Ideas for a Better Gendered World

Maragaret A. Farley

What we think about key events in our lives – such as aging and dying – shapes our experience of the events. Ideas can stabilize our lives, and they can disrupt them. Ideas can hold the world captive, and ideas can change the world for better or for worse.

Ideas are not generated only by theorizing, although theory can yield, reinforce, or counter some ideas. Ideas can also be awakened, expanded, transformed, as well as dissipated, distorted, lost, through particular encounters with concrete per- sons and situations. The same is true of encounters with newly revelatory texts, new empirical evidence, new appreciation of community or tradition. In the face of ideas that oppress and repress and distort women’s lives, women (and men) have risen to form alliances and movements of challenge. They have also lived on ideas that free their spirits, energize their desires, form and sustain (and sometimes break) relationships.

Embodied Engagement

Some feminists over the last century have been theory-phobic, even idea-phobic, a response to the theory-driven distortions of women’s “nature” and in general the falsification of women’s experience. Others have been preoccupied with complex concepts and theories in ways that have appeared inaccessible to ordinary women. Fortunately, neither of these approaches has finally left women without resources for the pursuit of self-understanding, social analysis, and concerted action against discrimination on the basis of gender. “Ideas” are not necessarily only “cerebral” or abstract. They can be genuine insights that involve affective knowing and embodied engagement with concrete reality. A knowing love, like a loving knowledge, reaches more deeply into the heart of what we know and love, nurturing both understanding and action.

This issue of Reflections celebrates eight decades of women students at YDS. It charts the journey of women in churches, society, and the world, looking for signs of progress or ongoing peril. Here are stories, questions, concerns, of women in ministry – ordained and not ordained – in parishes, families, schools, agencies, organizations. Here are the sightings of relevant benchmarks and trajectories by Biblical scholars, theologians, ethicists, linguists, social historians. Here are voices from diverse cultural and historical locations, telling of new and old ideas, renewed loves, sustained actions.

Whatever factors have shaped women’s history – at YDS, in the churches, in the world – gender itself is implicitly or explicitly central. Or more accurately, the “idea” of gender (the interpretation, the mean- ing of gender) has been significantly central. For most of human history, the content of this idea has been taken for granted – a given if there ever was one. It reflects the default belief that sex, male or female, qualifies – that is, defines and confines – every human being and every individual human identity. And the qualification goes deep – not only to human bodies but to humans as embodied spirits. Sex, it has been thought, divides the human species in utterly important ways. By reason of sexual attributes, all humans grow into a gender identity – not only male or female but boy or girl, man or woman. This identity, moreover, is anchored in a highly gendered interpretation of the universe, and in centuries of gender-ordered human societies, kinship structures, religious associations.

Yet today it is commonplace to challenge the historical gendering of humanity, particularly when it entails a wholesale differentiation of roles and responsibilities along questionable gender lines. Indeed, so contested and destabilized has the meaning of gender become in the past three decades, especially in scholarly circles, that theological ethicist Susan Frank Parsons fears we have come to the end of ethics – seeing, finally, how intertwined our notions of “goodness” are with often unfounded assumptions about gender.1

Challenges to previous understandings of gen- der, and to their enforcement in social practice, take many forms. Most of them stem from a new aware- ness of the role of social construction in the shaping of the meaning of gender. It is not gender that shapes institutions and practices, but institutions and practices that shape gender. Social construction is particularly evident in stereotypes of the “feminine” and the “masculine,” as if being passive or active, weak or strong, concerned with compassion or justice, were human attributes restricted universally to one sex or the other. Social construction is also exhibited in the seemingly arbitrary gender assignment of roles – from the variously gender- assigned task of milking cows (in contemporary African tribes), to gender-designated appropriate- ness for leadership in church and society (still in contemporary Western cultures).

Virtue and Gender

In other words, rationales for what counts as virtue in persons by reason of their gender, as well as rationales for familial and societal gendered divisions of labor, have become more and more suspect. The same is true for relational structures in family, church, and society marked by gendered hierarchies. Even revered notions of psychological gender “complementarity” seem counter-factual when they are relegated to so-called “opposite” sex relations and overlooked in same-sex relationships. A complacent translation of cultural interpretations of gender into the language of the order of nature has been effectively slowed by those whose experience is not thereby adequately taken into account.

Women (and men) have internalized for centuries the gendered self-understandings articulated by the dominant voices in their cultures. Yet a growing sense of dissonance between established gender identity requirements and actual experience, especially of women, has led women to new insights, new possibilities, even new capabilities. Economic and cultural shifts have reinforced the sense of dissonance, even as biological and neurological sciences have begun to call into question previous assumptions about gendered bodies and minds. As multiple gender forms (intersex, transsex, transgender, ambiguous gender, “third” gender) are empirically discovered, it becomes even more difficult to sustain a monolithic connection between anatomy and gender. New insights yield new claims for gender equality, but also new respect for gender diversity. Ideas have changed, insights have expanded, new questions have emerged. Still, as many of the essays in this issue of Reflections suggest, the last word may not yet be in.

A Wiser World

Insight into the importance of social construction for understandings of gender undergirds the need for deconstruction, revaluation, and reconstruction of its meanings. After all, it is precisely because some construals of gender have been harmful and unjust that the challenges to its meanings have been raised. When we take some aspects of our lives for granted, it is only when we experience pain that we have to think about them anew, or perhaps for the first time. This signals that the goal of thinking about gender is by no means detached from real-life experience or from the reality of human relationships. Its goal is not mere deconstruction but more adequate understandings and more truthful gender practices.

In the end we may see that gender matters yet does not matter; and ideas about gender matter more, but also less, than we may previously have thought. Gender ought not to matter in ways that divide us, that bar us from full participation in the human community, or tempt us to judge one an- other as inappropriately gendered beings. Ideas about gender ought to be let go insofar as they are based in discredited stereotypes, or insofar as they sustain gendered hierarchies. Yet gender still matters, certainly in relations of intimate love, where everything about a person matters. And gender analysis continues to be important in uncovering discrimination, exclusion, or neglect on the basis of gender. Sorting out how gender matters and does not matter is a practical but also ideational task that must continue, then, in the service of justice and human well-being, on the way to a wiser gendered world. 

Margaret A. Farley ’70 M.Phil. ’73 Ph.D., Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, has been a mentor and advisor to generations of students during her forty-year association with YDS. Her most recent book is Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006). 


1. Susan Frank Parsons, The Ethics of Gender (Blackwell, 2002), pp. 4-5.