The religious roots of inequality between men and women

The religious roots of inequality between men and women

Contribution by Gérard Delteil, theologian, honorary dean of the Protestant faculty of Montpellier, in a symposium entitled «Voices of women for Peace», organised in Le Mans on 6 and 7 March 1999, by the départemental mission on the rights of women in la Sarthe, with the contribution of the Espal cultural centre.

Source: Croyants en liberté Sarthe, Maison des associations, 4 rue d'Arcole, 72000 Le Mans, France.

My thanks for you making room among these voices of women for peace for the voice of a man, and what is more challenging, for the voice of a theologian. The dispute between theology and women is indeed a serious one. «Christian ideology has made no small contribution to the oppression of woman» wrote Simone de Beauvoir. (1)

Is religion an obstacle to the equality of men and women? Or, as the «Young women» movement asked in its national symposium: Is God afraid of women ?(2)

There seems no doubt of this, when we look at the picture on our continent. Religion seems to be one of the primary factors these days in discrimination against women. This discrimination can be brutal and barbarous (think about Iran and Afghanistan). Or else it can be quiet, muffled. Whatever form it takes, this religious discrimination, and the legitimation which covers it, are among the main forms of violence against women. How can we understand this proximity between religion and sexism?

I will start with a contradiction

- All the main religious traditions see themselves as carriers of a message of peace, compassion and reconciliation, in the name of a God who gives each human being their own inalienable dignity.

- At the same time, all these religious traditions (at least almost all) contribute to masculine pre-eminence.

There are two prevailing positions here:

- the position on equality, the equal dignity of women and men;

- the position on difference, which produces and reproduces inequality.

How can we understand the subtle link made here?

My explanation comes in two stages:

- first of all, I will consider the religious acceptance of inequality. How does it manifest itself? What forms does it take? This initial consideration will be more of a retrospect, an archaeological survey of our portrayal.

- secondly, I will describe the problems in constructing equality, through some contemporary shifts and debates. This second consideration will be more focussed on the future, on a utopian vision of mutual reciprocity.


There are three aspects to the predominance of the masculine: the institution, the representation and legitimation.

1.1. Institutional, that is codification of roles.

Alongside the common tasks, performed by either men or women, there are codified roles, hierarchically distinguished, that men only are permitted to fulfil. This masculine marking of particular roles is found in most denominations. In western societies which have abolished all types of sex discrimination by law, religious institutions are the last to preserve masculine privilege. Until recently, the Académie française kept them company, but even the Académie has now accepted a female element, even though it is far from being equal yet!

Thus religious rituals, at least those performed in public, rather than those in the home, put male pre-eminence to the fore. This is not the primary intention of those who perform them. They wish to represent what is the core of the religious enterprise, the relationship with God and the shape this takes. But this representation works through a symbolism that directs a particular kind of masculine mediation, and which thus sets the man up as the mediator of the sacred. At the heart of the believing celebration, this particular image, this particular model has tremendous integrative power.

1.2. From the institutional level, we move on to representation.

The dominant factor here is the conflict between representations: between the breakthrough of an innovative word, and the ascendancy of a patriarchal culture.

- On the one hand, the three great monotheistic religions each proceed from a message that breaks through the established order. The unique word of God calls into being a people across all borders, to live a new freedom, confronting all powers. This is the originating movement, the prophetic moment, the inaugural proclamation. So the message and the praxis of Jesus are bearers of an innovative vision, within a patriarchal society, of the relationship between men and women. The transformation of the relationship with God indirectly overturns all human relationships. Feminist theologians these days constantly refer to the praxis of Jesus. What is more, they restore this forgotten or hidden history of our origins, such as that of a community of equal disciples. This is the innovative, subversive aspect, which always bears within itself the potential to challenge any kind of discrimination.

