What’s Essential by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonAfter reading my essay (4-15-16) on this Feminism and Religion site, one of my male colleagues (also a good friend) pushed back at me.  “Seems to me,” he said, “that the issue in any oppression is power and power structures are fluid.”  He went on to say that men don’t always exercise power over women and then cited his less-than-satisfactory experience with a female dean who tried to unfairly eradicate an academic program he initiated.  He reminded me that in bygone times, there were queens who ruled empires–sometimes harshly.  Currently, there are women with a certain amount of power who control (to some extent) the lives of their housekeepers (usually women) and gardeners (usually men).  Often these housekeepers and gardeners are women and men of color who inhabit a lower social strata.

“Yes,” I noted, “there’s that whole intersectionality thing of race, class, and gender.  The contours of oppression shift, but the essay I wrote focused on showing how our society is built and structured, at least partially, upon gender inequality.”  He wasn’t convinced that all women in our society inhabit a space where structured gender inequality affects all women, coming back to his argument that power structures shift and we all find ourselves caught somewhere in that web at one time or another.

My friend illustrated further:  “I’m a man in the Humanities.”  The Humanities these days, unlike STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), doesn’t have a lot of clout in the university.  Without a certain amount of institutional clout, resources don’t easily flow towards tenure-track lines, speaker series, and all the other accoutrements that say, “Hey, your work in the Humanities is valued.”  Compared to his colleagues in STEM, the university hierarchy considers him “lesser than.”

I get what he’s saying.  He’s right.  I argued, though, that one’s gender, unlike one’s work, is part of the essence of one’s identity and when that aspect of the self is denigrated, one is wounded (and hobbled) in ways that are different from when one’s work is denigrated.  Is it because one carries the marks of sex/gender somewhere/somehow on the body?  I remember when Cher’s daughter, Chastity, transitioned to Chaz, Cher’s son.  Cher could not imagine wanting to live in a man’s body and mourned the passing of her daughter.

Perhaps my friend could change his discipline to a STEM field.  Even though he has a Humanities bent, could he add mathematics to his repertoire?  People might say, “Look at that.  He knows equations inside and out, and he can even integrate his passion for the Humanities with his new discipline.”  Even if folks were less than enthusiastic about his transition, credible criticism would not involve his very person.

But then I ask myself, Is there an essential self?  Most Buddhist practitioners say no.  In Buddhist thought, there is no fixed self since we are always transforming.  Why are we so invested in identifying as female or male?  I don’t believe there is an essential “man” or “woman.”  These are categories we get assigned (usually at birth) that may or may not fit with how we identify ourselves.  How can we talk about anything, though, (in this case, the self) if we don’t have a way to get hold of the concept?  For the second or so that we get hold of it, doesn’t it cease being fluid–at least momentarily?

Some years ago, I saw a movie titled, “The Crying Game.”  In a plot twist, a man assumes the person he’s about to have sex with is a woman.  Turns out the person he is about to copulate with has a penis and the man goes a little crazy.  One of my friends said she loved the question that movie brought up for her:  “Just what is a woman?”

How can we get hold of this thing called the self?  Perhaps by the many ways in which we identify.  Does one’s identity such as “woman” trump another identity such as “lesbian” or “Black?”  I don’t think so.  Audre Lorde’s essay, “There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions”, speaks eloquently about our multiple identities, showing the necessity of embracing them all.

But still, this doesn’t exactly get at my friend’s skepticism concerning whether women, designated so by our society, inhabit a social space that disadvantages them compared to those people our society designates as men.

While still in conversation with my friend, I mentioned the two creation stories in Genesis.  The story where woman is created from the man’s rib (Genesis 2: 18-22) has structured and shaped our culture more decisively than the story where God creates woman and man simultaneously (Genesis 1: 26-27).  The “rib story” has been interpreted to demonstrate that woman derived from man and is, therefore, inferior or “less than.”

Most people today do not know the creation stories in Genesis and are not aware of how the stories structure and affect cultural norms.  But there is no need to know the stories for them to be effective.  Our cultural narratives (biblical stories especially) have shaped the way we think about our world, informing us about how the world “should” be arranged.  (Many people do claim that we need to get back to the Judeo-Christian values that shaped this country.)  We often just accept the “truths” we’ve been given.  The 30-ish-year-old woman I wrote about who Dr. Phil interviewed didn’t even flinch when her husband announced that he was “king of my castle.”  She submitted to her husband’s “reign.”  No questions asked.

Who gets oppressed by whom varies depending on the epoch of history, where we live (geography), and economic factors.  Oppression is domination of one group/person over another.  I agree with my friend on the fluid nature of oppression.  But right here, right now, women (but not JUST women) live in a specific and particular space where the structures of our society unfold in ways that continuously devalue us.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

10 thoughts on “What’s Essential by Esther Nelson”

  1. I’ll tell you how women are oppressed: say it’s a warm spring night and you’ve been swotting away at your work all day. You yawn, stretch, and decide that a walk through the apple blossom-scented darkness is just what you need before bedtime.

    Then you remember you’re a woman.

    Never mind that you pay taxes just as men do, abide by the laws and conventions of society just as men do. You do NOT have the freedom to walk by yourself at night outdoors.


  2. I would suggest that your final sentence, “the structures of our society unfold in ways that continuously devalue us” is an answer to your friend’s observation that “without a certain amount of institutional clout, resources don’t easily flow towards tenure-track lines, speaker series, and all the other accoutrements that say, “Hey, your work in the Humanities is valued.” ” Humanities, in our society, are generally associated with women. That your male friend is employed there doesn’t change the fact that “women’s work” is devalued. I would paraphrase: “all [people] in our society inhabit a space where structured gender inequality affects [everyone]”.


    1. Yes, thanks Judith for your comment. I agree with you that gender inequality affects everyone. I also remember one of my professors in college saying that women are affected more than men by that structured inequality. It’s like husbands who “babysit” their children. “What a nice guy,” we say, “that he helps out his wife.”


      1. We are in complete agreement. There is also the usual “he’s assertive, she’s a bitch” line of language.


  3. I don’t think he *is* right. Yeah, Humanities is valued less than STEM (but look at the proporitons of women to men in those two fields), but that is not the primary factor. Male preference in hiring, pay scale, full professorship, and tenure: that is far more important. Sex counts for a great deal in the university system, as in the entire employment picture, and he is denying that. There are male adjuncts, but the proportion of female adjuncts is much higher, while men predominate as heads of departments. So he is denying basic inequalities based on sex.


    1. Yes, Max, that was part of our dialogue. He kept broadening the oppression thing out. I held firm with the particulars of oppression. In our particular university, I do see change happening. We recently hired two young women (a Chinese-American in Buddhist Studies and an Iranian-American in Islamic Studies), something that even five years ago, I don’t believe would have happened. Thank you for your comment.


      1. Many of the diversity hires are in response to student demands- grassroots initiated, not ‘noblesse oblige’ of the privileged Ivory Tower residents. What will be interesting to see is whether the diversity hires will be retained (through good mentorship, etc) and promoted or whether they ‘don’t quite fit in’ and are dumped with white males to replace them on the tenure track.


  4. I wonder how female salaries in the STEM areas at your friend’s university compare with male salaries in the same areas.


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