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A History of Feminist Consciousness

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That everyone who thirsteth for the truth may obtain it, these publications are, as a Christian service, provided without charge. They levy but one exaction: the soul's obligation to itself to prove all things and hold fast to that which is good. The only strings attached to this free proffer are the golden strands of Eden and the crimson cords of Calvary - the ties that bind.
 
Shekinah Magazine

Shekinah

  20

 SHEKINAH/Double Issue/July-December 1983

Vol. 4, Nos. 3,4   


We have witnessed the anguish of Christian women who strive to find a home within their churches. What can we learn from the past to help us make sense out of present traditions that seem so oblivious to women's needs? In broad strokes, this article traces a long history of fluctuating emphases on patriarchal or matriarchal values in the Christian church and in the larger society. The article has been adapted from the keynote address delivered at a conference sponsored by the Boston chapter of Evangelical Women's Caucus last April.


A History of
Feminist Consciousness



By Candace Waldron



Christian tradition has not remained static in its emphasis on patriarchal themes. There have been times in the history of the Church when matriarchal themes have been more highly valued than they are today. We happen to live in a very patriarchal period of time right now, but it is my conviction that the women's movement will be instrumental, indeed critical, in ushering all of Western culture into a more matriarchal society, and for that I rejoice. The impact of the women's movement is cosmic as we bring both women and men into a greater awareness of what it means to be human and restored to wholeness.

This process comes about with the elevation of feminine or matriarchal values. By matriarchal values I mean that which sees action in waiting; wisdom in silence; strength in vulnerability; power in servant-hood; meaning in mystery and the potential of life in the horror of death. I believe that Jesus himself came to teach just such matriarchal values in a patriarchal world. It is therefore in following Christ that we continue a process which has waxed and waned since His death.

What I am going to do now is to briefly pick up some lost threads of feminist or matriarchal consciousness in the church, covering the Early Church, the period of the Church Fathers, the Medieval Church, the pre-modern Church of the witch hunts, and the Reformation. I shall trace how that feminist consciousness was lived out and in some cases how it was overpowered by patriarchy.


Period of the Church Fathers


By about 300-400 A.D., men completely

dominated the thinking and reflections of the church. The pendulum had swung back from a beginning appreciation of the feminine begun by Jesus to an almost monolithic patriarchy of the Church Fathers. It was during this time that the debate about women administering sacraments which had previously been allowed (such as the emergency baptism of infants and women) began, and women's rights and rites were curtailed. It was also at this time that celibacy was elevated as a norm for Christian living, largely due to the idea that women represented body, flesh and therefore evil. Men, who embodied spirit and mind, would be tainted should they come into contact with women. Tertullian told women that we are devil's gateway whereby Satan ensnares and captures pure males. And it was none other than St. Augustine who admonished husbands to love their wives–not as Christ loved the Church, but because all Christians have been instructed to love their enemies!

It seems therefore that at this time the church was moving into a decidedly patriarchal mindset. The matriarchal or feminine was not totally overcome, but lay dormant, gathering strength to re-emerge at another point in time. For there were some good results of this patriarchal backlash. Women began to come together in convents and abbeys. They began to learn about their Christian faith and to pray and meditate in women's communities. A celibate religious life became an attractive option to the burdensome responsibilities of family life for many women in this time–an option which became even more popular among women in the Middle Ages when there were not enough convents to contain all the women

choosing them. It was this fellowship among women that helped set the stage for a more matriarchal theology in the Medieval Church.


Early Church


Some members of the Early Church had the distinct advantage of witnessing Jesus–a man acutely aware of the feminine within himself–operate within an over- whelmingly patriarchal culture. It is to this feminine side of Jesus that we as feminists seem to go to seek refuge and strength. It is not weak, docile or manipulative. Jesus embodies a mother's passionate, unconditional love for her offspring. He related compassionately, empathetically and yet honestly to those who came into his presence. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus; he was enraged by the oppression of the poor and violation of the Temple; and he tenderly loved John his disciple, Mary his mother, and others who followed him. He experienced the full range of human emotions–unlike some men and boys in Western patriarchy who have been placed in emotional strait jackets. Born into a position of power as a free-born male Jew, Jesus gave up that privileged position and identified with the poor, the outcast, the slave, the whore. Jesus was also vulnerable and he allowed others to gaze upon his utter vulnerability and weakness as he faced the world outstretched and naked on his cross of pain. It is not coincidence that the more patriarchal Reformation Church destroyed the crucifixes of the more matriarchal Medieval Church. How can the masculine–which values strength, power, heroism and action–worship a God who makes himself vulnerable to pain and passion?

