On being a woman in a universe ruled by the god of male supremacy

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The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
When he prepared the heavens, I was there.
I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him.
Blessed [ashre] is the man that heareth me.

                                              — Proverbs 8


I came across Joseph Campbell’s book of lectures on the goddesses at a time when I was in a faith crisis precipitated by the realization that my participation in a religious organization with an all-male priesthood had caused me to internalize misogyny that I had not previously been aware of.

How I discovered my internalized misogyny

One of the (many) moments that helped me discover that I had internalized misogyny was when I was sitting in Relief Society (RS) and our president was showing a video of an interview with Marjorie Hinckley, the late wife of one of our former ‘prophets,’ Gordon B Hinckley. The interview revealed her to be witty and clever, every bit as sharp as her beloved husband, and very much his equal. As I watched, I asked myself, how had this woman lived and died and I never knew how terrific she was?

The answer came to me almost as quickly as I asked it: because our religious culture does not regard women, especially women over 30, as having anything of value to offer (except, perhaps, their ability to bear children, take care of children, and cook for others). My first thought was curse the patriarchy! But then, as I continued to watch and I saw that she was a white-haired grandmother with pearl earrings, I realized that I, too, would have had the same thought. probably thought that she had nothing of value to offer. In that moment I dissolved into tears; that was the first time I realized that I had internalized ideas that diminished me. Someday, I too would be a grandmother with pearl earrings, a grandmother with nothing of value to offer.

How I had internalized misogyny to begin with

My understanding of this concept was enhanced later when my husband began to watch the series Law and Order: SVU on Netflix during his morning workouts. My husband loves crime shows, and this one had several seasons, so he was excited to have something entertaining to watch in the mornings when he was on the elliptical. I don’t much care for crime shows, so I didn’t watch it with him. I just continued to go about my morning dress and grooming routine each day in preparation for work. However, after a few weeks of this, I began to become conscious, every morning, that there was some woman’s dead body that was serving as the basis of my husband’s morning entertainment. (For those of you who don’t know, ‘SVU’ stands for ‘special victims unit,’ and the ‘special victims’ are the victims of sexual violence. More often than anything else, these victims are women or girls.)

After a while, I said something to my husband about how I didn’t really care for the show. He said he understood because, as a clinical social worker, he had taken a training on sexual violence against women, and he understood that there were arguments about this show, good arguments on both sides. On the one hand, yes there is a lot of sexual violence against women. But, on the other hand, the show’s narrative was about how our society abhors these crimes — that’s why the fictional detectives were so committed to finding the bad guys. And, in one sense, I knew that this latter argument is true. If I sat down with my husband and watched one show in isolation, I would see that, yes, sexual violence is regarded as a terrible thing, yes the victims are treated with compassion and humanity, and yes the good detectives are showing our culture’s abhorrence of such things. However, each morning I still had to encounter some dead woman’s brutal and violent murder, which did seem to normalize violence against women. It made violence against women seem, somehow, just background noise in our society.

As the weeks went on, and as my husband continued to work his way through the seasons, I finally figured out how I could help him to understand my complaint. I asked him to imagine that he lived on an island, and that every morning on that island a dead woman’s body washed up on the shore. (I chose this particular image because it did feel to me like a dead woman’s body was washing up on the shores of my consciousness every morning.) I said, imagine that every morning you have to make a decision about how you will deal with that reality. You might decide to drag the body to some burying ground every morning. You might decide to cook and eat the flesh. (I hope not!) You might decide to ignore the body and leave it there, letting bodies accumulate on the beach over time, and eventually avoiding that part of the island. You might make any of those choices, but every day you would have to make a conscious choice about what to do about the fact of the daily dead woman.

Then I asked him my key question: What would you begin to think that the universe was trying to tell you about women? His immediate reply was ‘that they aren’t very important.’ And, that’s when he began to understand what I was telling him. It’s also when I began to understand how I had unconsciously internalized beliefs about women that were demeaning to me. It may be true that an overt message we are receiving, based on the story’s narrative, is that we think that violence against women is bad. But the backbone of the show, week after week, is a new act of violence perpetrated against a new woman every week; This illustrates that the other message that you begin to receive is that violence against women seems normal, that it’s entertaining, and maybe even that’s what women are for. You most likely would not even be conscious of the fact that this is the message that you are internalizing, which probably makes it even more insidious.

