Feminists’ arguments and religious studies


This essay includes considerations of feminism both as academic method, i.e. the women studies perspective, and as social vision, i.e. the perspective of feminist philosophy. Though the values and insights of these two perspectives are intertwined and closely linked, they are not identical. The women studies perspective is less radical, claiming only that scholars must include women in their data base if they wish to claim that they are discussing humanity (rather than human males). Feminist philosophy in its many varieties proposes reconstructions of current religions and societies to render them more just and equitable to women, and thereby, also to men.

Feminism as Academic Method: The Women Studies Perspective

The fundamental challenge and potential of women studies in religion, as in other fields, is its delineation and critique of androcentrism. The tasks of laying bare the fundamental unconscious preconceptions of androcentrism, demonstrating their inadequacy, and providing a more adequate alternative are the most important and central contributions of the women studies perspective to the field of religious studies and comparative religions. These are also the implications of feminism for most other disciplines.

Both the essential promise of women studies to induce a paradigm shift in scholarship, and the necessity of a phase during which the women studies perspective manifests as a separate focus researching lost or suppressed data on religion, are results of the prevailing conventional mindset of most scholars. That mindset utilizes an androcentric, one-sex model of humanity. The women and religion movement criticizes that model of humanity as inadequate and offers instead a two-sex, androgynous model of humanity. All these terms need to be defined.

Definitions of androcentrism could easily be multiplied. While abstract discussions are important, a simple example has great power. How many times has one read or heard the equivalent of the following statement: “the Egyptians allow (or don’t allow) women to . . .”? The structure is so commonplace that even today many of my students have no clue about what is wrong with such a statement. For both those who make such statements and for those who hear them without wincing, “Egyptians” are men. Egyptian women are objects acted upon by real Egyptians, but are not themselves “Egyptians.” What, in more analytical terms is behind this long-standing habitual pattern of speech? The androcentric model of humanity has three central characteristics which, when stated bluntly, suffice to demonstrate both the nature and the inadequacy of androcentrism.

 First of all, in androcentric thought, the male norm and the human norm are collapsed and become identical. In fact, recognition that maleness is but one facet of human experience is minimal or non-existent. Thus in androcentric thinking maleness is normal; in addition, it is the norm. Any awareness of a distinction between maleness and humanity is clouded over and femaleness is viewed as an exception to the norm.

The second major characteristic of androcentrism follows directly from the first. If the male norm and the human norm are identical, it follows that the generic masculine habit of thought, language, and research will be assumed to be adequate. So we might say that scholarship dependent on the androcentric model of humanity utilizes generic masculine language. As a result, research about the religions of other times and places as well as about our own religious situation deals mainly with the lives and thinking of males. It seems unproblematic to include only a few stray comments about women’s religious lives as a footnote or a short chapter towards the end of the book. The generic masculine habit of language, thought, and research is so pre-reflective and so strong that many scholars are genuinely unaware that one has studied only part of a religious situation if one has studied only the religious lives and thoughts of men.

The third and perhaps most problematic constituent of the androcentric outlook is its attempt to deal with the fact that, since men and women are taught to be different in all cultures, the generic masculine simply does not cover the feminine. The generic masculine would work only in a religious-cultural situation where there were no sex roles, either explicit or implicit. That situation, of course, does not exist, not even in modern Christianity or Judaism, to say nothing of the religio-cultural situations of other times and places. Therefore, women “per se” must sometimes be mentioned in accounts of religion. At this point, adherents of the androcentric model of humanity have reached a logical impasse. Their solution to this impasse is the most devastating component of the androcentric outlook. Because they differ from the male (presumably human) norm, women must be mentioned, at least in a cursory fashion. But because they deviate from these norms when women, “per se,” are mentioned, androcentric thinking deals with them only as an object exterior to “mankind,” needing to be explained and fitted in somewhere, having the same epistemological and ontological status as trees, unicorns, deities, and other objects that must be discussed to make experience intelligible. Therefore, in most accounts of religion, males are presented as religious subjects, as namers of reality, while females are presented only in relation to the males being studied, only as objects being named by the males being studied, only as they appear to the males being studied.

