The war horn has sounded. The call to arms for the end of the unequal treatment and abuse of women has been heard, and supporters have taken to the streets to end the long age of sexist tyranny. There is much ground yet to be gained, but the revolution has begun.
There is still substantial resistance to gender equality, to be sure. For the first time in innumerable generations, though, a distinct public voice can be heard demanding specific attention to the way our societies view and treat women.
Enlightened minds acknowledge and work to combat the unfair and abusive treatment of women in the workplace. We’re making efforts to address and correct the manner in which young men and women view the roles of women in society. There’s a great deal of work left to do, but we’re beginning to see initiatives to change the way that young women see their own futures.
While it is, of course, important to support the adult women currently fighting to survive in what is still regrettably a world tilted in favor of men, we’ve come to the realization that real long-term change begins with modeling for young people the concept of feminine power, equality, potential, and virtue.
“As the gender equality movement advances, though, there is some benefit to be gained from re-injecting gender equality into our spiritual schemata.”
We’re finally recognizing the contributions of women in traditionally male-dominated fields like math and science. We’re celebrating women in business, as well as in civil and legal leadership roles. We’re appreciating the genius of women in the arts, and we’re admitting that we’ve spent far too long underestimating women’s physical prowess.
Despite the beginnings of this social climate change, though, there remains an area in which we silently allow the female concept to continue to flounder. Western spiritual concepts are still overwhelmingly dominated by artificially instituted masculinity.
THE LACK OF FEMALE MODELS IN MODERN SPIRITUAL CONCEPTS
In a practical sense, it cannot be denied that gender bias and discrimination have historically been a significant element of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In many cases, women have been forbidden from even equally practicing religion, let alone from serving as religious leaders. Western religious institutions have taught, supported, and even demanded adherence to an ideology of female subjugation for centuries.
Some limited progress has been made in the inclusion of women in religious practice and leadership in recent decades. However, we’ve somehow failed to revisit (on a popular scale) the inclusion of women as spiritual equals or, more appropriately, as an inextricable part of a homogenous spiritual whole. We continue to paint divine forces in a masculine light and to diminish the role of women in religious canon.
Popular culture has, of late, dared to occasionally present a female vision of the Christian God, but almost always for comedic or shock value. Although they are most often historically portrayed as being male, we’ve since allowed that the concept of an “angel” can be viewed as feminine at times — probably because we’re comfortable with women modeling the beauty and purity (and subservience) we’ve associated with angels.
As has often been noted in the past, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been venerated by the Catholic Church. The foundation of her praise is precarious, though, as her primary role is to simply serve as the vessel through which a male God delivered a male Messiah. She has no real agency, and her primary notable quality is her virginity. That can’t really be considered a healthy model for female empowerment.
The argument is frequently made that while it may be unfortunate or inconvenient, male patriarchy in religion cannot simply be rewritten with a female cast and still retain its authenticity. To an extent I agree. You can’t just draw Thor as a female (part of the Marvel comics attempt at diversifying some of its iconic characters), write an accompanying storyline, and call it a gender-equal day.
IT EXISTED ONCE UPON A TIME
If we look back far enough and deeply enough, though, we find that feminine personification does not need to be artificially added to spiritual concepts. In fact, it was present in some of the most ancient forms of spirituality and was only later buried by those religions looking to consolidate earthly religious influence and privilege to very exclusive groups.
Native American, African, Greek, East Indian, Egyptian, and countless other belief systems all included enduring significant concepts of female divinity. So why didn’t these female personifications ever exist in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? They did, but, to state it simply, they were “voted out.”
One of the primary characteristics of gnostic belief systems is that they subscribe to a dualistic divine arrangement that separates an all-powerful, all-encompassing entity from a divine but flawed creator. The imperfection of this creator accounts for the flaws (misery, evil, injustice, cruelty) in the physical world. This demiurge (the most common label) is typically portrayed as being male.
While the all-encompassing “true god” is treated as genderless (or, more accurately, “of all genders”) by many gnostic systems, it is admittedly also portrayed as male by some. However, in between the relatively uninvolved (from an earthly perspective and compared to the modern conceptualization of the Christian God) “true god” and the demiurge (flawed creator) in both hierarchy and universal development is a female personification of Wisdom (called Sophia).
WHERE DID IT GO?
The major institutions of early Judeo-Christianity, anxious to limit the divine ruling system to one ever-present, perfect, all-powerful, undisputed, male ruler and creator, rejected the concept of the flawed demiurge (casting the fault for earthly suffering conveniently on women) and used the opportunity to abandon the concept of a divine female entity as well.
Once the major female figure had been eradicated from the heavens and the concept of a flawed creator had been rejected, Eve was left holding the bag on human suffering as the original defier of perfect divine (male) rule. If we return to the gnostic iteration, though, Eve becomes a champion of mankind, resisting the corrupt rule of an egomaniacal demiurge bent on keeping humans enslaved in ignorance.
In what we now accept as the traditional Genesis story, Eve doomed mankind by gaining knowledge and awareness and sharing that with Adam. The gnostics disagree with the assertion that understanding was essentially the root of all evil, and instead saw Eve as discovering the pathway for reuniting mankind with the universe (the true power) by circumventing and defying the flawed creator (who was actually to blame for the earthly suffering for which he refuses to take blame).
There is, of course, much more to this discussion, but let’s return to the broader point before we get too far down that specific rabbit hole: the concept of the female has at best been disregarded and at worst defamed in the mainstream Judeo-Christian and Islamic beliefs of modernity. At one time, though, there was gnostic sects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that praised and appreciated female figures rather than reviling them.
IT’S TIME TO BRING IT BACK
So why has this facet of gender equality not seen the same level of active attention as have the more practical aspects? Undoubtedly, it is at least partially due to practicality. It makes more immediate sense to ensure that women have equal real-life opportunity before we venture down abstract conceptual roads.
Another consideration lies in the exodus of the more liberally minded in Western society from the religious institutions that they justifiably see as cripplingly conservative and unapologetically biased. Opting to participate less in organized religion, many of those with interests in true gender equality see little need to revise the traditional views of spiritual figures. We’ve (understandably) been more interested in creating a better physical world first.
As the gender equality movement advances, though, there is some benefit to be gained from re-injecting gender equality into our spiritual schemata. Reassuring young people that women are as spiritually equal as they are professionally, intellectually, and politically equal can only aid in the crusade for one day achieving true gender equality. These concepts don’t need to be invented or altered; they’ve already existed. They simply need to be revived.