Moderator’s Note: This was originally posted on March 25, 2019. AND the issues are still with us and as vivid as ever.
The first two parts of Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature, “MATTER” and “SEPARATION,” are written in the authoritative voice of western philosophy and science that declares matter to be dead and the body an impediment to thought, and proceeds to separate the mind from the body. All of this, Griffin suggests, is based in the fear of death.
As Griffin notes, in this equation woman is identified with the body and her voice is silenced. Re-reading these parts of Woman and Nature for the umpteenth time for a class I am teaching felt even more painful than it had before. I was reliving parts of my own story.
I was brought up in the tract home suburbs of post-war Los Angeles in a world of women. Both of my grandmothers played central roles in my upbringing, introducing me to nature and the spirit of life they experienced as we explored trails the Los Angeles County arboretum before it was fenced or when we frolicked in the waves and picked up sand dollars at the seashore south of San Francisco. When I was ten years old my family moved to a new neighborhood that was almost entirely made up of families like ours with small children, fathers who worked, and mothers who stayed home.
In the new neighborhood, I did not find it easy to make friends my own age. My mother had a baby that year, and I voluntarily and joyfully threw myself into raising him with her. The other mothers recognized my precocious maturity and ease with children and soon I was babysitting almost every child in the block. One of the families had five children under the age of five: my job was to feed and bathe all five of them and put them to bed. I was very good at my job. I loved those children, every one of them. With my babysitting money, I bought fabric and sewed all my own clothes. I was very good at that too. I once made a suit with three kinds of lining and bound buttonholes using a Vogue Paris Original pattern. When I started college I learned that everything I knew or thought I knew was irrelevant to the studies I was about to undertake.
A professor in a seminar in the Humanities Honors Program told us that the most important book of the twentieth century was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. He especially admired the quality of Nabokov’s prose. My parents disapproved of the book. I assumed they did not know what they were talking about. I wanted to understand beauty. I separated the mind, my mind, that was reading the book from the body of the girl lying on her bed trying to figure it out: it never occurred to me that I was reading a book about the violation of the innocence of girls like me, like the little girls I fed, bathed, and put to bed. Nor did I recognize that my innocence was being violated by the professor who insisted that I must read Lolita if I wanted to learn to appreciate the beauty of fine writing. Lolita, Eve, Cassandra, Persephone, the Sabine Women, their names are legion.
The final chapter of “SEPARATION” is “Terror.” In it, a man who is mesmerized by the laws of physics declares his superiority to a woman who, he assumes, cannot understand the intricacies of his thought. She remains silent, but “Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a gesture” that keeps him awake at night.
For a long time I read in a fog of unknowing, but then I woke up. “This is not me I said, you cannot tell me that this is me.”
“And this he hated her for, the outrage of seeming to be like him, of imitating him of mocking his dignity, of forcing in him some recognition, so that he might see himself in her.”
I wrote a paper using his language explaining the flaws in the thinking of his favorite theologian. He tossed it aside in front of the other students with a smirk of disdain.
“And then another thought came upon him, so terrible he could scarcely hold on to it. Suppose there is no difference between them except for the power he wields over her.”
This was the battle waging in the minds of men in halls of the Yale Divinity School, in the halls of the Yale Graduate School circa 1970. It was not only about our voices. It was about his voice and all the voices he had studied telling him telling him that he was not woman, that he was not flesh, that he would not die.
To listen would be the end of everything he knew, everything he thought he knew. He did not listen.
Not too long ago, I learned that one of my professors became a feminist forty years later, in his ninety-eighth year, shortly before his death. Better late than never, I suppose.
Unfortunately the issues discussed here are still with us. The whole edifice of western thought based on the disparagement of the body, of women, of nature, and on the denial of death has not exactly crumbled. While being challenged from a variety of directions its fundamental assumptions are still widely assumed and rarely criticized at their root.
The lessons I learned about from women about the spirit residing in nature and the importance of caring for and nurturing life have yet to become foundational in university canons and curricula. Nor has “women’s knowledge” been recognized as crucial for the survival of of life on planet earth.
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