Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adam and Eve: A mission feminist's take (mid-20th century)

Adam and Eve, c. 1550, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the past few decades many interesting feminist/gender studies of the story of Adam and Eve have appeared. Some of my favourites are Deborah Sawyer (God, gender and the Bible), Kim Parker ("Mirror, mirror on the wall, must we leave Eden, once and for all?"), Mieke Bal ("Sexuality, sin and sorrow"), and Christine Froula ("Rewriting Genesis").

While going through my archive notes and literature on "mission feminists" in Norway, however, I was surprised to find another interesting gendered take on the story. One female theological author in mid-twentieth-century Norway, Henny Dons, seems to have put forward a couple of evolving interpretations of Adam and Eve. Henny Dons was a prolific author but also an activist for greater gender equality within church and mission circles in Norway in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, she was fairly conservative in her views on theology and the Bible. These two positions led her to a seeming struggle as she attempted to understand Genesis 1-3.

First, in the 1928 book Bibelens kvinner (Women of the Bible), she posits that Eve was created as Adam's equal. However, she argues that Eve then bore greater responsibility for the fall than Adam, and therefore God's judgement of Eve included a certain "reduction" or "weakening" of her character ("karakterforringelse"), which was later inherited by all women. This especially applied to all women who lived under "the old covenant" - i.e. women who lived in the vast parts of the world that Henny Dons characterised as non-Christian. It explained why women, and especially non-Christian women in Henny Dons' view, were subjugated to men. This interpretation seems to indicate that gender inequality is in large part due to Eve's original sin and the resulting weaker character of women.

In the same book, however, Henny Dons underlines that Christ is in some sense a descendant of Eve, not Adam. Dons held that Christ was born of a virgin, Mary, and hence did not receive his humanity from a biological father, Joseph. The narrative of salvation that runs from the fall, in the Garden of Eden, to the crucifiction and resurrection of Christ, in the New Testament, is therefore not a narrative that can be traced through a line of men, e.g. Adam-Joseph-Christ. Rather, the narrative of salvation can be traced through a line of women leading to the divine, namely Eve-Mary-Christ.

These are interesting attempts to combine her conservative theology with her fight to increase the role, status and space of women within the church. In the late 1940s, however, Henny Dons seems to have found some of the inconsistencies in her first interpretation of Eve too problematic. She has now started putting forward a different type of interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. In her undated manuscript "Guds ord til kvinnen" ("God's word to women"), she posits that in the Garden of Eden, Eve acknowledged her sin when God confronted her, whereas Adam did not - instead he shifted the blame away from himself. In Henny Dons' view, Eve therefore becomes the carrier of the hope and promise of conversion, as opposed to Adam, who is aligned with the shifty tools of Satan. Based on this picture, Henny Dons suggests that gender inequality in the world is largely caused by the repetition of this same pattern: Satan works through men to subjugate women, hope, and conversion.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson, who has written an article on Henny Dons in which she outlines these and other aspects of her life and writings, notes that it is not clear whether Henny Dons dared to speak about and teach the latter and more radical interpretation of Adam and Eve, or whether it was reserved for her unpublished manuscript.

-- Mikaelsson, Lisbeth. 2002. “Kvinne, ta ansvar og ledelse i dine egne hender”: Historien om Henny Dons [“Woman, take responsibility and leadership in your own hands”: The story of Henny Dons]. Norsk Tidsskrift for Misjon 56(2), 107-37.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Anthropologists on birth and babies

Since becoming pregnant I have started paying more attention to a number of anthropologists who do research on women's bodies, birth, and parents' interaction with their babies.

The first anthropologist I read on this topic was Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, who writes about the symbolism of a "standard" birth procedure in a US hospital in the early 1990s. She maps out various associations tied to the wheelchair that greets a woman in labour at the door, the hospital gown, being hooked up to an electronic monitor, the IV drip, the bed, and the offer of pain medication before the woman requests it. As Davis-Floyd puts it: "all these convey to the laboring woman that she is dependent on the institution. She is also reminded in myriad ways of the potential defectiveness of her birthing machine," namely her own body. "Routine obstetric procedures cumulatively map the technocratic model of birth onto the birthing woman's perceptions of her labor experience" (452, 455). Yet Davis-Floyd points out that within this richly symbolic ritual, as in any ritual, there is also space for women to revise and add their own meanings to the space that they are surrounded by (e.g. viewing the wheelchair as unnecessary, viewing technology as a resource that they are free to utilize or ignore), and to occupy this space differently.

Other anthropologists whose work I have just become aware of are James McKenna, who runs the mother-baby sleep lab at Notre Dame University in the US, and Helen Ball, who runs the parent-infant sleep lab at Durham University in the UK. So much interesting research, there's never enough time to read it all...

--- Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. 2005. Gender and ritual: Giving birth the American way. In Gender in cross-cultural perspective, 4th edition, eds. Caroline B. Brettell and Carolyn F. Sargent, 449-461. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.