Saturday, 20 August 2011

Misogyny and religion

 "So much of religion is about controlling people, usually women !" No, it's not necessarily my opinion, it is  something that was said to me by a (male) friend last New Year's Eve. It is clearly true to say that  religion has historically a poor track record in terms of its misogynistic depictions of women, although Jesus was actually shockingly radical in his positive approach to women. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Church of England, which has been slow to admit women as equals, and, as Lesley Crawley argues here still fosters an institutional sexism which could be said to shame us all.
My friend's words about religion and the control of women brought to mind a time when I taught Chaucer's wonderful  tale of the Wife of Bath - a feisty, well travelled woman who, with her red stockings and five husbands, still managed to live a pretty full and independent  life in a time when women's choices were limited. Many critics feel that Chaucer makes the wife his spokesperson against the male dominated society in which she lives, in particular she inveighs against the attitudes of the Church and the way that so many sacred texts, myths and historical accounts have been penned by men. I used to show the students this wonderful  tirade by Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick as part of the discussions about misogyny ( do watch it, it's very entertaining.)

Sometimes I read an article that brings home to me the fact that some types of Christianity really do focus on the control of women. I was amazed to read on Charlie Peer's blog about  Michele Bachmann as a submissive or surrendered wife and some of the debate that this has caused in America about what it would actually mean for the President of The United States to be a woman who felt she must submit to her husband's authority and decisions? And if so, why doesn't she just cut out the middle-man and get him to run instead? If this sounds extreme, then it is worth noting that she apparently allowed her husband to decide that she would become  a tax lawyer even though she did not personally want to choose this career or agree with his decision at the time!

Now, this "my husband chose my career" garbage that you get in bible belt America is the sort of thing that makes me despair and wonder whether my friend was right or how much we have moved on since Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales. Even if you believe in scriptural inerrancy, and I don't, there is absolutely nothing to support the idea that a husband should force a wife into decisions against her will. This is not even to begin to start on the supreme irony that were it not for the feminist movement Bachmann would have no chance of a career at all, let alone a high powered, well paid role as a tax lawyer or as a presidential candidate!

But this news item does not just raise questions about sexism, it also raises questions about the role of women as colluding in misogyny and control - often for very subtle reasons. In Bachmann's case I feel the reasons are not so subtle; flaunting her complementarian stance is reassuring to many of her target voters and so highly politically expedient. I suspect she is as hard as nails , if her husband were to change his mind and tell her to stay at home, he might well get short shrift!  Many prominent  female advocates often benefit enormously from their conservative stance and effectively "have their cake and eat it", prescribing a submission for others which they only "play act" at in their own lives (can anyone seriously see Sarah Palin submitting to anyone or anything?)

Of course, if individuals decide to obey a husband, that is a personal matter, but it is one I can hardly admire. It is in effect to hand over responsibility for one's life and choices to someone else. When you choose to obey another fallible human being rather than grapple with your own conscience, choice and reason, then you lose a little part of your integrity and of  your soul. If you make your own decisions, or in a marriage are fully involved in joint decisions, then ultimately you can blame nobody but yourself. You make mistakes, yes, but they are your mistakes! It isn't just Presidents who need to shoulder responsibility for their actions. Sometimes we all need to be able to say that "The buck stops here!"


  1. Many of my best friends are women - some having almost the same intellect as me. Many are blessed with God's gifts, especially making cheese scones for the Church Fete, and polishing my dusty pews. I hate misogyny. I'm so glad your husband allows you to blog. Your writings are almost as good as a man's.

  2. You are sooooooooo generous, Fr. I hear that John Piper has said that it is not necessarily wrong to vote for a Christian conservative woman as President, providing that there isn't a Christian conservative man standing, naturally. You shall have to get in touch with him, you'll have so much in common.

  3. Hi Sue, thanks for the link. I think the logic of your comment on my blog is irrefutable: if this "theology" was allowed to affect policy in the US, as its supporters would love it to, we would end up with a theocracy in which women rapidly lost their legal rights.

    On the other hand, as you point out, these rules don't seem to apply to powerful women like Bachmann. It's often the way that the elites don't seem to feel obliged to obey their own rules.

  4. Thanks for the interesting blog post, Charlie. I kind of dread seeing events pan out in the US over the coming year.