Morny Joy: Gender and its Vicissitudes


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the last fifty years, a revolution occurred that modified the accepted meaning and application of the word “gender.” Formerly, it had functioned simply as a term of grammatical attribution, indicating whether terms, usually nouns in non-English languages, were of a feminine, masculine, or neuter gender. Yet, more recently, the term “gender” has been involved in intense debates concerning its problematic relations with the notions of “sex” and “sexuality.” Most traditional religions have either attempted to avoid what they regard as the resultant highly politicized exchanges on this topic or have vigorously condemned such unwelcome developments.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Certain secular feminist scholars, such as Judith Butler, Linda Nicholson, and Joan Wallach Scott, beginning in the 1990s, began to employ the term “gender” in ways that helped to dismantle the former meaning of the term. Their explorations in “gender” would play a crucial role in their own discursive analyses of both sex and sexuality. As a result, “gender” was employed as a powerful tool that helped to expose the inequities that have resulted from male dominance in the past and until the present era.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Influenced by these secular women scholars, a number of feminists in religious studies, such as Darlene Juschka, have undertaken to employ the term, “gender,” in the discipline of the Study of Religion. Juschka appraises the forms of male domination and debasement of women, in addition to suggesting alternative perspectives. The theologian, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, has critically examined the role of compulsory heterosexuality in scripture. In response, she reinterpreted a biblical text, where she proposes a more inclusive reading of human sexual relations.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 These monumental shifts have occurred at the same time as the categories “secular” and “religious” have undergone intensive scrutiny of their own binary divisions. Certain advocates, e.g., Charles Taylor (2007) and Jürgen Habermas (2006, 1–25; 224–23), have endeavoured to find ways of introducing religion into the public sphere, while many secularists are strongly opposed to any move in this direction. Fundamentalists of various affiliations also support an agenda of a complete domination by religion in both public and private realms.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 At the heart of these disparate, though not completely mutually exclusive interactions, there is a power struggle that seeks not only to challenge heteronormative sexuality and gendered stereotypes but also to introduce more flexible modes of gender identification. Such a change would lead to the replacement of former monolithic and hierarchical institutions, be they religious or secular, that have closely monitored gender identity and sexual behaviour. In regards to religions, perhaps the greatest struggle is that of questioning the “truism” that proclaims God’s divine decree of heteronormativity with its inherent model of what is termed “a gender binary.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In this chapter, I will not be able to explore all the multiple variations and complexities of both the historical and contemporary developments that have informed the changing dynamics of gender. The main reason for this is, if I were to take into consideration all the variant positions, with their resultant responses and interrogations, they would require a book. In addition, each critical assessment, besides being both intriguing and challenging, needs to be examined in great detail. As a result, I have chosen to focus my article, using the framework of discursive analysis, on the different struggles involving gender, primarily in in the field of women’s and gender studies, especially as they pertain to the Study of Religion.[1] My presentation, though basically chronological, presents what I term, “vignettes,” as a way of visiting the distinct topics as they feature in discourse analysis. It will include interchanges with the secular theorists and philosophers such as Judith Butler, Joan Scott and Linda Nicholson who laid the foundations for the revolutionary intervention of gender. Their work definitely had an impact on religion, although it also received harsh criticism from conservatively inclined persons.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This study is a survey of the interactions involving gender, sex, and sexuality, and what Judith Butler initially named the “heterosexual matrix” (Butler 1990, 184).[2] It marks a time and place where extremely profound changes have occurred. What emerged was a dynamic and passionate movement that altered the status and gender roles of many women. The meaning of “gender,” once regarded as a type of culturally determined constraint, has been transformed. Women today do have access to affirming their own gendered identity, if they so choose. However, because of the variant influences and interests that have contributed to this contemporary construct called “gender,” and, even more recently, to strong objections alternative is theoretical claims, “gender,” in this present era, no longer occupies the predominant position it achieved in the 1990s (Scott 2010, 7–14). Other models of identity have since burgeoned and stimulated intense debates as to the future of “gender.” It is the dynamics of this intricate journey with its secular and religious implications that follows.

Gender Difference, Religion, and their Anomalies

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 While the word “gender,” with its permutations and negotiations, reflects a contemporary conflict, it can also be claimed retrospectively as the result of a lengthy history where women have attempted to contest their subservience.[3] Historically, the superiority of the male of the human species has been generally acknowledged as virtually all-pervasive. To account for this disparity, specifically in what has been termed the “western world,”[4] a short selection of the philosophical, metaphysical, and religiously oriented antecedents that have informed its development is required.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 From a contemporary perspective, it may seem to be somewhat arbitrary, even disparaging, to cast blame on Aristotle for introducing a precedent of a human hierarchy where the female is regarded as defective. It is mainly Aristotle’s theoretical and metaphysical works, especially the Politics and the Metaphysics, with their erroneous claims, that have informed much of western philosophy and theology until the twentieth century. Aristotle laid a foundation of misapprehensions about women that has resulted in misogynistic consequences.[5] It is not only the disparity in the attribution of male and female characteristics that is at fault. It is Aristotle’s underlying metaphysical system that cemented his assumptions.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 One telling example of Aristotle’s statements is found in the Politics: “The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind” (Aristotle 1971, 1132: 1254b:1 10–15). In contemporary discourse analyses of views on gender, it is Aristotle’s metaphysical system, with both its implicit and explicit assumptions, that have been found wanting. His infamous dictum that the female of the species was basically deformed, i.e., a “misbegotten male” (Aristotle, Generation of Animals, II, 1943, 75 737a.28–29), also helped to establish the origin of women’s inferiority in the western philosophical and theological domains. It is this metaphysical regime that is finally being challenged, although much of the contemporary terminology involved differs from the actual categories that Aristotle himself employed.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Perhaps the most detrimental of Aristotle’s indictments, however, was his remark that women were lacking in what was understood as the rational or deliberative faculty. Aristotle did allow that a woman may have an intuitive grasp of truth, but this insight was not reached by either deliberation or logic. It was a woman’s purported “lack of authority” over the irrational elements of her constitution that prevented her from exercising practical reason. It is in the Politics that Aristotle declares: “For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature” (Aristotle 1971, 1144: 1260a:10–15). It is pronouncements such as this that are deemed responsible for the stereotype of women’s deficiency in both mind and body.

Gendered Observations by Women Scholars

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In the discipline of the study of religion, the terms “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality” are words that, until quite recently, had not featured prominently. In previous centuries, religious decrees regarding sexual promiscuity were promulgated by clerical authorities, naming what sins to avoid so as not to incur punishment that entailed divine retribution. There were specific formulas directed at men and women, respectively, defining appropriate chaste, gender-specific, and god-fearing conduct. It is a particularly recent development that scholars in religion have taken to investigating these rules and have submitted them to what could be termed a discursive mode of “gender analysis”―examining in detail the complex interactions of “gender,” “sex,” and “sexuality,” especially in connection with the dynamics of power.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In 1976, Maryanne Cline Horowitz published a comprehensive article entitled simply “Aristotle and Woman” (Horowitz 1976). It was one of the first to interrogate rigorously Aristotle’s attitude toward women as is reflected in his writings. It also marked the beginning of a resurgence of critical interest in Aristotle by feminists. Horowitz does not mince her words. She states: “Aristotle’s belief in the mental and biological superiority of free men to both women and natural slaves, which was his ultimate justification for male rule in the household and state, gave sanction to a hierarchy of servitudes, including wifedom and slavery” (Horowitz 1976, 188). Horowitz also found fault with what she describes as Aristotle’s “biological–philosophical concepts of male and female,” where maleness is active and spiritual while femaleness is passive and material (Horowitz 1976, 186–87). This categorization needs to be placed in the context of Greek philosophical thought, where what was associated with the spiritual was held in far greater esteem than what pertained to matter.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 A more recent book by Sister Prudence Allen, entitled, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC–AD 1250 (Allen 1997 [1985]) provides further insights. In addition to a close exploration of Aristotle’s own philosophy with its theological implications, Allen exhaustively explores the historical effects of certain of Aristotle’s principal views on influential philosophers.[6] At the core of her work is a concept that she names “gender polarity,” which she views as still permeating much of Christian teachings. Allen relates her understanding of this usage in response to Aristotle’s statement that “male and female are opposite as contraries.” Allen states:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Aristotle claimed that in a pair of contraries, one must always be the privation of the other. Subsequently the female was interpreted as the privation of the male.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Since the concept of privation involves a negative variation, it follows that this description of the female … provided the metaphysical framework for sex polarity.… For Aristotle, contraries also involved a mutual hostility.… Aristotle grounded this relation of hostile opposition between women and men within the most fundamental of his metaphysical categories. Within this framework, he gave sex polarity the power eventually to dominate all of western philosophy. (Allen 1997 [1985], 89)

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In her final evaluation, Allen confesses that she is inclined to abandon Aristotle’s version of the concept of woman, given its many misrepresentations. She remarks that the errors evident in his version of sex-polarity needs to be removed from his work in the biology, ethics, metaphysics, and politics. Nonetheless, Allen is also willing to approve other topics in Aristotle’s work, especially his move to reconcile soul and body, form and matter, and rationality and materiality. She appreciates these efforts as she believes they help to avert any tendency toward a fragmentation of human beings (Allen, 1997 [1985], 124–25).

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Unfortunately, however, Aristotle did not attempt to apply this insight of a compatible alliance to the division he had wreaked between men and women. It is only in this present era that projects of possible restoration are being undertaken. Allen herself is a strong supporter of such developments. One message that can be gleaned from Allen’s analysis is that although the early Jewish, and later Christian patriarchs, had their misgivings about Eve’s conduct, which had already rendered women suspect, it was Aristotle, and his admirer, Aquinas, who consolidated their negative views of the female with their own respective philosophical and theological systematics.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In a recently published book, Aristotle on Female Animals: A Study of the Generation of Animals, Sophia M. Connell, a philosopher, has provided other possible interpretations of particular books by Aristotle (Connell 2016; especially chap. 1, “Feminism, Sexism and Aristotle,” 17–52). Connell is troubled by the mainly negative reception of Aristotle’s texts by a considerable number of contemporary feminists, who describe Aristotle as responsible for founding a philosophical approach based on the opposition of male and female (Connell 2016, 20). Connell cautions that this blanket judgment of Aristotle, as with similar misinterpretations, such as that concerning his view of matter, need to be carefully appraised and revised within their specific socio-political contexts (Connell 2016, 28). In Connell’s view, this procedure can help to delineate more accurately the source Aristotle’s sexism which, when analysed, can be more explicitly defined.[7]

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Connell’s main concern is contemporary women scholars’ inaccurate interpretations of Aristotle’s statements in The Generation of Animals. She worries that they are being transposed too hastily to Aristotle’s other works, especially the Metaphysics, where they have been inaccurately conflated. In Connell’s estimation, such scholars have not read the other texts of Aristotle with sufficient precision, particularly those dealing with his physiological descriptions. Connell is also wary of a number of contemporary male classical scholars, and she disagrees strongly with those who defend Aristotle’s views by arguing that he was not sexist.[8]

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In her own close reading of biological matters as they appear in Aristotle’s The Generation of Animals, in connection with what she names as “gender issues” (Connell 2016, 42), Connell distinguishes Aristotle’s “female principle” (Connell 2016, 28), as referring solely to animals. She disallows that this phrase has any reference to actual women. Connell states that, according to Aristotle, although the “female principle” is connected to matter, the female herself is never regarded by Aristotle as solely representing an inferior material element.[9] This latter remark becomes particularly relevant in Aristotle’s discussions of the female’s active contribution in the conceiving of an embryo.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 On this charged topic of conception, Aristotle has been accused of confining women to a passive receptivity, where the male is presented as both the initiator and the agent of the form/soul of any embryo conceived. (For Aristotle, the soul when aligned with substance forms the essence of a living being [Aristotle 1971, 555–56, 412b 10.]). Such an interaction has been criticized by feminists as typical of Aristotle’s disregard of women. In response, Connell counters that, in Aristotle’s biological descriptions, matter and form are interactive, and that, without such an interaction, no conception occurs (Connell 2016, 28). Such a conclusion also supports Connell’s own position, where she claims there is “no explicit justifications for the oppression of actual women in Aristotle’s biology” (Connell 2016, 33).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 In contrast to her distinct defence of Aristotle’s position on matter in The Generation of Animals, however, Connell does not hesitate to accuse Aristotle of “undeniable sexism” (Connell 2016, 42). This is evident especially in The Generation of Animals, with its “stark and undeniable sexism which enters his explanation of the division of the sexes” (Connell 2016, 42). It is also obvious in his Metaphysics and Politics, where he denies women positions of equity both in the home and in politics. Connell admits that “a male-based attitude pervades many parts of Aristotle’s thought” (Connell 2016, 47). For Connell, this negative disposition needs to be challenged. He should not be simply excused by the cliché that Aristotle was simply “a man of his time” and possibly did not deliberately plan to be sexist.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Connell’s work thus situates Aristotle as a perplexing figure; one whose work in many areas still needs meticulous attention to determine his actual position on the fraught issues of sex and gender. It is intriguing to consider what Horowitz’s, Allen’s, and Connell’s responses to each other might be, given their distinct disciplinary affiliations and approaches to the topic. In addition, “gender,” as a critical term, has changed the ground rules of debate by its disturbance of the strict binary between male and female. As such, gender has become a contentious issue in contemporary discursive exchanges both within and outside of philosophy and religion. It is not immediately clear how these conditions can be of help in revising Aristotle’s legacy in such uncharted territory. There is the possibility, however, that they could contribute to innovative advances in both theory and practice.