As a corrective to this situation, a basic re-orientation of the scholar’s consciousness is called for. We need a basic paradigm shift from models of humanity and modes of research and thought that perceive males at the center and females on the edges to modes that perceive both females and males at the center and reflect the essential “femaleness-maleness” of androgynous humanity. That would be a “two-sex” model of humanity, as opposed to a “one-sex” model of humanity.

The most important aspect of what I have called “androgynous methodology” or the “androgynous model of humanity” is this characteristic of being a “two-sexed” or “bisexual” model of humanity. This concept required clarification, for what I have in mind when I speak of androgynous models or methods differs considerably from both conventional notions of androcentric “mankind” and from the unisexual and sex-neutral meaning of androgyny that is popular at the present time.

Total Androgyny; Totalite Androgyne VI. Victor Brauner (1903-1966). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1961. 100 x 81cm.

What I mean by androgyny as a two-sex model of humanity and why such a model of humanity is mandatory, should be clear from what has already been stated. First, to present the matter colloquially and informally, we may look at the alternative to stating that “the Egyptians allow women . . .” A scholar who really understands the inadequacies of the androcentric model of humanity and the need for a more accurate two-sexed model of humanity would write that “. . . in Egyptian society men do “X” and women do “Y”, or perhaps, in some cases, she might write that ”. . . Egyptian men allow Egyptian women to . . . ,” thereby recognizing both that Egyptian men have patriarchal control over the society and that Egyptian women are nevertheless Egyptian human beings, not an extra-human species.

Thus, as scholars, very simply, we are in need of a model of humanity that accurately reflects two basic facts. First, biologically, for the most part humans are of one sex or the other, with little overlap at the most obvious level. Second, and even more important, the two-sexed biology of the human species is augmented and enhanced rather than minimized by culture, society, and religion, so that today in all cultures, there is more stress on behaviors proper to and limited to one or the other sex than would be required by basic biology. As a result, men’s and women’s lives are more separate and different from each other than is biologically dictated. No scholarship prior to the current women studies movement has come close to dealing adequately with the sheer massive unyielding presence of such sex-role differentiation in all religio-cultural situations, which is the major reason why all previous scholarship and theology failed so abysmally to understand women and religion. Clearly, a model of humanity is needed that compels recognition that humans come in two sexes and that both sexes are human, at the same time as it forbids placing one sex in the center and the other on the periphery. Androgyny as a two-sex model of humanity, as the notion that humanity is both female and male, meets those requirements, while traditional androcentrism and a sex-neutral model of humanity both fail completely. (By way of brief definition, a sex-neutral model of humanity is one that minimizes sexual differentiation, that regards distinct maleness and femaleness as irrelevant, and that urges pursuit of a “common humanity.” While one could debate the utility of such a model of humanity as a prescription for the future, it is obviously quite useless as a guide to descriptions of the past or present.)

When this model of humanity and these methodological guidelines are applied to virtually any subject in the humanities or social sciences, massive changes in scholarship result. What one studies, how one studies it, what results one finds in their materials, the analyses one finds cogent, and the overarching theories that one accepts as good basic tools with which to understand the world all change. It is not too extravagant to say that internalizing this model of humanity results in a transformation of consciousness so profound that, not just one’s scholarship, but everyday habits of language and perception change. The insecurity many feel in the face of such basic change probably explains why the women studies perspective has not been universally adopted, since one could not fault it for lack of relevance and common sense. Once one makes the change from an androcentric to an androgynous model of humanity, it is hard to believe that anyone could ever imagine doing adequate scholarship and theorizing from a point of view that objectifies women as non-human.

The minimal requirement of the women studies perspective is that scholarship must always treat women as human subjects who must be studied as thoroughly, as critically, and as empathetically as are men. It is important to recognize that this scholarly feminism is just that feminism as an academic method. Feminism as academic method does not inherently entail any social philosophy regarding what women’s position in society should be. It only entails a requirement to study women thoroughly and completely. Thus, it is possible that a scholar could do exemplary androgynous scholarship while at the same time holding a personal philosophy of male dominance or even misogyny. Examples of such scholars are rare or non-existent, but the distinction is important. To construct a feminist vision of society is a different task from doing feminist scholarship that is gender-balanced.

