From Scotland to the Aegean Sea:
Diving Deep in Conversation with Carol P. Christ, Part 1
by E.C. Erdmann
The following article is taken from E.C. Erdmann's Interview with Goddess thealogian Carol P. Christ at her home in Molyvos, Greece on September 7, 2009.
The initials ECE (E.C. Erdmann) and CPC (Carol P. Christ) are used to indicate the speakers.
I'm sitting across from one of my heroines, Carol P. Christ, at her kitchen table in the castled Greek island town of Molyvos as she relaxes amidst her familiars — two small dogs and a cat, recently injured in an unsuccessful dive from a garden window. They surround her with attention and inquisitive barks with definite human intonations. I take a moment to revel in the serndipitous circumstance of my arrival here, having met Carol for the first time at the "Communicating Change" conference at the University of Glasgow in June of 2009. I recall being back in the States just before the conference chair contacted me, asking in disbelief, "Where is your abstract? Do you know Carol P. Christ is the keynote speaker?" I cut my trip short and grabbed the next plane back to Scotland. When it came to the initial meeting with Carol I suppressed the inclination to heroine worship with burning questions I had accumulated. With insufficient time to answer them there, I rather boldly inquired whether I could interview her back in Greece. Surprisingly, to me at least, she responded, "Sure" and followed up the next day by asking whether I could come to the island of Lesvos and watch her residence and pets while she dodged the heat extremes of August. This was an attractive alternative to my "camping under the stars" plan, and the rest is herstory.
From the moment I arrived, the island's charms cast their spell over me; I did not anticipate the intense immersion the experience would turn out to be. The air blends into the temperature of one's body so perfectly it becomes hard to tell where one's own skin ends and the Greek island itself begins.
You feel as a part of it all, almost akin to sensation in the first stages of love, wherein you cannot imagine the stage of separation from your beloved. I feel alternately and simultaneously like an infant, a fool, and wise woman, savoring them all. There is also the natural mystique of the island of Lesvos — Sappho's school and the intoxicating eroticism of her poetry that lingers on, the hidden Temple of Aphrodite, the view of ancient Troy from the beach — that opens a portal for expansion. Very little imagination is needed to "see" Gods winking in the sun or a Goddess walking out of the sea and into our world. Greece captivates and invites the imagination as a treasured guest, and so does Carol with her ideas of the way the world is, the way it could be, and how to close the gap without losing the way. It is an art and a way of life I'm eager to explore with one who knows something of both.
I take a moment to reflect on her academic career, starting with her groundbreaking, "Why Women Need the Goddess" (1979) to her latest foray into Process Philosophy with Goddess Thealogy entitled, She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine In the World (2003), with numerous publications and books in the interim. She is one of the few academic authors whose every book I have read — and enjoyed. She also has critics, though most take her to task on a symbolic level for work in the 70's, rather than tracing the full development of her thoughts to the present.
What I'm dying to know and the first question to cross my lips: Why is feminism such a troubled word these days, particularly with young women?
ECE: Carol, feminism, as we all know, has become somewhat of a "dirty" word and sometimes, often times, causes a stronger revulsion in women than men even. I want to know why you think this is so prevalent right now — especially in the current generation — and do you have any suggestions that you think might alter this view — if reflected upon?
CPC: One definition of feminism is that it is the radical idea that women are fully human. An implication of this definition is that qualities or capacities or possibilities that have been associated in the past only with men or only with women should be open to both sexes. Of course that excludes giving birth or at least so far it does — but there is no reason why men shouldn't be present at birth, why men shouldn't be fully involved in childcare and nurturing of children. And there is no reason why women can't have any career that they want. So on that level there should be no objection to feminism.
One of the earliest feminist demands was that work hours be restructured so that both men and women could have what would be a full time job, maybe 30-35 hours per week, and have plenty of time to spend with their children. And that certainly hasn't happened — in fact the reverse has happened. In contrast to the 1970s, today most jobs require you to work more than forty hours a week. In a blue-collar job you need your overtime to get enough money, and if you're a lawyer or a doctor or a professor you're supposed to be working all the time. And in business you're supposed to be working really long hours — having your dinner at the desk and coming home late. So actually what has happened in the past thirty to forty years is that society has re-structured itself against feminism, against the idea that women and men should both be able to be involved in the workforce and both be able to be involved in the family and home and children.
But if you complain, you are the one causing waves and you could lose your job. And even if maternity and paternity leaves are available, most men don't take it and women may lose points on their job when they take it. So, I think one reason women are afraid of the word "feminist" is because actually it still isn't okay to want women and men to be equal if that means demanding hanges in the conditions of work and life. Many women prefer to think that they are already equal and that they don't need any further changes.
