Wollstonecraft and Modern Feminism, Part 2

It is probably a smart thing that gassed threads are deleted in SA within a week.  Let sleeping dogs lie.

Yet, I enjoyed that thread immensely.  It’s true that as soon as I posted my post about Wollstonecraft, I was attacked by virtually everyone.  Liberals, conservatives.  Shrill people, those who make the pretense of scholarship.

Virtually everyone misunderstood my post.  Those who got close to what I was saying did not address/realize the implications (which were the ultimate point) and reiterated feminist mantras.

As I said, all of the work that I did in that thread was deleted.  While I didn’t have the opportunity to save all of my posts in that thread (and I will in the future), I did save some of the writing while I was drafting.  I painstakingly replied to every point and every poster who seemed genuine, and I’ve saved the responses that I made to two of these.  Apparently I threw them into a word file while I was drafting them.

I am posting these below.  If I think it’s appropriate, I’ll further comment on these.  If not everything that I’ve mentioned is clear, or I want to add a couple of points, or extend my position, I’ll do that.

[quote=”rudatron” post=”412164240″]

Let me get this straight. You’re claiming that:

[list][*]Popular secular ideologies (including feminsim) today are actually Christian, so Christianity can take the credit for them existing, yet…

[*]Misogyny and prejudice aren’t Christian at all (even if the people who espouse them claim they are), so Christianity cannot be blamed for this, yet…

[*]Those same secular ideologies are actually right now completely opposite to those Christian ideas and are oppressing/demonizing it, and don’t bring about gender equality, yet…

[*]This isn’t the kind of equality where gender lines can be blurred (as in the un-Christian modern feminsim). Instead a different kind of equality must be created where men must not act like women who must not act like men. This can be brought about by educating ~greek virtue~, which is somehow Christian.[/list]

Oh and Paganism is somehow responsible for inequality. Are you posting this here just to get a response or what? Because if believe any of that then I’m not sure you should talk about feminism at all.


No, I’m saying that Christianity has been used both to support feminism and reject feminism.

Christianity is today often associated, on the one hand, with “misogyny,” and, on the other hand, it is also associated with a kind of liberation from the ideological shackles of feminism–which, according to the view, destroys the family, erodes family values, etc.

Yet, in the past, feminist writers routinely invoked Christianity to support their claims.  Radical equality of the soul before God and so forth.  In fact, I’m not even sure “invoking Christianity” is a strong enough turn of phrase.  Rather, Christianity was claimed to be central to the project of the equality of the sexes among the so-called early feminist writers.

The questions here arise: is Christianity in fact really compatible with a robust patriarchy?  According to the early feminist writers and other progressive Christians through history, no: in short, because of the radical equality of souls before God.  But, according to progressive anti-Christian writers, yes: it’s inscribed in the mythological system, the history of Judeo-Christian social practices, the actual text, particularly the Old Testament, itself.

So can Christianity as such be said to be in support of anything?  Can it, for example, really pose as the antidote to the feminist disease that allegedly plagues modernity if, in fact, it seems so pliable and has for some writers appeared to promote the exact opposite of patriarchy–containing a radical kernel for liberation and equality?

As far as the relationship between popular secular ideologies and Christianity: I’m not sure one can say that the Christianity today can “take credit” for them, but simply that, because of the latent radically progressive potential of Christianity, that Christianity has proven an intractable source of inspiration for radical struggle, that contemporary progressive values, including human rights, owe everything to Christianity–not just conceptually, either, but also historically.  This argument is implicit in the early linkage of feminism in Christianity, but can also be seen elsewhere: Feuerbach argued that everything in Christianity was true, except for the theology, that Christianity was written into the hearts of man, that it reflects essential human need, but that the theology itself was a projection onto an anthropomorphic series of false entities (God, the Trinity, etc.).  Marx, in his early work at least, took this to mean that the human struggle wasn’t a spiritual one, in a movement toward fulfilling a man’s relationship with God, but a material one, in a movement toward fulfilling man’s relationship with man, and with himself.  Because of this, a long series of parallels with Christian thought, of the materialization of Christian theology into the theory of History, is massively evident in Marxism.  One may say, then, that if Marx took Christianity as describing perfectly the human essence and pointing in direction to its fulfillment, then the Christian legacy was central for the development of Marxism.  I think that a reading of the texts bears this out.

