Let me start with a parable of division:
Two kids have one big irregular piece of chocolate, and they need to share. But how? They have no way to measure, and somebody is going to get the big half. The smarter boy—or was it a girl?—figures a way: “I’ll make two portions, and you can choose first.” It’s immediately obvious that this will be fair. The divider knows that he may get the small half, so he makes as sure as he can be that they are even. And most people see the justice of the strategy.
This assumes consent to share. But what if one boy has the whole chocolate rabbit, and his sister wants some? If he’s an average child, the first thing he will do is decide that he ought to have the big half. After all, he is making a concession, diminishing his own position, and reducing his own reserve of chocolate. It was given to him by Authority. And what he gives to her is wasted, anyway: she doesn’t really taste it—as far as he can tell—and she might be messy, and it just doesn’t look right to see all that lovely chocolate disappearing down her lips. And it might not be good for her. Shouldn’t she be concerned about her weight? Therefore he asks himself, “How little can I give, to have some peace?” And many boys see the practicality of the strategy.
We, however, are adults.
We observe that almost all the places of authority, expression, representation, decision, administration, selection of successors, adjudication of issues, distribution of sacraments, bestowal of honors, discrimination of sanctity, most of the real estate, all of the power, and any chocolate, lie in the hands of our brothers.
Our Lady stands above them. She is said to represent women, and to hold the high ground for the feminine. However, I feel that she would not like this very much. For one thing, she represents all humans, male and female, equally. For another, borrowing her authority for gender issues strikes me as discourteous to her, although reasonable minds may differ on this point.
Usually the practical expression of the problem comes down to two things: altar girls and female ordination, or the former as a step toward the latter. I actually am not arguing for these particular things. The issue could only arise in a context of privation, and it is that context I wish to expose and correct.
The geometry of giving roles is problematic: the giver holds the treasure, stands in the center, decides the portion, confers or withholds. He is, in fact, the boss, patron, or lord.
It is worth asking why that is. Why does he have all these matters to give, and how did he appropriate the center? While there is a tradition of masculine propriety, it does not fully account for the general consent to the situation, nor the apparent belief by so many men that they were born there. My contention is that the subtext, the half forgotten paradigm from the ancient biology, is the key: he is full of babies. His germ plasm is full of tiny babies, homunculi, that he might plant in a woman. He is the author of his children, and his sex is collectively the authors of humanity: authors, authority. He is fully and really human. He is the correct substance.
If all the babies are inside him, what is the contrasting female story? A field, a vessel, an oven. A woman is really the stepmother to the children she bears, neither generating nor possessing them. She is insubstantial.
Worse, though, there is a persistent occult idea that the germ plasm is used to “fertilize” the male brain, by internal redirection of the fluid. It was imagined to be derived from blood, and to be the purest form of blood. In this system, the mind is fed and enhanced by continence and exercises, which are obviously unavailable to a woman. Monks, archimandrites, and bishops, having the most fertilized brains, with all their babies inside, or in the brain, or whatever the theory exactly did with them, have the most authority.
This is never overtly asserted, and almost certainly not the conscious belief of all the hierarchs. It is the substrate of belief, implicit in hymns and patristic writings, the landscape contour upon which they draw their maps, which have decorous and rational lines and divisions. It is, of course, the old Aristotelian and alchemic scheme of biology, preserved in words and phrases like bloodline, blood-horse, sperm (seed), and the like. Of course this theory is nonsense; or rather, this contour will be denied. But it is a sketch of the old biology that still underlies the policy and perspective of the Orthodox institution.
It comes out in the metaphors they apply: “Women are the sex that receives,” say men that received all their food from the body of a woman for most of their first year of life. They may be forgiven for the forgetting, but not for the failure to be reminded. “Men are active and women passive.” they say, failing to observe all their grandmothers caring for their grandfathers.
The masculine claim to the center is reinforced by the linked ideas that women are not, like men, independent in public; that we are not clean; that we are not listened to. Each of these claims may be safely exploded.
Women in the New Testament days certainly could not go out and preach, wander, and live the tramping life of the disciples. This does not mean we need draw a conclusion about the nature of women, but rather about the social situation: women were not available for that kind of work in that culture. Men were not adequately restrained by one another, and liable to attack women. This is a matter of male fault, of course, but we do not preclude men from church work on this basis. I am not suggesting that we should, even now, although rape and assault are primarily crimes of men, and men are by and large the principal criminal sex. But we are Christians and do not treat real people as a class. If anyone should argue that men, as a sex, have forfeited their place by their persistent crimes against individual women, I am sure someone could find an argument to defend them.
As for clean, everyone has a nose and eyes. It is no part of the proper relationship to base your position on what you suspect, but do not perceive. It should go without saying that only the very poor and the deranged are unable to be clean in public.
Lastly, let us consider male defect of listening, a practical effect of the idea that women are incapable of the masculine standard of reason. Women are interrupted far more than men are. Women are thought to be more verbose, but any extended recording will show the opposite. Women are not listened to by men: this is clearly not a problem of female character, ability, or inherent trait. It was never a problem of the woman speaking. It is a social variant of the failure of men to restrain men from violence, played out in speech and gesture.
And who is refusing to listen? It happens to be the male audience which is busy making metaphors, locking elbows, and forgetting babyhood and old age—and doing a little sniffing.
Since men aren’t really seed pods, and women aren’t really the deprived complement, perhaps we can arrange matters on a better basis. Since women are not especially weak and vulnerable, except at the hands of men, perhaps that old canard may be discarded. Since men contribute haploids just like normal people, and nourish their brains with glucose like regular humans, perhaps they can take a fresh look.
Normal people, regular folks, the center, the plain kind: that is currently the male claim, which they do dare to articulate, the road drawn on the landscape of the old spunk-story. At the head of the line, Augustine pronounced that only men normatively possess the Image of God.
This is what must be challenged and dismantled. We must be gentle, and we must not ask for a reversal and reprisal, nor a church that seeks to find roles for men. I do not want to hold the chocolate rabbit and offer a bit of the ear.
I do ask for a cohabitation of the center. I do call for a shared concept of normal, such that normal is binary (or wider—this essay is too short to include all gender issues) and not unitary. Let us be Sons of Eve and Daughters of Adam, as well we are. Perhaps that is frightening to some men: while Aslan (from Narnia) rebukes the children as Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve, a poet saith:
Don Jose, like a lineal son of Eve,
Went plucking various fruits without her leave. (Byron, Don Juan, Canto I, ll 141-2)
It is worth recalling, as Paul Atreides (the hero of Dune) does, that half of our ancestors were of the opposite sex.
But if so, then things will obviously need to change. You won’t think it normal for a room full of men in black to make a big decision. It will just look funny or wrong. It would just seem weird for men to appoint only men. It would be uncomfortable to be hearing all bass and baritone voices in the discussion.
Whether that turns out to mean women celebrating liturgy is secondary, in my view. Maybe that is really a boy job, after all. Maybe not. I would like it to be the last, not the first, issue solved; and then, when it is, there should be very little conflict. In a church where normal, regular, really human people make decisions together, speak out as they are moved, stay faithful to Authority and Scripture, appoint one another to offices and duties, and treat no group as “oh, and we need to make some extra room for them,” it should fall of its own weight.
In the meantime, we would be reasonably content if our brothers would put things on the table, make up two general portions, and say: You choose first.
Tita Deacon is an independent scholar and exegete who holds a BA in English from the University of California Berkeley and reached ABD status in a PhD in English. She is a convert to Orthodoxy of thirty years.