The “Real” Point of the Argument About Women

It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology.  Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.

First posted May 16, 2008

Christine de Pizan and the question of women

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice…I considered myself most unfortunate because God had made me inhabit a female body in this world.”    ~ Christine de Pizan

Vile. Abominable. Abode of every evil and vice. Indeed, what woman could feel anything but “most unfortunate” when convinced of her sorry state of existence before the perfection that is held up as man? The querelle des femmes, and later the witchcraze, feature in the great debate about the nature of a woman: is she good (like Mary) or is she bad (like Eve)?

With the advent of a wider availability of education for women, a new realization of and outcry against oppression and misogyny arose. Are women really as bad as “they” say, these men who are educated by men and surrounded by educated men and uneducated women, these men who capitalize on each other’s propositions about the female sex and project their own sexual appetites onto them, these men who happening upon a woman of equal or superior learning/courage/virtue, etc. can only scratch their heads and pronounce her to have risen above her sex—are women as bad as “they” say?

Malleus Maleficarum, objectification, and witchcraft

While courtly love, this ideal of romance, was at its peak, women like Christine began to expose “the attitudes it promoted toward women, and its reduction of romance to sexual conquest—and abandonment” (Kelly 10). Women were nothing more than sexual objects made to feel empowered for the purposes of the game but ultimately losing.

A counterpoint to courtly love may be the rise of fear concerning witchcraft; where one’s romantic interest is held to be without fault, the witch is the epitome of fault. In the Malleus Maleficarum, the two authors surmise that witchcraft appeals more to the woman because (as Monter summarizes) “women are more credulous than men; women are more impressionable; also, ‘they have slippery tongues, and are unable to conceal from their fellow-women those things they have learned by evil arts’…[they have a] greater sexual appetite…[and are by] nature quicker to waver in the faith” (129).

So courtly love holds up a woman as the virginal Mary, but only for purposes of conquest. The accusation of witchcraft colors woman as the deceptive, lustful Eve who is vindictive and in cahoots with devils. Whether she is good like Mary or bad like Eve, she is still just a woman, rationally inferior (Kelly 12).

Dan Doriani, Women and Ministry

I try not to get frustrated when I read about what men used to think about women, but it is difficult when I realize that it is sometimes still the case today. Arguments from nature may have softened their terms and tone, but they are just as harmful and hurtful as ever.

I’m reading Dan Doriani’s Women and Ministry right now for another class, and the gentleness of his tone and the caution with which he steps ever harder on the attempts of women to do God’s work are beginning to infuriate me more than the brash diatribes of these centuries-old documents like the Malleus Maleficarum.

I want never to find myself in the place Christine de Pizan once was, despising her own sex, despising her own self, lamenting that God would make her at all if he would choose to make her so deformed and despicable as to suffer being a woman.

If such a state is the logical conclusion of the pontification of men over the nature of a woman, there is no good in the reason of such men. God made male and female and pronounced them good. Anything short of that pronouncement is a lie–one men have perpetuated and built upon for thousands of years.

Choosing the harder path

So I say hurray for the women who “rose above their sex” to the extent that they could recognize their oppression and speak against it.

Hurray for the women who would not accept lies about themselves or allow anyone to continue telling them to other women.

Hurray for the women who suffered and toiled and even lost for the sake of the querelle des femmes and in the face of accusations with as heavy a price as death by fire.

Hurray for women who stood up and said “no” to the insistence that they had less rationality, less virtue, less strength of character, less natural ability, less faith.

May I have such courage to speak with gentleness and yet persistence when I face accusations of my own. The way has been paved for me. And that is a blessing.

About Laura K. Cavanaugh

I'm a writer, spiritual director, and advocate of holistic body theology.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Body of CHRIST, Community, Equality and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I work in a ministry from the Middle East and North Africa – its hard describing God’s purpose for husband and wives, most depressing when you have to do so in the church. Right now we have to defend the rights of the migrant workers (100% women) because they are being abused by everyone.

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