Innovative and Problematic Directions: The Separation of Gender and Sexuality

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 It is a major leap from Aristotle to the present-day volatile debates on the topics of gender, sex, and sexuality. Undoubtedly, one could employ a thorough genealogical inquiry in the mode of Michel Foucault. This discursive practice could supply a number of appropriate references indicating important precursors. In fact, in The History of Sexuality (Foucault 1980), Foucault does indeed supply references dating back to the Lateran Council (AD 1215) and the names of various moralists in later centuries. This, however, is not the main focus of his work. Foucault’s main inquiry begins in the seventeenth century, where, in its early stages, “shameless discourse” (Foucault 1980, 3) about sex still existed. By the end of the century, however, had begun to disappear. A period of repression, which Foucault defines as “the monotonous nights of the bourgeoisie,” followed (Foucault 1980, 3). Yet Foucault was not interested in a basic historical documentary about this change and its possible deviations. Instead, he introduced a new method, which he named “discursive analysis.” Foucault describes his approach:

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The central issue, then (at least in the first instance), is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex, whether one formulates prohibitions or permissions, whether one asserts its importance or denies its effects, or whether one refines the words one uses to designate it; but instead to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said. What is at issue, briefly, is the over-all discursive fact. (Foucault 1980, 11)

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The problematic issue with Foucault’s explorations in these matters, however, is that, as Carolyn J. Dean has eloquently expressed, “Foucault’s work presumes a construction of men’s but not women’s subjectivity” (Dean 1994, 271–96). Nonetheless, many women scholars have adopted Foucault’s mode of discourse analysis to clarify their own versions of how repressive regimes have manipulated the lives of women. They were mainly interested in Foucault’s locating the machinations of power that can interfere with their existence. Such a detailed analysis can foster deep insights and the knowledge that, in turn, promotes resistance. Nevertheless, Foucault’s explorations on sexuality marked a milestone for women in that he introduced an “analysis of power” (Foucault 1980, 81) This encouraged women scholars to introduce their own concepts and insights that would, in time, assist them in theorizing and implementing their critique of male domination―something which Foucault himself had never considered.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Another approach is undertaken by Kim Phillips and Barry Reay, the authors of the book, Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History. They make a trenchant observation that: “In the period dealt with in this book, c. 1100–1800, there was sex but no sexuality.” (Phillips and Reay 2011, 7). With this statement, the authors imply that, while there were certainly sexual couplings of diverse persuasions during this period, the intense interest in contemporary sexual preferences, identities, performance, and perversions was not necessarily evident. The authors also warn that employing current terms, i.e., those dating from the late-nineteenth century, could distort definitions and interfere with an accurate understanding of premodern practices. (This could possibly be an implicit warning against Foucault’s own innovative vocabulary.)

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 It was only in the 1950s, however, that certain thinkers from diverse disciplines would begin to propose ideas and concepts that would, in time, rearrange and “complexify” contemporary awareness on the subject of sex and gender. John Money, a psychologist and sexologist working at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, describes how in the 1950’s he had realized at that the word “sex” bore the brunt of what he called a “terminological overload” (Money 1985, 72). He came to this conclusion from his early studies of children born with birth defects affecting their sexual organs. (Today the term “intersex” is used in these situations.) In a later article, Money reminisced that, at that time, “there was no concept of ‘gender identity disorder,’ nor was there any recognition of the term ‘gender’ as a human attribute” (Money 1994, 163). He first introduced the term “gender role,” as a substitute for the former all-embracing concept of “sex role” in the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1955 (Money 1955, 253). In a later article he stated, “So far as I have been able to ascertain, I was the first person to use the term, gender role, in print, and certainly the first person to define it in print” (1973, 397). In his further work at the Gender Identity Clinic, established at Johns Hopkins in 1966, Money continued to refine his understanding of this term with the additions of “gender identity” and “gender-identity role” (Money 1985, 71). In addition, the term “gender” and its qualifications, separated from the concept of sex, marked an attempt to evade “gender determinism” (1985, 77). The word “gender” as an indicator of cultural acquisitions, as distinct from “sex” as biological, was then gradually integrated into scientific documents and usage, followed somewhat slowly by literary works. Finally, it made its disruptive entrance into philosophy, theology, and the aptly named Gender Studies.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Another pioneer was Robert Stoller, a professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, who, in his book, Sex and Gender: The Development of Masculinity and Femininity (Stoller 1968), expanded on Money’s statement. He was perhaps the first to state that “gender” was associated with culture, as distinct from “sex” which was solely biological. Stoller observed: “Gender is a term that has psychological and cultural rather than biological connotations; if the proper terms for sex are ‘male’ and ‘female,’ the corresponding terms for gender are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; these latter might be quite independent of (biological) sex” (Stoller 1968, 9–10). This declaration would resonate with mixed reactions in many disciplines in the years that followed.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In her book, Sex, Gender, and Society (Oakley 1972, 7), Ann Oakley, a British sociologist, mentions Money’s important work. In her own work, however, Oakley’s work headed in quite a different direction. She first noted that, in the growing controversy about sex roles, the majority of people used the term “sex differences” when, in fact, they were actually referring to gender differences (Oakley 1972, 189). Oakley was one of the first women to make such a distinction. These research findings influenced Oakley to introduce the term, “gender differentiation” (Oakley 1972, 203). It was women’s alleged difference, including her purported inferiority when compared to men, that was central to the heated debates concerning the nomenclature of sex and gender. Oakley claimed that such disagreements were evidence that designations of cultural characteristics s still remained a patriarchal privilege (Oakley 1972, 208). This situation continued because, rather than acknowledging gender as a “social ascription” (Oakley 1972, 204), most researchers still held strong views that gender differences were innate.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 In her own subsequent substantial body of work, Oakley’s aim was to uncover the prejudices at work in this ingrained mode of gendered differentiation. Her future publications investigated the intricate cultural processes that fed institutionalized power and thus inhibited women from attaining the parity and respect that she regarded as their due. (Oakley 2005, 7–20). Oakley’s work was extremely insightful about women’s roles and conditioning. She devoted her research to depicting the conditions of women’s lives, e.g., their economic dependence (2005, 22–23), as well as the trials of domesticity that restricted their lives (2005, 109–116). Although she recognized how the manoeuvres of power had severely affected women’s lives (2005, 196–205), Oakley did not address how women could strategically challenge this systemic deprivation of independence. Such an initiative was manifestly needed. This aspect would be undertaken in the work of Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, and Joan Wallach Scott, but Oakley was not impressed by their appeal to poststructuralism, and what she described as their “overdependence on theory” (2005, 208).

Feminist Explorations in Sex and Gender

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 It was the classic article, “The Traffic in Women” (Rubin 1975, 157–210), written by anthropologist Gayle Rubin, that initiated a radical shift in the way that the “sex/gender system,” as Rubin herself described it, functioned in North America. Initially Rubin was suspicious of the intertwined dependency of sex and gender. She described her understanding of the interaction: “A ‘sex/gender system’ is the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these sexual needs are satisfied” (Rubin 1975, 159). At the same time, however, Rubin was also suspicious of “the socially imposed division of the sexes,” i.e., sexual dimorphism (Rubin 1975, 179). She also took to task the theories of Freud, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss for their restrictive definitions and their denigrating observations about women. Finally, she advocated a feminist revolution that would “liberate human personality from the straightjacket of gender” (Rubin 1975, 200).

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 In a later work, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (Rubin 1984, 267–319) Rubin revised and altered her earlier thoughts as she continued to expand on her insights. This later work would establish Rubin’s reputation as a leading proponent of queer theory. This change was inspired by her encounter with Foucault, both with the man himself and his work. It was her admiration for his avoidance of biological determinism and his emphasis on the “generative aspects” of sexuality that inspired Rubin to envisage a future where prescriptive rules governing both sexuality and mandated gender roles would became irrelevant. She declared, “The new scholarship on sexual behaviour has given sex a history and created a constructivist alternative to sexual essentialism” (Rubin 1984, 276).

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Rubin decided that in order to better understand the existing dynamics of the sex/gender system, which she judged to be mandating “sexual essentialism” (Rubin 1984, 275), she needed to explore alternative positions. She declared that, “In contrast to my perspective in The Traffic in Woman, I am now arguing that it is essential to separate gender and sexuality analytically to reflect more accurately their separate social existence” (Rubin 1984, 308) This change was viewed as imperative by Rubin because, at that time, many people still continued to use these two terms interchangeably.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 However, Rubin’s radical proposals were not universally acclaimed, and she was criticized by a number of feminists on different counts. The principal rebuke was that by severing biology/matter from socially constructed gender, biology maintained a deterministic role. A number of women scholars also accused Rubin of launching an attack on feminism.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 There is a fascinating interview, “Sexual Traffic: An Interview with Gayle Rubin” (Butler 1994, 62–99), where Butler and Rubin discuss their respective thoughts on the issues of sex, sexuality, and gender. Their exchange helps to appreciate Rubin’s reasons for separating sex from gender. In her responses to Butler’s questions, it becomes obvious that Rubin did not regard herself as chastising feminism nor rejecting her own ideas as presented in “Traffic in Women.” Rubin stated: “There was a different set of concerns that generated Thinking Sex. I wasn’t looking to get away from ‘Traffic in Women’” (Rubin, in Butler 1994, 97). Instead, Rubin was proposing to replace the limitations she had diagnosed in the theory connecting gender and sexuality. One of Rubin’s most pressing issues was that she did not think feminism had yet dealt satisfactorily in addressing issues of “sexual difference and sexual variety” (Rubin, in Butler 1994, 97) Her intention was to clear “space for work on sexuality that did not presume feminism as the sole obligatory and sufficient approach” (Rubin, in Butler 1994, 88).

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Subsequently, Rubin had to defend her version of sexuality from accusations of being lacking in morality, where sexuality was regarded as unabashed self-indulgence or worse.[10] Ultimately, however, it was Michel Foucault’s influence that prompted Rubin’s move to poststructuralism as an antidote to structuralism which had simply reinforced binary divisions. Given her strong criticisms of conventional theories, especially feminist theory’s heterosexual bias and structuralism’s intransigence, it was not surprising that Rubin would be attracted by constructivism.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Judith Butler was enthusiastic in her appreciation of Rubin’s accomplishments, declaring: “[W]hat interested me in ‘The Traffic in Women’ was that you, by using a term that comes from American sociological discourse―‘gender’―by using that term, you actually made gender less fixed, and you imagined a kind of mobility to it which I think would be quite impossible in the Lacanian framework” (Butler 1994, 68). Butler then continued with a surprising admission that Rubin’s work had so impressed her that it was one of the formative influences in her own change of direction: “I went with gender myself in Gender Trouble” (Butler 1994, 68).

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 In the closing section of the interview, when Butler somewhat playfully suggests that they return to the term “gender,” Rubin appears to be somewhat apologetic about her own responses. It was as if she interpreted Butler’s remark as intimating there had been no extensive discussion on the topic of gender during their exchange. Rubin simply replied to Butler: “I will only say that I never claimed that sexuality and gender were always unconnected, only that their relationships are situational, not universal, and must be determined in particular situations. I think I will leave any further comments on gender to you, in your capacity as the reigning ‘Queen’ of Gender’!” (Rubin, in Butler 1994, 97).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 It is intriguing that in this context, Rubin, who herself was no stranger to queer theory and its deviations, refers to Butler as the “Queen of Gender.” Although Butler had not made any explicit reference to “queer” in her initial venture of subverting gender in Gender Trouble (1990), she was taken by surprise when the book was declared as “one of the founding texts of queer theory” (Butler 1999, vii). Yet the term “gender” did indeed not feature prominently in Rubin’s and Butler’s conversation. This was because both Butler and Rubin had, by this time, 1997, already moved beyond “gender” as a means of providing incentives to dislodge normative gender affirmations. Rubin’s negative attitude certainly provided evidence that she did not hold current definitions of gender in high regard. Nevertheless, Rubin’s work instigated a vital impetus that helped women to experiment with alternative models of feminist and queer theory, such as trans and intersex (Rubin, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader 2011).

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 The two ground-breaking books of Butler, Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993), also introduced variations, such as parody and performativity, that created interruptions which disturbed heteronormativity. Both Rubin and Butler, with their separate contributions, had helped to realign the meanings and attributes of “gender” so that the term was no longer identified with the static categories of a binary model that dictated the restrictive terms of sexual difference.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 There were, however, two objections made by a number of feminist critics about these developments as advocated by Butler and Rubin. One, as observed above in Rubin’s work, was the separation of nature/biology from culture/gender, thus virtually rendering these two categories mutually exclusive. The other problem was a deregulated constructivism which encouraged infinite divergent possibilities. (These topics will be addressed later in this essay.)

Gay and Lesbian Interventions in Religion

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Inevitably, the question arises as to whether the work of poststructuralist feminists, such as that of Judith Butler, had a marked influence, not just in the field of the Study of Religion, but also on the work of feminist scholars. Another question that needs to be posed, given Butler’s explicit commitment to queer diversions, is what kind of reception this movement has generated. One of the first feminist scholars in religion to engage with Butler’s work was Mary McClintock Fulkerson from Duke Divinity School. Among her academic specialisations is the contemporary study of Protestant theology. Fulkerson’s essay, “Gender – Being It or Doing It? The Church and Homosexuality, and the Politics of Identity” (Fulkerson 1997, 188–201), was one in a series of her publications (Fulkerson 1996, 131–46) that marked a distinct challenge to certain Protestant religious congregations with their ambivalent attitudes toward gay and lesbian members in their respective communities. Fulkerson’s study is set against the background of two Protestant denominations, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church, both of whom, in the 1990s, undertook extensive and divisive surveys that examined the divergent views on the religious status of homosexuals.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 In the opening pages of her essay, Fulkerson asks a provocative question that raises the possibility of a revised reading of Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28. She inquires: “What would it mean to claim that there really is ‘neither male or female … in Christ’ in the light of poststructuralist critiques?” She also queries whether a person who claims to be non-heterosexual will be welcomed by God (Fulkerson 9, 189). Fulkerson’s questions indicate that Fulkerson is deeply concerned with issues of sexual identity―specifically with those who identify as lesbian and gay.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 In acknowledging the work of both Judith Butler and Michel Foucault as influential poststructuralists, Fulkerson approves of Butler’s challenge to the regulations of the established heterosexist regime. Fulkerson’s own move has disconcerted those with inflexible gendered definitions and attitudes. Fulkerson declares: “Any assumption that our notions of real sexual identity are somehow identical with the categories and world-views of ancient or biblical communities – if that is our theological authorization – is simply naive” (Fulkerson 1997, 198).

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Elaborating on this assessment, Fulkerson details aspects of Butler’s and Foucault’s work that she has found instructive. She surveys Butler’s analysis of the sex/gender problematic and her theory of social construction, which dismisses notions of predetermined sexual identity (Fulkerson 1997, 192). At the same time, by examining other static gendered designations, such as heteronormativity, Fulkerson affirms the need for a Foucauldian genealogical analysis. Such a diagnostic approach helps to disclose the way that discourse, together with power, can determine rigid social structures and definitions. Fulkerson also views this discursive approach as assisting in the detection of those regulative manipulations of power that are pervasive in the discourse of sexuality. Fulkerson’s views are very much in agreement with Foucault’s statement: “Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given…. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct” (Foucault 1980, 105).

