Musings on Women, Religion and the Patriarchy

A few years back, I wrote this paper for my Intro to Feminism class. At the time, we were studying Marilyn French’s and Mary Daly’s theories on why Women came to be viewed as subordinate. I’ll re-cap:
Marilyn French believed that Women’s subordinance began with the first Human Societies. In ancient times, the people attributed life to ‘Mother Nature’. They viewed the earth as their Mother, and believed that she gave them not only life, but nourishment as well (in the form of crops, rain, and the like). Early humans existed on what Mother Nature had to offer, and they worshipped her with thanks and appreciation in return.
Well, a time came when Mother Nature seemingly stopped doing her job. Maybe crops withered, or there was a flood, or perhaps a drought. French believed that due to the inconsistency of Mother Nature’s ‘offerings’, that mankind began to take matters into their own hands. Through cultivating the soil (perhaps the earliest act of rape?), learning to tell time, gauge days and predict weather, man began to have a bit of power over Nature. He could control his own destiny and provide nourishment and protection for himself. French believes that slowly, through conquering and learning to manipulate the earth, early man began to have a bit of a ‘God Complex’, no longer worshipping and revering Mother Nature.
Where do we come in? Well, Mother Nature was seen as a life-giver and a provider of sustenance. Through our bearing of children and the act of breast-feeding and child-rearing, we fall into that same category. French’s theory suggests that men of early times came to equate their female partners with Mother Nature, who they found inconsistent and disappointing. Through these feelings, Women began to be viewed as subordinate.
A woman named Mary Daly had a different theory. She believed that Women’s subordinance could be directly related to Religion, or more specifically, the triad: Judaism/Islam/Christianity, with Judaism being the main focus. She stated (in a somewhat blasphemous manner!) that the God of Judeo-Christianity was on the ultimate ‘power trip’. As it suggests in the Torah, Koran, and Bible, God often stated how powerful he was, how omnipresent, how he ‘knew everything, created everything, and was in charge of everything’. Anyone who reads these sacred texts cannot doubt that the Christian/Islamic/Judaic God was displaying ‘power over’ humankind.
God himself chose to dwell away from his human subjects, being ‘not of this earth’ – in essence, the farthest away from humankind as he could possibly be. This suggests that God is the subject and man the ‘other’.
But the interesting part is this: Adam was created by God, and Jesus was apparently the son of God. Also, the Bible says that man was ‘made in God’s image’. Because of these things, we naturally equate God with Man. Most even picture God as a man. So if God = Man and Man = God, where does that leave Woman? An afterthought. And as a ‘giver of life’ and ‘nourisher’, she is still equated with Mother Nature. God has stated time and again in sacred texts that HE is all-powerful and he is the supreme creator of life. Does this manner of speaking mean to put Women on guard, by saying, ‘you might be able to give birth, but I’m still the supreme being’? Daly’s theory suggested that the seemingly male, power-loving God of the triad is solely responsible for Women’s subordination, by implying that she’s irrelevant and has ‘false power’.
Both theories are absolutely fascinating. I personally (and this may surprise folks seeing as I was a Religions Major) find French’s theory more plausible. It isn’t that I find Daly’s implausible, per se, it’s just that I think by the time Judaism formed, and then Christianity and Islam, Women’s Subordination was already in full-swing. What I do find possible is that both theories could co-exist. Perhaps Women first started being persecuted due to French’s theory, and these attitudes and feelings carried on down the years until ancient Judaism began, and those views carried on into the Religion, flavored the views on God and were written into the Torah (and eventually, the Bible and Koran).”
Regardless of what viewpoint you hold, and whether or not you buy into any of these explanations put forth by these great female thinkers, it can’t be denied that religion (both today and in the past) plays a major part in the repression of women. Even women who come from families and societal groups that are not inherently religious, will suffer from some type of religion/patriarchal related repression in their lifetime.
There comes a time when we begin to ask, are we respecting others’ beliefs, or are we actively participating in our own oppression when we “˜respect cultures’ other than our own? It is a hard question to answer. Where do you draw the line between respecting and adhering to others belief systems and actively participating in the problem? It seems that the relationship between women and religion is as slippery a slope as religion itself. Certainly religion in general has done nothing to help women’s causes, such as reproductive rights, sexuality-related causes, and other issues that are important to women. And yet, every day we see women who are seemingly bound by faith to religious organizations that make it their daily objective to oppress them. Why is this? Why would we, in the name of “˜faith’, accept the idea that we are the “˜other”˜, somehow lesser than men? Is it possible to be a feminist in every sense of the word and still have strong ties to religion?
I can’t answer these questions myself. The strained relationship between religion and women’s issues is something that has formed over so many thousands of years that it isn’t likely to change with the blink of an eye. Asking these questions, however, and daring to put forth ideas about the patriarchy and how religion has sought to keep women under its thumb can only bring about awareness for those who have not considered how religion and the patriarchy has affected their own lives. Both French and Daly’s theories on how religion and the patriarchy have shaped the every day lives of women raise important questions, ones that need to be asked.

Portrait: Mary Magdalene. By Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys. Ca. 1860

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

2 replies on “Musings on Women, Religion and the Patriarchy”

I agree that the subjugation of women was well underway by the time the big three religions were codified and beginning to take hold; however, I think the questions you pose in the second to last paragraph of this piece are most important to keep in mind while discussing this topic.

Even though, yes, women were likely considered to be in 2nd place (max!) more or less from the start, too many faithful will eagerly turn around and say, “See! That means religion has nothing to do with it!” I think that to absolve any religion, but particularly Judaism/Christianity/Islam, of its responsibility for the treatment of women only serves to bolster its oppressive qualities.

(Thanks for a good makes-me-think post on this Friday afternoon!)

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