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She Can Read

She Can Read is Emily Cheney’s attempt to answer the feminist question of  whether it is possible for a ‘her’ to read. While some feminists highlight women’s writing over men’s, others suggest that because language is so laden with patriarchy, even when women write or read, they reinforce that patriarchy. In this sense, they act against themselves. Though sexually female, they must be intellectually male. It begs the question, can ‘she’ read?

One solution is to take a post-structuralist approach where everyone offers a different interpretation of the text but Cheney rejects this because it’s too slippery: there’s not enough common ground so you end up not even being able to define ‘woman’, let alone bring a ‘feminist’ perspective to a text! And even if you do, it’s no more valid than a totally misogynous reading so it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Instead, Cheney accesses a concept from literary criticism: the implied reader.

The implied reader is the person the text is written for. For example, if I write a letter to Arthur, he’s the implied reader. But if I address my letter to Arthur and it’s published in a newspaper, I’m expecting that people other than Arthur will read it: there’s a broader implied audience. Cheney argues that women read themselves as the recipients of biblical texts even though the implied audience is male and by doing so miss the implicit patriarchy in the text. They need to identify and be aware of this in order to decide whether to accept, reject or challenge the text. She has three strategies which help women to do this.

Cheney’s strategies

The first strategy is gender reversal. What it does is to re-read the text with all the men as women and the women as men. The idea is to find out whether the text would have read the same in its original context and if not, why not. Is it just a matter of coincidence, for example, that Jesus commands only men to go out and heal in Matthew 10 or make disciples in Matthew 28? Could women equally read themselves into that, or does it show that the implied readers are male and so these commands are meant for men only? Cheney shows that to read women into these passages would have seemed very odd to Jesus’ hearers because things like travelling on your own are things that only men did. So if women are to take this passage on, they have to do so by identifying with the male disciples which would be co-operating in the narrator’s subordination of women to men. Reversing the genders in the story brings that to light.

However, just because a text has men in it doesn’t mean that women can’t access it. Her second reading strategy is ‘analogy’ where you basically treat the story as encapsulating universal human experiences that both women and men can identify with in some way. For example, some women have compared childbirth to Jesus’ trial in the garden of Gethsemane. This works well to an extent but Cheney still thinks there are elements of patriarchy (or other hierarchies such as race) that you have to suppress in order for this to be satisfying.

The third reading strategy was the one I found most absurd. It’s based around the idea that women can be objectified in a narrative by being used for male benefit. For example, you know the woman in Matthew 9 who’s been bleeding and touches Jesus’ cloak? I’ve always thought she was an example of exemplary faith. Cheney agrees that she is, but this is no good thing for women reading the Bible apparently. Because the woman is used as an example to teach the disciples, Cheney sees that she is a mere object lesson to be used for building up the disciples, thereby subordinating her faith to theirs. She says we musn’t miss the patriarchal agenda that drives the passage.

Cheney and the Bible

Cheney admits that “the use of these strategies requires a different understanding of the authority of the Scriptures.” You consent to the Bible’s authority as it affirms women but must withhold (at least partial) consent “at the point when [you] have evaluated the specific text and find [you] must reject or challenge its perspective.” You become the moderator between the biblical text, the cultural background, your own community and your own experiences.

Cheney’s pretty honest about this in her approach. She finds herself in a tradition that values the Bible so if she wants to be listened to, she can’t dismiss the Bible wholesale. On one hand, she’s stuck with the Bible; on the other, she believes that the patriarchy of the Bible is destructive. Her solution is basically pragmatic: come up with a new way of reading the Bible that suits her ideology. The question here, of course, is whether your own reason/ideology/experiences judge Scripture or whether Scripture judges your reason/ideology/experiences.

The question of whether ‘she can read’ is a good one. However, I think it needs to be accompanied by the question ‘can she hear?’ and ‘can she be taught?’ Cheney, of course, maintains that for too long women have only heard male perspectives and have been subjected to teaching that, however subtly, devalues their perspective. There’s truth in that which needs to be dealt with. But if the Bible is more than just a human word or cultural construct, if it actually is somehow inspired by God, then we cannot afford to put ourselves over it, whether we’re men or women. We need to assume a position not of suspicion, but of humility. And I don’t say that because I think women ought to be subordinate to men but because I think humans ought to be the clay, not the potter.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Another interesting post Tamie. I particularly agreed with your comments at the end. Just out of interest though, are there any passages, with classical readings, that Feminist authors actually like? Where they don’t find outstanding cases of gender bias? I can’t help feeling from reading this that these people are simply spoiling for a fight.