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Perhaps Fulkerson’s most important contribution in this essay, however, is her support of Butler’s poststructuralist critique of substance metaphysics, especially as it has been applied to theology and, by extension, to feminist theology. Fulkerson affirms Butler’s taking issue with a “substantialist notion of a subject,” where identity aligned with an “essentialist” or an inner “real self” (Fulkerson 1997, 191–92).

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Fulkerson also rejects what she terms the “metaphysical threesome of body, gender and desire,” and appeals to Butler for guidance. In quoting Butler, Fulkerson indicts the “metaphysical unity of the three, [that] is assumed to be truly known and expressed in a differentiating desire for an oppositional gender – that is, in a form of oppositional heterosexuality” (Butler 1990, 22, quoted by Fulkerson, 1997, 192). Indeed, in adapting Butler, Fulkerson’s aim is to eliminate this harmful combination of sex, gender and desire that she judges as decisive for maintaining the male–female binary. It appears that Fulkerson would be of the same mind as Butler when she states that gender cannot claim any idealized ontological status. “[G]enders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity” (Butler 1990, 136).

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 In order to disempower this established heterosexist regime, Fulkerson also assents to Butler’s use of parody as an effective strategy in a process that Butler names “denaturalization” of gender (Butler 1990, xxx). This intervention proposes that parody, as a mode of resistance, in connection with performance and performativity, can interrupt prescribed norms of bodily conduct (Butler 1990, xxxi).

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 When Gender Trouble was first published by Butler in 1990, however, she was strongly criticized for introducing such a strategy. Consequently, Fulkerson is extremely careful in her defence of Butler’s approach, declaring that she appreciates Butler’s work because it does not intend to eliminate the subject of “women.” Nor did Fulkerson view it as anti-feminist. Instead, Fulkerson agrees with Butler’s goal that such a move would permit alternative possibilities of self-formation to be introduced (Fulkerson 1997, 195). In this way, Fulkerson intends to unsettle Christianity’s complacent and defensive attitudes toward gender.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 In another article, “Changing the Subject: Feminist Theology and Discourse,” Fulkerson justifies her adoption of this poststructuralist approach (Fulkerson 1996, 131–47). First, Fulkerson describes her understanding of poststructuralism.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Poststructuralism, as used here, refers to a set of discussions within the broader currents of postmodernism initiated around language. The constituting character of discourse in this account is a move away from the view that language reflects reality. Poststructuralism enables recognition of the made – the socially coded – character of realities – of nature as well as culture, sexed bodies as well as gendered roles. (Fulkerson 1996, 135)

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 Fulkerson declares that she does not concur that discourse operates solely on a verbal and theoretical level. Nor does she believe that feminist discourse analysis is merely immaterial. She carefully distinguishes her understanding of what counts as a discursive practice. It can be appreciated as communicating a number of processes and activities, which Fulkerson lists as “bodily, oral, and not simple ideational or linguistic. Meaning may be spoken, written, gestured and/or performed” (Fulkerson 1996, 138). In effect, discourse can have material and practical results.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Fulkerson was motivated to write this paper by the reluctance of the mainline Presbyterian and Methodist Protestant traditions to implement fully the recommendations in the reports resulting from their respective committees’ study reports that were both tabled in 1991 (Fulkerson 199, notes 1–4, 500–501). Informed by Butler’s arguments, Fulkerson sought to protest Christianity’s own biased attitudes. She accuses both society and religious traditions―despite stalwart efforts on behalf of their inclusion by gays and lesbians―of still presuming that normative ideals of sexual identity should predominate.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 It was for this reason that Fulkerson had recourse to Butler’s and Foucault’s work as a stimulus to awaken in her readers an alternative vision of how things could be otherwise. In the concluding section of “Changing the Subject,” again justifies her turn to poststructuralism:

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Poststructuralism understood as a way to look at discourse is useful because it opens up the instability of meaning, its exclusions, and its connections with desire, power and location. By appropriating its refusal of fixed meaning, whether the “real woman” or the real meaning of male language, feminists can shift from the notion that everything is fluid to look at the arrangements of actual situations. (Fulkerson 1996, 146)

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 At the same time, Fulkerson proposes a “theological grammar” or discourse that refuses to endorse any “natural identity” (Fulkerson 1997, 19), be it of metaphysical or scriptural derivation. Fulkerson then invokes what she interprets an “iconoclastic criticism” (1996 197, 198), which she describes as a form of scripture directed toward a radical love. Fulkerson’s description of this transformative vision portrays it as based on a discourse of fallibility that encompasses human finitude and error. This evocation, in turn, promotes relations that admit to such weaknesses, yet extends accountability, kindness, respect, and agape toward others similarly susceptible (Fulkerson 1997, 198). It is then that Fulkerson affirms that such an orientation can enlarge its range to encompass gender identity. Such a development, enhanced by its critical textual analysis, allows Fulkerson to return to her opening remarks. She now ventures to repeat her initial enquiry with an increased emphasis that has become an exhortation: “[I]t is time to read Galatians 3:28 with a new literalness, admitting that we are all performing our sex/gender” (Fulkerson 1995, 199).

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Fulkerson’s work on gender launched an important movement in subjecting religion and gender to close scrutiny from a poststructuralist position. Since Fulkerson’s iconoclastic essay, and her own strategic emendation of Galatians, the topic of gender and religion, especially with respect to gays and lesbians, has been enhanced by the recent publication of numerous volumes authored by women that have further advanced respect for gay, lesbian, and queer orientations.

Variations on a Theme of Gender in Religion

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 As late as 2005, there was still some confusion among women scholars in religion as to the way that the word “gender” was to be incorporated into the study of religion. This became obvious to me when I was invited to address the issue of “Gender and Religion” at a conference (Joy 2006, 7–30). To my surprise, when I did an online search, I found at least thirty titles of books published in the past five years in connection with women and religion. This inspired me to familiarize myself with such diverse usages. Firstly, I discovered that the English term “gender,” even from its grammatical perspective, is not available in many languages, e.g., it does not exist in Chinese or Finnish. Consequently, the word “gender” is usually transliterated, with occasional odd results (Li Xiao-Jian 2004, 87–103). It was not my intention at that time, however, to become entangled in such linguistic technicalities. My task was rather to investigate the types of meaning then in circulation. It became both a wide-ranging and challenging task as I explored these variations.

Example 1: Gender as Equivalent to the Word “Woman”

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Many of the books I read did not explicitly theorize, let alone problematize, the concept of “gender.” The word was being used in a general sense that was virtually equivalent to women, as well as to women’s roles in society, often from a purely descriptive point of view. To give one example, and to show that I was not immune from such a tendency, I will cite an article of my own called “God and Gender: Some Reflections on Women’s Invocations of the Divine” (Joy 1995, xxxx). From my present stance, I can admit that, at that time, I was employing the term in a general way, without any precise definition of “gender.” My paper explored the recent modes of “God-talk” by feminists who were resisting the attribution of male qualities to the divine. In other articles, “gender” had varying connotations that were associated with the qualifier “female.” Basically, at that time, “gender” was being employed in a somewhat nebulous, though vaguely feminist, fashion.

Example 2: Gender as Indicative of Culturally Accepted Behaviour

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 A number of books understood “gender” as referring to both “male/masculine” and “female /feminine” roles and characteristics as representative of society’s view of acceptable behaviour for men and women. Such books indicated an awareness that these roles can change over time, but there was no enquiry into the origins or the genealogy of such roles―it was enough to describe their present situation. In certain historical studies, this descriptive task is sufficient to preoccupy the author’s attention. As a consequence, however, there was no critical analysis of the changing conventions and their actual consequences. Occasionally, such descriptions, whether intentionally or not, intimated directions for further intensive enquiries but did not develop them.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 An example of such an approach can be found in Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval Reformation England by Christine Peters (2003). This study traces the effects of the Reformation on women, which Peters refers to as having a “gender impact.” In describing the changing practices of Christian piety, Peters depicted a gradual movement after the Reformation towards a Christocentric mode of parish piety. This differed markedly from the former monastic and mystical variety. The apparently paradoxical viewpoint of medieval times, where women were simultaneously characterized as more prone to piety, yet also more liable to sin―especially the sins of the flesh―seemed to be fading. Other traditional gender stereotypes that characterized men as rational and self-controlled, and women as weak and emotional, also became less emphatic. As a result, sin was then judged in proportion to the degree of responsibility one held within the prevailing patriarchal system. Peters observed:

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 The weak, emotional temptress could be viewed as less culpable than the man who succumbed to her sexual charms, and her husband who had failed his duty to guide and control her. Moreover, that both interpretations were present in varying degrees in late medieval culture added to the ambiguities of gendered experience, as so did the apparently contradictory stereotype of the godly woman. (Peters 2003, 346)

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 This was a succinct and accurate assessment. Yet, because the book’s purpose was principally to give an historical account of this change, there was no in-depth analysis of the relevant implications for the ongoing status of women who still remained subjects of a male-dominated religious hierarchy.

Example 3: Gender as Essentialism

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 There were, however, various works that criticized this previously limited descriptive approach toward gender roles in historical settings. This approach can be appreciated as marking the beginning of an explicit mode of “gender criticism.” It questioned the normativity of specific cultural attributions or behaviours. It was also especially concerned with an understanding of the way that “gender” had been identified with what, in time, had become enforced behavioural ideals. These ideals came to represent timeless or essential qualities for women.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 In this connection, Kathleen Biddick’s essay “Genders, Bodies, Borders: Technologies of the Visible” (1993) was a critique of Carolyn Bynum’s book Holy, Feast, Holy Fast (1987), which examined the lives of medieval Christian women mystics. Biddick questioned both Bynum’s notion of the body and her seeming acceptance of the myth of a triumphant Christianitas, with its elisions and omissions. In her careful scrutiny, Biddick documents how Bynum’s treatment of the medieval woman saint’s body unproblematically accepts the characterizations of women as reflecting, not just an historical, but a predetermined maternal reality. As Biddick notes: “The model of gender in Holy Feast, Holy Fast assumes that gender is an essence that appears prior to other categories and informs them; that the feminine mirrors, indeed reduces to, the female reproductive function; that the female body is the originary, foundational site of gender” (Biddick 1993, 397).

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 Biddick’s claim is that neither gender nor sex is inherently inflexible―indeed, for Biddick, each term is first imagined and then culturally constructed. Rather than taking Bynum’s study at face value, Biddick reads her work as a case study of the production of a definitive gendered regime. As such, her analysis contains invaluable lessons for contemporary application (Biddick 1993, 390). Instead of simply equating a women’s body with the maternal, Biddick asks: “How can we write these histories such that in making women ‘visible’ we do not blind ourselves to the historical processes that defined, redefined and engendered the states of the visible and the invisible?” (Biddick 1993, 390). In other words, Biddick was concerned with the omissions in Bynum’s ostensibly realist gendered portrayal. She wondered specifically what had been excluded by Bynum’s unquestioning acceptance of women’s maternity, in both its spiritual and physical senses. Biddick’s work helps to introduce a mode of historical evaluation of a discursive nature, with gendered inflections, that does not accept an historical depiction as necessarily a definitive account. She indicates that further in-depth enquiries are definitely needed.

Example 4: Gender as a Critical Analytic Category

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Another approach was evident in a volume edited by Kari Elisabeth Børresen, The Image of God: Gender Models in the Judaeo-Christian Traditions (1995). This work was a response to the way particular facets of the feminine gender had been designated not simply as essentialist, but also as mandatory for women. The different contributors to this edited volume all evaluated the manner in which the concept of imago dei had been interpreted over the centuries. The predominant view was that it is man alone who is theomorphic, i.e., made in the image of God. As her main analytical category, Børresen, employed the phrase “human genderedness.” She described this as “the sense of a combined biologically given and a socio-culturally shaped female and male existence” (Børresen 1995, 1). Børresen argued that gender attributes are neither innate nor normative, but culturally established.

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 Børresen’s principal intention, which was theologically motivated, was to illustrate, through an appeal to Christian scripture and tradition, that she understood revelation as a continuous process rather than an obligatory fiat. In her own interpretation of the creation of the sexes, Børresen appealed to the biblical passage where both male and female are created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26–28). For Børresen, this passage supports the full inclusion of women in humanity’s god-likeness. Consequently, it is not only men who are regarded as theomorphic. By employing gender as an analytic tool of interpretation―where gender was not prescriptive―Børresen dismantled centuries of exegesis. Her conclusions had important theological resonances. She affirms that women also are created, both body and soul, in the image of God. Børresen’s work supports contemporary claims by women that they be fully accepted as equals within the Christian religious tradition.

Example 5: Gender as a Tool of Comparative Analysis

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 The next study is of an anthropological nature. Nevertheless, it fits neatly within the scope of the study of religion. It also adds to the growing repertoire of meanings of the term “gender,” where gender roles and qualities are not regarded as either intrinsic or universal. In her book, Spirited Women: Gender, Religion, and Cultural Identity in the Nepal Himalaya (1996), Joanne Watkins used the word “gender” in what would initially appear to be primarily a neutral sense. She described what she terms the “egalitarian gender configurations,” i.e., the roles and relations of the Nyeshangte people of Nepal. Watkins describes the gender relations and roles adopted by men and women in this Buddhist society as complementary and non-hierarchical. In addition, however, there is a practice that Watkins named “gender variance,” where the identity of “male” or “female” do not always follow expected gender roles. This indicates that certain social roles were interchangeable. Watkins describes how, in such a setting, “neither men nor women are … prevented from participating in their society’s two central institutions: international trade and Buddhist ritual practice” (Watkins 1996, 16). Thus, women could perform religious rituals because they are not “denigrated nor are they regarded as polluting” (Watkins 1996, 17). Though Watkins made no explicit commentary, she was employing gender as a tool of subtle cultural analysis and contrast. Her position was thus not entirely neutral, as it suggested a comparison with western religious practices where “gender variance” roles have not been commonly accepted. By comparison, in most prominent western religions, it has proven extremely difficult for women to be allowed to act as ritual specialists, ostensibly because of the allegation that menstruation is polluting.

