Over the past few weeks, the #yesallwomen discussion that followed in the wake of a particularly misogynistic mass shooting in California was loud and passionate, and rightly so. A broader conversation over cultural misogyny in the supposedly enlightened developed world (and the U.S. in particular) is badly needed.
It’s true that the proximate causes of any one act of violence against women center on the mental state of the perpetrator, his access to weapons, his personal history, and the like, but the proximate causes are only the beginning. Dig a little deeper, and you find the ultimate causes.
Consider this: when someone dies, a heart attack may be the proximate cause, but the ultimate cause may be a lifetime of bad diet, lack of exercise and high stress, all of which caused clogged arteries and eventually the heart attack. Of course, one can’t draw a direct causal connection from the consumption of one particular bacon cheeseburger to the heart attack itself, but put it in the context of a lifetime of behavior, and it is a contributing ultimate cause.
Likewise, the ultimate causes of misogyny are found in the culture itself, the aggregate effect of a million small things, played out over the past eight or ten millennia. Turning the tide toward a truly egalitarian partnership culture is a massive undertaking, itself composed of a million small actions, which will play out over generations to come.
I’d like to toss out one not-so-small idea in this very small blog. For some of you, this is old hat, and you may nod politely. For others, it may feel impossible. Radical. Forbidden.
Decades ago, feminist thealogian (no, that’s not a typo) Mary Daly famously said, “If god is male, then male is god.” Read that quote a couple times, and let it sink in.
One of the deepest, most embedded, most hidden-in-plain-sight ultimate causes of cultural misogyny is the exclusive image of the Divine in male form.
Most people of faith, if pressed a little, will acknowledge that God is Spirit, without genitalia. Then why is He a he?? Those of us from the Western cultural tradition will point to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for validation. And certainly, masculine imagery is found there. So is feminine imagery when one digs a bit, especially in the original languages. But on the face of it, culturally, the dominant cultural symbol for the Divine has been historically male. That symbol still functions, not just in the subcultures of religious communities, but deep in the psyche of post-modern, secular culture.
Helped along by countless misogynistic writings by major theologians (everybody from Augustine to Martin Luther) the image of the feminine as inferior, sinful, and evil took root in Western culture. Those roots run deep, and the idea that women must be dominated, contained, tamed, suppressed, and controlled are the cultural result. Even today, in some churches, women are urged to be submissive and quiet, based on a few select verses.
Everything expressed in the “yes-all-women” discussion is connected by a cultural thread back to this cultural ultimate cause. If god is male, then male is god.
Thomas Aquinas said, “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten…” Right there is one cultural “bacon cheeseburger,” an ultimate contributing cause. Mix it together with a thousand others, and bake for centuries in patriarchal culture and institutions (secular and sacred), and the end result is a shooter in California who thinks he is entitled to sex with any woman he sees.
Undoing this damage is the work of generations. It won’t be accomplished in a day, or a year, or a decade. But consider the gender of God, what it has meant historically and culturally. Learn about it, reflect on it, and then allow Feminine images to exist alongside the Masculine in prayer, contemplation, discussion, and thought. Even if you are not religious, challenge yourself to not use masculine pronouns in completely secular discussions of atheism. It changes the conversation. It changes the tone. It is a beginning. It starts in the minds and hearts of people of all genders who are ready for change, ready to begin the work of creating an egalitarian partnership culture to replace the hierarchical, patriarchal culture based on dominance and fear.
Step away from the bacon cheeseburger.
Rebecca Hecking considers the big questions in northwest Pennsylvania, USA. She is waiting to hear hopefully good news on the proposal for her second book.