As we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Mary Evans writes that since women have been subordinated over the centuries through male dominated interpretation of texts and more currently, through the global exploitation of labour for private profit, the way forward for them is by recognising and rejoicing in their capacity to create and interpret history.
Two events in March specifically celebrate women: Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (IWD). Both events draw attention to the particular part that women play (and have played) in the social world and both have survived various kinds of criticism that see nothing valuable in the celebration of any group outside the conventional boundaries of the nation and the state. That statement, of course, suggests that women are outside these boundaries whereas, as almost everyone knows, women constitute ‘half the sky’.
But in another sense women remain outside conventional boundaries and expectations. Most crucially, we appear less seldom in networks of power and influence and much more often amongst the most vulnerable and most impoverished. Despite efforts (although not, I would suggest, the best efforts) of the state to improve the standing of women, on all kinds of counts it remains the case that women generally are still ‘the other’.
Women remain the subject of what to many of us seem to be absurd conflicts about questions of the meaning and implications of gender difference and the part that these differences play in the making of our social and cultural world. Yet at this point of rapid political change in many parts of the world (most strikingly the Middle East), the relationship of women to the state is fundamental to all hopes of genuinely democratic change.
Because March is Women’s History Month I want to cite just one historical example of the way in which interpretation (in this case of the Bible) can be used by and for powerful men, and the way in which they construe the interests of the state, and against women.
The example concerns the much married Henry VIII of England and most particularly the ways in which he sought to legitimate his divorce from his first wife (Catherine of Aragon) in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry chose to argue that his first marriage was against the laws of the Church; his grounds for this belief being a passage in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus about the illegality of a man’s marriage to his brother’s widow (Chapter 18, verse 16 for the curious).
Two things to note about this: the first is that although this Biblical statement was the one that Henry chose for his purposes, other scholars (both at the time and since) pointed out that in the New Testament Gospel of St Luke (Chapter 20, verses 27-38 for Biblical scholars) the situation of the widow was resolved rather differently: in this context, brothers were positively encouraged to marry her.
The second point of this sixteenth century anecdote is to suggest that then, as now, power and male interests imposed authority on what could be read as an open, arguable case. The further point is that for women, contrary to some voices, the great and lasting emancipation of the European Enlightenment was access to the belief in the interpretation of texts, particularly the foundational texts of world religions.
But four hundred years later we are still having to live with that same gendered access to authority over the interpretation of religious texts. In this country the struggle over these texts is often seen as remote and arcane (for example, over the appointment of women as Bishops in the Church of England). But throughout the world the refusal of the possibility of interpretation, of reading texts in a way that allows and tolerates different meanings, is regarded by some as illegitimate and a threat to religion.
Since it is all too often women who are subject to enforced and entirely singular readings of particular texts, one of the themes that IWD and Women’s History Month might endorse is that of the fully democratic right to interpretation (and that really does mean women as well) to read religious texts in a way that does not subordinate them (as bad old Henry did) to the interests of power and state. Women would then be allowed to point out, rather more forcefully than male religious authority has so far done, that in the Bible it was Eve who was tempted by the idea of knowledge. Left to himself, we might conjecture, Adam might have remained wholly ignorant.
Subordination through the text is far, however, from the only form of social inequality in which gender plays a part. On the 1st of March this year the Evening Standard published a two page analysis of the earnings of sales assistants at the major stores in Oxford Street. Not all of these people will be women, but many will, and the majority of the people working in these shops earn only the minimum wage.
This wage is not enough to live on, certainly not in London or in many other parts of the country. Yet the hideous global connection that unites the people working in these stores with people elsewhere is that many of the goods being sold will have been made in countries where wages and conditions of work are appallingly low
So, to put it most dramatically, the young woman standing all day in the cavernous noise of Topshop (which pays 50p above the minimum wage) will be at the end of a chain of disadvantage that crosses the globe. In this context, IWD is less about celebration than about the recognition of loss, in this case the loss of global human resources for private profit.
Which brings us to another heritage of the Enlightenment: the possibility of assuming that we do not have to wait for miracles or divine intervention to change the human condition. Not only do we (and can we) make our own history but we should rejoice in our capacity to interpret it.
Mary Evans is a Centennial Professor at the LSE, based at the Gender Institute. She has written on various aspects of gender and women’s studies and many of those publications have crossed disciplinary lines between the social sciences and the humanities. She was a founding editor of the European Journal of Women’s Studies and is presently working on a study of narratives – and continuities – of class and gender.