Example 6: Gender as a Mode of Subversive Disturbance

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 In the next example, there is a definite change in approach, particularly because the author has employed “gender” in both a theoretically sophisticated and a critical mode. Biblical scholar Deborah Sawyer had been influenced by Judith Butler’s work on gender. Butler had inspected accustomed frames of reference that aligned sex with specific gender characteristics and roles that were viewed as natural, if not metaphysically ordered, from a religious perspective.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 In God, Gender and the Bible, Sawyer introduced certain ideas of Butler, as well as those of the early Luce Irigaray (1985), to disturb traditional gender categories in the Bible. By using Butler’s concept of gender as “performative” from Gender Trouble, Sawyer deemed that, because prescribed gendered behaviour had often depended on political and/or religious mandates, rather than on any intrinsic characteristics, it could be challenged. Such a strategy depended initially, as in Butler’s work, on acknowledging the category of gender as performative―that it is acquired by repetitive enactment of roles (Butler 1990, 25). Yet Butler’s intent was also one of parodying such established normative roles. This is similar, in some respects, to Luce Irigaray’s device of critical mimesis. As a mode of deconstructive, philosophic, and psychoanalytic reading of texts, this tactic was deployed to reveal the mechanisms controlling gendered assignations. It especially targeted those that privileged the male position―be it associated with intellectual, social, or religious contexts (Irigaray 1985, 76). What both these approaches advocated was the disturbance of accustomed gendered priorities. Their intention was to encourage a more fluid construction of gender. This would then replace the traditional gender dimorphism of specific male and female roles. Such a tactic would then allow gender to become a multivalent category, thus also liberating sex from its primary identification with the procreative functions. In both of these models, evident in the early work of Butler and Irigaray, one can ideally―though to my mind, not unproblematically―choose one’s gender identity from a spectrum of possibilities.

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 By arguing that the Bible provided grounds for such gender modifications, Sawyer applied this theory to the story of the pious widow, Judith, in the Hebrew Bible. Judith deliberately adopted the wiles of a seductress to first beguile and then to decapitate the Assyrian general Holofernes, an arch-enemy of Israel. Sawyer stated: “The chorus of women recognize the achievement of [this] unconventional warrior, and we are able to observe how gender games have been employed to subvert the expected, entrenched norms of this ancient socio-political context” (Sawyer 2002, 97).

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 The ultimate irony of this story, however―and this does not escape Sawyer’s notice―was a further latent message embedded in this text. It warns men to beware of siren women, for it may ultimately cost them their heads. Unfortunately, however, in the larger context of the Bible, this particular incident virtually falls into insignificance―overwhelmed by a predominantly male ethos that, until recently, has understood itself as alone being divinely ordained as superior in the order of creation.

Example 7: Gender as an Historically Disruptive Strategy

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 If such deconstructive mimesis and parodic disturbances can only take women a limited distance in their explorations―the question became: are there other potentially effective strategies in a period when the prefix “post-” has become prolific? One book that provided further assistance was Playing for Real: Hindu Role Models, Religion and Gender, edited by Jacqueline Suthren Hirst and Lynn Thomas (2004). In surveying certain prescribed role models for Hindu women, whether they appeared in sacred texts, myths, or popular stories, Hirst and Thomas investigated the interventions of authority and power latent in these stories. They were particularly concerned with the directives prescribed for the proper conduct of women. What was of marked interest to Hirst and Thomas was the social and political regimes that determined these assigned gendered roles. In their introduction to the volume, Hirst and Thomas recognized the complexity of both the reception of, and resistance to, such role models, inflected as they are in India by caste, age, economic status, and political allegiances, in addition to religion. Suthren and Hirst acknowledged their theoretical debt for this intricate social analysis to the postcolonial feminist writings of, among others, Kumkum Sangari (1990), where phrases such as “cultural imperialism” and “gender essentialism” were often evident. Initially, these phrases had been deployed to challenge colonialism and its imposition of regulations that resonated with discipline and power. Originally, gender rules, similarly to colonial regulations, were principally designed to control women or the conquered/marginalized peoples who needed to be trained to be obedient and subservient.

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 In reviewing all of the above articles, however, it becomes quite evident that, during the 1980s and 1990s, studies by women in religion were slowly maturing and moving in the direction of a critical awareness that introduced discursive analyses. This gave rise to a forceful rebuttal of many religions’ extremely controlling attitude to women and their closely monitored gender roles.

Discourse and Gender Analysis

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 Since her first essay on this topic, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986), American historian and critical theorist Joan Wallach Scott continued to propose both demanding questions and innovative prospects for the term “gender” and its applications. In the revised introduction to her book, Gender and the Politics of History (1999 [1988]), Scott introduces the principal concerns that have guided the orientation of her work. She states:

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 As a historian I am particularly interested in historicizing gender by pointing to the variable and contradictory meanings attributed to sexual difference, to the political processes by which those meanings are developed and contested, to the instability and malleability of the categories, “women” and “men,” and to the ways those categories are articulated in terms of one another, although not consistently or in the same way every time. (Scott 1999, 10)

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 Acknowledging that “gender” had been adopted by feminists in the 1970s with the goal of exposing the way that history had treated women (1999, xi), Scott was committed to clarifying the distinctive role that “gender,” as she defined it, could contribute to an analysis of historical texts and their biases. She forged a path that was to revolutionize how one could both engage with and promote a heterodox usage of the term “gender.” Scott was not content to accept a stark separation of biological sex from the cultural construction of gender. Her intention was to contest even this crucial move by encouraging women to scrutinize carefully the trajectory by which sexual difference had dictated the terms of women’s lowly status.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Scott proposed her own understanding of gender: “The core of the definition rests on an integral connection between two propositions: gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott 1986, 1067). Scott added a qualification that, although these two aspects are related, they must remain analytically separate (1067). Although gender is understood as intertwined with power, it is not identified with power per se. Scott described gender as “a field within which or by means of which power is articulated” (Scott 1986, 1069). She understood that the field of gender involved a manipulation of power that deployed sexual difference in a manner that excluded and belittled women. Yet Scott was also aware that gender could be activated as an instrument of change. To initiate such a disconcerting process, Scott introduced a mode of gender analysis as a challenge that shattered views of standardized sexual difference and their associated gender essentialist claims. Scott’s engagement with these obstacles resulted in an awakening of women’s resistance to such well-established norms.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 In this undertaking, Scott was influenced initially by Jacques Derrida, but it was Foucault’s poststructuralist approach, as well as his insights into the exercise of power, that had the strongest influence on her work. She also adapted Foucault’s genealogical approach. Refusing to accept causal arguments and normative ideals as irrefutable, Scott examined the mechanics of power as it attempted to mandate behaviour, thus controlling the status of women. She also applied this strategy of “gender” as an analytical aid to support women in their quest for their recognition as participants in history, rather than being automatically dispatched to the periphery. Scott first explains her reasons for adopting “gender” as a specific category: “‘Gender’ seemed the best way to realize the goal of historians of women in the 1970s; to bring women from the margins to the center of historical focus, and, in the process, transform the way all history was written” (Scott 1999, xi–xii). She then turns her attention to Foucault’s influence, especially his work on genealogy: “It also seemed to me the way of posing questions that I associated with the influence of Michel Foucault, about how certain knowledge of ‘natural’ sexual difference was established, and about how and when one ‘regime of truth’ was replaced by another” (Scott 1999, xi–xii).[11]

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 Scott would nonetheless differ in one aspect from Foucault’s model of discourse and his notion of a “discursive field.”[12] As her work delved more deeply into the situation of women, Scott became aware of the limits of theory and realized that she needed to introduce support for women’s agency. This is something that Foucault did not advocate. It is extremely enlightening to follow Scott’s trail as she first demonstrates how gender constructs can first be contextualized by employing a Foucauldian discursive analysis. She demonstrates the way these tenets can then be subjected to a further dissection that exposes their own inadequacies, as well as their severely restricted views of women’s abilities. Finally, in her move from text to action, Scott introduces tactics that help to form a radical activist response to counter such distortions. This would allow women to defy conventions with critical moves that promote acts of resistance, reinterpretation, and other emancipatory endeavours.[13]

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 In the act of exercising gender as an analytic category, Scott first asks two basic theoretical questions: “How does gender work in relationships? How does gender give meaning to the organization and perception of historical knowledge?” (Scott 1986, 1055). It was only later in her “Revised Preface” to the second edition of her 1988 volume, Gender and the Politics of History (Scott 1999), that Scott detailed the exacting questions that were requisite to move from theory to praxis. These are:

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories “man” and “woman” varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions. (Scott 1999, xi)

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 For Scott, these enquiries in the key of gender helped to detect prescribed meanings in addition to deciphering the intricacies of power pervading such relations. All of these behaviours and movements, when filtered through the lens of gender, aided in detecting how misapprehensions that have affected women were configured.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 Scott observed: “When historians look for the ways in which the concept of gender legitimizes and constructs social relationships, they develop insight into the reciprocal nature of gender and society and into the particular and contextually specific ways in which politics constructs gender and gender constructs politics” (Scott 1986, 1070). These investigations helped Scott to confirm that the official status of definitions and decrees of gender were not sacrosanct. This realization implied that they could be realigned to support gendered relations that would not only foster equity but also allow divergent modalities of gender.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 An engaging comparison can be made between the work of Scott and her comrade in dissension, Judith Butler, about their respective views on the category of gender and gender difference. A further and even more compelling account is the manner in which Butler described their differences in an essay, “Speaking Up, Talking Back: Joan Scott’s Critical Feminism” (Butler 2011), which appeared in a book that Butler co-edited with Elizabeth Scott.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 Butler relates that it was she who was most opposed to the term “sexual difference” (Butler 1993, 21). She had understood sexual difference as basically sustaining heteronormativity and thereby reinforcing the static categories of a binary gender system. In taking issue with this construct, Butler began to use the term “queer” in her attempt both to disempower its former abusive connotations and also to disconnect binary gender dogmatism. Butler intends to employ “queer” as galvanizing a site of contestation. As a term, she regards “queer” as distorted or “twisted” in its former use, where it indicated an insult or a degrading epithet. Instead, Butler intends to mobilize “queering” by supporting its deconstruction of fixed meanings and directing them toward political engagements and alliances. But Butler is wary of any meaning that might assume control and dictate new rules or norms. Instead, Butler suggests: “The term will be revised, dispelled, rendered obsolete to the extent that it yields to the demands which resist the term precisely because of the exclusions by which it is mobilized” (Butler 1993b, 17).

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 In contrast, Scott did not regard “gender” as having any assertion of “truth” let alone metaphysical status. As a result, Scott considers “sexual difference” as a particular structure located within a historical context, which is not immutable. Her approach was to discover the schemes at work in cultural and political manoeuvres so as to disclose and challenge the means and claims of these constructs.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 Though there are a number of similarities in the work of Butler and Scott, it would appear that their views on the issue of “sexual difference” were dissimilar. This difference, however, between Butler and Scott did not lead to any major friction between them. In fact, Butler admits that Scott was one of her close interlocutors and she describes her own position in relation to Scott’s:

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 And though I certainly set out to upset normative accounts of gender, and to question the restriction of binary thinking on our conceptualization of gender, I worried that sexual difference was itself normative within feminism… Although these were, and remain, different approaches, the commitment to coming up with a critical feminism clearly bound us together in a common project, one that we understood at the time to require and to specify poststructuralism. (Butler 2011, 21)

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 Butler and Scott were clearly mutually supportive of each other’s work. Their theories encouraged many feminists to follow their lead in common project that advocated implementing innovative attitudes and theories on issues involving sex, gender, and the way they are entangled with notions of truth and power.[14] They would be, however, severely taken to task by religious authorities for their work, which was judged as being offensive proposals.

The Vatican’s Objections to Gender

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 It was the unsettling of gender norms and roles by a strategic manoeuvre of the term “gender,” as undertaken by both Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott that upset fundamentalist Christians in the United States. It also troubled the late Pope John Paul II, as well as conservative elements in other religions, such as Islam. Butler describes her astonishment when she learned of the manoeuvrings of the Vatican in the lead-up to the Beijing world conference on the status of women in 1995: “The Vatican not only denounced the term ‘gender’ as a code for homosexuality, but insisted that the platform language [of the conference] return to the notion of sex, in an apparent effort to secure a link between femininity and maternity as a naturally and divinely ordained necessity” (Butler 2001, 423). Joan Wallach Scott, an American historian and critical theorist of gender, reported on another occurrence in the United States around the same time, when a sub-committee of the U.S. House of Representatives entertained submissions that warned morality and family values were under attack by “gender feminists” (Scott 1999, ix). It would appear that both the Vatican and the neo-conservative groups in the United States had been informed of Butler’s, if not Scott’s work as well, and their respective questioning of traditional gender roles.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 Scott reports that the American speakers in the House of Representatives, in their own depiction of this threatening situation at the Beijing conference, described it as having been hijacked by so-called “gender feminists” (1999, ix). They further portrayed such women as believing “everything that we think of as natural, including manhood and womanhood, motherhood and fatherhood, heterosexuality, marriage and family [as] only culturally created ‘fixes,’ originated by men to oppress women” (Scott 1999, ix). Nonetheless, in one sense, these foes of a disruptive use of gender were perceptive because they did sense that “gender,” as it was being used by Butler and Scott, had become, for a time, a key term for women who no longer wished to assume that biology dictated destiny.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 It is worth noting, however, that the United Nations, in statements issued after the Beijing conference, reflecting on the findings of a special group designated to investigate the usage of the term “gender,” did not capitulate to the Vatican’s pressure. A motion at the UN was passed to the effect that the term “gender” would be retained, in accordance with its accepted usage in numerous other UN forums and documents. The UN declared that there was no indication of any new meaning or connotation of the term “gender” that differed from prior usage. Nevertheless, one could well ask, what is this ordinary, commonly accepted prior usage of “gender” that the United Nations accepts? A careful reading of the UN conference resolutions indicates that “gender” refers to the basic differences between men and women that are simply taken for granted. It could thus appear that the UN was not necessarily on the side of the alleged “gender feminists” but still regarded gender as a neutral descriptive marker, designating the male and female of the species as belonging to different biologically determined sexes. The Vatican nonetheless continued to promote a conservative alliance with other countries that opposed what they declared to be anti-marriage, anti-family, and pro-death initiatives.

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 For a time, there were numerous scholars and activists who wondered if it was worth continuing the struggle for gender and women’s rights at the UN, so effectively organized has the opposition become (Posadskaya-Vanderbeck 2004). The Vatican nonetheless continued to promote a conservative block and formed alliances with other countries to oppose what they deemed as anti-marriage, anti-family, and anti-procreation measures. In recent years, however, such movements have not been quite so effective, though they have certainly not disappeared. These tactics, however, were politically targeted to keep women in their proper maternal place, as the unsullied guardians of a nation’s morality. It is extremely telling that, in many of these religions, a nation’s fall from grace is often blamed on women’s waywardness, especially sexual deviance. As a result, women need to be rescued from their fallen ways and returned to supervision and subservience. Gender, as it is interpreted by Joan Scott, continues to oppose such a divinely ordained decree. Many activist women in the study of religion have followed and qualified the work of Joan Wallach Scott and Judith Butler.

