Hope in the Feminine

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Reading: from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 14:33-36 (NRSV)

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

Message, part 1

I guess that’s me told then! I suppose I should stop here, and maybe when I get home my husband can explain to me what this message was about – or perhaps Andy can take me aside quietly – that sound right to you all? Or shall I continue?

It is rather the sort of attitude that might move one to despair.

No, to be fair to St Paul, if one is in the mood for it, some scholars have come to the conclusion that that passage was interpolated at a later date, and was not of Paul’s authorship. Of course, the only reason a passage like that could have been inserted and believed for so many centuries is that that was the general idea: masculine coded things are authoritative, reasoned, public; while feminine coded things are unreliable, intuitive, private.

I could regale you with examples (Hesiod, Kant, etc), but what is more interesting – and more hopeful – is to remember that however private and unwritten, feminine ways of being have existed and been useful and have evolved and flourished this whole time, and we – the public we – are finally able to use some of them together. We are adding to our cultural repertoire, and creating the opportunity for a more complete common humanity.

We are poised at a new turning point in time, our time, our history. One age gives way to another.

Now, I may be making a fool of myself saying that. After all, that is easy to do when trying to predict the future. It’s easy to do that even trying to describe the present accurately. But I shall go out on a limb with this, for it seems to me that things turn, first invisibly, then in a rush, much as we can mark the transition of summer into autumn. We are correct that we are living through it, even if we find it nearly impossible to tell the exact hour of autumn’s full arrival or even to pick out the right clothes for the totality of each day’s weather – rain and sun and 20°C and dark at 7pm all of a sudden – I mean, I can’t manage it. I can’t say that today it is all autumn, but there will come a day when it is unmistakable, and knowable that the summer has definitely ended.

So we are in a turn of the seasons in the cycle of history, and so we can mark what we see, the first changing leaves and full-ripened conkers, even when the turn is not yet complete, and even if we do not know the courses of history here on our planet together as well as we have known the cycle of the four seasons.

For those of us who have grown up here, or in most of the white-dominated, English-speaking world, we have grown up with nearly everything divided into two camps or clusters – masculine and feminine. This division has been cultural, and not true of necessity. It is certainly not universally true for human societies: there are, and have been, plenty of cultures without a gender binary. But here we tend to start with bodies and work our way outward, all the way through concepts and colours to God, the angry old man in the sky, transcendent over the inanimate, material earth mother-object, with humans in the middle, a little lower than the angels but too admixed with dust and mud for true transcendence. And of these humans, the masculine was all those qualities more on the god-like side: reason, law, purity; and the feminine closer to the earth: humble, weak, bodily, emotional.

Now this is a gross generalisation of the many re-calibrations of masculine and feminine that have occurred over the past six or seven thousand years. But whoever has been making whomever in their image, transcendent rationality, individuation, conquest, competition, authority, has held sway in our civil and public life over interdependence, nurturance. This is what seems to be changing: we seem to be incorporating feminine-coded approaches into our public life. Certainly we, the general public we, are talking more about it now than we had been before in my life (because of course some people have been continuously talking about and living out feminine-coded philosophies this whole time!)

These new understandings of how public life might be conducted are making their ways into our collective understanding. Let us hear from two of them.

Reading: from When the Hero is the Problem, an essay by Rebecca Solnit

In a farming valley on the Laxa River in northern Iceland in August 25, 1970, community members blew up a dam to protect farmland from being flooded. After the dam was dynamited, more than a hundred farmers claimed credit (or responsibility). There were no arrests, and there was no dam, and there were some very positive consequences, including protection of the immediate region and new Icelandic environmental regulations and awareness. It’s almost the only story I know of environmental sabotage having a significant impact, and it may be because it expressed the will of the many, not the few.