I then applied the same logic to what had happened to me over the years in my religious practices. Year after year I had attended church meetings in which the leadership was all male and in which women weren’t even allowed to pray for many years. When our church had biannual conferences, the lineup of speakers was dominated by men. When there were sessions for women only, men spoke, but in the meetings dedicated to men, no women spoke. All of the decisions about the church were made by men. The calling of males to the highest leadership levels were life-long, while the callings of women to the highest leadership positions that women can occupy (leadership over the auxiliary organizations for women and children) were made for a comparatively short term (about 2 years). Males in the highest levels received six-figure ‘stipends,’ while women in the highest levels (to which women could be called) received no stipends at all. Every woman serving in any capacity in the church answers to a long line of men above her; for many years, no man answered to any woman. (Arguably, that may still be true.) While it’s true that, on the overt level, I was being told repeatedly that we care about women by men speaking over the pulpit, on most other levels I was being told repeatedly that women don’t matter.

Why is god’s order patriarchal?

My journey to understand that led me, first, to ask why a benevolent god who regards me as having as much worth as any of his other children would ordain a social order that diminishes women. I turned first to the scriptures, but I quickly realized that there was very little in them about women. Most of the women in the lives of the men in our church’s canon are invisible, or they are the victims of violence, or they are mentioned (along with animals) as the belongings of men. Consequently, I had always read the scriptures as if I could look through the eyes of the protagonist and internalize the protagonist’s experiences as if they applied to me. But then I began to realize that this may have been the wrong way to approach the scriptures. Maybe some of the stories applied to me, but maybe others were meant only for men, and I had somehow failed to get the secret decoder ring that told me which ones.

I then looked in other places in our ‘approved’ church repertoire: church magazines, the teachings of church leaders, and manuals for teaching. The answer was not in there. That’s when I started looking outside of the church’s ‘approved’ information sources, such as Mormon Feminism, When God was a Woman, Women Who Run With the Wolves, The Feminine Mystique, and this book by Campbell. I also began interrogating myself about my own experience with the ‘divine,’ and I was able to come to the following answer to the question ‘Why would god ordain a social order that diminishes women?

The short answer is that he wouldn’t. Only man would demand such a social order. The longer answer comes from a careful reading of history, theology, mythology, sociology, and psychology. Organized religions have always reinforced somebody’s power. In the case of the Judeo-Christian religions, that that power has often been patriarchal. This is evident when we discover how our cultural myths, particularly the Judeo-Christian myths, were built upon prior myths. For example, the story of Cain and Abel is about the tension between the agricultural and herding societies, which were encountering each other in the historical era during which the bible was written. Campbell said that Cain, a farmer, represented the agricultural society and Abel, a herder, represented the herding society. They each brought their offering to the male god, and that god preferred the meat to the grains. Cain then killed Abel out of jealousy. Campbell said that this was basically a rewrite of an older myth in which the two offerings were presented to the goddess, and she chose the grains over the meat. The biblical rewrite was about setting supreme the male god of the herding society and erasing the goddess altogether. Campbell gives many more examples of the ways that the bible erases, demotes, or evilizes the goddess, reinforcing the power of the herding society over the agricultural society and reinforcing the power of men over women.

What’s true about the feminine divine?

The other question I asked on my journey to process the misogyny I had internalized during my participation in a patriarchal religion, was this: If god were a goddess, what would that look like? I asked that question because of the unsatisfying answer that I’d heard bandied about in Mormon lore every time that the question of why we don’t know our heavenly mother came up. The typical Mormon answer was that god loves his wife so much that he wanted to protect her from the pain his children would cause her if they knew about her existence. After all, you see how they take his name in vain? This is an unsatisfying answer that simply doesn’t make sense. Where in nature is there anything like that? In nature, most living beings are much more likely to be cut off from their fathers than they are to be cut off from their mothers. What mother hasn’t been hurt by her children? It’s simply an implausible explanations. (Not to mention that it’s infantilizing to women.)

