Acceptable Power

Today in our Sunday morning discussion group we continued exploring the Feminine Divine in world religions, this time with Hinduism.  I had volunteered to present something but was also mindful of the time, it being Palm Sunday and our guest preachers being UUA president Bill Sinkford and Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for social justice of the UCC.  So I went light on presentation and let the discussion go where the group took it.

We had been discussing how the Feminine Divine is depicted in the world's religions for weeks now, but today was the first time that we actually talked about why.  Given that theology frames the way in which many people approach the world, it is important to have a theology that affirms life, and affirms all the different aspect of our diversity, including gender.  A theology that lifts up male as superior to female naturally results in the devaluing and oppression of women.  We need a theology, a way of viewing the world, that empowers women, as well as men.

From there, some of participants pointed to what they believed to be positive signs of progress.  Strong women - female superheros, Xena, and Buffy were mentioned.  But I was skeptical.  There are certain roles, certain means of socially acceptable behavior that have long been open to women.  And within these roles, some women have been able to gain a notable amount of power.  But ONLY within these roles.  

One such role is the mother figure.  I remember learning in UU history about pioneer women Unitarian ministers in the West.  They were pioneers in more ways than one, becoming ministers at a time when the pulpit was still dominated by men and setting up congregations in the "frontiers." What became clear as we discussed their considerable power was that these strong women became mother figures to their congregations.  That was the way in which the congregants knew how to relate to a female authority figure, and that's how the women knew how to relate as authority.  

Just a couple of weeks ago I was struck when a black officemate referred to Oprah as a "mammy" figure.  I had never before thought of Oprah, one of the richest and most powerful women in the country, as a mammy.  But it kind of made sense when I looked at her that way.  She gained her power and wealth by playing caregiver to a mostly white audience - the black maternal figure who will make us feel better about ourselves.  

Another such role is the Amazon warrior. Xena and Buffy fit into this category.  The thing that makes the Amazon warrior so appealing (and accepted) is that she is the exception, not the rule.  Ultimately, there is only one Xena or Buffy, a lonely role to play.  (And look what happened to Xena in the end!)

Frankly, I am also uncomfortable with the idea that gender equality means that women must resort to the same level of physical force and violence traditionally prescribed to men.  

Only when women and men can be themselves, without having to conform to prescribed gender norms, will we have true gender equality.


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative