Religion is a significant personal and political force in the lives of many. Our faith systems may shape how we see the world, how we understand our relationships with community, with the world, and with the divine. Religious faith draws us together in community, but it can also pull us apart in disagreement; religions often promote an ethic of love, but are also sites of domination. Consider for instance the role that religion plays in colonial domination. In the Canadian context, colonial government forces collaborated with Catholic leaders to alienate indigenous children from their families and spiritual systems.

Even within the frameworks of a single religious system, there are disagreements over the best way to interpret texts and practice faith. This is all to say that it is futile to generalize about women and religion. Religions are neither uniformly oppressive nor uniformly empowering for women. Religions are, however, representational systems that tell stories about gender.

In this lesson, we explore some of the key arguments that feminist theologians have made as they examine beliefs, rituals, and symbolic systems of the major world religions. The term “major world religion” is generally used to refer to long standing religious systems that have had a global impact. They include Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These are diverse belief systems that have historically shared a tendency to exclude women from positions of leadership (though this is certainly changing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries).

One vital observation that feminist scholars have made is that religions that focus on male experience and worship a masculine figure of the divine lend legitimacy to patriarchal social structures. Feminist theologians ask questions about the ways that religious systems function in ways that reinforce patriarchal social formations.

Let’s break down the key concepts of beliefs systems, rituals and practices, and symbolic systems before we get to this lesson’s big idea.

BELIEF SYSTEMS: A system of belief shared by a religious community may insist that there are distinct and pre-ordained roles for women. To question these roles means to question the entire system of belief, in addition to the identity of the faithful. For many, religious stories or scriptures are treated as fundamental truths that cannot be questioned. That said, stories—even stories that are thousands of years old and invested with the authority of the divine—are always interpreted. Indeed, the work of religious leaders is to interpret the stories, myths, and religious laws associated with a particular faith system.

RITUALS & PRACTICES: Another way that religions tell stories about gender is through rituals or practices. Women’s secondary status within religious systems is confirmed by their exclusion from particular rituals. For instance, women have traditionally not been permitted to celebrate the Eucharist or hear confession within Catholicism, or to lead Seder within Judaism. These are examples of how women are excluded from positions of authority within the church or synagogue. Also worth exploring is the way in which rituals are structured according to gender and so in this way themselves reproduce gender dualism. A Sikh gurdwara that requires men and women to sit separately, for instance, or guidelines regarding purdah or hijab that apply only to women, are gendered rituals that reinforce gender dualism and in some cases gender hierarchy.

SYMBOLIC SYSTEMS: Perhaps most importantly, religion provides us languages, symbols, and stories that shape our experiences of the world. A monotheist (i.e., a theology organized around a single god, as opposed to polytheist) religion that is structured with a powerful, all-knowing, and punishing god at the apex of a hierarchy is a system that justifies normalizes or naturalizes similar social systems.

What if the creation story in Genesis had featured a flawed deity who was understanding and sympathetic rather than autocratic and rigid? . . .

What if the animals had decided on their own names? What if Adam and Eve had simply been admonished for their foolishness? . . .

What kind of a world might we have created with that kind of story?

Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Anansi Press: 2011) pp. 27-8

In his book The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, which is also available as a CBC Massey Lecture, Thomas King asks his readers and listeners to imagine how origin stories shape how we understand the world. King contrasts the Judeo-Christian Genesis story with origin stories from his youth, in which the Woman Who Fell from the Sky is placed by birds on the back of a turtle. Ultimately, what King teaches us is this: religious and spiritual systems do not describe the world and its creation; they compose the symbolic frameworks through which groups of people interpret the world.

One fundamental way that religions tell stories about gender is through the words that are used to describe the divine. Words like Father, king, lord, he, or He are all gendered masculine and they suggest that the divine is masculine. Feminist theologians have challenged the necessity of representing god in male form. Spurred on by the logic of the early women’s movement, feminist theologians have promoted the use of gender neutral —and at times feminine gendered—terms for god. To describe god as “She” may function to one way to avoid the exclusion of women. It also has the capacity to expand the concept of god. The United Reform Church, for instance, actively promotes “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”; the Methodist Church has a service book that refers to god as “our Father and Mother.” Others have introduced gender neutral terms for the divine, and in so doing suggest that the very idea of god supersedes the limitations of gendered language.

Though a shift in language certainly draws attention to the way that gender shapes our spiritual experience and religious institutions, for many feminist theologians it is equally important to analyze the ways in which religious systems reproduce dominating metaphors for the divine. As Thomas King suggests in the quotation above, the metaphors that a group uses to describe the divine are a valuable sign for how that group understands the world. Feminist theologians point out that it is not sufficient to replace masculine representations of god/God with feminine representations. The bigger challenge is to understand how representations of the divine contribute to the reproduction of patriarchal social formations. This brings us to the big idea for this week, which is the feminist concept of Patriarchy.

BIG IDEA: Patriarchy

Let’s take a deep dive into the term patriarchy. Originally, this word means “rule by the father.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines patriarchy in this way: “a society, system or country that is ruled or controlled by men.” Patriarchy, in other words, is a social system in which power is held by men. Patriarchy is distinct from patrilineage, which is a kinship system in which lineage is traced through the male line. Cultures that name children after male parents, for instance, can be described as patrilineal.

In the early days of the modern women’s movement, feminist thinkers appropriated this term and used it to explain unequal power relations within social systems. For WGS, patriarchy is a concept that helps to explain unequal power systems. It is a concept that enables us to see that men as a group are entitled to special, unearned privileges. Some privileges that accrue to men in patriarchal systems are: reasonable expectation of higher starting pay and swift upward mobility at many jobs; being taken seriously in a broad range of fields of work and study, not only in nursing, education, or humanities; and frequent experience of seeing folks who look, sound, and act like you in positions of authority and power.

Let’s make four major observations about patriarchy:

  • Patriarchy describes a social system in which men dominate because power and authority is mostly in the hands of adult men. This is a social constructionist approach to understanding patriarchy because it is founded on the claim that the power enjoyed by men is not a natural or ahistorical fact, but a social situation. From this perspective, imbalances of power are not arbitrary, not natural, and not just.
  • Patriarchy describes men’s domination over women as a systemic social fact, not only an individual fact. To draw on arguments of the Marxist feminist scholar Rosemary Hennessey, (2000), we can say that patriarchy is characterized by “the structuring of social life—labor, state, and consciousness—such that more social resources and value accrue to men as a group at the expense of women as a group” (p. 23).
  • Patriarchy is a concept that feminist scholars use to explain the ways that men as a group are entitled to special unearned privileges. One metaphor for understanding the term “unearned privileges” is to imagine that some people carry an invisible knapsack—a bag that contains tools and provisions that make it easy for some of us to move around—and, indeed, upwards—in the social world.

Patriarchy is a foundational concept in Women’s and Gender Studies, but many theorists and activists point out that it is also often used as a blunt tool. If we want to continue to use the concept to analyze the distribution of power and privilege according to gender, we must recognize that patriarchy is a system that is deeply tied to and implicated in other systems of power.