There were dozens of career choices that were not open to me. For instance, I could not aspire to be an airline pilot or a fighter pilot, for that matter. I could not aspire to a major career in the military. Nor could I reasonably expect to be a scientist, a bricklayer, or a race car driver. I was not likely to find a suitable mount as a jockey, nor was anyone offering me a choice CEO position with most companies.
That went hand in hand of course, with having few role models that were not nurses or teachers. I remember feeling the “otherness” of reading my history lessons and finding women almost non-existent within the pages of my history book. I was told that where one read “men” one should just assume that it meant both. But we all knew it did not. I got Martha Washington, and Betsy Ross, and Dolly Madison. Boys got Jefferson and Franklin and FDR.
The bible was little different in this regard–much was made of Adam, and much was made of the temptress Eve. Women in the bible were assuredly portrayed as second class citizens, chattel in fact, and were held in low regard. I lived in a world where women were still alive who remembered when women had not the right to vote.
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that feminist theology or criticism drew me to it. Here was an attempt to reclaim the history and life of women in our church’s history. Finally I had real role models in women like Rosemary Reuther, Elizabeth Johnson, and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, women scholars who painstakingly developed methodologies and tools for extracting the silent but real stories of women, long ignored in our common stories of faith.
Unlike many traditional forms of criticism which seeks to define the most accurate translation and the most correct “meaning” from the text, feminist criticism approaches from a distinctly different direction. It has precious few stories about women to deconstruct. Admittedly the biblical stories are written by men and from a patriarchal prospective. It takes as its structure, the concept of “reading against the grain.”
This means that the scholar attempts to uncover the “back story” going on behind the text. What was said, what was meant, and most importantly why was it said. For indeed, any reading of the bible shows clearly that there is never any attempt to simply relate facts. The facts always come with a point of view. It is this that the traditional scholar works to uncover. The feminist scholar works to determine why this point of view is expressed.
In other words, what is going on in this faith community/society, that requires this writing to be expressed? This is clear when one examines parts of Paul’s writings. We distinguish, by the way from those texts of Paul’s that are considered genuine, and those that are “deutero-Pauline,” i.e., written by a disciple of Paul’s who either pretends to be Paul, or is writing in a manner that they believe would be in agreement with Paul’s theology. Most of the offending language is from these deutero sources.
Women have long bemoaned the anti-feminine bent of some of Paul’s writings, and indeed there are women who avoid Paul completely for this reason. Yet, when we examine the verses, we come to the conclusion that women were acting in capacities that some now found objectionable, and this is why the “Pauline” writer is coming forth to settle the problem. In other words, women were reading and understanding scripture to mean that they too were equals before God–they were preachers and teachers alongside the men. Some men objected, and the writer sends a letter to “calm the situation” and issues directions on “women’s place.”
This seems to be the work of later writers, who want to correct this “incorrect” conclusion of the early church. No, they say, nothing has changed, women are still to be seen and not heard along with children. They are not to be the equal of men in the church.
No doubt it can be argued that “reading against the grain” is speculative, and undoubtedly it is. But feminist scholars also use all the other tools of exegetes. They can study and learn about surrounding cultures and from them extract women’s stories that are similar or different as the case may be, and contribute to a firmer foundation for their ultimate conclusions about women in the Hebrew/Christian tradition.
It is realized that as Abraham went off to war to secure the release of Lot described in Genesis 14, that Sarah would have been the one left in charge. She would have been responsible for seeing that the remaining workers and family members tended to the sheep and goats and other daily duties. She would have made plans for packing and moving the herds to new pastures until Abraham’s return. Yet none of this is written, it was not considered important.
But we, as women, need these stories. They are who we were and are. Sarah, Rebeka, Rachel, and so many others, are our matriarchs, and they were strong and powerful, often times in their own right. And if we are to be equals before God, as we believe we are, then it is essential for us to retrieve as best we can, this history of ours. Important too for men to come to see that we have always been there, doing our parts to move civilization forward. The Spirit speaks to us too. Feminist criticism seems the best way for us to do this.
It is another way of interpretation, one that has grown increasingly sophisticated in recent decades. We, as believers, are served by each and every angle by which we can examine scripture, men and women, each and every one of us. The S T O R Y emerges bit by bit, item by item, as we search the writings, bringing new and exciting disciplines to bear on our quest to know. We are all enriched the more we dig.