11 November 2011


by ELIZABETH DODSON GRAY,  November 10, 2011
Theological Opportunities Program / WomenExplore Lecture and Discussion Forum

Every morning when you and I, as women, walk out our front door, we walk out into a culture that is permeated with assumptions—Dare I say "gender delusions"?—assumptions that men are superior to women. That men are smarter—more competent, more "suited" than women for public office.

If we as a culture do not believe this, then explain to me why we regard as "normal" all the male heads of corporate business? Why do we regard as "normal" the great preponderance of males in the Congress and in the state legislatures, and all the male governors, and, yes, foreign heads of state.

The Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first written by Alice Paul in 1923. Explain to me why the Equal Rights Amendment was not passed by the Congress until 1972— and then failed to be passed by enough State Legislatures by the 1982 deadline for it to become a Constitutional amendment.

The Gender Delusion of Male Superiority

I remember seeing a cartoon of a little boy and a little girl standing nude around a toilet. The little girl looks over at the little boy’s body and says, "Oh, is that why you make more than I do?"

In a similar vein I remember a three-year-old girl who was being raised by her divorced mother. The mother’s college friend was spending the night, and the little girl and the friend’s young son had a bath together. Going to bed that night the little girl whispered in her mother’s ear, "Isn’t it a blessing it didn’t grow on his face!"

The gender delusion is silently invisible in our culture— and it only occasionally "rises up" to full consciousness. Several decades ago I was showing to a group of couples who were my good friends a slide show based on an academic paper I had done recently.

In the middle of the slide show, one of the husbands suddenly glimpsed the fact that I don’t think that men are superior to women. He burst out with the comment, "But I am superior to you, Liz!" I made a withering response: "And just how did you figure that out, Ken?"

His reply was astounding to all present—"Because I can run a jack hammer and you can’t!"

The room exploded! The men said, "If you think you’re better than me, Ken, just because you can run a jack hammer, you’re crazy!" The women pointed out the obvious—That I could have a baby, and he couldn’t!

What astounded and sobered me was the chilling realization that this man had secretly chosen a jack hammer to indicate his superiority! Ken was a vice president of a major New England utility and was in a rather "liberated" marriage. But in his head and heart all these years he felt he was superior because he could run a jack hammer!

Only Being Powerful and Dominant

Sometimes in this culture we confront a sense of masculinity that seems to depend for its validity and strength upon men being superior to women! Men want to be super-rational, "cool," always in control, never uncertain, can’t ask for directions, can’t admit mistakes—and are only comfortable with being powerful and dominant— because women are not allowed to be that!

Where did all that come from? You might think that, from prehistoric times to now, men worldwide would be deeply grateful for the childbearing which women do, to bring into the world the next generation of the human race!

But worldwide there is no gratitude. No appreciation! Instead we find widespread oppression of women, expressed in honor-killings, cliterodectomies, and laws to control female reproduction.

Do you remember the woman taxi-driver who commented to Gloria Steinem, "If men gave birth, abortion would be a sacrament!"

Nowhere in worldwide patriarchy is women giving birth named as sacred. Instead from earliest times in human history women seem to be feared, and found to be needing "control." Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has an explanation for this: I quote
An examination of the taboos of almost every primitive human community reveals the male need to put down or control the female. A universal need to put down or control another is a sure sign of both fear and hostility. One cannot help but wonder why the male—who was generally larger, stronger and faster— could be so threatened by the female.

Spong continues: One has to look beneath the obvious and explore psychological dimensions for answers. The ancient taboos of our primitive ancestors focus the male fear of women on the mystery of the female reproductive process. Early societies did not understand the male connection with reproduction. The women seemed to be capable of producing life alone. The woman was also the one who experienced the menstrual cycle, and only the development of a new human life in the woman’s womb could interrupt the regular mystery of female bleeding.

The menstrual cycle was a source of enormous male anxiety, the taboos reveal. The menstrual blood was felt to be capable of great evil, so the woman would be banished during her menstrual flow, and liturgical cleansing rituals were necessary before she could be readmitted to the tribe.

