On Sexism as a Spiritual Disaster

I have been a feminist for 35 years. It has been, in effect, my religion. For me, feminism is a welcoming, joyous, and generous vision summed up by the bumper sticker on my car: Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. As a movement that seeks personhood for women and an end to violence against women, as a movement that understands how sexism hurts men as well as women, as a movement committed to fighting the oppressions of race and class as well as sex, feminism has earned my fidelity. So I have held onto my vision despite the caricatures and misrepresentations of feminism that have made many women in this country afraid to say they are feminists—even though they subscribe to feminist principles and benefit from the achievements of feminists. And, like other faithfuls, for my faith I have been willing to be called names, to be disliked, and to be misunderstood.

But as violence against women escalates in the United States and across the globe (for example, a recent report from the World Health Organization published in The Lancet, based on interviews with nearly 25,000 women at 15 sites in ten countries, concludes that “violence by an intimate partner is a common experience worldwide”), and as the voices of religious fundamentalists become even more strident with their insistence on the subordination of women to men, I have found myself turning to Quaker faith and practice for the spiritual strength I need to continue the feminist struggle. I have come to agree with Carol Flinders, who writes in At the Root of this Longing that the structures of sexism may be so deeply embedded in human culture and consciousness that they cannot be changed by ordinary political action or even education, important as these are. To bring about this revolution we need soul force, what Gandhi called Satyagraha, and what I understand as a fierce faithfulness to the love of Truth and the truth of Love. I first encountered soul force through Quakerism, and I continue to find it there.

Quakerism has been part of my life since my first night at Swarthmore College. Orientation for new students took place in the Friends meetinghouse, and sitting there, alone and scared, I found myself comforted by the simplicity and peace of that building. From that encounter I became interested in Quakerism and began to attend meeting for worship, to participate in American Friends Service Committee workcamps, and eventually to work for AFSC. But when I became a feminist in the early 1970s I shared the hostility feminists felt toward organized religion, which has for so long and in so many forms served to teach and support sexism. I did not see Quakerism as part of organized religion, but neither was I convinced that I could be a Quaker and a feminist. I feared my feminism would be a source of conflict and that, as a Quaker, I would be under pressure to modify my perceptions, even to not speak out at all. So, rightly or wrongly, I left.

Five years ago I returned to Quakerism, and two years ago I joined Albany (N.Y.) Meeting. My feminism has indeed been strengthened by my Quakerism, but I continue to struggle with how my Quakerism can be strengthened by my feminism. Some of my efforts to raise feminist issues in Quaker contexts have elicited discomfort, even hostility, and I have felt under pressure to remain silent. I have been told, for example, that I should not raise the issue of feminism because it will be divisive, pitting men against women, or because it will take attention away from more important issues such as racism. I have also been told that there is no need to raise this issue because Quakers have already dealt with it and moved on. I have discovered that I am not alone in this experience. During a focus group with Albany-area women to explore what programming would bring participants to a Women’s Weekend at Powell House, one woman stated that while she felt comfortable raising feminist issues in a variety of political and personal contexts, she did not feel comfortable doing so in her meeting. Other women and men have recognized this as their experience too. When I offered a workshop at New York Yearly Meeting on Quakerism and feminism, only a handful of people showed up. Since then, the Women’s Concerns Committee, which sponsored the workshop, has been laid down.

The reason for this lack of interest cannot be that violence against women has ended. It cannot be that women no longer do most of the world’s work while controlling almost none of the world’s resources. It cannot be that women are now fully represented in the world’s political bodies, that sexual slavery of trafficked women has ended, nor that women everywhere now bear children only when and as they wish. And it certainly can’t be that sexism no longer affects our relationships with each other. So perhaps it is that we need a new way of thinking and speaking about these issues, a new language, a new wave.

Last year I attended a workshop at Pendle Hill led by Rex Ambler, a British Friend who has spent several years studying the writings of early Quakers in an effort to understand their spiritual experience. He reminds us that one of the most important words used by early Quakers was “truth,” and we can recall that among the names Quakers first gave themselves were the Religious Society of Friends of Truth and the Seekers of the Truth. Early Quakers, as Rex Ambler sees them, had a profoundly optimistic view of human nature. They believed that all of us have the capacity to recognize the truth about ourselves and that, while often painful, this recognition gives us freedom and peace. This truth about ourselves, though based in our own personal experience, is not purely subjective. Others who seek Truth through the same process will reach compatible insights. Thus Truth does not separate us; it brings us together. Facing the truth about ourselves leads us to the truth about the nature of the world and about God, for God is the ultimate Truth; indeed, for early Quakers, Truth and God were inseparable.

Early Quakers also believed that no matter how alienated one might be from the Truth, what each of us wants above all else is to be authentic, and to live truthfully. We crave authenticity and wholeness even if we appear to desire everything but this. The power of early Quaker worship, then, came from the fact that it put people in touch at once with the Truth and with their yearning for it. These men and women, according to Rex Ambler, had discovered a meditation practice that enabled them to be fully present to the Truth and so to experience God.

