This is part two of a review of Mary Kassian's The Feminist Mistake. See this post for the links to the whole series. Kassian divides her book into four sections, and each part of my review deals with each section in turn. In the first part of her book, Kassian details ways that feminism began a move toward redefining womanhood in the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with a critique of the ways women were unable to define themselves, in society at large and in a few select areas. Kassian is especially interested in the ways feminism has dealt with Christianity, and the critique of patriarchal influence on Christianity plays a large role in the first section.
The second section of the book moves away from the critique of patriarchy and more toward an acceptance of femininity as good. The critique of patriarchy identified defining of woman in patriarchal ways, but it didn't take too long afterward for feminists to decided that such a critique shouldn't lead to women seeing themselves as inferior or as deserving of minimization and marginalization. Indeed, the next stage in feminist thought included an explicit acceptance of what is good in womanhood, rather than simply treating the feminine as a patriarchally defined negative image. This isn't to say that it was an abandonment of the critique of how men had defined the world, including how men had defined the feminine. It was rather a response to that definition by seeking to have women redefine the world in their own terms.
Kassian's strength in this section is in showing how comprehensively the feminist program had sought to redefine the world. After detailed a number of ways women had been defined by the ways people live and speak, from ordinary language to academic categories. Women's ways of knowing had been minimized as old wives' tales, and this new surge in acceptance of women as they are included an acceptance of midwives, holistic medicine, motherhood as influencing the world, and finally lesbianism as women's ways to define the world. Woman-centered analysis became the main direction of feminist thought.
In religion, this led to an adoption of liberation theology for feminist purposes. Liberation theology seeks to redefine biblical emphases all in terms of the liberation of oppressed and marginalized peoples. Redemption, salvation, and reconciliation with God are all replaced with freedom from the human enemy. The physical aspects of life become all that matters. Feminists reduced liberation theology even further by treating women as the crucial group to be liberated, explicitly stating that women's liberation would bring with it the liberation of all other groups. This radical redefinition treated Jesus as a mere example for us to follow rather than a savior. The only purpose of the church is to serve liberation. All end times talk gets interpreted in terms of the freedom of the oppressed. Feminist liberation theology just gives all this a feminist spin.
The funny thing about all this is that feminist liberation theologians didn't think they were abandoning the Bible. They saw themselves as simply appropriately interpreting it given their current situation. Revelation is dynamic and continues. Their own dynamic interpretations of scripture count as revelation with equal or greater authority than what others had seen in it before. Eventually this led to a complete feminist hermeneutic of scripture, which began by accepting what was viewed as good in scripture and redefining what could be redefined as good. Yet feminist hermeneutics took a step further with Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza's application of a hermeneutic of suspicion to biblical texts. There was much reinterpretation of scripture, and there was a good deal of inventing of new narratives out of a pretense that these were the lost stories of the mothers of the faith. Kassian includes a summary of a revealing Adam, Lilith, and Eve story that makes both Adam and God into the bad guys.
So Fiorenza continued the idea that revelation is ongoing and developing as people dynamically develop interpretations (and even wholly new stories) that fit with evolving sensibilities, but she further insisted on seeing biblical passages that she took as minimizing the female voice or as perpetuating patriarchy as a means for remembering the past oppression of women. She approached the biblical text with the assumption that it had been framed by men who sought to marginalize women. The automatic presupposition of guilt left room to find all manner of evils done to women by the biblical authors.
It was in Kassian's presentation of this aspect that I was most disappointed with Kassian out of this section of the book. She seemed to be fairly adept at presenting Fiorenza's views and methods, but she seemed overly hesitant to say anything about it. She does evaluate it a little after she's done explaining it, pointing out that it was an easy way to heighten women's feelings of anger or bitterness at anything in their lives and direct them toward God and the Bible. Yet she allows Fiorenza to say what she wants without responding to the specific details. She allows her to presume that Sarah's being punished for laughing while Abraham isn't punished for doubting God is because Sarah was a woman rather than because of some other difference. She allows her to say something similar about Miriam with respect to Aaron, when the biblical text is clear that Miriam did bear more resposibility for instigating the whole thing.