Further Adventures of Sex and Gender in the Study of Religion

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 There were a number of women scholars in religion who had closely followed the development of the term “gender” and evaluated its repercussions for the study of religion. One of the more respected scholars is Darlene Juschka. In the articles, chapters, and books that Juschka has published (1999; 2005; 2014; and 2016), she has written from a distinctly discursive perspective, and so her work is particularly relevant for this paper. In her early work, Juschka was influenced by secular women scholars such as Judith Butler, Christine Delphy, Linda Nicholson, and Joan Scott, to name the most prominent. In her essay, “The Category of Gender in the Study of Religion” (1999), Juschka presented an outline of the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, sampling diverse theories on gender. These included the work of an anthropologist, Sherry Ortner (1974; 1996); a sociologist and psychoanalyst, Nancy Chodorow (1978); a psychologist, Carol Gilligan (1982); and a philosopher, Moira Gatens (1991). Their respective viewpoints illustrated a variety of innovative theories concerning the dynamics of sex and gender. Yet such views were not necessarily in agreement. In her essay (Juschka 1999) Juschka assessed two recent books in the study of religion whose titles featured the term “gender.” While Juschka did observe some significant changes, she also addressed definite deficiencies in the theorizing of “gender” in the study of religion.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 It was the journeys that Juschka undertook with secular feminist theorists that helped her to reach a number of conclusions that were crucial for her own understanding of the ways that both “sex” and “gender” were being renegotiated. In agreement with French sociologist Christine Delphy (1992), Juschka acknowledged that the separation between sex and gender, as initially advocated by American anthropologist Gayle Rubin (1984), had definite misleading consequences. One was that in assigning sex solely to the biological, and gender to the cultural, a dichotomy had been created. Juschka then argued that, while sex had become an independent category, identified with a naturalistic order, gender, in contrast, was relegated to an unstable position, reflecting shifting cultural attitudes. Juschka was also influenced by American philosopher Linda Nicholson, who regards this elevated status of sex as promoting “biological foundationalism” (1994, 82). As a consequence, gender, viewed as a construct, did not appear to be in any position to subvert the predominance that was thus accorded to sex.

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 Juschka preferred to accept Delphy’s and Nicholson’s own views that sex and gender are both socially constructed categories and, as such, are both open to critical appraisal and change. Given this position, it became apparent that a major shift was necessary if the interactions of sex and gender were to be evaluated more accurately. Such a move, however, would not involve the task of simply deconstructing each category separately. Instead, a rigorous examination of the dynamics that marked the inter-relationships of both sex and gender was required. Such observations, together with Juschka’s own evaluations of these feminist scholars, set the stage for Juschka to inspect whether similar developments had perhaps occurred in the study of religion. Her aim is not simply to deconstruct distinctive gender roles but to work toward reducing the damage to women that divisive sexual identities can inflict.

101 Leave a comment on paragraph 101 0 In her article (1999), Juschka also undertook to review two edited volumes: firstly, John S. Hawley’s book, Fundamentalism and Gender (1994), and then Ursula King’s Gender and Religion (1995). It soon became evident that Juschka was disappointed with what she found. In Juschka’s opinion, great care needs to be exercised in the subtle process of disentangling the multiple influences in any comparative study where sex and gender are involved. Instead of generalizations that result in a singular, sweeping diagnosis, what is required is a precise analysis of a particular situation. In a discursive mode, such an analysis would pay close attention to personal, social, temporal, and geographical variants. Juschka acknowledges that such a detailed investigation would help to define particular regional differences and to prevent generalizations.

102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 Juschka’s review of Hawley’s book on fundamentalism detects two major problems that compromise his study. She is first concerned that the term “gender,” as understood by Hawley, is taken for granted, where a basic heterosexual formula is firmly entrenched. There is no attempt to question the history or structure of gender with its specific properties and values, let alone explore any intermingling of gender with sex. As a result of this negligence in theorizing gender, a western model, with its gendered binary division is automatically assumed.

103 Leave a comment on paragraph 103 0 Juschka infers that such a lack of awareness occurs because it is not actually gender, but fundamentalism, that is of prime interest to Hawley. Yet even on this topic, Hawley does not impress Juschka. His second failing in her eyes is that he presents fundamentalism as a static category. Hawley situates degrees of fundamentalism spaced along a continuum that is spread between liberal and conservative extremes. As a result, this continuum is mapped in terms of western definitions. The problem then arises that the non-western religions studied will suffer from the imposition of western categories. This occurs at the expense of non-western religions’ own distinct orientations and definitions. For Juschka, the word “gender,” as treated in Hawley’s book, does not appear to introduce any new understanding of the terms “sex” and “gender” but actually reinforces the standardized existent system.

104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 The second book, edited by Ursula King (1995), does seem initially to receive Juschka’s approval because, in her Introduction, King does acknowledge that gender is culturally constructed. King is also aware that there has been a distinction drawn between sex and gender. Yet it appears that King, instead of examining both of these categories and their interactions, intends to maintain a separation. Juschka concedes that the essays in King’s book do raise intriguing issues about women, gender, and religion, especially as they pertain to sexist ideology and religious hierarchies. Nonetheless, Juschka is troubled that King fails to confront the issue of sex and gender.[15] Juschka states that, by not theorizing the “bedrock” naturalism of sex (1999, 103), gender, as it appears in King’s study, remains in complicity with sex. This, in turn, supports the reification, rather than a deconstruction of sex (Juschka 1999, 104).

105 Leave a comment on paragraph 105 0 In responding to these obstacles, Juschka remarks that such an unanalyzed category of sex/gender could become extremely problematic. The main result would be a type of biological foundationalism, where gender continues to yield to the primacy of sex. Another possibility is that gender, separated from sex, is left alone to languish and is understood as being of lesser significance. In Juschka’s view, this latter separation could sustain a form of gender polarity, such as Prudence Allen proposed earlier in the section on Aristotle (1995, 81). It is also not especially difficult to detect in these formulations a latent influence of Aristotle’s devaluations of women, also described earlier by Allen, as lurking in the shadows. Linda Nicholson aptly summarizes the basic influences affecting this situation:

106 Leave a comment on paragraph 106 0 When the Bible or Aristotle is the source of authority about how the relationship between women and men is to be understood, any asserted differences between women and men are to be justified primarily through reference to these texts. When, however, the texts of Aristotle and the Bible lose their authority, nature and the body become the means for grounding any perceived distinction between women and men. This means that to the extent that there is a perceived need for the male/female distinction to be constituted as a deep and significant one, the body must “speak” this distinction loudly, that is, in every aspect of its being. The consequence is a two-sex view of the body. (1994, 88)

107 Leave a comment on paragraph 107 0 In a seemingly exasperated rejoinder, Juschka inquires why this continued usage of a two-sex gendered dichotomy has to be constantly assigned to human sexual difference (Juschka 1995, 99). It is as if Linda Nicholson’s diagnosis of biological foundationalism and her further criticisms of constructionism is a response to Juschka’s query. Juschka initially defers to Nicholson’s analysis, which she views as clarifying the two inconsistent viewpoints on sex and gender that have been inherited from the “second wave of feminism” in the 1960s and 1970s. These are mainly due to Gayle Rubin’s decision to locate sex and gender in “separate social existences” (1984, 308).

108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 Juschka is also in accord with Nicholson’s criticism on the topic of sexual foundationalism (Nicholson 1994, 79) and also with her second criticism, that of a simplistic social constructionism. In the latter approach, gender is regarded as being culturally created, implying that can be simply chosen. Nicholson describes this as a “coatrack” model of gender identity. In this context, she portrays the body as a type of coatrack where cultural characteristics can be hung, i.e., constructed, or assumed at will, in a non-deterministic way (Nicholson, 1994, 81). Nicholson, however, does not approve of these moves: “Biological foundationalism and the coatrack view of identity in general stand in the way of our truly understanding differences among women, differences among men, and differences regarding who gets counted as either” (Nicholson 1999, 82).

109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 It is in the final pages of her 1999 article that Juschka reviews the results of her own survey of current developments in the study of gender. Perhaps her severest commentary, however, occurs toward the end of Juschka’s article. She declares: “Feminism cannot counter the hegemonic understanding of sexed behavior if it continues to use a category which was created by that hegemony in order to oppress/repress and control the female, and in that women” (Juschka 1999, 103). For Juschka, it is imperative that the dialectical interactions of the categories of sex and gender, or “gender/sex,” as she henceforth prefers to call them―possibly as a rebuff of Gayle Rubin’s work―become the central elements in further discourse analyses of gender. As such, they not only investigate the power dynamics at work in any interaction but also help to clarify the role of institutions that support or even dictate their terms of reference.

110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 In her later published works (2014 [2009]; 2016; 2017), Juschka both recapitulates and amplifies her findings. In an article that basically surveys the developments in the 1980s and 1990s, “What is Gender? What is Sex? What is Gender/Sex?” (2009 [2005], 245–56), Juschka acknowledges the work of both Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as influences, though with certain qualifications (2009 [2005], 246–47). She views Butler with approval for introducing the notion of performativity, which rejects the static category of “gender identity” and posits that gender is “performatively constructed” (Butler 1990, 33). While Foucault, however, is credited for his discursive analysis of power, Juschka faults his lack of attention to women’s situation.

111 Leave a comment on paragraph 111 0 Juschka also outlines the implications of this major change for the study of religion, especially as it employs a discourse analysis: “The interrelated categories of gender and sex provide a means and a way to understand not only the how and why of religions, but equally the how and why of social organization and the manufacturing of culture in and of itself” (2009 [2005], 251). This will enable, not only a careful investigation of cultural systems with their attendant structures, including religion, but also the means to discern possibilities of transformation.

112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 It is in the conclusion of her article (Juschka 2009 [2005]) that she returns to the issue of sex and gender. She appraises the effects that could result from changes in religion in relation to women. At the same time, Juschka remains resolute that any reanimated categories of gender and sex, together with their complex interchanges, “must be submitted to an ongoing social and historical analysis” (2009 [2005], 256). Juschka also warns that it is imperative for feminist scholars in religion to maintain vigilance in order to intervene in any attempted manoeuvres of power, which are still endemic in religious institutions, with their regimes of exclusion and prohibition.

The End of Sexual Difference?

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 While Juschka had been applying discourse analysis to gender performances in religion, all was not well with gender in the secular realm. Butler began to question its relevance. Toward the end of her essay, “The End of Sexual Difference?” published in Feminist Consequences: Theory for the New Century (2001, 414–34), Judith Butler supplies a concise overview for the future of both sexual difference and gender. It encompasses a view that will introduce more diverse arrangements of sexual difference than had, thus far, been developed, particularly in relation to the female subject. Butler observes:

114 Leave a comment on paragraph 114 0 This human will not be “one,” indeed, will have no ultimate form, but it is one that is constantly negotiating sexual difference in a way that has no natural or necessary consequences for the social organization of sexuality. By insisting that this will be a persistent and open question, I mean to suggest that we make no decision on what sexual difference is, but leave that question open, troubling, unresolved, propitious. (2001, 432)

115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 In the following years, Butler examined other emerging issues of gender that had appeared, including developments in queer theory. Surveying the territory, Butler remarks that “the term ‘gender’ has become a site of contest for various interests” (2001, 425). She especially situates this observation in relation to queer theory, stating that: “[S]exual difference is clearly out of favour within some reigning paradigms of queer theory” (2004, 426). She does not intend, however, to assess the merits of these competing factions, nor to accept any precise definitions. Butler believed that it was more important to scrutinize the various meanings that the word “gender” has acquired its various guises. She declared:

116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 My purpose is not to win a debate, but to try to understand why the terms are considered so important to those who use them, and how we might reconcile this set of felt necessities as they come into contact with one another. I am here as interested in the theoretical reasons proffered for using one framework at the expense of another as in the institutional possibilities that the terms alternatively open and foreclose in varying contexts. (2001, 416)

117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 Butler also sought to identify the ways that a certain term could alter it gender’s meaning and to appraise the results that ensued. She nonetheless cautioned that, while the meanings of terms can be disputed, they need not necessarily be discarded. Butler’s main concern was that, if only words deemed acceptable were employed, the energy and curiosity sparked by challenging outdated definitions would be lost. At the same time, however, Butler made an astute evaluation of the present situation that raised the conversation to a higher level. She stated:

118 Leave a comment on paragraph 118 0 I want to suggest that the debates concerning the theoretical priority of sexual difference to gender, of gender to sexuality, of sexuality to gender are all crosscut by another kind of problem, a problem that sexual difference poses, namely, the permanent difficulty of determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end. (2001, 426)

119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 This observation certainly marked a shift away from the previous preoccupations with analysing the meanings of gender and sexual difference, though they will not definitively disappear from Butler’s work. In pursuing this issue, Butler then inquired: “What does this way of thinking sexual difference do to our understanding of gender?” (2001, 427). One response could be that it would indicate that gender would no longer remain at the centre of Butler’s attention. She could move the topic of “gender” into completely different terrain. This would also place her at a distance from those countries where gender would continue as a contentious site. In these domains, gender norms will continue to function, not simply as regulative ideals, but often as fixed and non-negotiable items (2001, 429–31). Butler, however, will expand her range of interests to include social and political territory.

120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 The new topics that had emerged now propose issues such as vulnerability, precariousness, precarity, grievability, and the conditions that support a “livable/bearable life”. Such topics introduced serious ethical and political dilemmas. It is in Frames of War (2009) that Butler introduces this change of direction, acknowledging that she has moved from her main concern from sexuality and gender to the politics of war (Butler 2009, 1–32). She states: “Precariousness and precarity are intersecting concepts. Lives are by definition precarious: they can be expunged at will or by accident; their persistence is in no sense guaranteed. … Precarity designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death” (2009, 27). Precariousness and precarity in their different ways specify the vulnerability of human existence. Such matters can also determine whose lives count and who are excluded. Yet similarly to her views on gender matters, Butler does not seek definitions or watertight solutions. Instead, she supports a vigilant awareness that would detect and carefully scrutinize any restrictive pronouncements and their harmful effects.