Spong continues: In every primitive society, blood and life were intimately connected, and the regular female experience of bleeding without dying gave rise to many superstitions.

The female menstrual cycle was even thought to control the moon, which turned more or less on the same span of time. Through the moon, the tides seemed to be responsive to women’s mysterious power. The woman who possessed these cosmic powers was greatly feared and needed to be controlled by the physically stronger males. That was the ancient conclusion.1

A Culture to Reassure

I think what men did everywhere was to set about creating for themselves a "culture to reassure"—which is patriarchy!

Margaret Mead reports that  "In every known human society, the male’s need for achievement can be recognized. Men may cook, or weave or dress dolls or hunt hummingbirds, but if such activities are appropriate occupations of men, then the whole society, men and women alike, views them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important. In a great number of human societies men’s sureness of their sex role is tied up with their right, or ability, to practice some activity that women are not allowed to practice. Their maleness, in fact, has to be underwritten by preventing women from entering some field or performing some feat. . . . There seems no evidence that it is necessary for men to surpass women in any specific way, but rather that men do need to find reassurance in achievement, and because of this connection, cultures frequently phrase achievement as something that women do not or cannot do,rather than directly as something which men do well."2

This leaves us today confronting a culture which in a thousand small ways reassures men that they are superior—and are "intended" to be superior. Male entitlement wafts its quiet but persuasive refrains through every lived moment. Biologically "entitled" to have sex without getting pregnant, the male is further biologically entitled to have children without experiencing either pregnancy or childbirth.

A Family without Anteing Up

Our daughter Lisa was throwing up into her toilet during the nausea of the first three months of her pregnancy, and our daughter interrupted to say to her husband, "You owe me big-time for this!"

The male then feels further entitled to have a family without "anteing up" his share of housework and childcare. I remember David saying when Lisa was a toddler and sick one night, "I have to get my sleep. I have to work tomorrow!" (My unpaid work of caring for a sick child the next day was unseen.)

Lest you think these examples extreme, let me tell you this story. A colleague came up to me and said, "Liz, I have to tell you this story. I just retired, and my wife is not yet retired. So I volunteered to do some of the housework while she’s still working." (Clearly, he had not done any before!) So, he continued, "I got out the vacuum cleaner and I am vacuuming away, when inside me this little voice says, ‘YOU should not be doing this!’ Liz, can you believe that?" And I say, "Yes, I can believe that!"

Growing up in this culture, male entitlement is quietly and perniciously and deeply embedded in each young man. It is "socialized" into the emerging young male consciousness—and it is what makes even the most egalitarian or feminist heterosexual relationship a challenging life journey!

Before I leave the gender delusion of male superiority, let me show you exactly why it is false and therefore a delusion.

VISUAL of Generations of Ancestors (and their DNA)

Each of us is a random combination of DNA from both a mother and a father, and each of them is likewise a chance combination of their parents and ancestors’ DNA. If there were to be genius in the DNA of our forebears—the generations of our parents and grandparents and great-grands and so on, it is a process involving random chance which produces here or there another Einstein or Beethoven or Fanny Mendelsohn or Georgia O'Keefe. There is no physiological way for that genius not to go into a female body. It is impossible. Half of the genius available to the human species is in women’s minds, bodies, hearts. And for thousands of years we have missed it because it has been suppressed. In Afganistan the insurgents target for destruction the schools for girls, as a way of suppressing girls’ potential.

So there is no genetic bias toward male superiority.

VISUAL of genetic ancestors.

Adam’s World

But there is another big gender delusion which is even more insidious and less understood in our culture. Do you remember those beautiful snow-globes which you shake to make the snow fall? Has it ever occurred to you that you could be living inside someone’s snow-globe?

We really are inside someone’s snow-globe, because we are inside a culture of assumptions about life and reality.

The point is that reality does not just exist "out there." Rather, we perceive reality through the mental eyeglasses of our social formulations. These are like the green eyeglasses in The Wizard of Oz. Sociologists call this "a social construction of reality." I call it living in Adam’s world.

