Women Only Communities
I’ve temporarily shifted my focus in my summer project from feminist theology to feminist readings of church history. Most of the time, that’s not trying to reinterpret events so much as to fill out the picture and show where and how women were involved or what changes in church history did or didn’t affect women.
I’ve just finished reading a chapter about the closing of convents in Kirsi Stjerna’s Women of the Reformation. Stjerna notes that convents were the primary places of education for women in the medieval world. They provided a place for the intellectual pursuits of women including theological reflection and literary contribution. Protestants closed down heaps of convents, mostly because they didn’t believe in separating out the spiritual from the secular and felt that secluded religious communities suggested that there was a more spiritual way of life. There were other reasons too: one nun, Ursula von Münsterberg felt that the vows she made suggested that they were how she was saved (though Katharine Rem, another nun from the same period denied this was the case for her when so accused.)
Some women saw the closing of convents as a liberation, as they entered into the Protestant ideal of being wife and mother. But other women saw it as oppressive because there was no longer a place for women to freely exercise scholarly roles. While Protestants did set up unis to compensate for the loss of monasteries as educational institutions, those unis only admitted male students. No longer did women have a forum for theological learning and discussion. This was exacerbated by what Stjerna sees as the end of other spiritual vocations that had been open to women such as mystic or prophet. We could talk about the rightness or wrongness of the Protestant vision of femininity but what interested me was the notion of women-only communities.
Ridley’s missiology lecturer described herself to me the other day as biblically egalitarian but anthropologically complementarian. She’s convinced biblically that women can be in leadership over men but her experience tells her that this works best both for the leader and the led in all-women contexts. What makes this even more interesting is that she’s spent much of the last 20 years in the Middle East. She’s observed that because much of the society is segregated into men and women it often gives women more opportunities to grow and flourish. Women who hang out with women are often strong women. That reflection resonated with me: like my lecturer, I come from a family of strong women.
I came across this issue when I was teaching too: co-ed or single sex? You could ask the same question of theological education, though that’s complicated if you’ve got husbands and wives training together, like us. But another joy to add to my reflections on the Ridley women’s night is that it was all women. It sounds obvious, but amongst all the support that Ridley gives, this was unique. And it was special because I’ve struggled to find those women and make those relationships. I think that they’re important, not just for theological reflection but for broader flourishing as women.
Many of us (both men and women) lamented the lack of involvement by women in this year’s Ridley Follies. I didn’t put in an act: I didn’t have girl friends to muck around with or perform with. I wonder whether un-selfconsciousness is a sign of wholeness for women? This occurred to me at NTE, meeting a stack of great women from SMBC. While the college is co-ed, they all live in the single girls’ accommodation together. They were mission-minded, thinking, fun girls. They were confident without being overbearing and we had some great conversations. Now, perhaps single girls are just more fun than married girls, or SMBC people more fun than other theological students but I suspect it has to do with the all-women community they’re a part of. And I felt a little wistful.
I think men and women have a lot to learn from each other. And perhaps my problem is that I’m trying to do the single-women-in-a-convent thing as well as the Protestant-wife thing and sooner or later I’m going to discover that you can’t do both. I’ve got an article I intend to read soon about the different power avenues in the Middle East. I think the argument is that while women are not visible in public life, they are the gatekeepers to many rites of passage in private or spiritual life. I’ll be interested to see how that contributes to the discussion and will review it when I’m done.