It is my claim that, just as with feminism and Marxism, the legacy of Christian ideas has had a central role in the formation even of the thought that explicitly rejects the Christian God.  From a strictly conceptual point of view, again, look at human rights.  What gives human rights?  This requires some notion of human soul, or some kind of human exceptionality, that justified human rights as something more worth defending than, for example, animal rights.  Even the Kantian notion, which appears at the surface to do away with the soul as a way of justifying anything, requires some kind of implied and assumed human exceptionality.  Why keep the human world in operation at all?  Because of the special value of human beings, or at least my own wish.  Etc.

As far as gender equality is concerned, my point is that with Wollstonecraft, unlike modern feminists, she doesn’t emphasize gender equality as an end.  Virtue is the end–a concept to Wollstonecraft, which, yes, isn’t conceived with Christianity strictly in mind, but if you’ll read Wollstonecraft, is also, among other things, very Greek.  So virtue is the end of her version of political struggle, and equal virtue may achieve something like gender equality (and not in a modern sense), but that isn’t her point, and is in fact even disputable.  Even if Wollstonecraft’s equality of virtue achieves an equality of the genders (in the sense, not just of status, but also behavior), this is still not something very clearly feminist, as Wollstonecraft’s notion staunchly rejects traditional notions of femininity, and even has no notion of masculinity as such–but only a universally good way of behaving.  So it, unlike many modern theories, doesn’t even have gender on the radar, and could only address gender incidentally, and only anachronistically (if that’s what we were looking for in her theory).  Taking a further step.  Even if we admit that gender equality could be reached through Wollstonecraft’s theory, this kind of gender equality would be alien for another reason: the movement toward gender equality is obsessed with power, whereas Wollstonecraft is (correctly) concerned with character.  Again, only if you read your own concerns into Wollstonecraft can you see her talking anywhere about gender or gender equality in any modern sense.

About paganism and gender inequality.  It’s not my claim that paganism leads to gender inequality, but a remark made by Alice Bacon, which seems to me to make sense.  Without the notion of radical equality in the eyes of God through a Christian soul (and also granting that every human has a soul, i.e. that women are not deprived of one), the possibility of strict hierarchy seems a natural and reasonable one.  This, further, seems to naturally lead to the possibility of patriarchy (which is what we would call many traditionally pagan societies). 

Last, I’m posting here, because I have these thoughts and questions, because they are exciting to me, and I would like to share them and hear the feedback of others.  I’ve long posted on other messageboards, but I’ve been making an effort lately to reach out in other venues.  Thank you for your feedback, and I hope, even if you disagree with it, what I’ve written has made my positions and questions more clear.

As a side note, I’d really like to do a discussion at some point on the relationship of Christianity to Marxism, via a reading of Feuerbach.  And, to liberal thought, which provided much of the political substance to Marxism (via Marx’s exposure to radical French thought during his time in Paris).  I think this would strengthen my claims.

I’d further like to add J.S. Mill to the list of writers who openly embraced Christian ethics as the highest form of ethical life (even as he claimed that it should be supplemented by Greek ethics), while being a feminist (in a much more modern sense than Wollstonecraft).

Last, I’d like to suggest here a bit more textual support for my claims:


Okay, here is number two.

[quote=”Protocol 5″ post=”412166495″]

Your use of a book about the social position of women in Meiji Era Japan as a springboard for arguing a dichotomy between “feminist” Christianity and “anti-feminist” paganism is problematic for a number of reasons. The primary one is of course using a single source to support that particular aspect of your overall argument. A broader reading of sources on Japanese religion would poke a few holes in it.

• The principal deity in Shintoism was and is Amaterasu Omikami. Shintoism is generally believed to have evolved out of animistic practices in a western Japan culture that was attested to be matriarchal in contemporary sources from China.

• In roughly the same timeframe as the adoption of Chinese script in the fourth century, Confucian hierarchical theories of government and social organization became widespread in western Japan. Confucianism placed women in subservient roles to men and barred them from participating in the bureaucracy and religious leadership roles. Notably, Confucianism is not a religion per se, though it does reference certain Taoist and Buddhist concepts. 

• Mahayana Buddhism became a major cultural force in the sixth and seventh centuries, and was syncretized with Shinto, with many Japanese deities both male and female becoming associated with bodhisattva. Attitudes towards women among sects varied.

• Buddhism continued to flourish in both esoteric, ascetic and popular forms for the next several centuries.

• First attested contact with Christians occurs in 1549. Portuguese Catholic priests start converting people, but converts are later brutally suppressed, first by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and then by Tokugawa Ieyasu, as a result of tensions between rival factions in the Shogunate and a growing distrust of proselytism. Christianity was then outlawed completely, proselytism was banned, and converts who refused to recant were executed. Christians survived and persisted by hiding their beliefs.