121 Leave a comment on paragraph 121 0 Such a move is in keeping with Butler’s thinking that began when she first replied to criticisms of Gender Trouble (1990). One major concession she made was that initially she may have played too fast and loose with her views on gender, materiality, and the body. This was clarified in her new “Preface” to the tenth anniversary edition of Gender Trouble (1999 [1990], vii–xxvi). She stated that “Gender Trouble sought to uncover the ways in which the very thinking of what is possible in gendered life is foreclosed by certain habitual and violent presumptions” (1999, viii). She also emphasized the main purpose of this exercise:

122 Leave a comment on paragraph 122 0 The point was not to prescribe a new gendered way of life that might then serve as a model for readers of a text. Rather the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized. One might wonder what use “opening the possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible, illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.” (1999, viii)

123 Leave a comment on paragraph 123 0 It was in a 1998 interview with Irene Costera Meijer and Baukje Prins that Butler stated in simple words the incentive that lies at the heart of her commitment to this humanitarian cause: “My work has always been undertaken with the aim to expand and enhance a field of possibilities for bodily life” (Butler 1988, 277). One could agree that this remark would remain at the centre of Butler’s work, where, in addition to “mattering,” the body will now feature as an element of central importance.

124 Leave a comment on paragraph 124 0 It was no surprise, then, when in the 1999 “Preface” to its tenth anniversary edition, Butler named the topics that she would then include in Gender Trouble if she were to rewrite the volume. They are extremely relevant topics: transgender and intersexuality, racialized sexuality, gender dimorphism, and taboos against miscegenation (1999, xxvi). She also addressed queer studies in more detail. Butler’s conclusion to the preface makes it emphatically clear how her activist sympathies are being mobilized in both ethical and political directions. Her focus is especially on the vulnerability of those whose bodies are excluded from the heteronormative regime. She concluded: “This book is written then as part of the cultural life of a collective that had, and will continue to have, some success in increasing the possibilities of a livable life for those who live, or try to live, on the sexual [and racial] margins” (1999, xxvi). Such a statement indicated a decisive change in Butler’s approach to the suffering and conflict she was witnessing in the world.

The Demise of Gender’s “Cutting Edge”

125 Leave a comment on paragraph 125 0 Joan Scott’s passionate interest in “gender” also began to wane in the 1990s, though not necessarily as a consequence of the previous Reagan years, with their conservative backlash. Its decline occurred because there was a lack of the enthusiasm that had previously initiated new ways of thinking. In a “Preface” to her revised edition of Gender and the Politics of History, Scott admitted that, as the 1990s came to a close, “gender” seems to have lost critical expertise (Scott 1999 [1988], xii). Scott concedes that her 1988 edition was indeed a product of the 1980s, the era when “gender” had become a trouble-maker, disquieting many with its provocative statements about gender and its inequitable rules. Gender analysis had disorganized customary gender arrangements by indicating discrepancies between distinct male and female codes of behaviour. Gender roles were no longer accepted as definitive, but it would seem that there was still much work to be done. The shift away from feminism in the 1990s, however, was disheartening. Scott turned her attention elsewhere, continuing her disruptive tactics in other contested areas, such as academic freedom.

126 Leave a comment on paragraph 126 0 In an article entitled “Gender: Still a Useful Category of Analysis?” (2010), where she revisits her original article on this topic (Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, 1988), Scott nevertheless takes the measure of what has been achieved and what needs to be done. She states bluntly: “[D]espite much innovative research on sexuality, gender―at least in historical discourse―most often refers to an enduring male/female opposition, a normatively (if not distinctly biological) heterosexual coupling, even when homosexuality is the topic being addressed” (Scott 2010, 10). Scott expresses her disquiet that the sex/gender binary remains extant, even though a generation of scholarship has attempted to dislodge the fixture of sexual difference. Her conclusion is frank. “Gender is, I would argue, the study of the vexed relationship (around sexuality) between the normal and the psychic, the attempt at once to collectivize fantasy and to use it for some political or social end, whether that end is nation-building or family structure” (2010, 13). The implication is that gender could reclaim its status as being useful, if it were to summon the strength to undertake a self-critical diagnosis.

127 Leave a comment on paragraph 127 0 It is intriguing that Scott has even provided the requirements for engaging in such a task but, surprisingly, it does not specify gender as playing a major role. In an edited book, Women’s Studies on the Edge (2008), Scott invited a number of respected feminist scholars to provide their views as to how women’s studies and its flagship, “gender,” had gone astray. She also requested them to offer their recommendations for different future strategies.

128 Leave a comment on paragraph 128 0 Scott fully supported a strategy of turning “feminism’s critical edge against itself” (Scott 2008, 8). She observed that feminists had previously employed such a critique on numerous issues. Perhaps the most crucial contemporary questions that she posed were: “What does it mean to make ‘woman’ the object of our studies? What are the exclusions performed by insisting on a homogeneous category of ‘women?’” (Scott 2008, 7). In their diverse responses, the contributors were not hesitant. Criticisms came from all directions. Such a dispersion of responses from the invited scholars could easily lead to dissatisfaction or even disinterest with many scholars debating what were the most urgent issues. The following statements reflect their respective suggestions.

129 Leave a comment on paragraph 129 0 Political theorist Wendy Brown from the University of California, Berkeley, states that, while the original aim of critiquing sexism with its exclusion of women was initially indispensable, it now seems to have run its course. In her contribution, “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies” (Brown 2008, 17–29), she supplies various reasons for its decline. Among them, Brown names a fragmenting into many subcultures, a subsequent lack of coherence leading to differences of opinion, all contributed to diminishing its former appeal.

130 Leave a comment on paragraph 130 0 In contrast, Robin Weigman, Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University, examines the institutionalization of women’s studies, where standardization has sanctioned a mode of academic identity politics that can easily become exclusionary. This, in turn, displaces the dynamism needed to engage with pluralist and political challenges. At the heart of the problem, Weigman also identifies “The opposition between the political as a set of social movement ideals and the institutional as a project of academic transformation” (Weigman 2008, 40). These seemingly incompatible aspirations inculcate a divisive climate that resists an easy solution.

131 Leave a comment on paragraph 131 0 Afsaneh Najmabadi is a Professor of History and of Studies of women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. Her contribution describes problematic issues such as misrecognition that can demean scholars. Identifying herself as a scholar of postcolonial feminism from Iran, Najmabadi finds it difficult to name suitable categories that describe her situation, as she is reluctant to accept imposed hybrid or other incompatible identities. In addition, as both a teacher and scholar, Najmabadi encounters situations of risk that could still confine to stereotypes. She appreciates the difficult question posed by Talal Asad: “How do our discursive intervention s articulate the politics of difference in the spaces defined by the modern state?” (Asad, quoted by Najmabadi, “Teaching and Research in Unavailable Intersections,” 2008, 74). Her main dilemma seems to be how to avoid new categories that can be just as restrictive. In concluding, Najmabadi prefers to identify with Judith Butler’s notion of “disclaiming which is no simple activity … as a form of affirmative resistance” (Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” 1991, 15).

132 Leave a comment on paragraph 132 0 At the same time, other papers in the volume indicate failures to address time-worn social issues that implicate gender. Saba Mahmood, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, reminds readers in her article, “Feminism and Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War of Terror” (Mahmood 2008, 81–114) of the easy slide into complicity during the period of the “Iraq war” with its unjust and derogatory treatment of Muslims. Women, especially, were regarded as strangers to democratic values. They were identified as being in need of remedial reconstruction of their religious values. This was a case of deliberate ignorant exclusion on a grand scale (2008, 82).

133 Leave a comment on paragraph 133 0 Gayle Salamon, professor of English at Princeton University, raises a question at the beginning of her article, “Transfeminism and the Future of Gender” (2008, 115–36), of “transfeminism.” She asks: “What is the relationship between women’s studies, feminism, and the study of transgenderism and other normative genders?” (Salamon 2008, 115). She follows this by remarking that trans teaching and scholarship have not necessarily been received with open arms in women’s studies. She observes that “transgenderism” is perhaps the latest addition to a list of disparate identities, e.g., women of colour, lesbians, queer, and sex radicals, who have not been admitted into the closed ranks of gender studies with their exclusive feminist categories (Salamon 2008, 116). Salamon suggests that trans studies could rejuvenate gender studies. This would result from the fact that trans categories do not fit easily into established “gender” definitions. Just as “gender” disrupted the staid rules and regulations that had governed gender binarism, transgender studies could deliver an invigorating debate that “requires a new articulation of the relation between sex and gender, male and female” (Salamon 2008, 117).

134 Leave a comment on paragraph 134 0 In her interview of Professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, Spelman College, Atlanta), Dr. Evelynn M. Hammonds (Dean of Harvard College & Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies) investigates the effectiveness of “black women’s studies.” The interview is entitled “Whither Black Women’s Studies” (2008 [1997], 155–67). In her response, Guy-Sheftall states that though, there are a number of historically black colleges with programs in women’s studies, the problem is that they still remain scarce. In accounting for this discrepancy, she further replies that “there is still the assumption that women’s studies is not critical to the to the education of students at these colleges” (2008, 156).

135 Leave a comment on paragraph 135 0 This has resulted in the fact that few students have been exposed to these courses. At the same time, many African American students avoided taking classes in women’s studies because they did not pay sufficient attention to race and class (2008, 158). While Guy-Sheftal and Hammonds agree that such studies have been beneficial, particularly in pluralizing women’s experiences, and in reconceptualizing feminism (2008, 159), they both emphasize the need to include issues of race and religion, as well as global problems beyond the confines of the West (2008, 165). They also worried (at the time this interview initially took place [1997]), that “black women’s studies had fallen into the same trap as women’s studies of conflating women with gender” (2008, 165). It would thus appear that “black women’s studies” has experienced a number of similar issues that Scott names in her Introduction to the volume Women’s Studies on the Edge (Scott 2008, 1–13).

136 Leave a comment on paragraph 136 0 Finally, Carolyn [Biddy] Martin, president of Amherst College since 2011, concedes that women’s studies is now established in academia with the usual perks and routines that accompany such territory. In one sense, this is can be viewed as an achievement. But Martin insists that complacency and insularity must not be allowed to dominate. She agrees with Scott that gender has perhaps outlasted its period of usefulness. Martin recommends that it is time for a radical change, so that there is access to more interdisciplinary studies, including such hard sciences as biology. This change would support a form of open-ended and unpredictable rejuvenation where universities no longer codify curricula material nor expect precise outcomes. In concluding, while Martin affirms that women’s studies remain a vital element in university education, it may not necessarily be studied in the type of institutionalized packaging that has emerged in universities.

137 Leave a comment on paragraph 137 0 It is Joan Scott herself, who, at the end of her “Introduction” (Scott 2012, 13), endorses a revolutionary change where intellectual connections would be reassembled. She introduces a cross-disciplinary approach, which she promotes as yet being indeterminate; one that would be “on the edge of discovering new possibilities” (2012, 13). Scott describes this state as exciting. She also admits that it is precarious, because there are no guarantees (2012, 13). Two vital questions nevertheless remain unanswered. The first is whether “gender” and “sexual difference” have become outmoded terms and should be replaced by other words and modes of experimentation. The second is whether there is still sufficient energy to collaborate in this perilous venture or allow itself to be submissively absorbed into what looms as a terra incognita.

Butler’s Revisions of Gender, Reflections on Queer, and Trans

138 Leave a comment on paragraph 138 0 Another important document that sheds light on this transition period is a more recent interview with Butler by Sara Ahmed (2016) that specifically revisits Gender Trouble and its earlier revisions. One of the most significant statements by Butler is her response to an enquiry by Ahmed about vulnerability―a category that has become seminal in Butler’s later work. In a retrospective inclination, Butler responds: “We are assigned genders, and that assignment is a tremendous discursive practice that acts upon us. We are vulnerable to that assignment and subject to it from the start, at the start, against our will” (2016, 485). As if in qualification, Butler also states that, because the terms of such gender normativity can function in an autocratic fashion, they need no longer be accepted as irrevocable―“one can now decline, deride, and ‘queer’ them” (2016, 485).

139 Leave a comment on paragraph 139 0 Butler has now determined that henceforth, “gender,” from both a theoretical and material perspective, will not be completely erased. But neither will it be permitted to dominate. It will feature as one element among many in Butler’s more expansive frame of reference. With such a project in mind, Butler then discusses with Ahmed the future impact of words such as “feminist” and “queer.” She affirms: “I would not deny or refuse such terms. I would only dedicate myself to not letting them become ossifying in their effects” (2016, 488). Butler’s words on the following pages confirm the commitment she has undertaken to ensure that, “these terms … have to be passed along, … if they are to remain terms we need in order to live well” (2016, 488). It is in this context that Butler adds names of the conditions that would help to render life livable. They include equality, freedom, and justice. It is to help attain these outcomes for the vulnerable, i.e., especially those who have been excluded by gender norms and by other exclusive political irregularities, that Butler’s future work will be directed.

140 Leave a comment on paragraph 140 0 During recent years, however, an interesting anomaly has developed with regard to Butler’s work. Regardless of her ongoing support of attempts to “depathologize queer and trans lives” (2016, 483), she has been the subject of a number of criticisms. Butler’s own position on “queer”, however, has stayed basically in keeping with her definition in Bodies that Matter:

141 Leave a comment on paragraph 141 0 [It] will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes, and perhaps also yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively. (Butler 1993, 228)

142 Leave a comment on paragraph 142 0 At this time, “queer” had been deployed initially to counter the stabilized, if not rigid, imposition of roles and prescribed identities. Yet in her interview with Sara Ahmed (Sexualities, 2016), Butler’s comments reveal thoughts that may have led to a misinterpretation, if not dissent at her words.

143 Leave a comment on paragraph 143 0 In a retrospective reflection, Butler describes how she was somewhat perplexed with the advent in “Queer Studies” of a need to introduce a “queer identity” (2016, 489). This demand to identify oneself within the parameters of queer and trans configurations was worrisome. Butler admits that she had been more inclined toward a type of queer work that helped to promote alliances but not to emphasize identity. However, Butler did appreciate this dilemma, and reflected: “But then again, I have to ask myself: why should we not be startled by the directions that a term like ‘queer’ takes? It has travelled far and wide, and who knows what next permutation it will have?” (Butler 2016, 489).

144 Leave a comment on paragraph 144 0 Yet even further complications were to intervene in connection with “transgender” protests. Butler states that many “trans” and “intersex” people, and their supporters, had charged that ‘queer’ has become restrictive, even exclusive term, by not acknowledging a “trans” way of living (2016, 490). In her response Butler admits that versions of “queer” have been justly accused with being “presumptively white and classist.” As if to provide a balance to this situation, Butler also states her respect for the growing QPoC (Queer People of Colour) movement that takes into consideration colonialism, class, gender, race, and sexuality in its studies (2016, 491–92).

