Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is "Femininity" a Social Construct?

In response to the Gifted for Leadership blog (see News at right), an ongoing, provocative discussion has been taking place at Emerging women (Nov 22, 2007).

I wanted to share a few ideas that the women there helped me clarify. I was challenged by the emerging women to show that femininity is something real and essential and not just a social construct. They thought female was something biological, but femininity was something socially constructed. It has been my ongoing desire to rescue femininity from stereotypes that harm women. Here's a cutting of what I wrote to them:

The term “feminine” often does refer to a sociological construct and not biology. But that does not mean femininity cannot be a real, essential aspect of every woman.

I’m afraid that because there are so many types of femininity (as you say feminine often changes between generations, cultures, ethnicities) we assume that there is no essence to being a female. That’s where I would disagree with you. I think you have assumed that variety of feminine codes entails no essential femininity. But if we applied that to morality, for instance (morals change between generations, cultures and ethnicities) we’d have to assume there is no timeless morality (a statement I’d disagree with since morality flows from the attributes of a changeless God). In a similar way, variety of female types does not prove there is no essence to femininity because femininity comes from God’s nature, as does masculinity (notice I do not mean female or male organs here, just the soul differences come from God). There could be a variety of explanations for the variety of femininities we see:

1- The Fall creates aberrations of the original intention of what male and female was to look like

2- God loves variety so he is honored by the differences in women, but this doesn’t preclude the possibility that God has given us a few essential things by which we know women are united.

3- We haven’t hunted down and found the similarities, but instead are either daunted by the differences or frustrated at how simplified women are often described to be so avoid it altogether.

4- Or as you’ve pointed out, there is no essential femininity

When I use the word “feminine” I mean it to refer to the ways a woman can be female and I grant that there are many, many ways. But the variety of feminine ways to be does not, in my mind, undermine the importance of discovering some, or even one, of the essentials of females. Since our body seems to be one agreed upon, necessary characteristic of females, I think Christian women would serve theology, philosophy and spiritual formation disciplines well if we developed a theology of female embodiment (for instance, we need to question even the “scientific” evidence as has been popularized by The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine and Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice,and compare these findings against comprehensive meta-analyses on gender studies e.g. Dr. Janette Shibley Hyde's work. We need to guard ourselves from the modernistic, materialistic tendency to value science over theology, especially if we believe in the ability of all humans, including women, to be able to choose how to use our biological differences. A brain difference might not be quite as determinant as a soul difference. We don’t want to fall into the trap of elevating a body difference as more substantial than a soul difference).

In Ruby Slippers, I use “feminine” to mean the how we own the ways God has made us female. This will include a variety of roles, season, behaviors, occupations, etc, customized to each woman (childbearing for some, singleness for others). I do believe we have a need to feel free to walk with God into what he’s made unique about us. If we find there are other women similar to us (like when you discover you’re an extrovert, for instance, and that there are others similar to you) that helps us in companionship and community for the journey. That is why we gain by seeking out what makes women unique.

In Ruby Slippers I talk about how we are intricate strands of body and soul fabric, woven by God. Our soul permeates our bodies like salt dissolved in water. This enmeshed view of the soul in the body is over a thousand years old and philosophically known as Thomistic dualism. According to this view any body difference impacts our souls, too. Our soul-infused body is never generically “human.” Humans are only male or female. There is no such thing as a generic human. And it makes sense to me that the physical differences of sex (chromosomes, sexual organs, hormones,) make essential differences on our soul’s capacities (mind, will, emotions, spirit) and therefore on our essential selves. How can a body difference not create a substantial difference to who we are? All our experiences are mediated by this body which in turns informs our soul. And since our experience is gendered from conception, our souls are incapable of non-gendered existence. That’s what female embodiment is all about.

I love that you take the phrase “image of God” seriously in your investigation of what it means to be female. I’m glad you’ve chosen to embrace that. And I agree that men and women take dominion in all areas of life best when we are, as in Eden, side by side. My question for you is what makes your soul own your female body differently than if your soul owned a male body? How does that change the way you engage with the world, friends, men, superiors, inferiors, God, angels, etc? How is your humanness dyed female?