Women today are making about 75% of what men make, more than thirty years after feminists began to demand equal pay for equal work. There is a glass ceiling and there are still very few women in the highest levels of the US government. Because it is so difficult to combine work and family, some women choose part-time work or jobs that are less demanding, but don't pay as well. But in the same jobs — both are professors, both are in management, both are lawyers, both have union jobs — women are still making less than men. The system isn't really equal but women don't like to think about that.
I remember when I was teaching in late 1970s a young woman student said "Oh I don't need feminism, my boyfriend, he treats me good." The older women in the class responded, "Well we thought that too." (laughter) But, they explained, things don't work out that way once you get into the work world and have a family. It's still overwhelmingly women who have the double day of work with the children and the home and housework. Men are doing more housework and childcare than they used to, but they still are not taking as much responsibility as women.
ECE: So do you think it is almost a backlash effect resulting after the awareness set in of what would have to occur to bring into fruition all the points raised in the 60's and 70's?
CPC: I think younger women also saw that though there were a few women who managed to combine a really full career with marriage and family, there were a lot of women who were single and divorced, without children or raising children on their own. They didn't want to be like them, so they thought: if I don't speak out as a feminist, maybe I can have it all. These women are not all wrong — feminists are not in control of the world. People who aren't feminists or who don't want to think about feminism all the time are in control of the world. So,some women conclude that it is better to put yourself forward as a woman who only wants to have a job just like a man but not to say anything about "anything else" (laughter) and maybe you'll be able to get ahead. And certainly in academic fields that's the case — there shouldn't be too much talking about women's issues — especially if they challenge major assumptions in the field. It is safer to not rock the boat too much. Perhaps you can get away with talking about Freud and women or Christianity and women or you can use male thinkers like Foucault to deconstruct gender. But if you say that we need new theories based on other thought patterns than the male thought patterns, then you risk being marginalized or unemployed. I think at base women's opposition to feminism is a) economic and b) the fear of not having a man — if you don't compromise. A LOT. (laughter)
ECE: Do you think too that part of the issue is the restriction on the role expected of men? That since men aren't really encouraged to be caregivers, at the same level as women, that they aren't able to take part as much or made to feel less than if they do?
CPC: I think there is a growing number of men who would like to spend time with their families and who are aware of ideas that have been put forward by feminism but who also have jobs that don't allow time. If they have to work fifty, sixty or more hours a week either in a blue collar job or a white collar job in order to make it to the top or even just to keep their jobs, then they're tired and don't really have the time. Obviously the men who hold the power to change the conditions of work are not changing them. And unfortunately there aren't a lot of people who are willing to defy or question authority in any time or place.
Another thing I would say is that the second wave of the feminist movement came about in the late 60's and that was a time of great optimism. People really felt that the world is basically a good place and that once everyone became aware of injustice,the world would change. Think about Woodstock; people thought: we can all go there in a spirit of peace and love and nobody is going to rape anybody and nobody is going to murder anybody. We can all just have a good time, and we can all change the world into a sexually liberated, loving, less violent place. People really did believe, I believed, that within my generation we could end racism and poverty, and we could end war, and we could end sexism. We were naïve, we were idealistic.
When people saw that change didn't happen or didn't happen fast enough, they lost hope. The younger generation knows the threat of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe and AIDS. Sometimes they just don't want to think about changing the world, because they don't believe they can. If you don't believe you can create change, then you may feel, well, I guess I just better fit in, make my way the best I can. Maybe you have ideas that are feminist but you don't express them and you try not to think about changing the world for yourself or others.
ECE: I notice that sometimes teenagers and young twenty-somethings seem more conservative than their parents! Perhaps it is because their parents retain a bit of that optimism that I associate with youthfulness. You mentioned to me earlier that around the same time there were also groups of women in all types of work and walks of life that would read feminist theories that were in between academic and popular.
CPC: In the 70's and 80's the feminist movement spread by books. When Adrienne Rich published Of Woman Born, ALL of my friends went out and bought it and read it. And all of the women who came to my lectures — many of whom had some college education, some of whom were working, some of whom were housewives, some of them were still hippies or whatever — they were ALL reading it. We felt these books would give us clues to change our lives and change the world. And there were — at least we thought so at the time — really new ideas in those books. You talked to your friends about them and passed the books around and everybody was reading them and then you talked about them again. We also had consciousness raising groups where we were also exploring the effects of sexism on our feelings about ourselves, whether it was our bodies, our vaginas, our sexuality or childbirth, our careers or what we wanted to accomplish in our lives. We were exploring all of that together. Today there doesn't seem to be many books that make that kind of impact nor does there seem to be a shared energy to change the world together.
