God Doesn’t Want to Hold Women Back — and Never Did

All the old ideas are being made new. All the walls holding back women are being torn down.

Don’t believe what they’re saying. The world is not in upheaval in our era because radical feminism has gotten out of hand.

No, our world is being shaken to the core and will never again be the same because its old systems are being challenged, its old certainties being rethought.

The political world has had to give up its reliance on the securities of the old geography. The social world has had to give up its notions of the natural privileges of class. The White West has had to give up its ideas of racial preeminence. And men are having to give up the old theology of male superiority.

In that old world, whole classes of people could be underdeveloped, abused, enslaved, oppressed, and disenfranchised — all with impunity. Unknown and unchallenged, local potentates, all male, declared their autocracy, and all-male institutions of every system institutionalized it. It was a world of nobles over peons, the powerful over the powerless, freemen over slaves, men over women. And all of them insisting to the oppressed that such stratified systems were, ironically, for their own good.

Most serious of all, religious people argued that God wanted it that way.

In the West, they said that the Judeo-Christian creation story taught that God designed, defined and created a hierarchical world that developed from one stage to another, from the dust of the earth to the crown of creation, Adam, the male agent of a male God.

In this world, women were not “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” equal partners in the human enterprise, as those words imply. Instead, women were labeled “help-mates” rather than, as David Freedman points out, ”a power equal to,” as the corresponding Hebrew term is translated in other places in scripture.

Male educators taught what male religious figures asserted and what male researchers then “proved,” that minorities — American Indians, slaves and people of color — were inferior to whites, that women were less rational, more emotional, less innately intelligent than men. Which, of course, justified the fact that they could not be allowed to vote or to own property or to intermarry or to become professionals.

They kept women uneducated and called them uneducable. They kept them powerless and called hysterical the emotions such powerlessness generated. They valued women for sex alone and then defined them by their maternity alone, though maternity occupies at most one-third of a woman’s life.

But there is new news to be reckoned with now.

The new news is that the conditions under which women everywhere still exist, now and even here, in this so-called civilized world, cannot be hidden anymore. Nor can they be legitimated. Or, to put it another way, the invisibility of women can’t be ignored, denied, taken for granted or theologized any longer.

As Gerda Lerner, historian and author of The Creation of Patriarchy, has explained the situation, it wasn’t that women did not realize their situation before now. In fact, some women of every generation either defied or redefined those norms. But kept out of schools, out of the public eye, and beyond the pale of the legal system, it was not until the 20th century that women could really find one another, join women’s groups, redefine the very nature of women and begin to rewrite theology itself. This time, theology began to get in line with everything else that science knew about creation, about life, about the innate and unique qualities of what it means to be either a woman or a man. Both a man and a woman.

The new news of the 21st century, unlike the centuries before us, is that women who have not been given a voice aren’t asking prelates or presidents or husbands or father to give their ideas voice anymore. Abigail Adams did this when she begged her husband President John Adams, “And remember, John, don’t forget the ladies . . .” But now, women are making their own voices heard around the world on Twitter and Facebook, on YouTube and in the Washington Post, in public as well as in private.

When they were kept out of the public domain, women had no means of reeducating it. Not anymore. The voice of the minorities is connected and amplified in our age by every cellphone, every iPad, every computer. Across boundaries, despite language barriers, regardless of distance.

Now little girls around the world learn about women doctors and female astronauts. And most of all, little girls learn that sexual abuse is not their predetermined lot in life, that cliterodectomy is not God’s will for them, that to be kept out of the decision-making process in organizations whose laws affect their lives is wrong, that to be paid less than a man is paid for doing the same work is a gross injustice in a world where bread and milk and gas costs a woman exactly what it does for a man.

Still, to this day, according to UNIFEM, women are two-thirds of the hungry of the world; women are two-thirds of the illiterate of the world; and women are two-thirds of the poorest of the poor. That cannot be an accident; that is a policy.  Someone somewhere is still deciding that women need less, that women deserve less, and that God wants women to have less and be less and count less than men.

In an evolutionary world, in a world where God spewed the universe with the components of life and where God companions us as we work to bring that life to fullness, in a world where free will really counts, where everything we do changes the world, no religion can any longer rationalize its justification of injustice in the name of God.

It’s time for religions everywhere to become truly religious.


Image courtesy of Jonathan Kos-Read.

Joan Chittister
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  • Robert H Cummings

    The timing and endowment of the Holy Spirit was not decided by man, but by God, and manifested by Jesus Christ. We are not simply Christians awaiting a Spiritual experience, but Spiritual beings created equally by God to perform a Christian purpose , no matter in what direction or activity that that endowment may be manifested, both male and female.
    No individual nor hierarchy has any right or justification to interfere with that spiritual endowment in any manner or under any terms