Feminism as Social Vision: The Perspective of Feminist Philosophy

This feminist philosophy is grounded in the results of feminist scholarship in history, sociology, and psychology, as well as religion. Just as feminist scholarship critiques “androcentrism” as the basic problem with previous scholarship, so feminist social philosophy has focused on “patriarchy” as the fundamental problem. “Patriarchy” has become feminist shorthand for the anti- vision that has fueled much of society and religion for the past several thousand years and led to the mindset in which the androcentric model of humanity not only found acceptance, but reigned without conceptual alternatives. For more than twenty years, feminists have discussed the creation, outlines, and inadequacies of patriarchy vehemently and vibrantly. With even greater vigor, they have discussed the vision of a post-patriarchal world.

The most important and encouraging conclusion of feminist scholarship is that patriarchy is the cultural creation of a certain epoch in human history, not an inevitable necessity of human biology. With this realization, the advice to generations of rebellious daughters who were told, “You can’t do anything about that,” is overcome. One can do something about patriarchy, though the task is immense.

Well before feminists felt confident of the case that patriarchy emerged relatively late in human history, feminists were very clear in their critique of patriarchy. The early literature of feminism was an outcry of pain; people certainly did want to do something about patriarchy. After years of refining analyses, one could summarize the critique as the claim that patriarchy is “without redeeming social value,” that it is clearly linked with the most destructive forces in human history, and that it causes harm to all people, including men, though not as obviously, directly, or extremely as it does to women.

What about patriarchy makes it such an offensive system to its critics? Most feminists would outline the problems in a similar fashion. Patriarchy turns on the many ramifications of the literal meaning of its name “rule by fathers.” Two elements dominate the discussion: on the one hand, patriarchy is a system in which rulership, power over, is quite central; on the other hand, by definition, men have power over women. The variety and oppressiveness of men’s power over women was the first element of the complex to be thoroughly recognized and described. Men received preferential treatment, monopolizing or dominating all the roles and pursuits that society valued and rewarded, so that inequality became one of the first patriarchal demons to be named. Furthermore, men literally ruled over women, setting the rules and limits by which and within which they were expected to operate. Women who did not conform, and many who did, could be subjected to another form of male dominancephysical coercion.

Among the most sophisticated and influential abstract formulations of the power patriarchy gives men over women are de Beauvoir’s concept of the objectification of women and Mary Daly’s description of how “the power of naming had been stolen from women.” With deepening analysis of patriarchy, many focused not merely on the way in which men hold power over women as the problem, but also on the centrality of having power over others in patriarchal society. Many see male power over females as the basic model of all forms of social hierarchy and oppression. From this conclusion, many analysts move on to link patriarchy with militarism and with ecologically dangerous use of the environment. This conclusion is based on the fact that all these policies share an attitude of glorifying and approving power over as inevitable and appropriate.

androgynyThough these familiar analyses of patriarchy are cogent and relevant, I believe that they do not sufficiently clarify the fundamental aspiration of modern feminism. The most basic vision of the contemporary feminist movement is not equality or total lack of hierarchy, though these goals are aspects of the vision. Much more fundamental is the vision of freedom from gender roles. On this vision depend all other aspects of the various feminist programs. Unfortunately, many feminist analyses do not arrive at this simple, foundational level of understanding what is the source of pain and suffering in current gender arrangements, and what is most essential in the program to overcome that pain. If people are forced to fit themselves into their social place on the basis of their physiological sex, then there will be suffering and injustice even in a situation of “gender equality” whatever that might mean.

The difference between freedom from gender roles and gender equality is profound. Any concept of gender equality presupposes the continued existence of gender roles and all the imprisoning implied in such conditions. In early liberal, as opposed to radical feminism, equality usually meant that women should be able to do the things men had always done, and, sometimes, that men should be forced to do the things that women had always done. This definition depends on the fact that the male role (rather than men) is preferred to the female role. A frequently cited alternative meaning of “equality” is that what women do should be regarded as of “equal value” with what men do, a version of separate-but-equal thinking which is so often advocated as a conservative alternative to patriarchy.