Remember in the Bible when Adam names all the animals? We live inside a social construction of reality (a virtual snow-globe) in which Adam, the male of the human species, has named everything and thought everything from the point of view of his male body and male life-experience.

Of their socially-dominant gender, the generic male can say—like Adam—"Everything is named, everything is thought, from my point of view." And all of us, having been born "into and socialized within this "Adam’s world," feel what patriarchal history for centuries said: "This is the way the world really is," for we have never experienced life another way.

Our language itself reflects Adam’s world. So-called "generic" language has perpetuated the illusion that all of the human species is made visible in the words man and mankind. Our language is like a Rorschach test, imaging back to us reflections of even uniquely male genital experience in statements such as "the thrust of his thinking," "a penetrating comment," "a seminal book," even "seminars." Yet male consciousness, like the Washington Monument to "the father of our country," has left us blissfully unaware of the frequently phallic nature of the sculpting of its monuments as well as its words.

In the long history of thought, Adam’s world has given us male-constructed philosophy, male-constructed psychology, and, yes, male-constructed theology. It has been men who have "erected" these great conceptual systems. Thus traditional Christian theology has imaged the generic human in the form of the male, and also imaged the divine in the form of the male. Michelangelo’s portrayal of a bearded God reaching the finger of creation-energy to fill Adam with life has been accepted in Western culture as an icon, a visual summary, of the theological statement at "God created man in His own image."

VISUAL—Michelangelo’s "Creation"

But when we take account of the sociology of knowledge, and notice who is doing the knowing, we realize that the flow of creation really happened as the reverse of what we earlier perceived. It is actually the human male who has created God in his own image. Yes, like Narcissus of old, the male sees only himself in the cosmos reflecting-pool of ultimate mystery.

The feminist theologian Mary Daly said that "When God is male, then the male is God."3

Within Adam’s World, Naming Is Power

VISUAL of Naming Is Power.

If you doubt this perspective, ask yourself about the new meaning in our current vocabulary of the word "hot." The word embodies the truth that now in this cultureall female bodies are subjected to the all-seeing male lecherous "EYE"—ranking them for their sexual vibrations.

We used to say that it wasn’t good to treat women like sex objects. Today "HOT’ says it all, and nobody (not even feminists) seem to object!

Naming is power. Consider the hostile and denigrating names given to men and women in this English-speaking culture. Did you know that there are 227 words in English which denigrate women. (Think of doll, broad, tomato, chick, fox, cat, dog, bitch, cunt, whore, "ho".) How many English words are denigrating to men? A grand total of 12, of which some are denigrating because they are denigrating to women—like mother-fucker, son of a bitch, and bastard!4

Consider also the presently running TV commercial for a hard-working truck. The truck says "I take a tank of gas as far as she will go!" Can you imagine naming as male a tank of gasoline? No.

Naming Is Power—and the power to name is potent in Adam’s world. What a struggle it was for feminism to name the realities of "date rape," "spousal rape," "sexual harassment" (Think of Herman Cain and today’s news!). "Domestic violence" is a reality with a terribly misleading name. "Domestic violence" hides the truly violent partner (almost always male!). And "domestic violence" sounds like the walls are beating up the intimate partner. Do you notice that for all the violence to women, we never add the word male? The male connection to violence to women goes unnamed.

YES, Naming is power

We were once buying a rug. The salesman threw down a rug for us to consider buying, saying "There she is!" My quick feminist husband said, "Why do you call the rug ‘She’?" The young salesman looked confused and I filled in "Because you throw it on the floor and walk on it!"

Then there are words like "slut" which express moral contempt for femalepromiscuous sexual behavior. But there are no corresponding words for expressing similar moral contempt for promiscuous male sexual behavior. What is comparable? "Womanizing"? No! Little moral contempt there. "Don Juan"?—this is almost a title of admiration. TV commentators, lacking any proper word despite all the real-life examples from Arnold Schwarzenegger to John Edwards, fall back on "affairs" or "bad behavior." Bad behavior! Do you notice that the word adultery is practically never used?