- Counter to that, the other side of the coin, is the ascendancy of traditional models, a «patriarchal Christian culture», signs of which are already found in the New Testament, which still endure. I will demonstrate this by noting three mechanisms that have influenced Christian discourse for a long time, and the residues of which can still be found, although often tucked away:

1.2.1. The first is idealisation.

The woman is the bearer of essential values (tenderness, devotion, self-denial) and passes on these values through her role as mother and teacher. Woman in the superlative. Woman-as-model, in the quintessential figure of Mary. I don’t know a better example of this than in an address by Paul VI given to Italian gynaecologists in 1966. He explains what is the level, in comparison to the approach of the gynaecologists, on which, he says, we meet the woman. Suddenly, this speech becomes a poem: "For Us, woman reflects a beauty which is greater than her own, the sign of a goodness which appears limitless, the mirror of the ideal human being, as God conceived it, in his image and in his likeness... » . Here, idealisation truly leads to transfiguration.(3)

Wherever it is expressed, this idealisation in speech operates as compensation for inferiority of status. The more woman is exemplified in speech, the more she is marginalised in practice and in responsibility.

1.2.2. The second process is the reverse of the first: stigmatisation.

Woman as seducer and seduced, the guilty woman. Numerous variations on the Eve myth have left traces of this stigmatisation as a folk memory within us.

A whole tradition of interpreting this myth has read it as being about original sin, responsible for all the subsequent misfortunes of the human race. It is Eve’s fault, she who is the archetype of the guilty woman. The threat of the Other, since it is precisely her otherness which constitutes the threat.

Idealisation and stigmatisation go together, just as the two figures of Eve and Mary correspond to each other. The woman is therefore held in a religious discourse which both overvalues her and discriminates against her. This is the ambivalence with which she is represented.

1.2.3. Finally, the process of differentiation.

The topic of difference has been discussed continually up to the present day, to signify both an equal dignity in law and in the hierarchisation of roles.

This discourse on difference is ambiguous. On the one hand it denies uniformity, reduction to an identical status, elimination of otherness. The one is not the other. But on the other hand, it tends to enclose man and woman within stereotypes. The primary argument about difference is always used to legitimate inequality. Thus, Gisèle Halimi quotes Cardinal Lustiger, at his hearing before the Parity Observatory in France « In the Middle Ages… it had to be shown that religion did not emasculate man, and sometimes this led to women being subordinate». (4)

The dominant symbols conflict in this scenario. Modern images of woman, playing her part in economic and social life, politically responsible, for whom motherhood is a choice rather than a fate, conflict against residual, archaic images of woman assigned to the roles, duties and virtues that are seen to belong to her sex. These images remain, underlying, hidden, we are unconsciously accustomed to them, and sometimes they emerge in slips within speech or in institutional behaviour.

1.3. A very brief word on legitimisation.

According to Pierre Bourdieu: «The strength of the masculine order is evident by the fact that it needs no justification» (5)

This is not the case however in the field of religion. There are two types of legitimisation used here:

- The first is the reference to nature. There is a feminine nature, « a natural predisposition to motherhood» (John Paul II, Dignity of the woman, 18), in general, an order or a law of nature. We could perhaps go even further to say: woman is nature. Of course, this use of nature is a social and cultural construction, preserving the social order, which allows exclusion from particular functions naturally reserved to men to be seen as natural.

- The main reference, however, is to Scripture and/or tradition, the source of authority. Over the centuries, male domination and female subordination in the Christian world have been interpreted in this light as an « order » from God (in both senses of the word). The marriage rite ratified this order, and the wife’s subjection to her husband, until very recently. Nowadays it has generally disappeared. But scriptural references continue to justify what John Paul II calls, in his document on the dignity of woman, «a biblical paradigm of woman » (6) , that is an inspirational, if not normative model, dominated by traditional images.

I am talking about Christianity in particular, but the same conclusions could be reached in an investigation of other denominations. As regards Judaism, for example, Professor Samuel Trigano ended with these words: « So the Jewish position as regards women can be summed up as follows: exaltation of the mystical figure of femininity, and reduction of woman's legal status ». (7) In most denominations, the weight of history, of tradition and of the foundational texts combine to maintain this religious affirmation of inequality.


