Monday, October 22, 2012

Margaret Farley's Just Love: Feminist Questions about Notions of Gender Complementarity

Another excerpt from Margaret Farley's Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (NY: Continuum, 2006), which, to my mind, has great pertinence to the nexus of issues around gender, politics, and religion that I addressed in my previous posting:

Challenges to the meanings and the importance of gender arose first out of the recognition that role differentiations disadvantage women.  Masculine/feminine dualism is as likely as spirit-body dualism to breed hierarchy.  Hence, as feminists have noted, throughout Western history the male has been more valued than the female; men have been considered more appropriate for roles of leadership; men have been identified with mind and women with body; women have been considered intellectually inferior to men; women are thought to be passive, while men are active; and on and on.  Moreover, women came to recognize a profound disparity between their own experience of themselves on the one hand, and on the other hand, the ways in which their gender identity had been construed.  The conclusion drawn by many women in response to blatantly inaccurate interpretations of female gender identity and role capabilities was that indeed gender is a constructed concept.  Questions quickly became how to counter the injustices spawned by inaccurate views of gender and of women (pp. 134-5).

Farley is addressing here, of course, the notion of gender complementarity that has come to dominate the thinking of many contemporary Christians, and which undergirds--which is at the very heart of--conservative politics in the U.S. (and elsewhere).  Doctrines of gender complementarity imagine males as incomplete without females and vice versa.  It builds on the biological facticity of male and female sex to argue that there are certain self-evident biologically based gender roles inscribed in nature, and that ignoring or flaunting those gender roles wreaks havoc in social groups.

As Farley points out (citing, as she notes, much feminist work throughout the 20th century), these theories of gender complementarity typically incorporate a dualistic understanding of gender, which inevitably understands male-female roles in a hierarchical way in which men are superior and women inferior.  It might be argued, I'd propose, that the coalition of conservative religious groups I mentioned at the end of my last posting, which are in all other respects wildly different from each other--many Mormons, Catholic leaders and those supporting them, some orthodox Jews, conservative evangelicals, etc.--exists primarily to defend traditional notions of gender complementarity with their concomitant thesis that males should rule and females obey.

To say this is to say that perhaps the central driving force in the political life of conservative movements today is to preserve male domination--heterosexual male domination--in the face of any and all threats.  

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