Attending Rex Ambler’s workshop, leading a workshop for my own meeting on the meditation practice he has developed, and doing the meditation by myself and with others has opened a way for me to speak of feminism to other Quakers. It has given me a vocabulary and a framework for a conversation that begins and ends with our yearning for Truth and our commitment to love. If God and Truth are inseparable, and if dishonesty leads to separation from God, then sexism, the lie that those who are born male are superior to those who are born female, is for both men and women a spiritual disaster. Since sexism shapes us from the moment we are born and marked as male or female, we might call it the first wedge by which we are separated from God and led away from the authenticity we long for. At some level, women know they are not inferior to men and men know they are not superior to women. By getting us to deny this fundamental truth and accept instead a lie, sexism provides the basis for a culture of dishonesty.

When F/friends have asked me why I am writing this piece, I have said this: I cannot do otherwise. I know that I will never live to see a world free of sexism, but I dream about it. And when I consider the difference between what is and what might be, my heart breaks and I am compelled to ask again the question posed by the British Quaker Women’s Group in 1986: “Where as Quakers is our witness to the world against the injustice toward women?” And how might that witness be shaped if we begin to speak of sexism as a spiritual disaster? If we are truly Friends of Truth and Seekers after Truth, I do not see how we can think of it otherwise.

This is not an easy conversation to have, as my own experience has taught me. It is a conversation that touches our sense of ourselves and our most intimate relations with each other, our daily behaviors as well as our public actions. Still, as Quakers we believe that when we move toward discomfort rather than away from it, we open an opportunity for spiritual growth. And surely whatever consequences we fear from such a conversation cannot be worse for us than being afraid to have the conversation at all.

The spiritual disaster of sexism takes many forms. One of the most obvious is treating women as objects, not subjects. In a culture pervaded by sexism, a woman becomes that which is seen, not she who sees; that which is of use, not she who has agency. Women become a culture’s scapegoat, that flesh onto which men can project all that they do not wish to acknowledge as part of themselves—the sexual temptress, for example, who leads men down the path of the body and away from God. The woman made me do it, says the Adam of Genesis. It was not I that sinned. But no matter how patriarchal Genesis may be in its origins and interpretation, one can still find the truth of feminism in it. I like to think of Eve as the first theologian, the one who is trying to figure out the nature of God. And I like to think that the sin committed in the garden was not so much Eve’s eating the apple as it was Adam’s thinking he could use the difference between their bodies as a way to escape responsibility for his own actions. After all, blaming “Eve” for the world’s woes has unleashed a holocaust of violence against women over time and across cultures.

If sexism makes women less than human, it also makes men more than human. Under sexism, we lead what I would call idolatrous lives, for we represent God as literally male. When we use a phrase like “God the Father,” we might pretend that it is not sex specific, that “he” includes “she” and “father” includes “mother.” Our investment in the maleness of God comes out, however, when attempts are made to refer to God as “she” or “it.” As the feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther observes, “Few topics are likely to arouse such passionate feelings . . . as the question of the exclusively male image of God.” She further notes that people “often exhibit a phobic reaction to the very possibility of speaking of God as ‘She.'” As long as this is true, every time we refer to God as “He,” it is as if we made a graven image and fell down before it.

For men, the distinctive sin is one of pride. It is pride to assume that God looks like you and has your body, and that God does not look like a woman nor have a woman’s body. The presumption that man is the norm, that “he” should represent the human and the sacred, is so deeply engrained that it has come to seem natural. Because it has come to seem natural, those who point it out are usually seen as the ones committing sacrilege when in fact it is the assumption of male superiority that is the sacrilege. I think it is often hard for men to appreciate the self-centering value they get from the use of the generic “he,” because they can’t imagine, as women can, what it would be like not to have it. Men often feel anything but superior; yet still, culture mirrors them as the model for the human and the sacred.

In Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Margaret Guenther writes that, “Far from being pride, [the] distinctive sin [for women] is self-contempt.” We have a hundred reasons why it is not important to press our own claims for full personhood. We are more quick to explain away and justify sexism than to recognize and challenge it—we say, That’s not really sexist, or, It’s not really important, or, I don’t really mind, rather than, That’s really sexist, That matters, or, That hurts. Women reject their own feelings and perceptions, and the truths they might offer us. Ironically, when women do so, I think we show contempt for men as well. We know the emperor of sexism has no clothes but we remain silent. Sometimes we do so because we are afraid men will not like us. But is there not contempt in the assumption that men will not like someone as fully human as they are? Sometimes we don’t challenge men because we “love” them. But what kind of love lets someone remain in a state of spiritual disaster?

Sometimes I think women expect less of men than they do of themselves when it comes to facing the truth; women have a double standard, morally speaking, and it patronizes men. Men are shielded time and again from acknowledging their privilege, and women do not ask them to take responsibility for changing the structures of power that benefit them.

The pervasive sexism of our culture makes it hard to tell the truth. But if we believe that Truth and God are inseparable and that what we as human beings desire above all else is to know and live the Truth, then patriarchy in all its many forms is antihuman. Though woman-hating is one of the most widespread and virulent forms of patriarchy, we need to call patriarchy a human-hating culture because sexism is a spiritual disaster for both women and men, and damages our relations to each other.