145 Leave a comment on paragraph 145 0 Finally, there was the issue of identity itself. As part of her reflections, Butler poses a question:

146 Leave a comment on paragraph 146 0 If “queer” means that we are generally people whose gender and sexuality is “unfixed” then what room is there in a queer movement for those who understand themselves as requiring – and wanting a clear gender category within a binary frame? … Many people with intersexed [and “trans”] conditions want to be categorized within a binary system and do not want to be romanticized as existing as “beyond the categories.” (Butler 2016, 490)

147 Leave a comment on paragraph 147 0 In answering her hypothetical question in the above quotation, Butler does not dismiss the claim that for some “trans” people the issue of autonomy is important. She does not interpret this request as individualist, but as an issue of involving recognition. In Butler’s view, all of the above controversies are in need of very careful deliberation.

148 Leave a comment on paragraph 148 0 In many ways, it is the proliferation of disparate queer and trans identity claims, including “gender non-binary,” “gender-fluid,” and “gender-neutral,” that also appear to have resulted in these disagreements. It is well in this context to quote the wise words of Susan Stryker in her Introduction to Transgender Studies: “Neither feminism nor queer studies, at whose intersection transgender studies first emerged in the academy, were quite up to that task of making sense of the lived complexity of contemporary gender at the close of the last century” (2006, 7). It seems that today, as gender becomes qualified by more currently appropriate words, there is also a generation gap. Butler herself understands these issues as they relate to ways of addressing others that would assist in making life livable. Butler concludes her reflections with a further profound question that addresses the heart of the issue.

149 Leave a comment on paragraph 149 0 How do we think about bringing feminism into a closer relation with queer and trans and with anti-racist struggles without letting those who conduct trans phobic diatribes monopolize the meaning of feminism, or those who continue to believe that feminists must continue to defend themselves against the claims of cultural difference? Can we still own queer – or any of these terms – without letting them monopolize difference, allowing for a certain movement of thought that is grateful to its critics for letting us think something new, that is glad to be in the mix of emerging alliance and not the ultimate sign of its unity? (Butler 2016, 492)

150 Leave a comment on paragraph 150 0 This excursion into the complex interactions that are fundamental to contemporary debates on gender has been undertaken to provide an overview of its most compelling issues. During the years since the 1990s gender has morphed into many divergent identity claims. There are have been ugly clashes between anti-trans feminists and transsexuals. At the same time, there are also other queer groups who remain content within a capacious and diverse LBBTQI umbrella. Many of the young prefer to identify simply as nonbinary, allowing more fluid forms of sexuality and gender. In the background there are the theorists such as Judith Butler who have attempted to provide insights into the extremely problematic issues that abound without imposing any absolutist declarations. Yet very little of these developments has steeped into religious literature or influenced practice in this period until quite recently. In the concluding section of this paper, I will address certain of the inroads that have slowly come to be acknowledged.

Gender, Trans, and the Predicament of Religion

151 Leave a comment on paragraph 151 0 In October 2018, the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, announced that he was cancelling accreditation of courses in gender studies in two universities; Central European University and Eötvös Lorand University. He is quoted as stating: “the government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk of culturally constructed genders rather than biological sexes.” Shortly afterwards, the New York Times reported that Donald Trump was considering a similar intervention where he would announce a definition of gender that would be “grounded in science, objective, and administrable.” In one sense, these statements do not bode well for gender, even if they are reminiscent of the early debates about gender as detailed in this article’s above analyses. There was, however, an immediate refutation of Trump’s proposal in the New York Times from Anne Fausto-Sterling, emerita professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Brown University, to the effect that: “It has long been known that there is no single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories―male or female” (New York Times, 25 October 2018). While the term “religion” did not feature in either of these right-wing politicians’ remarks, there is no doubt that the influence of religion played some part in an appeal to their base.

152 Leave a comment on paragraph 152 0 There are a number of responses that could be directed at such a viewpoint with its biased emphasis on heteronormativity. One would be that of distress in queer and trans people about the impact such a stance could have on “gender” variants and their manifestations. Another would be to inquire as to whether it is worth experiencing another round of interminable debate about a conundrum that has been resolved in many quarters. Finally, it could be asked if such an attitude foreshadows the end of gender’s contribution to knowledge. Is it time to move beyond “gender” as a hackneyed term and to devise other models or frameworks that meet the needs of transgender people especially? While the prospect of the latter is not inevitable, it is patently obvious that there are still many formidable issues to be addressed in connection with “quasi-religious” mandates that could generate one more round of “gender discord.”

153 Leave a comment on paragraph 153 0 It is incontrovertible that transgender people have been ignored, abused, and refused access to religious groups, including the scholarly study of religion. Yet, in recent years, activist outreach and support programs have increased. But, given the evidence of the negative experiences of contributors to the following narratives, there remains a major problem with religious studies, with its seeming reluctance to welcome transgender scholars into their territory. Nevertheless, there was a remarkable move made in the last year when the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (31, no. 1, 2018) invited transgender scholars to contribute to a special volume. Many of their narratives are heart-rending in their depictions of rebuttal and exclusion; yet others provide hope with the glimmer of further collaboration. It is not possible to include the work of all the contributors to this special volume, nor even to name all the topics presented. Instead, I have included selected vignettes from their papers that provide evidence of the vital though long-overdue acceptance that is finally materializing in the study of religion.

154 Leave a comment on paragraph 154 0 The first presentation is that of Judith Plaskow, professor emerita of Manhattan College. She introduces her paper as prompted by similarities she has discerned in Max Strassfeld’s paper, “Transing Religious Studies” (2018, 37–53). Strassfeld, an assistant professor in religious studies and classics at the University of Arizona, Tucson, opened the roundtable meeting. Plaskow’s own paper is named, “Transing and Gendering Religious Studies” (2018, 75–79). This paper is insightful in proposing a comparative review of three specific phases that characterized the methodological development of the early feminist literature in the study of religion during the 1970s and 1980s―where Plaskow herself was one of the founding figures, along with other feminists such as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether. I will concentrate on this comparative aspect of Plaskow’s paper as, together with Strassfeld’s contribution, a strong challenge is issued to essentialist elements that have unfortunately infiltrated the study of religion.

155 Leave a comment on paragraph 155 0 Plaskow lists the three phases as:

  1. 156 Leave a comment on paragraph 156 0
  2. An early intensive study of the available texts that could provide insights into the misogyny and androcentrism that was rampant in many early scriptures and later historical accounts. At that time, little attention had been paid to the actual situation of women. If any mention of a women was made, apart from the rare and exceptional woman leader, it stressed the requisite pious and obedient demeanour that was promoted as the ideal of womanhood.
  3. The second phase involved a deeper investigation to discover, wherever possible, descriptions of women’s lives, especially their behaviors and achievements. This marked the beginning of establishing a historical record of women’s very existence and their specific accomplishments.
  4. The third and final phase introduced the task of providing women’s own perspectives and evaluations, where contemporary feminists contributed their own assessments of women’s lives. They expressed their extremely critical judgments as to the absence of women from positions of power and authority as well as the dire need for a major restructuring in most religions.

157 Leave a comment on paragraph 157 0 Plaskow states that a similar pattern could be found in lesbian, gay, and queer studies, where she again references Strassfeld’s paper. But this does not necessarily result in a positive comparison. In his paper, Strassfeld charges that religion and, in particular, the study of religion, especially in North America, is not only gendered but cisgendered. Strassfeld is even more blatant in his declaration that: “A feminist religious studies without transfeminism is not feminist at all” (2018, 49). As a result, he stresses the need for a thorough process of a “transing of religious studies” (2018, 37). Plaskow is supportive of this move, insofar as it assists the study of religion in unfettering its restrictive boundaries to include transgender issues, which can enrich its own ways of knowing and being.

158 Leave a comment on paragraph 158 0 As if in answer to the previous paper, one of the most engaging articles in the volume is a description by Dr. Rachel Muers, a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, of teaching her MA course. Muers’ contribution is entitled “Interdisciplinarity and Theology: Accidentally Queering the Curriculum in a Master’s Seminar” (“The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion” Muers, 2018: 117–23). Muers reviews how this “queering” came to occur. It was certainly not by intentional design but by a change of direction. It emerged after Muers decided not to split the seminar into two disciplinary units of religious studies and theology. This helped to release any strict subject-specific regulations and encouraged undogmatic discussions. It was only retrospectively that Muers realized that a subtle transformation in the ambience of the classroom had taken place.

159 Leave a comment on paragraph 159 0 One telling episode is Muers’ description of the reception by the class of the late Marcella Althaus Reid’s book, Indecent Theology (2001), a deliberately queer book that a number of theologians have dismissed as offensive. When such a book is not confined solely within the category of theology, Muers concludes that “queering the curriculum,” particularly that of a theology curriculum, is easier when one is in a position to be able to “sit light” (2018: 222) in relation to disciplinary boundaries. This does not necessarily imply that Dr. Muers refrains from dealing with contentious topics, as she has become well aware of the appropriate tone and mood that fosters such animated class exchanges.

160 Leave a comment on paragraph 160 0 Melissa M. Wilcox, who is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair in Religious Studies at University of California, Riverside, tells the disheartening, yet so familiar, narrative of rejection by senior women scholars during her journey toward acceptance as a transgender scholar in the study of religion (Wilcox 2018). Wilcox also relates the story of a young friend, Corrine, who was initiated into the Santeria religion. Corrine experienced the world as a trans person and appreciated the sacred world as itself being transgendered. It is evident that this youthful friendship was a strong influence on Wilcox and her awareness of the profound dimensions of religion.

161 Leave a comment on paragraph 161 0 Wilcox vividly describes the experience, together with other transgender people, of “shouting into the silencing vacuum of active ignorance” (Wilcox 2018, 87). Yet, at the same time, Wilcox’s tale is one of fortitude and determination. It is also one of refusing to succumb to the deliberate exclusions that interfered with the aims of many others who became dispirited, choosing not to pursue their goal of religious studies degrees. For Wilcox, the task is not only one of persisting to shout into the vacuum but of interrupting firmly those transphobic voices that continue to maintain their malicious campaign. Wilcox remains resolute in her support of the voices of trans* scholars in the study of religion and their enhancement of the discipline.

162 Leave a comment on paragraph 162 0 At the beginning of her paper, “Multiplicity and Contradiction: A Literature Review of Trans* Studies in Religion” (2018, 7–23),[16] Siobhan M. Kelly, who is a doctoral candidate in religion, gender and culture at Harvard University, remarks: “The field of trans* studies began making inroads in gender/queer theory and studies in the early 1990’s, but within the field of religion, progress toward this (sub)discipline’s place, acceptance, and legitimacy has been a much slower journey” (2008, 7). One way to illustrate this somewhat slow but increasingly steady process of “trans studies” in the study of religion is Kelly’s extensive compilation of a literary review of the relevant books that have been published in the last thirty-five years.

163 Leave a comment on paragraph 163 0 Kelly divides the publications into five different categories. These comprise a significant survey, which unfortunately exceeds the limits that this section can provide. Anthologies, autobiographies, biographies abound, revealing intimate accounts of trans* peoples’ lives that illustrate their divergent “personal, religious, spiritual, and sex and gender experiences” (2018, 8). Another category is named “Autotheoretical, Autobiographical, and Self-Writing in Trans* Studies in Religion” (2018: 13). These accounts are mostly personal, even intimate in their disclosures, which flout prescribed or expected formats, related particularly to the study of religion. Instead, given their candour, readers can initiate more vibrant and dynamic connections. One example Kelly provides of this genre is an anthology edited by Lisa Isherwood and the late Marcella Althaus-Reid, entitled Transformations (2009). Ethnographic works also feature, where not only transgender issues, but colonial critiques are surveyed. One powerful book that Kelly names, which addresses colonial/imperial issues, is that of Afsaneh Najmabadi, entitled Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013). It is recommended as a must-read “for students of gender and of sex, of post-, de-, and anti-colonial thought, and of cultural studies” (2018: 16).

164 Leave a comment on paragraph 164 0 In many ways this article is a cornucopia of transgender literature, as many more titles and categories are presented than can be mentioned. It does provide compelling evidence that, as Kelly concludes, trans* studies in religion complicates staid notions of self and other, divinity, and identity in a way that, I believe, has the potential to reinvigorate the academic study of religion as a whole” (2018: 23).

165 Leave a comment on paragraph 165 0 Kelly’s compendium of titles trans* gender literature provides a powerful and capacious survey of trans* studies that enriches the awareness of contemporary modifications in the domain of gender, sex, and religion.

Deviations from a Theme

166 Leave a comment on paragraph 166 0 The multiple theories that have been advanced in this chapter, be they linguistic, conceptual, philosophic, and political, have helped to establish the grounds on which evaluations of “gender” and its definitions can be made. The addition of “religion” into this mixture and the judging of its efficacy, can at times create heated disputes. There are many scholars of gender who remain staunchly at a distance. Nevertheless, this chapter has attempted to convey how secular definitions of gender can influence the manner in which deficiencies in religion’s attitudes and expressions can be corrected. What has not been addressed in this chapter are the views of those women scholars who deliberately or knowingly refrain from any such contact. However, their work can still provoke questions that can lead to further engagement of their ideas in examining religious topics. Two such examples are included to illustrate such variations. One is the work Elizabeth M. Wilson and the other is the later work of Darlene Juschka.

Darlene Juschka, Moving beyond Religion

167 Leave a comment on paragraph 167 0 Initially, in an earlier section of this chapter, it appeared that Darlene Juschka sought to understand that way gender and sex operated in relation to religion. This resulted in her undertaking to construct a theoretical model that would help explain the problems and distortions in the work thus far undertaken in the study of religion. Her next volume, What is Gender? What is Sex? What is Gender/Sex? (2009 [2005]), was mainly motivated by Juschka’s realization of religious dogmatism, especially in matters concerning women. This led to the introduction of the term “gender/sex ideology,” and her observation, “[R]eligion has been one method to ensure the subordination of women … and the absence of women as living persons within the development and disseminations of religions” (2009: 251). It was in a later volume, Political Bodies/Body Politic: The Semiotics of Gender (2014, [2009]), that Juschka also described how she had been puzzled by the potent influence of gender/sex ideology. This required further investigation to better understand its dynamics (2014, 1). To assist in this task, Juschka proposed a “semiotics of gender.” Such a theoretical approach would aid inspections of the intricacies of human behaviour as they are organized in keeping with specific rules and traditions.