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* * * Reprinted from the May-June, 1983 issue of "Daughters of Sarah" published Chicago, Illinois. * * *



   Vol. 4, Nos. 3,4

SHEKINAH/Double Issue/July-December 1983 

21  

This is of course not to say that the Early Church moved out of the patriarchal Judaism into an immediately balanced and whole relationship between these two poles. We know that by the second century women were shaving their heads and dressing like men in the belief that only men could be true followers of Christ. In the Gospel of Thomas, an apocrophal text, Jesus tells his disciples he is going to make Mary into a man for only then will she be able to enter into the kingdom of God. It is my interpretation of 1 Corinthians II:2-16 that Paul is affirming to women that they can remain women and still be followers of Christ. Hence they need not discard their long hair or their head coverings, simply part of a woman's apparel in New Testament times, in an effort to "become male" as Gnostic women were encouraged to do. Perhaps we, like the women of Corinth, believe we must "become male," so we participate in the devaluation of the feminine the same way men do.

The Early Church came into direct confrontation with the polarity between masculine and feminine simply because no man had ever so radically evidenced the feminine in his being as did Jesus. The church has been struggling with this ever since. The pendulum seems to swing ever so slightly toward matriarchal values, and then with a vengeance back toward patriarchy.


Middle Ages


How many of us are not familiar with the religious art of the Medieval Church? What is the central figure? A madonna; a woman with child. God becomes a female virgin-mother and the Christ remains an infant. We may think of the worship of Mary today as being a setback for feminism. Indeed, modern patriarchal Christianity has so stripped Mary of her power (making her conform to the male-defined image of femininity) that for many of us Mary is a destructive rather than a constructive image of the divine. Yet in the Medieval Church Mary was more like the Goddess Demeter than any other Christian figure before or since. She was passionately involved in a relationship with her child. She defended and protected him and those who approached him, according to Medieval stories. She wept at his death, showing her own vulnerability, empathy and pain at his time of suffering. It was Mary to whom the Medieval Church prayed simply because of her ability to empathize with human pain and because of her strength and power in the relationship she had with God and her son. Mary became the symbol of God's faithfulness and intimacy with people as well as of God's participation in human struggle. She invited people to become friends with God and embodied the forgiving and accepting face of God to the Christians of the Middle Ages.

With Mary, Jesus the infant remained approachable, for with whom can we be more transparent and honest than with an infant? Human adult defenses fell and the Medieval Church approached their savior in the childlike awe and faithfulness that we moderns experience solely at Christmastime, if then. Notice this Christmas how quickly we are to grow baby Jesus up into full manhood. His vulnerability as an infant is discomforting to our patriarchal, masculine faith.

Along with the elevation of the feminine during this time of church history was an appreciation for mystery and sacrament as opposed to the later elevation of reason and science. And it was at the point of struggle between these two worldviews that the church entered its most devastating period with regard to the feminine. I am speaking of the witch hunts.


Pre-Modern Witch Hunts


The witch hunts extended over a 400-year period, from the 14th century into the 18th century. During that time period, several hundreds of thousands of people were executed, most of whom were women. Women embodied that feminine element which aroused such psychic fear for the masculine–intimacy, vulnerability and passion. For the masculine, the mysterious, the cyclical, the magical–that which linked women to



image


the cycles of the cosmos and which had power over life and death–became terrible, frightening and evil. I am speaking of an unconscious fear which men have of the feminine, either in themselves or that which they see in women. It is similar to the unconscious fear that women have of male energy, which when misdirected can result in violence, rape and war. With the elevation of reason, the patriarchy sought to

annihilate once and for all that which harked back to earlier matriarchal days. It is important to keep in mind that the witch hunts were not a medieval phenomenon but an early modern one. Society was shifting its paradigms from religion to science during this time period.

Religion had offered a way to control the magical mentality of folk piety: relics, saints, local miracles and so on. Religion itself contained the antidote to invisible evil forces lurking about in the world through its rituals. Exorcism, penance, sacrament and liturgy were all mysterious, non-verbal but psychically powerful rituals that kept evil under control. All of these used elements of the natural world to effect the spiritual world. Science, along with the Reformation, cast a doubtful eye upon the efficacy of such practices, leaving pre-modern people unprotected from the irrational. It was the rise of reason, science and Protestantism that heated the fires into which the "witches" were fed.

Those who were burned, hanged, drowned and pressed as witches were also those who were poor, powerless and burdensome to society. This was a time when concern for the community was shifting to rights of the individual. Those members of society who were cared for out of Medieval Christian charity were now seen as a drain upon the resources of communities and individuals. Many of the women convicted of witchcraft were women past childbearing age. Many were widows receiving alms from the church in past times. Many knew what it meant to use the natural realm to effect spiritual truth. Women were the primary healers of the day-users and prescribers of herbs for medicinal purposes and practitioners of rituals that were based in the wisdom of folklore. Old methods of alchemy were overcome by new methods of science and medicine. Folklore was overcome by reason; women healers by male doctors but not without a struggle. It was that struggle which ensued during the witch hunts.

The idea that the use of the natural world to effect spiritual truth was of the devil was not a medieval idea but a modern one. Accusations against women convicted of witchcraft focused on their power over life, death, disease and sexuality. That which was mysterious, hidden and secret was no longer sacred; it was diabolical. Women were the gatekeepers at birth, the healers through life, and the mourners and embalmers at death. Thus, women became contaminated when life's cycle of mystery became suspect. As science sought to dominate, subdue and domesticate nature, so the masculine sought to harness the feminine. Matriarchal values gave way to more patriarchal ones again.