Living as Women in Adam’s World

Question—What does the existence of Adam’s world mean to feminists? If you truly understand that we as women must live in a cultural world which is based almost totally on male life-experience, what does that mean for how we as women live our lives?

I think it means that we must have an attitude of "suspicion" toward every cultural attitude and assumption, not just "HOT"! We need continually to ask ourselves "Do we as women feel that way on this issue and this area of life? Is the male view of sex truly my woman’s view? Is the male view of family, or success, or foreign policy, my woman’s view?

But it is hard to do that as one woman alone. And that is where TOP comes in. TOP is a woman’s standing point. TOP is where we find our voice to dialogue together in safety about our women’s views of everything from globalization to immigration to family—yes, even to sex. TOP is where we gather our life stories, our experience of violence toward women, and our experience of the cherishing of women, our experiences of both love and of betrayal.

As women we will always walk in two worlds—one the patriarchal world of male naming, Adam’s world, and the other the fragile yet blossoming world of women’s experience and women’s naming.

With the help of TOP, we will walk more surely and more confidently in that awakening women’s world.
—Elizabeth Dodson Gray

20 September 2011


—by Muna Killingback
The T.O.P. Women’s Forum, the region’s only lecture series devoted to the concerns of women, from the personal to the global, launched its 10 week fall program on Thursday September 15th on the theme “Lifting the Mask: The Courage to Live My Truth,” designed to guide women to live more authentically according to their own values and aspirations.
The series opening was entitled, “Curtain Up: Women’s Stories, the Power of Sharing Our Experiences” with a two-hour performance by True Story Theatre. The troupe played back stories from audience members’ lives with compassion and insight.
Whenever True Story Theater performs, we laugh and cry and there is a palpable electricity in the room that runs through us all,” explains Charlene Brotman, longstanding member of TOP’s advisory committee, “We feel our common humanity.”
On Sept. 22nd, Abby Seixas psychotherapist and author of Finding the Deep River Within explores, “The Continuing Dilemma of Taking Care of Ourselves: Why is it Still So Hard?” She will delve into the reasons women find it hard to prioritize their own needs and explain why nonetheless it is important to put ourselves first at times.
What Does Feminism Mean to Me?” will be the topic of a panel discussion on Sept. 29th moderated by Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed. Panelists include Prof. Elora Chowdhury of UMass Boston, Prof. Sally Haslinger of M.I.T., and Gina Helfrich, Director of the Harvard Women’s Center. The panelists will also respond to questions and engage the audience in a participatory dialogue.
On Oct. 6th, Brown University’s chaplain Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson will speak on, “Discerning and Validating my Inner Truth,” offering spiritual insights into rediscovering what is most meaningful and rewarding to each individual in their lives.
Other lectures in the series focus on fostering personal relationships in a technological age, strategies for women dealing with conflict, challenging the verbal abuse dynamic, and the impact of patriarchal language on security issues.
For the final lecture on Thursday November 17th renowned international fashion designer, artist, and retreat leader Sigrid Olsen will address the topic, “Composing Our Lives, Being True to Ourselves.”
The 10-lecture series meets weekly on Thursday mornings from 10 am to 12.30 pm at the University Lutheran Church at 66 Winthrop Street, just off of Harvard Square in Cambridge, a short walk from the Harvard Square T station. The cost of an individual lecture is $15 ($5 for students); a series subscription is $120. Group discounts are available. For more information, see www.theologicalopportunitiesprogram.org or call 617-285-7408.
* * *
The Theological Opportunities Program of lectures and conversations on issues of concern to women began as a program of the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA in 1973. It evolved to address any and all issues of concern to women from the personal to the global and became an independent non-profit organization in 2003. It has no religious or other affiliations.
For more information: Muna Killingback, Executive Director, 617 285 7408

24 February 2011

The Commission on the Status of Women:
A Whirlwind Exchange of Ideas and Meeting of the Minds

—Muna Killingback

At each annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), hundreds of women representing tens of organizations and networks converge at the United Nations in New York bringing with them their issues, their reports, their ideas, their passions. They have their differences for sure, but what we all agree on, the goal we all share is creating a world where women and men can live freely and equally and in peace.

