Posted by: HAT | January 21, 2015

The Personal is Still Political

Book cover, title Woman's Estate, Juliet Mitchell, red with image of woman's face

How I learned that the personal is political

Hi, Gang!

I am one of those old-fangled “2nd wave feminist” types. I came of age in the era of Mary Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex and then Beyond God the Father, and Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate, and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex. Back in those days, it was a huge deal whether one was a marxist feminist or a radical feminist or a lesbian separatist or merely liberal. Those fault lines were top of mind.

The discourse was too white.

The presuppositions were too middle class.

Whether it was not enough about sex, that I don’t know. It is not obvious to me that the compulsory “sex-positivity” of the “third wave” is not counter-revolutionary in almost all of its effects, if not in its intent. But then, I’m also a prude, so I always have to consider the source.

This makes facing the prospect of teaching Women and Religion, again, challenging. I am always aware of my obsolescence. In some ways, and they really are significant, the social-cultural-political situation for women, some women anyway, has changed. Whenever I see television news footage from the 60s, times I grew up in, I am struck by its homogeneous maleness. Because that’s not how press conferences and political gatherings and the graduating classes of the local Presbyterian seminary look these days. The “women’s experience” that “we” took for granted, the one of being presumed absent from everything in the world that counted, is not my 21st century students’ experience.

“Women’s experience” was never really as homogeneous as we thought it was in the 70s. I don’t complain that its diversity and complexity are what’s top of mind in this second decade of the 21st century. Nor do I complain that the meaning of the term “women,” rooted in discourse and discursive practices, is far less obvious than we pre-post-modern types used to think it was. I like that part.

What’s tough is that the new background of inclusion also masks the seriousness of what hasn’t changed. The two largest and most significant religious bodies in the world (Catholic Christianity and Islam) hold the divine origin of intrinsic gender “complementarity,” at the level of social function, as doctrinal orthodoxy. “Inclusive language” for God is still an uphill battle, one that the proponents are mostly losing as far as I can tell, and even inclusive language for humanity is a stretch for some religious groups. Rape culture is endemic and unquestioned, not least in religious circles. (I got to listen to a totally sincere and well-intentioned Christian praise team at an observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. day singing away about the Holy Spirit “invading” our hearts. I don’t suppose language like that offers any shelter to more human kinds of invasions, like into Middle Eastern countries, or into women’s bodies … do you? I could be over-analyzing. I don’t really think I am, though.) Whatever the discourse or discursive practices are these days that anchor the meaning of “woman” and “women,” it’s not obvious to me that they are predominantly the kind liberating ones we were hoping to compose decades ago.

So one of the challenges is to remember that, despite the old-hatness of a lot of what I know, it’s not all old-hat to my students. For them, a lot of it is new- and never-had-to-think-about-that-before-hat, still, or maybe, again. I always think I’m boring them by going over stuff they’ve already heard a million times. It’s such hard work to remind myself that I’m boring them for other reasons.

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