Reformation

The witch hunts and the Reformation


  22

 SHEKINAH/Double Issue/July-December 1983

Vol. 4, Nos. 3,4   

were all part of the same process-that is, the suppression of the feminine by the masculine. Like many others, I used to think that the Reformation was liberating for women since Luther, Calvin and other reformers endorsed marriage. In some ways that has had positive results for women. Many Protestant churches refrain from making hard and fast policies which have a direct bearing on women's lives as the Roman Catholic church does. I believe the only reason most Protestant churches do not have regulations against the use of birth control is because most of our clergymen are married and such strictures would directly impact their lives. A celibate clergy has the luxury of seeing issues in the black and white certainty of pristine ideology apart from the grays of human experience and relationship. There is then that positive side to the reformers' efforts. They brought men and women out of their sexual isolation, seeking to live out models of Christian intimacy between female and male.

Unfortunately, this relationship is cast in a decidedly patriarchal context. Mary was cast down from heaven and with her any sense of the feminine side of God. Jesus the Infant was raised to a full adult whose masculinity is emphasized in his role as co-regent with God. Baby Jesus becomes King Jesus. Gone is medieval intimacy with the deity. In the Reformational church one approa- ches God not with good works or with passion, but with correct thinking.

One important aspect of this emphasis on correct thinking and impeccable doctrine is the Reformational church's concern to correctly interpret the roles of each partner in this newly respected human relationship of marriage. I need not remind you of the centuries-long debate on headship of the husband and submission of the wife. Marriage is countenanced in Reformational Christianity so long as patriarchy has the upper hand. The preponderance of theological reflec- tion on this topic since the Reformation points to the fear that the patriarchy had over losing its status and power when it came into direct and intimate contact with the matri- archal or feminine in this dynamic human relationship called marriage.

The Reformers' emphasis on marriage had another effect on women: it drove a wedge between women's relationships with one another. This was done with the abolition and demolition of convents and monasteries in countries where the Reformation won a victory. While this was not a conscious attempt to control the feminine, it was effective. The result was the isolation and disempowerment of women. To make that separation among women complete, each woman was paired with a man in marriage. Sociologically this was essentially because women had very little means of financial support outside of the religious communities. Psychologically it helped to further isolate women from each other because each woman was busy with her own family. Once women were married safely into the patriarchy, the removal of educational opportunities (which had been present in religious communities) ensured their submission to their husbands, their church and their society. They became "good daughters of the patriarchy" in that they behaved themselves. Women became ladies: "good, nurturant mothers and wives; sweet, docile, agreeable daughters," And sanctions against misconduct were (and are) always present. Bad girls and women were burned or hanged as witches or simply banished (in this country) into the wilderness to slowly die.

Worship within Reformed structures devalued the mysterious sacrament and elevated the rational Word. During the High Middle Ages, the sacrament of the Eucharist had become so elevated and revered that only the male priest was holy enough to partake. The Reformers sought to bring the Eucharistic meal and the Word to the people, and rightly so. But just as the move to bring women into relationship with men in marriage was mixed for women, so too was the attempt to bring the sacrament into relationship with the congregation. It was done only in a decidedly patriarchal and controlled setting which placed primary emphasis on the masculine Word.

Women in the Reformation continued to suspect their own bodies and beings as being tainted, a belief which arose with the

Church Fathers. But now they were also taught to distrust their own ability to experience God and reflect on their faith, unless God was mediated to them by the teaching of men. Since patriarchal teaching frequently contradicts feminine experience, women have either denied their experience of God and became "good daughters of the patriarchy," or they have listened to their own inner life and been labelled witches, heretics or crazy by the patriarchy.

Good daughters of the patriarchy may be rewarded by the church and the culture. Yet as one myself, I know the result is one of fragmentation, low self-esteem and self-loathing because I as a human woman can never measure up to the patriarchal image of the feminine ideal. Indeed, I can never be perfect as the masculine requires to the feminine.

But the good news we share today is that we don't have to. We can throw off the pressures to be good daughters of the patriarchy. We can redefine from our own experience and the experiences of other women what it means to be female Christians. Women and men can allow into our consciousness that within us which the patriarchy labels evil. We can learn to love both our dark side and our light side. We can reclaim the full gamut of our human, feminine feelings–feelings of relatedness, intimacy, intuition, passion, fire, rage, empathy and warmth. We can stand alongside the masculine and burn through it with both passionate love and feminine rage and we can teach the masculine how to relate to the feminine, not avoid and oppress and fear the feminine which is in each of us. We can teach men to love and nurture their own feminine sides and thereby build a restored human community. The process has already begun.


Candace Waldron is an educator and counselor on women's issues. She has a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is the Coordinator of the Unit Against Rape and Sexual Assault in Beverly, MA. She is also the Administrator of the Women in Crisis Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

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Articles and letters printed in SHEKINAH do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of the Staff. The SHEKINAH is simply a sounding-board and explores all sides and all angles, leaving the reader to choose, with the aid of the Spirit, that which is truth.







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