We are not very good at telling stories about a hundred people doing things or considering that the qualities that matter in saving a valley or changing the world are mostly not physical courage and violent clashes but the ability to coordinate and inspire and connect with lots of other people and create stories about what could be and how we get there. Back in 1970, the farmers did produce a nice explosion, and movies love explosions almost as much as car chases, but it came at the end of what must have been a lot of meetings, and movies hate meetings.

Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action. Among the virtues that matter are those traditionally considered feminine rather than masculine, more nerd than jock: listening, respect, patience, negotiation, strategic planning, storytelling. But we like our lone and exceptional heroes, and the drama of violence and virtue of muscle, or at least that’s what we get, over and over, and in the course of getting them we don’t get much of a picture of how change happens and what our role in it might be, or how ordinary people matter. “Unhappy the land that needs heroes” is a line of Bertold Brecht’s I’ve gone to dozens of times, but now I’m more inclined to think, pity the land that thinks it needs a hero, or doesn’t know it has lots and what they look like.

We need hope and purpose and membership in a community beyond the nuclear family. And this connection is both personally fulfilling and how we get stuff done that needs to be done. Lone hero narratives push one figure into the public eye, but they push everyone else back into private life, or at least passive life.

Reading: What is Pleasure Activism?, an excerpt from the book “Pleasure Activism”, written and gathered by adrienne maree brown

The bibliographical information for this publication is: AK Press: Edinburgh, 2019, p. 13

Message, part 2

So what do we tell stories about if we don’t tell them about heroes? And how do we do activism and organising and know we’re doing the moral thing if we aren’t ground down and burnt out to dry dust and ashes in the process? Does it even count as a moral good if you aren’t suffering for it? Solnit and brown both suggest something that turns commonplaces that are so normal as to be almost unnoticeable on their heads. Imagine arriving at justice by means of desire and attraction instead of hurling angry words and bearing resisted violence! It seems almost entirely unimaginable to me.

Throughout the course of Pleasure Activism, which was both written and gathered by brown (the author), a convincing case is made for drawing on powers and sensibilities traditionally coded feminine. In doing this, brown notes, we have a considerable amount of shame and misdescription to work through because we are making a choice to embrace and praise and value things that have been considered second-class or silly – or just plain bad and immoral. 

And reading this book, trying out thinking this way, writing this message has brought me back into contact with a whole boatload of shame and bad memories. As a femme-identified person, I have had plenty of encounters with the ambivalent point where pleasing myself by enacting femme-ness has been read in a variety of ways, sometimes painfully instrumentally, sometimes with puzzlement or judgement, but rarely with much recognition and mostly with the feeling that I’m not doing it right, whether because I’m read as oppressing myself or silly or as an object for pleasing others or as femme but not femme enough or too much or what have you. Because we do shame any and all people, not just femme cis women, for being feminine or liking feminine things or acting on feminine coded philosophies, regardless of how they identify.

Recently, Andy spoke to us about the regenerative culture approach of Extinction Rebellion – that we are all crew members. We heard from Rebecca Solnit about the problem with heroes. And…worry about the loss of respect for expertise. But this collectivity is not about losing respect for expertise but rather gaining respect for all the parts of a whole – respecting the unobserved, the anonymous labours, the hitherto invisible. It is about respecting both the navigator and the dishwasher and the person who baked the hardtack you’re surviving on before you left on this voyage in the first place.

The invisible and uncountable have been surfacing in our collective experience. What was it, twenty years ago, to tell about a rape but to cast a silent stone deep into the sea, with barely a telltale ripple? But that’s not quite how it goes anymore.

It’s a shift in hermeneutics – more stories are tellable, more knowledge is available and more ways of living exist.

Closing words

Things are changing

We can see the leaves turning from everywhere green to a confusion of red, yellow, orange, brown, aloft, fallen, trodden and train-stopping

We do not yet know how it will all fall out, but I have hope that with a fuller human existence, we have a fighting chance to change this from a world of exploitation and extraction

To one of collective flourishing and interdependent respect.