A little while ago I read an interesting article that was entitled something like “The Fight to be Male”. At first when I picked it up I thought it might be something about the difficulties we men have in expressing ourselves, or in learning how to be good husbands and providers or something but no ... the author was literally talking about how hard it is to be born male. It seems that every human and mammalian embryo is naturally female, and that as the fertilised egg starts dividing and growing all the female parts begin to develop, the beginnings of female ovaries begin to form and the one thing that can change the developmental path is the presence of something that human biologists haven’t even identified yet – testosterone is one important factor but the other is something that scientists nickname TDF or ‘testis determining factor’. If some of this hormone that hasn’t even been properly isolated yet is present then the embryo begins to change, and the female sex organs that have already developed begin to undergo a whole new process of differentiation and gradually are transformed into the male organs. Apparently it’s a process that is fraught with lots of dangers, all sorts of things can go wrong and that’s one of the reasons why, at every stage of our lives, we men are more susceptible to dropping off the perch than women ... And the writer of the paper made a startling observation: developmentally, he says, “we’re all female first – in other words Adam develops from Eve, not Eve from Adam.”
It was an observation that started me thinking, because in the ancient world that gave rise to foundational myths like the account of God’s creation of the first humans in Genesis, chapter two – for the ancient world maleness was normative – to be male was to be a proper human being and to be female was to be subordinate. To be female was perhaps to be valued as a wife or a mother, as a guarantor of the continuity of the family line through sons and grandsons, but often to be invisible as a thinking, feeling and purposeful human being in her own right. And stories such as the Genesis account seem – at least at first glance - to underscore this.
Many of the stories of the Bible apparently reinforce a view of women as subordinate, and to suggest that the main female virtue is that of obedience and passivity – for example the Genesis story of rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, which is told mainly as an example of outraged male honour – or in the Book of Judges the story of the sacrificial murder of the unnamed daughter of Jephthah, the foolish father who unwisely promises God he will sacrifice the first living creature he sees on returning home from a great victory, which is mainly told as a warning to be careful what you promise. Even St Luke’s story of Mary of Nazareth suggests an ideal of obedience and self-sacrifice – modern feminist Biblical scholars over the last few decades have done good work both in identifying in the Bible the ways in which the predominantly male-focused narrative has been used to perpetuate female disadvantage and subordination throughout the two thousand years of the Christian Church – and in teaching us how to read Bible stories in ways that bring out empowering and positive examples of women’s faithfulness – pointing to women such as Hannah, who makes her own promises to God, or Ruth and Naomi, whose model of radical faithfulness cuts across ethnic and religious boundaries.
Quoting Bible scholar Joan Chichester, Archbishop Herft notes in a short article on the Diocesan web-site that the Church, still “imprisoned in an understanding of the primal prototype of woman (through the story of) Eve” is in need of repentance. According to the magisterial voices of the Church’s greatest theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas, women – physically smaller than men, “milder temperamentally, nurturers emotionally, and child-bearers biologically” are clearly intended by God to remain in the domestic sphere. Even in our own century, fundamentalist Churches continue to rely on Biblical narratives such as the Adam and Eve story to argue for male superiority and to suppress women’s voices in worship and ordained ministry – and yet, according to Chichester – the story of the creation of Eve doesn’t really support that kind of limited thinking. Adam, on seeing his partner for the first time spontaneously calls her “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” – made out of the same substance as he is, identical and equal in composition, a creature whose very being is equal to Adam’s own. Eve in this story, Chichester remarks, is the confirmation not of the subordination of women but of their equality. And of course the findings of modern biology seem to suggest that Adam himself doesn’t become fully differentiated as a male until he is completed and complemented by the creation of Eve.
In the same article, Archbishop Herft comments on the centenary of International Women’s Day, last month, which happened this year to fall the day after the feast of Sts Perpetua and Felicity, martyred in 203AD. Both women had recently given birth and as Archbishop Herft comments, in the contemporary account written up mainly in the women’s own words, the life-giving blood of childbirth is contrasted with the brutality of execution. Perpetua and Felicity suffered not as passive victims, but with defiant resistance, for example in refusing to wear the clothing of the goddess Ceres and singing hymns of praise on their way to the arena. There they gave active assistance to their male companions and at the end exchanged a final kiss of peace. The story is of course idealised and possibly even romanticised, but entirely appropriate to the purpose of International Women’s Day, which is to draw attention to violence against women and the reduced opportunities for girls particularly in developing countries.
Perhaps the most powerful affirmation of the personhood of women that the Church can articulate in the modern world is to echo the insight of medieval mystics like St Anslem of Canterbury, who meditated on the image of God as a mother. St Anslem, whose prayer we adapted as our Collect for today, identifies Biblical themes that portray God as the one who nurtures and sustains us, whose love for us is protective and self-sacrificing, and he suggests that it is in the experience of human motherhood that we learn something vital about God and about ourselves. Even though, in the male-oriented world of the Bible, this is not a dominant theme, descriptions of God that use feminine imagery are consistently woven through the prophets, for example in Isaiah, chapter 49, where the prophet compares God’s compassion for the people with the protective love of a nursing mother. And Jesus, in the verse that opened our worship this morning, also evokes an image of a mother’s love in his concern for the people who he longs to gather and protect as a hen gathers her chicks.
It is not, I think, correct to say that the battles of feminism have been won and that women and girls in our enlightened society now enjoy full equality. Certainly women’s voices are no longer suppressed in the way they were in earlier generations, and girls growing up today can expect to choose a career without the expectation that their gender disqualifies them from anything – but there are still subtle ways in which women’s experience is interpreted as being secondary and limited by negative and abusive stereotypes – and there is still a distressing amount of violence and sexual abuse of women and girls in our community. As Christians, the way we tell the stories of our faith matters, especially when we find ourselves talking to people who have grown up with the message that their experience matters less because of their gender, or their race or class. We need to be able to tell the stories of our faith in a way that gives dignity and a God-given identity to all people, and so especially today celebrate and give thanks for the persistent and courageous witness of women in the history of our faith – a tradition that says to girls and women, ‘this is who you are, a child of God, one formed in the image of God our mother. As a daughter of Sarah, of Rebecca, of Leah and Rachael and Hannah and Ruth and Mary of Nazareth. You hold up half the sky.’