In speaking of sexism as a spiritual disaster and in thinking of feminism as a spiritual movement, I join many other women and men who have begun to articulate a new wave of feminism. Like so many of my colleagues in this work, I sense a profound hunger in people everywhere for spiritual growth. As a Quaker, I would like to start an institute that would support the development of this new wave of feminism and that would respond to this widespread spiritual hunger. Its goal would be to implement “the radical notion that women are people.” Its objective would be to end all forms of violence against women. Its practice would be to develop projects to accomplish this goal based on the soul force of nonviolence, and it would celebrate our capacity for change. It would engage men in this work at every level, for truly we are all in this together, and ending sexism must be a joint project of men and women. Finally, this institute would actively promote feminism as a peace movement. For its motto I would choose the words of Lucretia Mott: “There can be no true peace without justice.” And to these words I would add, “There can be no true justice without peace.” Until we have addressed the spiritual disaster of sexism, there can be neither justice nor peace.

To challenge sexism at its deepest level, we must find ways to include women in the definition of the person and in the category of the sacred. These are huge challenges. At present, virtually every system of Western culture—political, legal, philosophical, medical, ethical, religious—is based on the idea that a person is the inhabitant of a male body. In her essay, “Are Mothers Persons?” a feminist philosopher, Susan Bordo, explores the different ways male and female bodies are treated in law, medicine, and ethics. A male body is considered sacrosanct, inviolable, home to a person; a female body is considered the property of the husband, the state, and most recently, as she points out, the fetus.

Like Bordo, I believe the equation of person with one living in a male body explains in good part the deadlock in the conversation around reproductive rights. The major participants in the debate frame the question as one of rights, and argue over whether those with female bodies have the same rights as those with male bodies to control what happens to their body. One group answers no, the other yes. But in all the rhetoric, it is hard to find space to articulate the actual experience of most women who become pregnant, which is an experience of rights and responsibilities, of dual claims and dual needs, the language of “me” and “my child.”

Feminists have not wanted to focus on the physical differences between male and female bodies because historically these differences have been used to oppress women. But what if the Lucretia Mott Institute took this difference as a starting point and asked what our political, legal, philosophical, medical, ethical, and religious systems would look like if they assumed as normative the experience of a body capable of creating another body? They might propose that women’s bodies, with their ability to carry another body inside them, provide a compelling model of human experience, because as humans our experience is one of separation and interconnection, interdependence and dependence, rights and responsibilities—coexisting.

According to Reuther, whatever promotes the full humanity of women is holy. I believe it is also true that women will not be seen as persons until they are included in the sacred. As feminist theologians have observed, there is a long tradition within Christianity, as well as other religions, of viewing the female body as inherently unholy. So when we think about bringing women into the circle of the sacred, we have to think about the body. How do we create a culture in which the female body and the male body can be seen as equally housing the Holy, as equally sacred, as both being the embodiment of God? The phobic reaction to calling God “she” noted by Reuther suggests that such an effort will meet with considerable resistance. But if we don’t make this effort, which Reuther calls holy work, what are we saying to those who walk a spiritual path in a female body? How do we measure the spiritual cost to women of their exclusion from “God-talk” and of their saying it doesn’t matter? I believe women yearn for reflections of the female in the sacred; I also believe this is a holy hunger.

Andrew Greeley, a Catholic theologian and columnist, has written: “The pall of silence inside the church on the subject of the abuse of women by husbands, fathers, military conquerors, ethnic cleansers, co-workers, and strangers frightens me. I cannot understand why we are afraid of the subject.” I, too, am frightened by the silence but I am also frightened by the noise. I hear loud voices at home and abroad insisting, in the name of God, that women cannot be holy and that they must be under men’s control. As Quakers we have a long history of challenging both silence and noise, in ourselves and others, and of seeking to intervene.

The question George Fox posed, the question that, according to Margaret Fell, led to her “convincement,” has been much in my heart and soul as I have been writing this piece: “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?” What we are capable of saying, and what we are empowered and allowed to say are often at odds, particularly for women. But when we realize that the force of Fox’s question comes from his assumption that these two meanings are one—what we know as Truth from our experience is precisely what we are empowered to speak and must speak—then a way opens.

I am called to write this piece as a form of witness and as a way of responding to the question asked by the Quaker Women’s Group in 1986: Where, as Quakers, is our witness against the injustice toward women? I believe our intervention is needed now more than ever to address the spiritual disaster of sexism. Let this then be our witness to the world: we will use the soul force that comes from our fierce faithfulness to the love of Truth and the truth of Love to end sexism. Such witness is desperately needed now.

Judith Fetterley

Judith Fetterley, a member of Albany (N.Y.) Meeting, has retired from teaching American literature, writing, and feminist theory at SUNY Albany. Among her writings is The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. She has chaired the board of the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, served on the Steering Committee of the National Women's Studies Association, and now serves on the Steering Committee of Women Against War, a local peace activist organization. Since retiring she has started Perennial Wisdom, a small perennial garden business, and she is writing a book on gardening as a spiritual practice. She serves on the Witness Coordinating Committee of New York Yearly Meeting.