Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Of Men, Women, and Capital Cities: Listening to Women's Word and Witness

I’ve been thinking about gender lately. And cities.

Capital cities are, of course, overweeningly masculine for the most part. Anywhere in the world that you encounter them, they’re likely to be dominated by men, since they were built by men for men. Men for whom playing power games is important: hence, places to play out the games of power.

I would not go to Washington, D.C., if I were seeking spiritual renewal. I might head to Albuquerque, Amherst, even Anchorage. But not D.C. Real power—spiritual power—does not thrive where men gather to play power games.

Certainly women can do well in capital cities. They can even enter into the male power games and play them with great skill. When they do so, they choose, of course, to play by the rules of the men who make the games, and for whom the games continue to be crucially important. And if their goal is not to make fundamental changes in those games—to open them up for more players, so that they begin to represent more adequately the complexion of those for whom the games are ostensibly being played—they sometimes find their souls desiccated after years of game-playing.

I’m thinking about these matters, in part, because of a conversation I had recently with my youngest nephew. He was telling me about the books that intrigue him lately. We’ve had a long spell of Noam Chomsky and Che Guevara. He’s now moved onto Malcolm X. He listens incessantly to old clips of George Carlin and Johnny Cash as he reads his mentors.

For the first time, as Pat and I talked about his heroes, it struck me: they’re all men. I suspect that, for many folks, that would not be worth remarking. Patrick is himself a man, raised in a culture that glorifies manhood. He played football a while in high school. Like his brothers, he watches sports—male-dominated sports—for hours on end.

What strikes me as I think about my nephew’s reading list is how different my own life has been, for reasons not always easy to identify. I would not—could not—be the person I am today, had my life not included, from early on, female heroes, female mentors, a list of female writers so long I can hardly begin to enumerate all of them in a single posting.

When Mr. Obama went on vacation this past summer and released his vacation reading list, Huffington Post invited readers to post suggestions about other books the president might read. I logged in to say that it struck me as significant that every book the president had chosen to read was by a male author—about mostly male subjects, about male historical figures, for instance.

I suggested that the president broaden his reading list to include books like Jane Smiley’s 1000 Acres or anything at all by Audre Lord. And, of course, it’s presumptuous for me to recommend reading lists to the president or to assume he hasn’t read and doesn’t read works by women on a regular basis.

Still. It strikes me as worth noting that many men, many powerful men, seem to go through their lives reading works written by men and avoiding books authored by women for the most part.

For my part, I can’t imagine having gone through my life without Jane Austen, Teresa of Avila, Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Lady Murasaki, Lillian Smith, Catherine of Siena, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary Renault, George Sand, M.F.K. Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Willa Cather, Isabel Allende, Nella Larsen, Edith Wharton, Julian of Norwich, Pat Barker, Muriel Spark, Phyllis Whitney, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontë sisters, Mary Doria Russell, Mary McLeod Bethune, Geraldine Brooks, Alice Walker, Ruth Benedict, Mary Douglas, Hildegard of Bingen, Constance Perin, Dorothee Sölle, and . . . well, you get the picture.

The world might look very different if women had more of a voice in making it in the halls of power where the games of power are played. And if more women stood in the pulpits and the bemas and minarets. If the scriptures were in the hands of women as well as men, and if women’s interpretation of the scriptures carried the gravitas of any man’s word about the holy books.

And if the moral debates of our times were infused with even a touch of the insight many women have about key moral issues, as men continue to talk on and on about them, laying down the law and dictating the solutions.