Religion, feminism and gender-making theory

By Alison Jasper
18 Dec 2012

What are some of the implications of the discussion of critical religion for feminist and gender theory making?

If part of the rationale for critical religion is to explain the ways in which the terms ‘religious’ and ‘religion’ frame and perpetuate forms of colonialist or western-centred thinking and acting in the world, then there is a clear connection: the nature of colonial discourse and the manner of its practices, have commonly been aligned with forms of Christian theological authority, carried in wide ranging missionary activity throughout the world.

The gendered binaries of spiritual/material or spirit/flesh, derived from or supported by Christian theologies, still haunt us in the tendency to regard women and the female as better fitted for certain roles that tend to be less well rewarded in terms of money and influence. Recent analyses of the colonial subject/other strongly resonate with feminist and gender analyses of the hegemonic, patriarchal subject/other; woman like the non-westerner continues to be viewed as hostile, constantly in need of control or repression as they threaten the structures and boundaries that colonial, heteropatriarchal societies set up to maintain their privilege and security. The force of male normativity, often still difficult to detect, continues to hinder and hamper attempts to level the playing field.

In this context, it seems that a sizeable proportion of western feminists have also found the binary categories of ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ – i.e. what is critiqued within discussions of ‘critical religion’ – useful, on the grounds that it allows women to dissociate themselves from powerful ‘religious’ – i.e. arbitrary – justifications of male authority. In a hopeful manner, they have put their faith in the autonomous exercise of reason that produced this distinction at the beginning of the European enlightenment, because here at least in the realm of so called ‘secularity’ they believe there is some chance of proving themselves the equal of men.

But of course forms of hegemony are resilient and deeply rooted. Even when the idea of a divine warrant for female culpability – and thus for the blameworthiness and moral inferiority of all women as daughters of Eve – began to lose its hold on the popular imagination, there were still plenty of other ways to challenge a woman’s free access to what might be called equitable female subjectivity. In my book, Because of Beauvoir, I look, for example, at the notion of ‘genius’ as one way in which the idea of male superiority has been sustained from the earliest years of European Romanticism right down to the 2010 Channel 4 series, 'Genius of Britain'. In this series about key British scientific figures, four male and one female commentator – physicist, Kathy Sykes – present the ‘genius of Britain’ in relation to a series of exclusively male figures: Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke. Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley. The fact that such an obvious gender imbalance provoked little if any disquiet at the time – are there really no British women in the field of science worthy of the title, ‘genius’? – seems significantly to support my argument; male hegemony cannot be neatly isolated within so-called ‘religious’ entities like ‘the Christian Churches.’

At the same time, is it just or fair to represent all women who call themselves Christians, for example, as either victims of, or collaborators with patriarchy? In my book I focus on four women writers, who might qualify as female geniuses all of whom have strong connections with English Christianity; drawing on ideas proposed by Julia Kristeva and Christine Battersby amongst others, that our western idea of ‘genius’ has been overwhelmingly gendered as male in the past and that this needs to change. Kristeva boldly claims that the achievement of an equitable subjectivity within the context of an unavoidable male hegemony, is itself a matter of genius. She herself nominates three notable women – philosopher, Hannah Arendt, psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein and writer, Colette – but her definition of genius in each case, stresses the sense in which they bring their creative ideas and actions to birth without denying those things that make them female – pre-eminently in the value they apportioned to the desire and embodiment of the non hegemonic fe/male which are discounted in definition by the male.

In other words, this redefinition of genius, opens the title up to a much increased range of women and forms of creative activity by going beyond the disembodied and god-like, and frequently also melancholic and isolated configuration of towering masculine genius, whose work contributes to a normatively male culture and economy; it can include both women scientists working with mixed gender teams and women giving birth to children and educating them. And of course, it can include women who are inspired as visionaries as well as by revolutionary or highly critical movements of all kinds. What comes into being as a result of this female genius can have just as profound an impact for one person or many of different genders, but more significantly, it is, above all, the joyous achievement of forms of female subjectivity in unpromising circumstances that are not usefully divided up and evaluated as either ‘secular’ or ‘religious’.

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© Alison Jasper is Lecturer in Religion at the University of Stirling. Her work, background and publications history is summarised here.


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