ECE: The idea of women reading books that could change the world leads into my third question. Can you list a few of your top books — all women — absolutely — ought to read as soon as possible (if they haven't already). Ones that you find really inspiring and that would maybe catch people on fire again?
CPC: One of the books that I always continue to find inspirational, and that I would say is my favorite book from the women's movement is Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin. It was one of the first ecofeminist books. In the first part of the book Griffin talks about the ways in which Western thinking has constructed women and nature as irrational as opposed to man and culture which are said to be the rational. She quotes Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and nearly every other thinker who has been influential in Western thinking. And of course these ideas filter down, so that people who have been acculturated into male thought patterns, including women, tend to view women as irrational and animals and nature as irrational. Even Mother Nature is irrational: she's going to strike you down at any second because she has a violent aspect — when she gets enraged like a storm, she is destructive and out of control. This is the same way that women are often thought of — that's why they need to be under the control of their husbands because they have this irrational nature and if they aren't controlled they might kill a child — they might do anything. These are some of the reasons why man needs to dam a river and control a woman — dam her up too, otherwise she's going to... (laughter).
ECE: Damn him! (laughter)
CPC: So that is the first part of the book, of course, it is not man's fault, it is the way he has been taught. In the second part of the book Griffin writes poetically as woman begins to find her voice: she descends into darkness and chaos and when she emerges, she begins to speak very hesitantly with her own voice. She is. She is. She says: he has called me irrational, but I say I feel very deeply. The women speak of their feelings for nature and they hear the voice of nature speaking.
What I learned from this book is that we need a philosophy in which what has been called irrational is incorporated into what's been called rational, in which what has been called nature is loved and admired and respected and heard. And what has been called female is also loved and admired and respected — and listened to. One of the lines from the book that I've memorized is: "This earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring and how loved I am how we admire the strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know."
Carol's voice is strong yet soothing, and when Griffin's poetry flows from her mouth it comes out in perfect cadence. What that statement holds for Carol, for Griffin, myself and for many others, pulls me in to drift into that delicious depth of knowing and remembering down to the toes. It strikes me having witnessed Carol in action in Molyvos, launching her daily battles to save the endangered birds of Lesvos (against all odds) how much Carol feels what she thinks. A quality that is rare in academia, almost bred out of many of us from day one. It refreshes my resolve to never make that split complete within myself. How inspiring it is to see someone write her books into her life! Carol finishes her thoughts on Griffin as I tuck my revelations away for later...
CPC: Griffin is calling us to admire the strength in ourselves and the strength of nature. Out of that knowledge we can create a world in which women and nature are admired for their strength and their ability to endure and for their sensitivity and creativity.
The deeper meaning of Susan Griffin's book is that both women and men are nature and that men can also learn this — but it will be harder for them because they will have to give up the power they have gained by dominating woman and nature.
ECE: What is your view of what feminine means? Do you think it is a quality arisen from women necessarily having to be in this position — of say being the nurturers and not being the dominant sex (in written public history at least)? Do you think that might have brought out women's personality to be more "feminine" by virtue of the position itself and that if some of these roles were equalized there would be a converging of what we consider masculine and feminine qualities? Or do you think it's deeply biological?
CPC: I think that probably there are some biological tendencies that can be considered male or female. Women's bodies are set up to give birth, and once you give birth it is usually "natural" to take care of the thing you gave birth to — unless you've been seriously maltreated yourself or are starving, that's what you'll do, whether you are human or animal. But let's not forget that many male animals also care for their young. Men have more testosterone than women and testosterone has been associated with more aggressive behaviors — and you can associate testosterone with war and domination if you wanted to. But basically I would say whatever tendencies biology gives us can be shaped and changed by culture. There are and have been cultures that do not encourage men to dominate women and nature or to go to war. These should be our models.
I have no interest in calling qualities like reason "masculine" and emotion "feminine." I'm a very rational person and a person with very deep feelings. It has never made sense to me to call my ability to think is masculine. And I really wouldn't want to tell a man that if he feels deeply, that that is his "feminine" side, my granny who grew fruit and canned it for winter use did all of that out of instinct? No, it required intelligence.
Cultures play the most important role in shaping whatever tendencies our biology gives us. If in our culture a boy is told: boys don't cry, boys don't play with dolls, boys don't play with kittens unless they are going to throw a rock at them, and if we give them violent video games to play with, well then, we should not be surprised that boys grow up with diminished capacities to feel the feelings of others. And if we tell girls that they are supposed to play with Barbie dolls and to play only these video games where you make yourself into a virtual Barbie or find a prince, well, we shouldn't be surprised if girls are afraid to use the creative powers of their minds.