You’ve stated we cannot know which parts of God are female or male. This is why I believe “feminine” is the best word to describe the unique female soul characteristics of women. God is not female, but he own feminine characteristics. God is not male, but he owns masculine characteristics. How do I know? He says so in Scripture. I think it’s worth digging into these metaphors (father, son, nurse, hen, mother, birther) to know our God better and to know our humanness better. So in your life, how does your femininity change the way the parishioners see God? How does your female body and feminine soul round out, fill up and build up their picture of God? What does female embodiment look like as you pursue metaphorical fruit? I know you’ve said that you own some typically “masculine” traits. This is where your experience as a woman would help others round out our understanding of how femininity does look. You are fully woman, fully feminine when you own all the traits God’s given you. I struggle when people assume a trait is masculine even when it’s owned by a woman (from my reading I think this is much more Jungian than Biblical, if God made us male and female than the traits we have are things we can call feminine, another way God is shown through a woman). This why I want to redeem “femininity” not just toss it into the socially constructed milieu pile. This is what Ruby Slippers led me to work through. I think we all would profit from your investigation into these questions, too.

And I agree with you, defining femininity will not be a simple definition. I hope I don’t come across like femininity or masculinity is a simple, clear-cut matter. I don’t believe it is, but I still find it worth investigating, poring over, writing about, talking about, finding. I believe femininity is real and we can catch glimmers of it in all the women we know.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Her Opening Chapter

I dropped into my sister’s new home last Monday. She has lived as a married woman for over two months, now. I noticed how her neatly ordered life of sparse belongings had blended with her husband’s life. Everything was spliced in that newly-wed hodge-podge of new individuals learning to combine. Her husband’s large shoes lined up next to my sister’s rainbow sandals, an artistic canister from her childhood bedroom holding his scrolls of landscape drawings, her medieval pewter cups gracing his sturdy architecture books. It looked tidy, fresh, organized, symbolic, like the first pages a good novel.

There is that moment when you furtively duck into a rich beginning of a grand story. You read knowing that the strangers in the first few lines are worth noting as they will become beloved parts of your imagination. In those early pages a small point, a poignant adjective can make the utmost significance to how we see and know and love these fictional people. Small things loom large in the first few pages.

Small things loom large in the first few months of living in the covenant of marriage.

I felt the longings for unity in my sister’s home. In her restroom I saw two towels in hallelujah blue and glory yellow beaming from their respective pegs. Their colors were so bright I felt like they must have just bought them, then I realized they probably did. There hadn't even been time for them to fade from washings, nor time for their to be worn spots or spills on their furniture. There was one little framed picture, one of the few earmarks of their nuptials, a shot of them coming down the aisle after the wedding, my sister looking somewhat relieved to be out of the spotlight, her husband smiling. It was hung between their two mirrors above their two identical bathroom sinks.

When Dale and I were first married people got this look in their eyes when we told them we'd only been married a few months. Dale didn’t appreciate it, that cootchy-cootchy-coo attitude. He did not want to become a cutsy spectacle for others to fawn over. But seeing the intentional merging of my sister and my brother-in-law’s worlds, I understand that the look of older couples on us was more tender than patronizing. I realize that they were praying and willing us to make it.

The seeds are there for my sister, there is love from her to him and back again. They are beginning well.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Biblical Womanhood?

When I sat down to write Ruby Slippers I got some excellent advice.
  • Don't assume that you have THE model of womanhood.
  • Take time to be freeing and flexible to your readers
  • Before normalizing any experience you've had look around, does it fit all types of women?

And God pointed my gaze to women (my agent, my publisher, my grandmothers, Deborah, Ruth, Priscilla) who didn't fit my neat list of feminine traits. Eventually, I came to a place where I could honestly say, "I am not offering an exhaustive index on femininity or the only biblical model for womanhood" (Ruby Slippers 25). Read more about re-working my original narrow conceptions of femininity in Ruby Slippers' "Epilogue" pg 192-193.

There is a steady stream of work, however, that says there is one form of Biblical Womanhood. Much to my dismay, the L.A. Times has covered one such example at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where you can get a BA in their newly opened degree in Home Economics (hooray for the Home Ec revival). Sadly, it's only open to women.

The journalist interviewed Dorothy Patterson who appears to be certain that her flavor of homemaking is biblical.

So in no particular order, here are some of the problems with equating Biblical womanhood with the stay-at-home flavor of femininity (a great way to be feminine, but by no means the only way!).

By the way, reading the article (free membership required) will give you some interesting perspective and background on my comments.