 Neither version of equality quite escapes the prison of gender roles. Claiming that the female role is distinctive, but of equal rather than of inferior value, does not even attempt to escape that prison, since it is assumed that only women can fulfill the female role. To give women access to men’s roles, which often requires an attempt to get men into women’s roles as well, comes much closer to conceptualizing the basic truth that gender roles are the problem to be overcome. Nevertheless, sexual identity and social roles are still collapsed conceptually. But sometimes it would be desirable for men to fill the female role and vice versa. In other words, under certain circumstances, crossovers between sexual identity and social roles could be desirable. However, whenever sexual identity and social roles are conflated, even subtly, the result is a kind of “anatomy-is-destiny” thinking. But if anatomy is destiny, then there may be no hope for post-patriarchal vision of life outside the prison of gender roles.

On the other hand, if it is clearly conceptualized that the vision is not merely allowing or encouraging crossovers between one’s sexual identity and one’s social role (thought of as normally sex-linked), but a definitive breaking of links between sexual identity and social roles, then a social order beyond patriarchy is inevitable. Patriarchy depends, in the final analysis, on fixed gender roles. No gender roles, no one with automatic access to any role or with automatic power over another because of her physiological sex.

Seeing the essential problem as gender roles and the essential vision as freedom from gender roles also puts the feminist critique of patriarchy as “power over” in another light. The abuse of power is certainly a major human problem and patriarchy is rife with abuse of power. But one of the most abusive aspects of patriarchal power is men’s automatic, rather than earned or deserved, power over women. Though one wants to guard against and be wary of abuse of power, a totally egalitarian society in which no one has more influence or prestige, or even wealth, than anyone else, seems quite impossible. The issue is not abolishing hierarchy, which is impossible, but establishing proper hierarchy. This is a complex and difficult topic, which cannot be fully explicated in this context, but it is important to state that proper hierarchy is not the same thing as what feminists mean by “domination” or “power over” in their critique of the patriarchal use of power. It connotes the proper use of power that has been properly earned, a topic not much explored in feminist thought, a serious omission, in my view. But if the essence of post-patriarchal vision is freedom from gender roles, then there is no possibility of men automatically receiving any power, prestige, influence, or position simply because of their sex. Though following this guideline would not, by itself, guarantee proper hierarchy, it would abolish the worst abuses of patriarchal power.

To see the essential problem of patriarchy as the very existence of gender roles and post-patriarchy as freedom from gender roles is both radical and visionary. Some may well feel that a world without gender roles is even more visionary than a world without relationships of domination and submission. Some may well feel that the goal should be finding and institutionalizing more equitable and just gender roles. It is clear, however, that virtually every feminist critique of patriarchy and every feminist agenda for the future really derives from an unstated assumption that sex is not a relevant criterion for awarding roles or value. Furthermore, any set of gender roles whatsoever will be a prison for some who do not readily fit them. As someone who feels that one of the greatest sources of suffering in her life has been the prison of gender roles, I am reluctant to see any place for them in a visionary post-patriarchal future.

Nevertheless, though there is little if any universality regarding gender roles, all known cultures have some gender roles. (The rigidity of gender roles varies significantly cross-culturally.) Such information is not especially encouraging to the vision of post-patriarchy as freedom from gender roles. One might conclude that since the sexual distinction is so obvious, it inevitably will serve as a basic method of organizing society. But before we concede that point, it is important to analyze how sex differences have been used to generate the gender roles now organizing society. After this analysis, we may conclude that, while past technologies made gender roles unavoidable, under current conditions, gender roles may well have become dysfunctional.

 Gender roles are essentially strategies for organizing reproduction and, to a lesser extent, production. The ways in which production and reproduction are organized depend in large part on the mode of subsistence utilized by the society, as well as on the reproductive needs of the society. Under conditions in which reproduction necessarily consumed vast quantities of human energy (short lifespan, high infant-mortality rate, high maternal death rate, and lack of birth control), much was predetermined for both women and men. Furthermore, the technologies available for producing life’s economic necessities were matched with the physical and reproductive endowments of each sex. The results were the gender roles that some take as eternal necessities. But these gender roles really are adaptations to specific technologies, modes of production and reproductive demands. For, example, premodern agriculture was the dominant subsistence mode for most of humanity during historical times, including the cultures in which both patriarchy and the great world religions arose. The gender roles adaptive to intensive agriculture favor high rates of fertility and the specialization of men in production and women in reproduction. Not only were women already heavily involved in reproduction; the physical demands specific to agricultural production were not easily combined with pregnancy and lactation. This is the pattern of gender roles that many in our society take for granted, but it was not typical of pre-agricultural societies, a vastly longer period of human history.

