, stained by, or marked by traits stereotypically indicative of women.  This also leads me to conclude that these medieval polemics were not so much about salvation or truth as they were about power and disempowerment, which led quite literally to life alterations and sometimes death for so-called witches, heretics, and Jews.   In short, to cast the other as woman-like was to cast and justify the other as subjugated or demeaned in socially measurable ways.   Such thinking betrays its purveyors, no matter how righteous they perceived themselves to be.

Today, while certainly not ubiquitous and frequently beset by conflict on the world stage, some advancement has been achieved in many Catholic/Christian-Jewish and Christian-Catholic dialogues.  I am not sure, however, whether women are any less definitionally and religiously “other.”  If such anti-woman thinking could be completely excised from these traditions, one wonders what would remain…

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

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Categories: Gender, Gender and Power, General, Women in the Church

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. Just yesterday on Judge Judy I heard a young woman refer to the man she was suing as: “he was acting like a girl.” My heart sank to my stomach. These ideas are not “medieval” only as you know. Ruether discussed them as being part of the classical dualisms, but they are not just “classical” either.

    You post provokes me to ask: just what does the new pope have in mind when he speaks of a new theology of woman. I suspect he does not have in mind transforming all of the classical dualisms–as doing so just might do him out of a job. Hee hee.

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  2. Thank you for this, Natalie. You have described the essential problem in patriarchal religions: power-over, and particularly, power over women.

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  3. In your title, thanks, Natalie, the expression, “Essential Other,” got me thinking, and your comment, too, where you say: “I am not sure, however, whether women are any less definitionally and religiously ‘other.’” I’ve never considered this before, but perhaps in our time, the modern feminist reminder that there is this “other” out here truly is essential, that is, since it prompts religion to let go of its complacency, and therefore more able to seriously question itself, or even hopefully to evolve in a more inclusive and creative manner.

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  4. It’s especially interesting that most of these anti-other so-called theological arguments were devised by men wearing skirts. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, what happens to women when they are accused of acting like men?

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  5. Hello Natalie

    From my home in Nottingham I hope that apart from the programme your time in Oxford is pleasant, the food acceptable and the weather manageable – although you may have little time outside the events!

    The final question of your blog is one that has worked away at the edges of my consciousness – and sometimes been expressed as openly as you express it – and with which I will no doubt continue to work.

    The attitudes you are finding in the use of language seem to be deeply woven into the Christian faith I still identify with and it is troubling and often difficult to know how to take transformation forward.

    I honour your commitment to noticing and asking and stand with you in your sadness at what you are finding.

    May there also be moments of hope to sustain you

    all good wishes

    Margaret

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  6. I think what’s key for me is seeing what actually engages my interest, and really those holy books are so contaminated by male thought, that I just don’t want to hear about it anymore. Lately, I have been in conversation when quite a few lesbian separatists, and how much I love them, their raw courage, the fact that they are hated so much by the world.. I love radical lesbian feminism as a key to liberation, it is dynamic, ecstatic, but most women will never know this. Women will continue to settle for the holy books of men or the male religions and this is really sad to me.

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    • Hey Turtle Woman, don’t you think you should at least say “some” women will continue to settle…” There are quite a group of us who don’t, and we are not all lesbian separatists, and lesbian separatists are women too!! Even leaving aside questions about your view that working within traditional religions is selling out, your generalizations do not apply to all women.

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  7. Now here’s one permutation on woman-despising I didn’t know until today. From Wikepedia:

    The tale of the Yazidis’ origin found in the Black Book gives them a distinctive ancestry and expresses their feeling of difference from other races. Before the roles of the sexes were determined, Adam and Eve quarreled about which of them provided the creative element in the begetting of children. Each stored their seed in a jar which was then sealed. When Eve’s was opened it was full of insects and other unpleasant creatures, but inside Adam’s jar was a beautiful boychild. This lovely child, known as son of Jar grew up to marry a houri and became the ancestor of the Yazidis. Therefore, the Yazidi are regarded as descending from Adam alone, while other humans are descendants of both Adam and Eve

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  8. In a previous job, I helped people find in network providers. This woman called looking for a doctor and I happened to name off some female doctors. She said “I mean a real doctor…a man!” I was blown away that she did not see female doctors as “real doctors”. Apparently women are not going through the same rigorous training the men are!!!

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