Problem 1: The college is equating God's purpose for women with being a helper suitable for man (Gen 2:18, Hebrew ezer = pronounced "ay'-zer", best translated ally). That's fine and mostly good, but to them, being an ezer means being good at home economics. So "helper" means sewing buttons, sustaining sparkling dinner conversations, and making a delicious meal. One woman who gave up her career when her husband wanted children is quoted as saying "If we love the Scripture, we must do it. We must fit into this role." Is this really what Scripture says? I find that the word most associated with ezer is the synonym warrior-protector, not homemaker. This idea leaves no room for the Proverbs 31 woman (a female often esteemed by Southern Baptists as the ideal woman) who is part organics farmer (v. 13), artist (v.13), international exports and imports monitor(v.14, 24), chef (v.15), food storage and distribution expert (v.15), administrator (v.15), public relations officer, (v.15),realtor (v.16), oenologist (v.16), pilates attender (v.17), accountant (v.18), textile operator (v. 19), defense attorney for the poor and oppressed (v.20), interior designer (v.22), fashion designer (v.13,21,24), high-achieving-up-at-the-crack- of-dawn-coffee-drunk -paper-read-off-to-work sort of woman (v.15, 18), and most of these positions bring her earning, i.e. real world money. She is a real provider and protector for her family, in both the public and private spheres. And it no where says she has a joint checking account with her husband. Though she may have. The point is not to be overwhelmed by her, the point is that we've got options ladies, real options.

Problem 2: This view of "biblical homemaking" bars wives and mothers from taking co-dominion opportunities in the public market place: law, business, academy, church. Now don't hear me wrong, I don't mean to say that staying home with kids, or even being a homemaker without children is a poor decision, but let's not prescribe it as the only godly position. The minimal number of Christian wives and mothers modeling what it looks like to be professors, attorneys, public servants, itinerant speakers, corporate executives has hurt more than a few women in deciding on what options are open to them. Would that we really had more Prov 31 examples around!

Problem 3: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, et al., have constructed an artificial realm of womanhood (i.e. home economics), and failed to dig deeper into the real unique things women offer. A man can iron, sew, cook, entertain just as well as a woman, so making women Masters of Home Economics pretends that this is a "woman's realm" when in reality it's a human realm. Further it actually robs men from the work (both satisfying and grueling) of caring for hearth and home. If a wife prefers to be the home economics master, well and good, but let's not assume that this means she is
  1. more feminine
  2. more godly
  3. more biblically feminine
  4. more ezer.
She is not. Femininity, godliness and helper are more demanding than home economics. You can do home economics well, and still be unfeminine and ungodly (i.e. frigid or invulnerable or calculating or controlling or demanding et cetera).

Problem 4: Home Economics is something men can do awfully well. Shouln't we value men doing the dishes and loving through service? Shouldn't Eph. 5:25 "love your wives as Christ loved the church" invite men into home economics? We could empower and encourage men to find jobs that they do well around the house. If wives were submissive in all things, this would include letting men help us with the housework, right? In our home, Dale is the primary dish-washer, grocery-shopper and part-time vacuumer and does these tasks very well. I can do them well, too, but my femininity is not threatened by him doing keeping house anymore than his masculinity is threatened by scrubbing pots and pans.

Problem 5: The LA Times' journalist no doubt left this Seminary with the distinct impression that the Bible is the foundation for this narrow definition of womanhood. No wonder we're losing women to Wicca. Here's how I'd think if I were a non-believer reading this article, "If the Biblical god forces women into realms that do not fit their giftings, their passions, their goals, their soul, then perhaps this god isn't really God."

Problem 6: There appears a sort of sanctified Martha Stewart lifestyle in this training. With such a long list of home economics duties, the wealthy and middle class make out substantially better in fulfilling their God-given purpose than the women who are weak, sick, disabled, poor, divorced, abandoned, widowed. I don't think God would approve of that, since he's so big on helping the weak and oppressed. In fact, he's pretty angry with those who heap burdens on those who cannot lift them (Luke 11:46). And a well-managed household being a good testimony? Praising home economics too highly can begin to heap more responsibilities on women (who must be wealthy enough to stay home and manage all this) to perform well. Women already have a weakness here. For me, I don't need more spiritualizing of my home's cleanliness (for instance, do spiritual destinies really depend on how smoothly my home runs?) I already have enough tapes running in my head preventing me from taking my home less seriously.

Some of the women quoted by the L.A. Times said, "The whole point of taking college-level homemaking is to ensure that my husband won't ever feel that he has to darn a sock or do the laundry. Those are my jobs." and "I'm not one of those out to rebel, out-to-be-my-own-woman types." I want to say, "Do you believe it is automatically selfish, rebellious or unfeminine to follow Christ into unconventional places?" For a better read on Home Economics, I'd recommend Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life, where Margaret Kim Patterson dignifies the menial aspects of housework into one way of worshipping God. But she never equates a woman's value with this good work.

One secular author gave these comforting words that to me, speak more truth into femininity. As we pursue God's thoughts on women, let's keep them in mind, "No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anyone, but oneself." Virginia Woolf.