In discussing women’s issues and history, it is important to analyze and discuss the influence and impact of patriarchal religion. In many nations, patriarchal religion is the primary type of religion, with males leading – and often benefiting from – practices. Cultural and social beliefs pervade faiths and work to oppress female followers, and certain religious practices keep many women from fulfilling their potential or from living with privileges that other women may have. Nonetheless, women do have the capacity to meet their needs while following patriarchal religions, and in fact can use religious authority systems to create space, gain control, and combat patriarchy.
The way that patriarchal religions are structured and organized explains the resentment and enmity towards women. Patriarchal religions revolve around a male god, and “superior beings” are created through the union of “a divine male and a mortal female”. Women are associated with nature and mortality, and while older religions valued nature, patriarchal religions value things removed from life on earth, thus creating a hierarchy of gender. This almost automatically places women in a position of disrespect and helplessness.
Laura Geller experienced this hierarchy and the indignity for women while working to become a rabbi. She discussed her experience in getting her first period, and hearing her mother tell of how she was slapped when she first got hers. Many believed that menstrual blood was evil and unclean, but Geller was brave enough to believe that it wasn’t dirty, and that “a blessing would have gently taught me what it means to be a woman”. Though religion give men more “he recreated her religion for herself in a sense, and her quest to become a rabbi became a chance to create new images of humanity “in God’s image”.
Chung Hyun Kyung saw a connection between Asian women’s spirituality and a struggle against dependency on men and patriarchal religion for self-definition. She argued that women should resist such things as Christian theology, for example, as women believe in different things than men and the religions do not serve them; she implored, “Dear sisters and brothers, with the energy of the Holy Spirit let us tear apart all walls of division and the ‘culture of death’ that separate us”. She hails the wisdom and compassion of nature and its creatures while simultaneously using the name of the Holy Spirit in her bid… not to mention recalling her image of the Holy Spirit as a woman!
Domestic abuse – which some males would see as appropriate given the amount of power warranted them as males by their religion – was an issue that Abigail Abbot Bailey saw fit to overcome through her Calvinist beliefs, interestingly enough. She as well as her children suffered physical abuse under her husband for years because they “wished to be obedient… for our family had ever been in the habit of obedience”. However, when she learned of the incestuous activities between her husband and her daughter, she realized that he had broken their religious covenant of marriage, and “God has set me an important lesson upon the emptiness of the creature”. Though Bailey still sees herself below a male figure as “a feeble worm,” she still uses her faith in God to draw strength to leave her husband and even have him arrested.
The unusual story of Margery Kempe told of a woman who defied the Christian idea that women should be assenting to their husbands, thereby resisting men, the authority of the church, and social norms. While society deemed that someone of her class should offer herself to her husband, she refused to lay with him, “And he replied, ‘You are no good wife’”. In the face of his insistence, she managed to “break the custom of fasting” through a sort of negotiation with Christ and her husband, bursting through the male-female hierarchy. Therefore, Kempe was able to use theological beliefs to defy gender, sexuality, religion, and class to create her own happiness.
Additionally, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz used the seclusion of the convent to pursue something almost unthinkable for women at the time: education. As she had no desire to marry, she realized that “taking the veil” would “be the least unfitting and the most decent state I could choose.” Though she saw herself still bound by the norms of society, she envisioned a way out through religion. In the convent, she was able to avoid the “obligations that would disturb my freedom to study or the noise of a community that would interrupt the tranquil silence of my books”. Women in her culture and religion were supposed to take on the “less exalted tasks” such as housework (module), while “intellect” was “too much, some would say, in a woman; and there are even those who say that it is harmful”.
The narrative of Vibia Perpetua is one of the more powerful in the text. It was her staunch belief in Christianity that led to her gruesome death, but at the same time, her belief vindicated her from a life of emptiness and superficiality. Though she was affected by her family, and “was worn out, seeing them so worn because of me,” it did not lead her away from her beliefs. Not only does she challenge social norms that declare that she should be an obedient daughter and a doting mother, but her resistance against the patriarchy of the Roman Empire shows the strength of her resolve and the power in her actions.
In each of the referenced excerpts, there were still elements of oppression of the women within the patriarchal religions. However, these women have shown that, though they have the lower hand in the deal, they can work against their oppressors within a religious context and achieve amazing things regardless.