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.


Jordyne said...

Could you please send me an email? I have some personal questions I would like to ask you in regards to this subject? I sure do appreciate it!

Philip said...

I need to read your book. Savannah has been giving her copy to every women who will accept it and keeps forgeting I'm in line too ; )

I'm no expert on femininity, but it seems to me you are on the right track. To say femininity changes with culture does not mean it is not real, like you said. I think we need to be cautious in reversing the order here. It seems more accurate to me that each culture shows an aspect of femininity (or some times distorts it) and the expressions are ever changing.

There is a difference deeper than mere biology and social consructs between savannah and I, or you and Dale. It is woven into our very souls; in our image. And that's a mystery, but we can find insight into it. I'm glad you are giving insights and searching as deep as you can into it.

Ladybug said...

"All our experiences are mediated by this body which in turns informs our soul"?

Are you sure you have this the right way around? Although no expert, I would have thought that Thomas would have had the soul inform the body, the body reflect (or even bespeak) the soul? This way around, you can still have the interwoven body-soul fabric while giving the soul ontological priority. That way, someone wouldn't be tempted to say, "this body is [ugly, damaged, fat, unloveable], therefore my soul is too because my body informs my soul"

as an aside, have I mentioned the JPII phrase "the body is the sacrament of the person" to you yet? That's another interesting way to think about the relationship of the two as one, but you have to have a good understanding of the Catholic idea of "sacrament" first. Cf. Theology of the Body by JPII and comment by Christopher West in Theology of the Body explained and some commentary in New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory by Tina Beattie

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Philip- glad you want to read Ruby Slippers. Would love to have your review after you do on Amazon. Thanks for the encouragement. I really like how you said different cultures help inform new aspects of our gender.

Ladybug- As far as soul-body connection, I don't believe the soul has ontological priority in our humanity. I believe body and soul have equal priority, which is what distinguishes Cartesian dualism from Thomistic dualism (perhaps ask D and correct me if I'm wrong). I believe there is a constant feedback loop between body and soul such that both inform/reflect each other. In your example a person believes that they have a fat, ugly body and this does affect the soul (not the essential value of this soul, but the capacities are altered, if one person believes that their body is ugly, then their soul will feel disgust, fear, insecurity, etc). That's why disciplines that produce a soul that owns and values it's body change our body, too. When we remove false beliefs and strengthening true beliefs (e.g. I am valuable even if my body doesn't meet model standards. I am healthy and that's what matters, etc.) this will change the way we move, walk, laugh, run, dance, make love, etc.

I appreciate "the body is the sacrament of the person" All these tidbits of embodiment we keep batting around make me wonder if down the road we should put our heads together and really start working out a theology of female embodiment. :) New Catholic Feminism sounds lovely. I'm ordering!