She presents Fiorenza's account that Judges minimizes the importance of Jephthah's daughter, on the ground that her name doesn't appear in the narrative. Meanwhile, a genuine response would have pointed out that the name may have been lost due to patriarchal assumptions in those who passed the story down to the biblical author, who may well have been reporting the story for purposes completely against patriarchal minimization of the importance of women. It's not as if the account itself doesn't treat her death as a real tragedy and a sign of how far Israel had fallen! The loss of basic reading skills that a hermeneutic of suspicion brings is all too clear her, but Kassian missed her opportunity to point this out.
The strangest chapter in this section deserves a mention just because it seems so out of place. I'm not sure why Kassian spent so much time on something anyone with any sense would see as complete nonsense, but she devotes a whole chapter to Elizabeth Gould Davis' The First Sex, which claims that men developed out of a mutation from an originally all-female human race. This happened as the X chromosome mutated into a Y chromosome out of an already-existing all-female human race. Kassian doesn't get into what Gould must have thought about how male animals had independently developed the same mutation. This all-female race was as technologically advanced as modern times, and they were peaceful and loving until the male mutation came along and produced conflict and eventually oppression of women by those who couldn't understand the technology and finally lost it all. The primary purpose for this chapter was to show the lengths of speculative historical reconstruction someone would go to in order to name the world in terms of feminist thought.
At the end of this section, Kassian moves into a history of women's studies programs, documenting feminists' own accounts of how they used emotional manipulation and what any unbiased observer would call underhanded techniques to enter various areas of academic thought with what really do seem to be brainwashing techniques. I reiterate that this is from the accounts of the people who were doing this. They describe their process as consciousness raising, and it involves declaring anything not fitting with their program as unenlightened, in a way reminiscent of the ancient gnostics. There were the outsiders whose inability to see the truth marked them as inferior, which of course created emotional pressure for students to tow the party line and cause dissenters to shut up in class for fear of being graded negatively merely for having contrary views. They used selective data to convince people that the stuff they were presenting was not just standard but pervasive. They admitting in their own descriptions of this that it takes someone well-versed in feminist thinking to open the minds of someone else.
I was immediately suspicious that this sort of thing could go on, since it's always been drilled into me that I should grade arguments, not views, but that's because I'm in philosophy. The quotes Kassian gives describing this behavior were from people sympathetic to the approach. I have to wonder if this still goes on. The time period she describes was when I was just starting school as a child, and it left me wondering what goes on today in women's studies programs.
One gripe I have of her account of this is that she way overstates her case when she says postmodernist views of meaning as arbitrary as the central driving ideology behind women's studies. She gives clear quotes that some key figures behind the establishing of women's studies programs saw what they were doing as merely manipulating people's language by redefining things in a way that is just as arbitrary as men's illegitimate defining of women as bad or inferior. Yet I can't believe most people behind women's studies were even familiar with postmodernism. I suspect most supporters of these programs simply saw a use of language that had minimized women's importance and wanted to increase the discussion of women in the classroom, which includes dismissing narratives that don't line up with reality and replacing them with narratives that more closely reflect women's reality. Some of the quotes she gives even suggest this, but she treats it as if they all saw all meaning as arbitrary. That just strikes me as uncareful overgeneralization.
One thing I kept bemoaning in this section, which was supposed to present the ways feminists had reaffirmed women as good and then proceeded to rename the world in women's language, was the complete absence of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan studied women and girls' responses to complicated ethical dilemmas, discovering that women's ways of responding to such issues were pretty different on the whole from how men had traditionally looked at such questions, particularly in the philosophical tradition. Gilligan, more than anyone else, has influenced one of the most interesting feminist philosophical movements, the development of a feminist ethical theory based on traditionally female approaches to moral questions. As a new blogger, I outlined what I think is significant for Christian views of gender from the revolution in feminist philosophy that sees Gilligan as its inspiration, so I'll say no more here. I found it particularly unfortunate that Gilligan and those she inspired, i.e. the majority of feminist philosophers today, don't even seem to be on Kassian's radar.
Next: Naming God
Note: This book was reviewed as part of a book review program coordinated by The Diet of Bookworms. To read reviews of this book written by other bloggers, please visit The Diet of Bookworms.