femininity (en)couraged: part 2

Last time, I wrote about our unfortunate tendency to discourage femininity, in both men and women, and to overvalue stereotypical masculine traits. This time, I want to investigate the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies both masculinity and femininity in a striking balance. This balance is one toward which we all, male and female, ought to strive.

Jesus disdained vanity, whether vain displays of masculine “strength” or vain displays of feminine “beauty.” He redefined both strength and beauty in a way that undercuts our tired use of both for self-promotion. He told Peter to put down his sword:

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52

And he told us to stop worrying about our clothes:

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… Matthew 6:28

His definition of both strength and beauty is summarized in the beatitudes: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance through persecution. Taken together, these are the antidotes to vanity in all its forms.

Jesus was gentle with women and men and abrasive with women and men, basing his responses to people not on their gender or status but on his discernment of their motives. He demanded the same things from women as from men, and from members of all classes without differentiation: repentance and faith. No difference existed between his level of engagement with the important male of high religious standing in John 3 and the uneducated, foreigner female in John 4. In both cases Jesus discusses theological controversy with an equal level of interest, revealing deep spiritual truth to each one. He called both women and men to discipleship, neither patronizing women nor hyper-focusing on men.

And Jesus said [to the woman caught in adultery], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11

Then Jesus answered [the Canaanite woman], “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Jesus was equally “emotional” and “rational.” He wept openly, being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” at the sight of his friend Mary’s grief (John 11:34-35). Yet he was never carried away by emotion, instead maintaining control even when provoked by unconscionable injustice:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death… But Jesus remained silent. Matthew 26:59, 63

He valued “feminine” displays of tenderness above “masculine” competition. When a “sinful woman” barged in on a dinner party at which Jesus was a guest and began to anoint, kiss, and weep over his feet, he praised her as being more exemplary than his prestigious host. Her action had no economic, political, or public value of any kind, and was in that sense purely symbolic, yet Jesus treasured it.

Jesus blows apart our artificial binary between masculine and feminine virtues. For Christians, the only virtues are Christ-like ones. He is humanity at its best, for men and women alike. Thus, he exhibits the best of what we ignorantly consider “masculine” (e.g. strength, directness, courage, rationality) and “feminine” (e.g. gentleness, care, tenderness, emotionality), and he draws no line between them.

We ought to look to Jesus, studying his life and praying to him for help, as we seek to correct the imbalance between masculinity and femininity in our churches and in our lives.

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femininity (dis)couraged: part 1

Mary vs. Eve

Much has already been written on the polarized visions of female sexuality typified by Mary the virgin and Eve the temptress. In our efforts to make Mary less stifling and Eve less objectifying, perhaps we have abandoned our positive visions of femininity altogether.

It’s not that we are against female persons per se, culturally. We are against a particular archetype of the feminine. I tentatively offer up four dichotomies as exemplary of how we imagine the feminine-masculine contrast:

  • emotional vs. rational
  • innocent vs. worldly
  • stationary vs. mobile
  • aesthetic vs. economic

What we think of as “masculine” is celebrated in both sexes. In politics and business, a woman must naturally exhibit or learn to mimic the qualities that are thought of as typically masculine in order to gain reception as a productive, important person — square shoulders, a lower voice, short hair, unflowered language, formal forms of address, abrasiveness, crude jokes, physically distant mannerisms. Masculinity is associated with seriousness while femininity is associated with triviality.

This affects not only women but men, and more severely so. Men who display “feminine” qualities, whether physical or personal, are socially punished for being too slender, gentle, sedentary, aesthetically sensitive, emotional, relational, wordy, refined. Their sexual prowess is considered deficient or their sexual orientation is doubted. They are often relegated to the world of women, shut out from male zones and denied male approbation.

A notable development in the history of our social imagination is the move of aesthetic appreciation from association with the masculine to the feminine. Pre-industrialization, the masculine worlds of education and scholarship emphasized appreciation for the arts and poetry. Boys studied the serious business of Homer and Shakespeare while girls studied homemaking. In the pre-capitalist epoch, the arts were considered central to the human endeavor, and therefore as belonging to the realm of masculine expertise, but industrialization overturned our cultural value system. Aesthetic appreciation contributes nothing to capitalist nation-building, which in the 19th century overtook the American imagination as the new most important human project, over and above spiritual or aesthetic pursuits.

This industrialized disregard for the arts as irrelevant and therefore feminine has persisted; for easy evidence, compare the rates of males in STEM majors with the rates of females in “soft” science/literary/artistic majors. It is highly ironic that aesthetic sensitivity (e.g. attention to color, design, figurative language) is now disparagingly associated with the feminine, considering the history of male domination in the arts.

Perhaps in our cultural effort to usher women into the “important,” “masculine” worlds of economics and politics, we have ceded too much ground by agreeing a priori to the proposition that only those worlds are important. Therefore, only masculinity is important. Unfortunately, the goal seems to have become to elevate women by making them more masculine. Furthermore, this infiltration of women into male zones and masculine roles has generated a reactionary response among men which has tended to restrict the definition of what masculinity means, detrimentally affecting men or boys who fail to fit the mold.

A healthier project may be to de-trivialize femininity itself and elevate the feminine worlds of art, interpersonal relationships, emotion, and spirituality back to their rightful place at the center of human life.

