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.
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.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.