168 Leave a comment on paragraph 168 0 Juschka’s adopted mandate, however, was not simply analyzing the subjugation of women. She had also become interested by the obscure interweaving of myth, ritual, and sign-symbol. Inevitably, this search soon expanded beyond religion to include a much wider investigation, which incorporated both social and cultural dimensions and their modes of administration. Juschka describes this development:

169 Leave a comment on paragraph 169 0 My interest is to better understand how gender/sex is coded in the modern world, and how particular discourses such as history, evolutionary biology, primatology, medicine, and popular culture in the novel, film, and art are central to the discursive formation of gender/sex. This discursive formation, I have argued and continue to argue, is then deployed through myth, ritual, and symbol providing gender/sex with a concreteness and reality that is, as any good Marxist would contend, mystified. (2014, 133)

170 Leave a comment on paragraph 170 0 It was with this declaration that Juschka revealed her neo-Marxist orientation. As a result of this stance, Juschka redirected her vocabulary because of what she regarded as the questionable nature of religious language. She declared, “I resist using the term ‘religion’ throughout this text and instead opt to use the phrase ‘system(s) of belief and practice’, as I feel this latter allows me more latitude” (2014, 19). (In this case, “system” indicates “a collection of independent but interrelated constituents that comprise a unified whole” (2014, 38).

171 Leave a comment on paragraph 171 0 There are a number of further qualifications that Juschka appended to this position. In her view, myth, symbol, and sign-symbol are not necessarily evident in certain forms of religious expression. In order to integrate these terms, Juschka enlarged her framework so as to incorporate such terms within sex/gender analyses to help evaluate the “system(s) of belief and practice” (2014, 19). Juschka’s other concern involved the situation that can occur when systems of belief and practice, with their attendant myth, ritual, and sign-symbols, could still be accepted as implementing a divine ordinance rather than assessing social and cultural categories (2014: 191). It is such automatic implementation of a religious nature that Juschka planned to intercept with her strategy of semiotic analysis of myth, ritual, and sign-symbol. These procedures would assist in identifying what Juschka termed “the ideological mystification of gender/sex” (2014: 12).

172 Leave a comment on paragraph 172 0 Given these modifications, it could be argued that Juschka had moved beyond the confines of the study of religion and henceforth be identified as a secular scholar employing sociological and anthropological methods, together with discourse analysis. What does need to be acknowledged, however, is Juschka’s resistance to the intransigence with which religion has imposed its doctrines. Her intense study of these issues, primarily intended for women, provided alternative possibilities for defining their own identities, not only in a secular society, but also in dissent from religious edicts.

173 Leave a comment on paragraph 173 0 Juschka has been resolute in her demand that any revitalized categories of gender/sex and their complex interchanges with religion “must be submitted to an ongoing social and historical analysis” (2009: 249). At the same time, Juschka advises that it is imperative to maintain vigilance, alert to any interventions of power that remain endemic in many religions. In her most recent publication, Juschka provides, after many years of steadfast effort, her latest definition of gender which refrains from acknowledging “religion.” Instead she prefers her phrase “systems of belief and practice.

174 Leave a comment on paragraph 174 0 Gender is a central and primary concept – fluid, constructed, and ever-changing – deployed in and through human signifying systems toward establishing epistemological and metaphysical narratives of existence. Some might argue such a claim is immoderate, but many would not. Gender plays a key role in all aspects of human existence be it in language, education and knowledge production, social organization, or systems of belief and practice (aka religions). It is no surprise that gender is a hotly contested subject. (2016: 137)

175 Leave a comment on paragraph 175 0 It remains to be seen how the status and understanding of gender that has been presented by Juschka will emerge from the multiple variants that still continue to appear and demand their own space and recognition.

Elizabeth Wilson and Bodily Interferences

176 Leave a comment on paragraph 176 0 During the years of experimentations in sex, gender, and transgender, mostly within the territory of social constructivism, there have always been a number of women scholars who have remained unwilling to abandon the physical body and its diverse interfaces with mental processes. In her book Gut Feminism (2015), Elizabeth A. Wilson represents those who do not regard the body as dictating “obligatory sexualities and sex roles” (Wilson 2015: 35). Wilson regards this move as forsaking biology in favour of an androgynous and genderless society, which she implies Gayle Rubin promoted. Wilson has carefully examined the effects of Rubin’s work (Wilson 2015: 23–35) in order to diagnose how it came to be that “biology became the underbelly of feminist theory” (Wilson 2015, 24). The result of Wilson’s findings in Gut Feminism provide a comprehensive overview of more recent rebuttals of sex and gender in particular that signal a reintroduction of the physical body with both its defects and its unanticipated interruptions.

177 Leave a comment on paragraph 177 0 Wilson has detected a reticence in feminist studies to confront biology with its physiological dimensions that she plans to amend. Yet Wilson does not intend to return to the days of sexual essentialism. Indeed, she claims that her work “does not endorse biology” (Wilson 2015, 27). Nor does she aim to supply a solution, especially one that would be of a reparative nature. What is at stake for Wilson is the virtual elision of the volatile body itself. Wilson wants to restore an awareness of ways that moods, bodily modalities, and other interventions, such as depression, aggression, guts, pain, pills, and placebos, react and interact with the body in unpredictable ways. Wilson encourages involvement in the learning of new ways that disclose how such elements “annex each other, how they bind, braid, branch and cleave” (Wilson 2015, 150). At the heart of Wilson’s work is a challenge to feminist theorists who have baulked at transgressing their own boundaries of social and discursive analysis.

178 Leave a comment on paragraph 178 0 This endeavour is definitely not a basic empirical or physiological investigation. It probes the psyche/soma problem with an innovative perspective that has significant political implications. Wilson explains her understanding of this sense of the political: “We need these kinds of alliances with biology not just in relation to depression; more generally they help to unsettle political certainties of what we think we stand for, and what we stand against, and where we stand when we make political gestures (Wilson 2015, 35).” Wilson’s explorations, as described above, could be termed as quite contentious in their disputing of the status quo. They continue to problematize the dyadic configuration of mind and body in ways that suggest the body still conserves resources that could be plumbed in multiple interactive ways. Wilson’s analyses also help destabilize the hard-core aspects of feminist theory, which Wilson describes as “so instinctively antibiological” (Wilson 2015, 1).

179 Leave a comment on paragraph 179 0 In Wilson’s analyses, however, religion does not make an appearance, which is not surprising. One could, however, question its exclusion from Wilson’s evaluations. Before proceeding with such an interrogation, it would be appropriate to position Wilson’s insights within a specific context. During the1990s and early 21st century, the theoretical battles between “essentialists” and “constructivists” consumed much energy in feminist circles. Subsequent ventures in sex and gender appeared to avoid the physicality of the body from fear of being labelled deterministic. Wilson’s work is a reminder that such exclusions have come at a price. It also illustrates the segregation that can so easily arise between alienated factions. Wilson’s approach introduces “pathways by which biological data can become critically mobile” (2015, 175). This statement appears as an incentive to recuperate possibilities that have remained peripheral which could help to revitalize ignored aspects of bodily conditions. This is definitely not an approach that the study of religion has attempted to undertake, especially in the context of contemporary biological knowledge that Wilson supports.

180 Leave a comment on paragraph 180 0 Nevertheless, perhaps it is time to suggest that the study of religion could begin to explore a topic that addresses negative biological aspects. One contemporary issue the physical and mental harm that religious regulations have inflicted on certain of its followers. This has mainly resulted from the repercussions of the rigid control of sexuality. There have been many critical books and articles published within the framework of sociological, psychological, and psychoanalytical approaches that document religion’s failure to address this issue. What has been missing, however, is a collaborative and interdisciplinary project. This would pay serious attention to the damage to the physical body and the emotional havoc that has resulted. Such an initiative, however, would need to respect the disparate conceptual methods involved, as well as to discipline-specific applications. Perhaps this may appear to be too taxing a task, given the level of Wilson’s critical arguments. Nonetheless, such an undertaking would be in keeping with what Wilson has termed “a more vibrant biologically attuned account of the body.” It implies a demanding though salutary endeavour if a similar approach to the body were to be attempted within the study of religion.

Concluding Observations

181 Leave a comment on paragraph 181 0 It is extremely difficult to bring this chapter to a conclusion. In retrospect, the journey accompanying gender over the past fifty years has exemplified a remarkable voyage of discovery. This is because many women have slowly come into their own, even overcoming the dictates of religion. Charting this course, especially the encounters with religion, has been a demanding exercise as it has required many changes of direction. It has also been a source of learning in discovering that the multiple meanings of gender. But it also a process in becoming aware that there can be no precise or definitive meaning for the term “gender.” The role of religion, in its encounter with gender, has culminated in a deepened awareness of the potentialities that can be realized when women refuse to accept impositions that do not reflect their viewpoints. During the years marking this unprecedented change in behaviours, women have also come to appreciate their mutual respect and support of one another. What still lies in the future for religion and gender is difficult to predict. This is because diversity has arrived in all its permutations, with the expansive views that queer and trans gender invoke. Perhaps the most impressive achievement that has taken place is the weakening of binaries that had so long dictated the terms in both gender and religious mores. Heteronormativity’s hold has weakened, so that gender, in contract with religion, no longer dictates the terms of enforced male and female roles. While it is too soon to celebrate this change, as many women still remain subjugated, a radical change has taken place.

182 Leave a comment on paragraph 182 0 [1] While the emphasis in this paper examines the impact of the turn to gender, it also requires interdisciplinary investigations in order to help clarify and assess the effects of these disciplines on the study of religion.

183 Leave a comment on paragraph 183 0 [2] In Butler’s depiction, the heterosexual matrix is a combination of attributes and categories including heterosexuality and male privilege that dominate and control social and cultural practices, most of which are strictly enforced. 

184 Leave a comment on paragraph 184 0 [3] As Maryanne Cline Horowitz observes: “The limiting of the feminist movement to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reveals the myth of ‘historical progress’ at work, for the woman question has been a perennial question, rising in importance in particular historical epochs.” In “Aristotle and Woman” (Horowitz 1976, 84, note 4).

185 Leave a comment on paragraph 185 0 [4] The term “western” has long outlived its original qualification as designating a specific region and tradition, however, when referring to the history of philosophy and also theology, it remains a relevant marker.

186 Leave a comment on paragraph 186 0 [5] Aristotle need not totally bear the brunt for the tradition of the inferiority of women. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) was strongly influenced by Aristotle’s legacy. His major work the Summa Theologica raises the issue of whether women should have participated in the original creation, given their deficiency. His response was somewhat grudging, allowing that while women did not have equal status with the male, their presence was required for the generation of human beings. (Summa Theologica 1a, q. 92, a.1, Obj.1). In his translation of Aristotle’s Generation of Animals, De Generatione Animalium, ii, 3, he repeated Aristotle’s assessment of women as “a misbegotten or deformed male”. This judgment simply reinforced women’s already dismal reputation.

187 Leave a comment on paragraph 187 0 [6] A second volume was later published that surveyed other repercussions of Aristotle’s work. In this volume, Allen included numerous medieval women’s reactions. See Allen 2002).

188 Leave a comment on paragraph 188 0 [7] Connell also states that: “Feminism benefits through the fact that a serious discussion of gender in Aristotle’s works opens up, and highlights the importance of, areas of his philosophy that have been consistently marginalized in the past” (Connell 2016, 51).

189 Leave a comment on paragraph 189 0 [8] Connell does not accept this position where these scholars “consciously attempt to provide a non-sexist rationale for his assigning an inferior role to women” (Connell 2016, 40–41).

190 Leave a comment on paragraph 190 0 [9] On the contested opinion that Aristotle aligns women with inert matter, Connell, with her exacting reading of The Generation of Animals, responds that: “Aristotle does not identify women, or even the female contribution to generation, with matter in any straightforward manner” (Connell 2016, 28).

191 Leave a comment on paragraph 191 0 [10] See Jacobson and Pellegrini (2003), 134–35. Jacobson and Pellegrini provide a reflective depiction of Rubin’s position.

192 Leave a comment on paragraph 192 0 [11] Scott (1991, 796) cites Michel Foucault’s description of genealogy, which has implications for her own work: “But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its position to a different game, and to subject it to secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations. The role of genealogy is to record its history: the history of morals, ideas, and metaphysical concepts, the history of the concept, of liberty or of the ascetic life; as they stand for the emergence of different interpretations, they must be made to stand as events on the stage of historical progress” (Foucault 1977. 151–152).

193 Leave a comment on paragraph 193 0 [12] For Foucault, “discourse” or discursive analysis was not confined to words and texts. Instead, the field was widened to cancel the division between words and things. As a result, any system or structure that was influenced by cultural formation such as habits, constructions of various types, attitudes and behaviours, were all modes of meaning that could be discursively investigated. A “discursive field” indicated overlapping discourses that could interact, influencing gradual changes.

194 Leave a comment on paragraph 194 0 [13] Scott did not position “gender” as the only analytic category. Scott acknowledged race and class were also just as capable a lens through which to view the inequities of social designations, but her preferred emphasis was that of gender.

195 Leave a comment on paragraph 195 0 [14] Both Butler and Scott were influenced by Michel Foucault (Foucault 2000. vol. 3: 111–133) and his work on “regimes of truth.” In such regimes, truth and power were interwoven and functioned as forms of regulatory control.

196 Leave a comment on paragraph 196 0 [15] In this review, Juschka does acknowledge the disapproval that is evident about the inferior role of women in the Christian as voiced by the theologians Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (1985), Mary Daly (1987), and Rosemary Ruether (1983). They were intent on ameliorating the situation of women, especially the exclusion of women by the hierarchical structures of Christianity. However, as theologians, they were not particularly interested in discourse analysis nor in the theoretical debates analyzing sex and gender (2009 [2005], 251–253). At the same time, African American women were making their presence felt. See Katie Cannon (1998) and Dolores S. Williams (1993).

197 Leave a comment on paragraph 197 0 [16] Kelly notes: “Sometimes, this field is called trans studies or transgender studies. I follow the lead of University of Arizona’s 2016 Trans*studies Conference, using the asterisk to denote an openness to a wide variety of embodiments, practices, and methodological approaches” (2018: 18).

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/discourse-research-and-religion/morny-joy-gender-and-its-vicissitudes/