The next post will look at how the Bible intersects with these issues.

 

mother/woman/human

As usual, controversial moral issues such as abortion are discussed as mere differences of political opinion. Scratch the surface, though, and you see that they expose fundamentally opposed ideas about the nature of reality and the human being.

Woman is both blessed and burdened by her peculiar role as the bearer of children. The biological necessity of Man’s physical proximity to his child ends at conception, while Woman must remain physically close at least until the child is weaned, if the child is to survive. In fact, Woman must literally house her child within herself for nine months, the two bodies as close together as two bodies can be, the two lives inextricably intertwined. Man’s responsibility for his offspring is largely a moral, social one. Woman’s responsibility is necessitated by biology and resides in the very make-up of her body. Add to this the fact that biology also enables Man to initiate and even force the conception of children on Woman, with little risk to his own future and with great risk to hers. This results in a greatly unequal responsibility for children between the sexes.

Humans have typically interpreted this natural inequality by keeping Woman confined within the sphere of child-bearing and child-rearing. This is understandable, especially in rustic settings, since the survival of children is dependent on the attention given to them by Woman and since biology makes this non-negotiable. Also not surprising is that fact that, due to humanity’s ability and tendency to see meaning everywhere, we have abstractly considered “bearer of children” as essential to defining “Woman.” Thus we have traditionally understood womanhood and motherhood as nearly synonymous. If you will suspend your modern, First World assumptions for a moment, this will probably become obvious.

(Though granted much more freedom of movement, Man is not therefore unbound by biology and free to seek his own welfare exclusively. During pregnancy and nursing, children depend directly on the Woman for sustenance, keeping her close to them. This makes Woman herself dependent on the labor of Man, placing the responsibility for her survival largely on his shoulders. Again, we have therefore usually imagined “provider of food” as essential to defining “Man,” making manhood and bread-winner nearly synonymous. Genesis 3:16-19 succinctly summarizes these facts about the human condition.)

But, then. Our society experienced an industrial revolution which has enriched us beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams, creating less rustic environments in which we have unprecedented control over our surroundings and over our bodies. For the first time, less worried about survival and with lots more free time, people suddenly possessed the luxury of questioning our assumptions about Man and Woman. For a female to be “fully a woman” (abstractly, of course), must she always be a mother? Is there something pernicious in taking the two things as synonyms, thereby limiting Woman forever to the realm of home and children? With millions of women now able to prevent pregnancy and able to live comfortably with fewer children or no children, what is Woman after all? For that matter, what is Man, if Woman is equally capable of the non-physical labor that makes up most of the modern industrialized economy? Modern affluence disrupted our ancient lifestyle patterns based on gender. This in turn caused us to lose our footing in how we conceive of the archetypal categories “Man” and “Woman.”

The implications of these historical developments can and should be investigated in regards to all our modern problems of (trans-)gender, sexuality, marriage, parenting, family, masculinity, and femininity. For now, let’s consider the original topic of abortion. Here is where we find the conflict between fundamental beliefs about reality.

For the secular person unconcerned with transcendence, there need be no inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood. Equal parts Gnostic and Darwinist, the contemporary secular worldview is free to utterly divide one’s biological identity (“bearer of children”) from one’s abstract identity (“woman”). The abstract identity is meaningful only insomuch as human minds assign meaning to it, anyway. Add to this no reason to believe in the inherent value of human existence (even apart from human personality) and the prizing of unrestrained personal freedom as the key to happiness, and you have created the pro-choice person. A purposeless natural world enables us to separate meaning from biology, motherhood from womanhood, and thus the human body inside the womb from the human body around it.

What about the Christian who believes in transcendence and cares about God’s will for the world? The Christian worldview cannot so easily disentangle biology, or what God has created, from what it means abstractly, or the meaning the divine mind has assigned to it. A woman’s pregnancy is no mere physical accident divorced from the way she conceptualizes her personal identity. Put another way, she is not an enlightened mind inside an animal body. Rather, she is soul and body, made by God. Her capacity for pregnancy, and her pregnancy itself, say something about who she is.

We all see the danger in too closely associating “woman” with “mother.” Childless women have been shamed and even despised for millennia. Civilization has suffered from the historical exclusion of women from public spheres. Great injustice has been done to untold numbers of women who could not bear children or who would have been greatly useful outside the domestic realm if given the opportunity. We know very well, then, that a woman is a Woman (and first, a human being) whether she bears a child or not. For the Christian, that is basic imago Dei doctrine.

But do we see the danger in separating “woman” from “mother” entirely? Are women in the first stage of motherhood–i.e. pregnant women–still not truly mothers in any sense, such that their children are mere bundles of disposable tissue and not children at all? Is the biological fact of their pregnancy totally unrelated to their femininity or to their personal identity? (Furthermore, can a male really be called a woman if he is without the remotest capacity of ever bearing or nursing a child and if his body does not every month prepare for the possibility?)

For me, as a woman, as a believer in transcendence, and as a person deeply interested in the well-being of all women, abortion denigrates women by utterly severing the tie between body and soul, between biology and identity.

These topics deserve further discussion, within the Church and within broader society. I would love to hear from you.