gender-roleThe conditions that made the gender roles of agricultural societies adaptive no longer prevail. For human reproduction to continue to consume the same proportion of human energy in the future as it has in the past will result in uncalculable tragedy for the planet and all its inhabitants. Modern industrial and post-industrial economies do not make the same intense physical demands as did traditional agriculture. Very few aspects of modern production depend upon or demand male anatomy or strength. These two conditions combined make traditional gender roles completely irrelevant, since there is no basis for the traditional assumption that women should be largely confined to reproduction and men to production. No relevant basis for new gender roles is readily apparent. Nevertheless, we are very far from a post-patriarchal society free of gender roles. Archaic gender-role expectations and outmoded educational, employment, and childrearing policies based on those gender roles continue to imprison everyone, at least to some extent.

What might life free from gender roles be like? In some ways, one’s sex is important and in other ways not at all. In some ways, it remains necessary to rely on traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity, at least in the short run, and in other ways they are already irrelevant. I think of my own life as participating in a post-patriarchal mode of existence. I am a female; I do not fill the female gender role or the male gender role; I believe that my psychology and lifestyle are both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine. Thus, my own experience provides me with some of the guidelines for a post-patriarchal future free of gender roles. Sexual identity remains clear. Sexual differentiation is so obvious and so basic that it seems impossible to ignore or deny one’s sex. But one’s sex implies nothing inevitable about one’s reproductive decisions, one’s economic and social roles, or even one’s basic psychological traits and tendencies.

Nevertheless, because we have inherited a whole repertoire of traits and qualities that are conventionally labeled “masculine” and “feminine,” most thoughtful people would probably want to combine those traits into an androgynous” personality and lifestyle as well as to strive to create a more androgynous society. To call this person and this society that are free of gender roles “androgynous” may seem confusing, since androgyny implies a combination of masculinity and femininity. However, the concepts of “masculinity” and “femininity” are not themselves problematic or imprisoning; what imprisons is the expectation that women should be feminine and men should be masculine. In fact the symbols of “femininity” and “masculinity” may well remain useful to specify the poles within the rich dyadic unity that we all experience.

However, the society free from gender roles will be much more “feminine” than current patriarchal society. Why? Because in patriarchy, women are feminine and silent (the power of naming has been stolen from women) while men are masculine and articulate. Therefore, in patriarchy, most public policy and most religious thought is “masculine” and, as a result, quite incomplete, even destructive, due to its incompleteness. As women become more articulate so that women’s experience of femininity becomes part of public discourse and public policy, society will become both more feminine and more androgynous. At that point individuals of both sexes will more easily become androgynous whole persons instead of “half-humans” trapped in female or male gender roles.


In conclusion, it is important to note what links these two arenas of feminist thought. Feminism as scholarly method is critical of the androcentric mindset. Feminism as social vision is critical of patriarchal culture. Androcentrism and patriarchy share the same attitude toward women. In both cases, women are objectified as non-human, are spoken about as if they were objects but not subjects, and are manipulated by others. In both cases, the end results are silence about, as well as the silence and the silencing of, women. Scholarship proceeds as if women did not exist, or if their existence is noted, they are treated as objects only. They are not allowed or encouraged to create language and culture, to “name reality”; the realities they do nevertheless name are not heard or recorded. The reality-constructions of non-entities are dismissed by those who do not see them as human subjects and those who assert dominance over them.

Just as both varieties of feminism share the same critique of androcentric scholarship and of patriarchal society, so they share the same corrective. The massive conspiracy of silence will be undone. Scholars will correct their model of humanity, gather their data anew, and reconceptualize their disciplines and their theories where necessary. Women’s naming of reality will be heard, and more importantly, will be articulated for the first time in the case of most worldviews, religions, and theoretical systems.


Buddhism After Patriarchy; A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism.      By: Gross, Rita M.