  2. This is really interesting!

    Two things:

    “The question of whether ‘she can read’ is a good one. However, I think it needs to be accompanied by the question ‘can she hear?’ and ‘can she be taught?’”

    That’s a great way to put it. I lean towards some of her assumptions but only if it goes both ways – do we seek to understand the text in light of our own context/culture/2000 years of history since, etc.? And can we do that in faith without also being willing to be shaped by said text? There are perspectives that should be challenged by our modern notions and I’m pretty comfortable with that. I don’t expect 1st century males to have the same sympathies as people today in the same way that I don’t expect 1st century males to have the same sympathies as the freed Israelite slaves who were first handed the law. Morality progressed through scripture, and if we believe we’re being called towards a great reconciliation, I imagine that it should keep on progressing (of course this requires a great deal of nuance).


    “But if the Bible is more than just a human word or cultural construct, if it actually is somehow inspired by God, then we cannot afford to put ourselves over it, whether we’re men or women. We need to assume a position not of suspicion, but of humility. And I don’t say that because I think women ought to be subordinate to men but because I think humans ought to be the clay, not the potter.”

    I agree with your sentiment here. We should first approach this subject with a willingness to be shaped. But I’m reminded of Jesus’ teaching that the Sabbath was made for people (gender inclusive!) rather than people being made for the Sabbath. The law was made to serve rather than to rule (kind of a Kingdom theme). I guess I’m wanting to explore what it means that, dare I say, scripture was made for us rather than us for scripture. I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying that scripture is subject to us, although the Mark passage referred to above may lead that way. I guess I’m just wondering out loud a bit.

    Anyway, thanks for this post! It has caused me to reflect a bit!

  3. @Sam: Cheney didn’t have any examples but I don’t think that necessarily suggests she’s spoiling for a fight. Although her presuppositions hit against the text much of the time, she leaves the possibility of being able to ‘accept’ a text open.

    @Joey: Wonder away! For my part, I’m not sure the scripture / Sabbath substitution is exact so I’m reluctant to head in the direction you’re suggesting.

    With the progressing morality thing, I think this has to do with the interplay between the human and divine in scripture. I think feminists tend to lean towards underplaying divine inspiration and treating the texts as if they’re merely human texts with human ideas that we’ve ended up with almost as an accident of history. I think that means when they read a text, they don’t end up expecting to hear God speak, hence the difficulty with being shaped by the text.

  4. I guess my wondering line of reason is this: Sabbath = Law, Law = Torah, Torah = Scripture (at least to our NT writers and to Jesus). I’m not saying it is one to one correlation, but that if I’m being open minded I can definitely see a cause to explore the idea that other parts of the Law might be interchanged. I guess you’d have to ask whether or not there is something specific about Sabbath that makes it stand apart from other parts of the Law in this regard.

    I see what you are saying about the interplay between human and divine but I guess I’m not convinced that it has to be one or the other. God met people where they were at. If you compare Torah with other ANE laws of the time, Torah is miles ahead in morality (women and slaves have more rights, overreactions become illegal – eye for an eye was progressive). But if you compare the Torah to the behaviors found in the NT you see a progression in morality, especially for Jesus. It is no longer OK to stone a woman to death for adultery. I don’t think this eliminates the divine, but places it squarely in the midst of the human story. God meeting people where they are at, freeing them for a greater reality. This is the story of the incarnation, and it is the eschaton – and it isn’t just individual progression (I was a sinner but am being sanctified) but is corporate (covenant community) and historical (salvation history didn’t begin at the birth of Jesus but at the dawn of humankind).

    I think you are right on your read of feminists – that some may throw the divine out because they can’t see how God can speak through us broken humans – but I don’t think they necessarily have to do that.

  5. I like your final comment here Joey – I’d like to think they don’t have to either. However, their underlying ideology does make it difficult: you either have to have God speak in spite of the text or have God speak through the text. Most favor the former since the latter has God either use or approve of patriarchy.

    I say *interplay* between human and divine because I’m convinced that it definitely isn’t one way or the other: my doctrine of scripture tells me that the Bible is both a human and divine book! But God meets us where *we* are at through scripture as well. He uses the inspired to illuminate us as well. The human story has to be a scriptural story.

    The relation of the OT law to the NT is a tricky question, and much debated. I do think there’s a case to be made for a developing morality on an eschatological basis but I’m suspicious where this is applied to Scripture. While Jesus may have re-interpreted the OT (and I say *may* because I’m not sure he did) we are not Jesus. And while Paul and the other NT writers stood in a different time in salvation history to Moses, we don’t stand at a different time in salvation history to Paul – we’re both in the last days.

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