One thing that I came across in my search was this fascinating article by a Dan Peterson, a well-respected Mormon apologist. In that article, Peterson explains that a story in our very own Book of Mormon suggests (if you believe the Book of Mormon to be a ‘true’ historical account) that Nephi understood more about the divine feminine than do modern Mormons. His statements that Jews in 600 BC, Nephi’s era, were still highly likely to be practicing the old goddess religions, in addition to the new father-god religion, corroborated statements made in When God Was a Woman and in this book, Joseph Campbell’s Goddesses. Peterson also explained that Asherah and the feminine divine were personifications of the divine attribute wisdom (see Proverbs 8:22-34).

Joseph Campbell’s lectures were very helpful to me in answering this question about the feminine divine. At first I was a little put off by the idea that the only thing that seems to be divine about women is their life-giving capacity, but then Campbell pointed out that the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ constructs are man-made, and the gods and goddesses are ways that we make sense of powers that are in ourselves and in the world. Women are not meant to be wholly defined by our understanding of the goddess. The truth is that these stories are meant to be understood as metaphors about the powers that are in ourselves and in the world. To interpret them literally is death.

Simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing

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The Power by Naomi Alderman was a simultaneously enjoyable and agonizing bit of feminist literature. Alderman illustrates for readers what it is like to be a woman in today’s world by flipping it on its head and imagining a universe where women are becoming the dominant sex, thanks to the development of a new biological power that renders men’s greater average muscular strength to be irrelevant. Because of its graphic descriptions of some terrible human atrocities, this book is sure to terrify anyone with a reasonably developed sense of humanity. But it will be particularly terrifying to men’s rights activists (MRAs), who are likely to miss the point completely. The point is that all of the terrifying things that are happening to men in this book are things that are currently happening to women all over the world, and yet most of us are just going about our business as if it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should be tearing it all down, as the MRAs in this book try to do.

The bizarro Alderman mirror also introduces some interesting feminist concepts. For example, her story suggests that women are not actually the more innately gentle and kind sex, as has been posited by the ‘benevolent sexists’ who think it helps women to put them on a pedestal. This book takes the position that women have only committed fewer atrocities than men because they have lacked the power to commit as many. As for benevolent sexists, popularizing a narrative in which women are supposed to be better than the typical human actually hurts women. That’s because, once a woman is revealed to be an ordinary flawed human, we perceive it as depravity when we contrast it against our image of what women are supposed to be. We are prevented from having empathy for flawed women, and because they’re all flawed, we have difficulty seeing all women clearly. (This is why we can’t tolerate flawed women, and yet we bend over backwards to regard even the most morally-vacant men as heroes.)

Her story also suggests that the reluctance of people today to believe that there ever could have been a place and time in which there could have been a matriarchal order is more a result of our tendency to look at archeological evidence through the lens of our current culture than it is a fact of history. In truth, several authors have pointed to other evidence:

  • In When God Was a Woman, Stone gives the archeological evidence suggesting that early agricultural societies worshipped a supreme mother goddess and her husband, a male god, was secondary. (Interestingly enough, in some of these societies, the male god was killed for the sins of his people every year and then resurrected by the goddess 3 days later.)
  • In his lectures on myths about the goddesses, Joseph Campbell corroborates many of Stone’s conclusions and points out that the Old Testament is replete with stories about the tension between two societies: the goddess-worshiping agricultural societies and the god-worshiping herding societies. (For example, the myth about Adam and Eve is a story about the agricultural revolution, the adoption of farming, and the evilization of the goddess religion’s symbols and the demotion of their goddess.)
  • In Guns Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond points out how male-supremacist societies came to dominate the earth over the last 2-3 thousand years. The presence of domesticated milk-producing mammals enabled them to wean their children years earlier than societies without them. This resulted in a change in the birth interval that led to the herding societies’ ability to out-breed everyone else and, consequently, to spread their god around the world. (Knowing this, it’s interesting to re-read the Bible’s myth on the agricultural revolution and note the curse that the god will ‘multiply’ Eve’s conception.)

I gave The Power 5 stars on goodreads. It’s true I have a tendency to rate books higher than most of my more critical friends, but I love books and I give a high count of stars to any book that helps me develop a greater understanding of my experience. (That’s ‘education,’ as John Dewey and Tara Westover say.) This book certainly did that. That said, Alderman does a great job of keeping the action moving. She adds her opinions to our culture’s ongoing conversation about male-supremacy without once lapsing into a long and boring treatise about her philosophy (à la Ayn Rand).