Where are the women?

Daily Reading for May 5

When we think about groups in the history of spirituality that did not fit, one of the unavoidable questions is: where are the women? The priorities of clerical élites and uniformity made lay people in general an “under class” but, as we focus on women in particular, these priorities are expressed primarily by the dominance of male experience over female. It is not simply a question of noting that, with some exceptions (for example, Julian of Norwich), feminine imagery for God and God’s way of relating to the human condition does not play a significant part in what are considered as the great spiritual classics. Common spiritual stereotypes, as well as theories about spiritual development, tend to echo the assumptions of a male, clerical establishment. To what extent, and in what circumstances, did women contribute to the development of spiritual theory and practice? For example, is Teresa of Avila, as a doctor of the Church, the token female, an honorary male, or what? If we reflect on those women, such as Teresa, who have achieved a place in history as significant spiritual figures, it is possible to see their public presentation as offering to women merely conventional roles as “daughters of the Church.” In other words, their lives were recorded selectively for institutional purposes in such a way as not to disturb time-honoured patterns of attitude and behavior. It is important, of course, to distinguish between these edited models of women’s holiness (for example, in terms of humility, hidden service of God and a somewhat disengaged ministry to the weak) and the fullness of human (and specifically feminine) experience which was the hidden reality of these women’s lives. . . .

Our traditional historical sources are themselves products of a culture where the psychological, moral, or social inferiority of women is taken for granted. Even the “big” women who cannot be ignored in the institutional version of events are presented within accepted cultural frameworks. Even if women wrote about themselves in history, they often spoke in conventional ways. For example, Julian of Norwich seems to suggest that her theological creativity is in spite of her gender. It is interesting to note that until fairly recently there has been an assumption, rather than any concrete proof, that Julian was a nun. Apart from the influence of the monastic editors who promoted her work, there may have been a subtle presumption that no woman could think for herself in a creative and theological way and that Julian must therefore have had formal instruction and guided reading from a male cleric! In the end, the problem is not simply one of rediscovering more significant women, in the sense of adding women to our histories, because the stage on which significant historical figures act out their lives continues to be the one that has been defined by a male-dominated world. Women still have to qualify as historical according to norms that are predetermined.

From Philip Sheldrake’s Spirituality and History, new edition (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991, 1995).

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