Striking at the Source of the War on Women

The generals of the opposing armies in the current political "War on Women" have had their radar and their reconnaissance patrols focused on battlefields on Capitol Hill, in state capitals from Richmond to Phoenix, from Concord to Austin, in Rome, and on the positions taken by presidential candidates. These battles over contraception, women's healthcare, violence against women, Vatican suppression of nuns, pay equity and a host of other matters, are of great importance. Even if women and their male allies were to win all these battles, though, it would by no means constitute winning the war.

But, while the well-known generals from Planned Parenthood, national women's organizations, Congress and the media have been fighting the battles in this latest flaring of what could accurately be called the Ten Thousand Year War, a low-ranking foot soldier has succeeded in launching a stealth missile toward the actual source of the War on Women.

The intrepid enlisted woman who devised (with some input from me) a strategy for moving against the citadel of male supremacy is Atlanta attorney Carol W. Napier. She has carried her potentially game-changing (that is, war-changing) incendiary device, with the innocuous sounding name "Petition 20780," into the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the denomination's policy-making body, currently meeting in Tampa.

Sexual Deassignment Surgery for God

What the petition proposes is a change in the church's Book of Discipline to state that "the United Methodist Church and its clergy will convey clearly, in words and in actions, that God is not divided by sex and that women and men equally reflect the image of the Creator."

Last Saturday, the Church and Society Committee voted, by a margin of 32 to 28, to recommend the adoption by the General Conference of Ms. Napier's proposed amendment. The entire 988 delegate conference will vote on before the conference concludes on Friday.

All who spoke against the petition in the committee, which has 33 men and 30 women, were males, both white and black. The reason they repeatedly stated for opposing the measure was: "God is male." One cannot help but be reminded of a notable scene from an earlier battlefield in the War on Women, when clergymen invaded a women's rights convention in Akron in 1851. After the pastors had denounced all suggestions that women are equal, Sojourner Truth responded with her justly famous "Ain't I a Woman" speech. In it, she answered one of the ministers, who had said, "Women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman!" "Where," Ms. Truth asked rhetorically, "did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him!"

Such unquestioned claims that God is male have been common among male clergy. In a 1991 Father's Day sermon, for example, Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York was reported to have "asserted the indisputable maleness of God."

The Ultimate WMD (Weapon of Male Domination)

The Napier proposal gets at the heart of the problem. The misbegotten -- indeed, utterly senseless--idea that God is male is the casus belli of the War on Women -- what provides the putative justification for the subordination and mistreatment of women.

No other weapon in the vast arsenal used in that war is nearly as powerful as the argument that God is male. It has been the ultimate WMD -- Weapon of Male Denomination -- for thousands of years.

Let us put it directly: It is impossible to see women as equal to men if we see God as male.

The issue is not whether God is male or female; it is whether it is possible for a Creator to be of one sex. As the petition says,"to see the Creator as being one sex is to diminish God to the level of earthly beings."

Diving Beneath the Wreck

Four decades ago Adrienne Rich, who died just over a month ago, wrote in her brilliant poem "Diving into the Wreck" of the need to explore the wreck that human history has been because of the age-old repression in what in today's parlance is called the War on Women. The narrator (who is, as any sensible conception of a Creator must also be, an androgyne) in the poem says she/he "came to see the damage that was done" and to explore "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth."

But the time has come for us to dive beneath the wreck, to uncover the source of the myth that has been the basis for the sexism that has so misshapen history.

The deepest source of the war is that women seemed to have powers of procreation that men lack. To compensate for the things that they cannot do, men tell women that they may not do other things. Which activities women are excluded from varies from one culture to another, but some form of the procedure can be found in all societies.

I argue in my book Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History that, beyond this basic biological envy of women that insecure men have long had, the escalation from jealousy and compensatory exclusions to downright hostility began with women's invention of agriculture (symbolized in Genesis by the woman eating from the Tree of Knowledge and so obliging the man to "go forth and till the soil"). When humans learned to produce food, they dramatically altered not only the balance between themselves and their environment, but also that between the two sexes. The value of what men had traditionally done, especially hunting, declined. As substantial population growth became desirable, women were obliged to give up most of their previous role in production and concentrate much more on reproduction.

The Seed of the Myth that God Is Male

As men took over farming and began to plow the ground, a metaphor that has misguided the human experience more profoundly than any other emerged and proved to be all but irresistible. The apparent analogy of a seed being planted in furrowed soil to a male's "planting" of semen in the vulva of a female led to the conclusion that men provide the seed of new life and women constitute the soil in which that seed grows. The seed metaphor reversed the apparent positions of the sexes in regard to procreative power. Men now claimed to be the reproducers, while women were reduced from the seeming creators to dirt.

The woman-made world of agriculture became, paradoxically, a man's world to a degree unprecedented in human existence. Hell hath no fury like a man devalued.

Neither, apparently, hath heaven. The belief that men have procreative power led inevitably to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. The toxic fruit that grew from the seed metaphor was male monotheism.

The combination of the belief that God is male with the notion that humans are created in God's image yielded the inescapable conclusion that men are closer than women to godly perfection. Thus the seed metaphor led directly to the belief, given its classic expressions by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Freud, that women are deformed or "incomplete" men. Obviously, such inferior beings should not be treated equally.

The rest is history, pretty much all of it: Rich's wreck, the wasteland left from thousands of years of repressing women.

Petition 20780 seeks to go beneath the wreckage caused by millennia-long War on Women and accomplish genuine disarmament in that conflict by dismantling the most powerful Weapon of Male Domination. If it succeeds, it will lead to the issue of a male God being confronted in other religions.

The struggle to gain recognition in mainstream religions (and not only Christian religions) that God cannot be only male is not another battle in the War on Women. It is the war.

Accepting that God cannot be male is the first and most important step toward acceptance of full and genuine equality between the sexes -- something that has never happened in recorded history.

That would constitute victory over the aggressors in the War on Women.

'Robert S. McElvaine is a history professor at Millsaps College. His most recent books are 'Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America' and a 25th anniversary edition of 'The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941.' He is now completing, 'F*#k You!' -- Let's Diagram that Sentence.'