Representing the World YWCA, I attended two meetings this week that reflected this passion. One, called “Bridging the Israel-Palestine Divide”, brought together a young Palestinian woman and a young Israeli woman who belong to an organization called One Voice (http://www.onevoicemovement.org/) that unites mostly young Palestinians and Israelis in promoting their common vision of and wish for the two-state peace solution. Rosa Helou of Palestine and Dana Sender of Israel both agreed that their organization “amplifies the voice of the moderate majority.” Their role in One Voice, Rosa said, was to tell their governments to work for an end to the conflict. She added that, “We are inspired by what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Both focus on their own populations using vehicles such as town hall meetings, extensive social media, and sometimes publicity stunts to raise awareness about the need for a just and sustainable peace solution.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that women comprised sixty percent of members in the Palestinian section of One Voice and seventy percent of members in the Israeli section. This is not a coincidence, I believe. Feminist psychologists such as Jean Baker Miller, particularly in her groundbreaking book Toward a New Psychology of Women, have noted that women value and invest in relationships more than men do and perhaps this extends beyond the personal into the public and global sphere as well.

During the discussion, a very interesting question came from a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, one of the organizers, along with UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Ireland, which hosted the event. She asked Dana about how she felt about the obligatory military service Israelis have to undertake and said that her own niece in Israel had been a conscientious objector and had faced a trial for her beliefs. Dana, who had earlier said that she had already done her Israeli military service, responded that she was a patriot and would serve in the army again. I think in this case, a more feminist approach would serve to accelerate the goal of peace because all militarism is an extreme manifestation of patriarchy, the seeking of power over through force.

A UN Women representative also asked about if their work was affected by the fact that the peace process had not had any traction, noting that it not succeeded in getting Israel to stop building settlements in the Palestinian territories it occupied [a violation of the Geneva Convention]. Dana noted that the Israeli section felt it had strongly contributed to the recent creation of a two-state solution caucus in the Knesset and she said that they were working for the implementation of international law. Rosa commented that the shape of the two state solution was already basically known and that both sections of One Voice were working for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.

At another meeting later that afternoon, a very stimulating panel entitled, “Created in God’s Image: Promoting Positive Masculinity from Hegemony to Partnership” discussed the specific idea of challenging patriarchy and its restricting gender roles. The panelists represented the World Student Christian Federation, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), and the International Council for Reconciliation.

LWF feminist theologian Elaine Neuenfeldt observed that religion reproduces and maintains patriarchy and its structures, and worse, “gives the impression that it is sacred.” She said that since both women and men are created in God’s image they are equal. Because this “equality is shaped by divine wisdom, breaking down this relationship is sin.” She talked about seeking the Biblical and theological notion of justice and noted a paradox in the men aspiring for gender equity: “How can our partners live out this idea of justice while benefitting from this hierarchical [patriarchal] structure?” Partnership can only be achieved in a context of justice she affirmed. Noting that gay activists had pointed out that negative masculinities cannot be ascribed to the entire male population and asked, “How do we deal with non-positive masculinity? Men who are violent, perpetrators of violence?”

Patricia Ackerman of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Women Peacemakers Program (http://www.ifor.org/WPP/) talked about the success of gender trainings for men that promoted and enabled men to think about new ways of defining and thinking of themselves as men.

The second part of the program was devoted to small group brainstorming to define which concepts of masculinity need to be challenged and what approaches in the gender discussion initiated by women need to change. Finally, they asked how we can motivate women and men to engage in change?

In the spirit of the CSW, I, like every other participant, came away with new ideas, inspiration, and program designs and am looking forward to my next whirlwind day at the CSW.