Our observations so far have to be put into perspective, in the context of recent developments and current debate. This is what I want to address next, by considering three aspects:

- factors for renewal

- the issue of interpretation

- some landmarks for a culture of reciprocity

2.1. Factors for renewal

Driven by modernity, and alongside social transformations affecting the status of women (contraception, abortion, etc.), as well as the relations between men and women, religious communities have also been experiencing significant changes, symbolised in the nineteen sixties by the Second Vatican Council. This Council noted that one of the « most widespread of human aspirations » is the claim by women to «parity with men in fact as well as of right ». (Gaudium et Spes, 9,2) (8). In a new development, many theologians are calling for a break with models of inequality (cf. Jean-Marie Aubert: La femme. Antiféminisme et christianisme, 1975 [Woman. Anti-feminism and Christianity]).

These developments first appear with women’s increasing access to particular areas of responsibility. This is a grass-roots movement in the Catholic Church, sometimes boldly asserted, as in Quebec for example. In Protestant churches, the major change is women's access to pastoral ministry during the sixties (except in some evangelical churches). What does this change, except for the removal of the final obstacle in women’s path? First of all, the figure of the pastor, which is a powerful symbol, a benchmark for some believers, is no longer exclusively male. This is where the differences interact. Moreover, the word, which is fundamental to the Reformed churches, is a shared word, in which women’s experience can contribute to a renewal of language and perspective.

Women’s access to the theological culture in universities is a second factor in the renewal process. Research work is being done increasingly by women theologians. More and more teaching posts are held by women. The same applies to Judaism. Culture, teaching and research are therefore gradually becoming shared areas of activity. This can be a strategic by-pass, where the institutional route is blocked, to give women access to areas of responsibility in which they are skilled.

In the same field, there was a notable development of feminist theologies, arising towards the end of the sixties around liberation theology, and strongly reinforced since, particularly in the United States and Germany, with a very wide range of interests. What are their characteristics?

- First of all, they are rooted in women’s historical experience. This is their subject, violence against women, women’s alienation. They are constructed as theology for women “who dare to undertake the journey to freedom ».

- Next, they have a critical, polemical dimension. They strip away the pretence of universalism in traditional theological discourse, and apply their critique to religious language and its androcentric assumptions.

- They change the paradigm: the key to interpreting the religious message is its liberating impact for women, as the first victims of oppression. The message is the bearer of a greater humanity for women, and beyond them for other human beings deprived of their authentic humanity. This is the fundamental yardstick, against which everything must be measured.

2.2. At the heart of these developments and discussions, the issue of interpretation

As the fundamental texts have been used for so long, and still are, to legitimate the inferior status of women, the question of the status of these texts, their authority and interpretation becomes crucial. This is a complex debate. These texts, the various writings that form the Bible for example, originate in patriarchal cultures. They carry the stamp of the context from which they arise, the environments that produced them. The Scriptures are not homogenous, they are under tension, they debate with each other, sometimes they disagree with each other.

So some texts, although they come from this patriarchal culture, challenge this vision of human relations, and breach the boundaries of their own time, and ours. For example, let me quote the story of creation in Genesis (the first account): “God created the human being in his own image; in the image of God he created him; man and woman he created them» (Genesis l, 27). There is no sign of domination or dependency here. There is an alliance of two beings, both emerging from the same Word, and who in mutual relationship and reciprocity together are the image of God. Here is the potential principle for the challenge to all forms of sexism.

Even more astonishing is the Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful of human love songs, which some exegetes now believe was written by a woman. It is an erotic poem, which celebrates the happiness of loving, with no reference to the institution of marriage. Two autonomous beings, carried along by « the dynamic of their intersecting desires » (Paul Ricoeur) (9). Sometimes the woman takes the lead, sometimes the man, in a continually developing reciprocity, without precedent. Who cannot feel the subversive power of this poem, in its firmly patriarchal social setting.

