Friday, July 25, 2008

The body in the pulpit: écriture féminine and female clergy (Elaine Lawless)

So I am reading about gender. Right now I'm trying to understand écriture féminine.

Ecriture féminine has evolved into its own brand of feminist poststructuralist/literary theory - primarily associated with the French feminist "holy trinity": Hélene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. Ecriture féminine is sometimes translated as "writing the (female) body". It's based on the proposition that forms of patriarchy have systematically repressed, invalidated or ignored women's experiences. In particular, a connection is drawn between experiences tied to women's bodies and to texts. Ecriture féminine is expressed e.g. through modes of bodily praxis or modes of writing (women's or men's) that pinpoint a certain unease with prevailing social relations, challenge them and alter them.

I have just read an article by Elaine Lawless on women clergy in the United States ('Writing the body in the pulpit: Female-sexed texts', Journal of American Folklore 107:55-81, 1994). She argues that even just the presence of a female minister in church can at times act as écriture féminine. She focuses on the figure of the woman pastor in the pulpit: a female body, heavy with allusions, covered in vestments, heavy with religious meaning and authority. This female body might pose certain threats - threats to theological ordering, to fixed gender roles, to the perception that God can only be understood through and in human male terms.

Seeing a female figure in the pulpit can also suddenly raise the question of gender and sexuality in the lives of the congregants. Lawless argues that male pastors in the West have for long been associated with a certain degree of asexuality. But when a woman steps up to the pulpit, she suggests, it becomes much more difficult for congregants to regard her as asexual - especially if she has been or becomes pregnant - and this in turn raises the question of bodily experience and sexuality for them inside the church, rather than outside it: "At the very best, the woman presents a dilemma in that she forces a confrontation with sexuality for everyone involved" (p. 62). In this way bodily experiences - female, male, human - can suddenly be included more visibly in the religious space.

While Lawless presents very interesting ethnographic material, I'm not sure I agree with her that female ministers or pastors cannot be perceived to be asexual in the same way as many male ministers. I agree that the female body comes laden with sexual signification. But it also seems to me that in some instances female ministers can take on - or be placed in - the same apparently asexual role as some of their male colleagues.

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