This is the challenge of interpretation, to reveal from below the surface of the texts the movement that inspired them. Decoding the traces of the forgotten history of women, sometimes obscured or censored in the writing of the text, and disclosing conflicting interpretations. Challenging the literal reading, which deletes history and often toys with fundamentalism, we rediscover these essential texts as open, living within their own history, and thus also in ours. This renewed interpretation is an essential factor in the deconstruction of patriarchal power.

2.3. I will give a very quick sketch of two more landmarks within the culture of reciprocity

- The first of these is language

How can we adapt our spoken language, with its misogynist syntax, to the grammar of reciprocity? This is a difficult question to answer. Changing language means changing the culture that clothes us, and which conditions us. We can only make progress here by opening up some gaps. We have already made some progress, when a religious community chooses to reform its liturgy to be inclusive, that is where the masculine no longer encompasses the feminine.

When it comes to language about God, it is more complicated. The theologian Mary Daly said: « If God is male, then the male is God » (10). Our language is sexed, and God is not neuter. How can we bring within the scope of language what is beyond all language except by playing with metaphor, alternating masculine or feminine images? The question is still open.

- Second landmark, education.

Man’s prevalence over woman is so profoundly rooted in our minds, that long-term education is required, not only to unmake existing sexist prejudices, stereotypes, all these misogynist instincts we have, but also to generate a new way of looking at the Other.

Religious communities, which are also educational communities face a major challenge here: how can religious formation be formation for autonomy, calling each person to take on his or her existence, the freedom to make choices, without conforming to pre-existing models? How can it be both an education for responsibility and a critical arousal to all forms of subjection? It's our society as a whole that is being called into question here.

The part played by religions in this debate seems ambivalent. They can be a factor for regression, because of their fixation on traditional models. Could they also be a factor for progress, and if so on what terms? This is the response from Professor A. Charfi, from the University of Tunis: « At the cost of a rending overhaul of their inherited practices, returning to the source of their life, and recovering the prophetic messages that established them.» (11)

In the end, we face the question of the Other. This is what is at stake for us, our link to the other, as a sign not of our subjection, but of our freedom.

Gérard Delteil, 6 March 1999, in Mans
Translated by Joanna Waller


1. S. de BEAUVOIR: Le deuxième sexe,[The Second Sex] Gallimard, Idées, TA., p. 112.

2. Dieu a-t-il peur des femmes ? [Is God afraid of women?], Mouvement Jeunes Femmes, 24 Parc de la Bérengère, 92210 Saint-Cloud.

3. Address by His Holiness PAUL VI to Italian gynaecologists, Documentation Catholique, 1482, 20 Nov. 1966, p. 1923.

4. G. HALIMI: La nouvelle cause des Femmes,[The new cause of Women] Paris, Seuil, 1997, p.81.

5. P. BOURDIEU : La domination masculine,[Male domination] Seuil, Liber, 1998, p. 15.

6. JOHN PAUL Il: The Dignity of Woman, Centurion, 1988, p.74.

7. S. TRIGANO : « Judaïsme: Homme et femme il les créa »[Judaism: Male and female he created them], Encyclopédie des Religions, Bayard Editions, T.2, p. 1654.

8. The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) 9,2, in Vatican II, The Sixteen Council documents, Montréal et Paris, Fides, p. 180.

9. P.RICOEUR and A. LACOQUE : Penser la Bible [Think about the Bible], Paris, Seuil, 1998, p.420.

10 M. DALY: The church and the second sex. New York, Harper & Row, 1968, p. 38

11. A. CHARFI : Communication à la conférence de Tolède, organisée par la Commission Européenne en 1995 [Communication to the Toledo conference, organised by the European Commission in 1995], in La montée des intégrismes, Actes du colloque de Lyon, CEPPLE, 47 rue de Clichy, 75311 Paris Cedex 09.

Die religiösen Ursprünge der Ungleichheit von Mann und Frautranslation into German from Bettina Knust, Münster, Westphalie. (homepage: http://home.icsmedia.de/~muenster/ )

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