• The Tokugawa Shogunate issued an edict in 1640 requiring all citizens to register with a local Buddhist temple as part of the ongoing repression of Christians. While this benefited Buddhist sects financially, the Tokugawa shogunate was just as suspicious of them, and the bloody persecution of Christians was a clear warning against trying to exercise any political clout.

• With all the Christians dead or underground, the borders closed, and the Buddhists sufficiently cowed, the primary philosophical influence on both society and religion was Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism was another strictly hierarchical evolution of Confucianism that jettisoned the mystical elements in favor of a rationalistic approach to government and social organization that was brought over from Korea in the late sixteenth century after Hideyoshi’s abortive invasion. This status quo continued until the Meiji Restoration replaced the shogunate with a constitutional monarchy based on European industrialized nations.

• Christianity and Buddhism made slight comebacks thanks to expanded religious freedom, but Japan is still largely secular in its outlook, and religious affiliations for Buddhists tend to be nominal.

So, seeing as how Shinto was not a dominant cultural influence for roughly 1200 years prior to Bacon’s arrival in Japan, and the preceding 200 years that were most likely to influence contemporary attitudes toward women were dominated by a strictly hierarchical rationalist philosophy that can’t even vaguely be called a religion, much less pagan, I don’t see how you can consider Japanese culture at the time that Bacon visited to be “pagan” in any meaningful sense. This post is absurdly long already, so I won’t go into how comparing Shinto with classical Greek religion is also extremely problematic.


This wasn’t meant to be an academic article, just a piece that tried to use everything I had at my disposal.  Still, your critique of my source isn’t relevant.

Before I show that, some clarity.  I didn’t actually equate paganism with antifeminism and Christianity with feminism; I simply recalled Bacon’s thesis.  And considering the nature of Japanese society, which I know about through my other reading (not just one book my god) and through my girlfriend (native Japanese), it seemed a pretty obvious connection to me.  That several other early feminists remarked upon the link between Christianity and feminism–as well as Slavoj Zizek, who these days also links Christian values to claims of universality–cemented my impression, and thus the post was born.  No more no less.

But let me add some more grist for the mill.  I of course recognize that, among some Plains Indian tribes, etc., these have been traditionally called matriarchies, even as one poster recently noted, the notion of matriarchy as Bachofen conceived or as these groups were often idealized has been discredited.  Still, that these weren’t patriarchies in the sense of Japan pre-defeat, or anything like Western patriarchy judged by the modern standards of gender equality–this doesn’t mean that the paganism-patriarchy/Christianity-non-patriarchy thesis is discredited.  After a certain level of development into highly organized, populated, and technically advanced communities, I think there is pretty strong support for this thesis, certainly no exceptions spring to my mind.  But to make it weaker, since that is all I intended in the first place, I only meant to say that paganism, in the general sense, doesn’t offer any resistance to patriarchy or any kind of extreme hierarchical form.  Christianity does and has always contained that element and tension–beginning with the very text New Testament itself, and interpretation is not at all necessary to see the latent possibilities in the text that have been seen by many through history (prominently as early as the Medievals, and possibly the barbarian invaders of Rome), only to explain or reconcile it away.  I also do believe that the part of Bachofen’s thesis, that mother goddesses tended to predominate at less developed cultural stages, only to be supplanted by father gods, holds, and that some form of reorganization along lines of greater gender inequality, patrilineality, etc. holds.  Please correct me if I am wrong, or I may read the book quoted somewhere above.  This, at least, is an area that my knowledge doesn’t extend beyond a few old sources.

As far as your discussion of paganism, whether Japan is pagan, etc.  I define pagan in the classical way (I thought there was only one way?), which is to say non-Abrahamic: the Romans were pagans before they Christianized, the ancient Greeks, the Semites before Moses, the Plains Indians, the Egyptians apart from Aton, the Japanese to the present day, etc.  Your history, while containing many details of which I am clearly not as familiar, misses a basic point.  Which is to say that the Japanese religion is syncretic, has always been animistic, has always been the religion of the kami as far as we know, and while not always Shinto, was definitely in many ways much like Shinto before Shinto existed.  Regardless of the dominant influence, even before Shinto, Japan was from the beginning of its archaeological history, as far as we can tell, polytheistic, and that Shinto is merely the organization of indigenous folk religion in response to the reception of foreign religious influences.  You’ll remember that before the large-scale introduction of Chinese traditions, Shinto had no name.  Then, when Buddhism came large-scale in the 6th century, called “the way of the Buddha”, we got Shinto, “the way of the kami”.

And I’d definitely call Buddhism pagan in practice, maybe not in the West, but in most places that haven’t adopted Buddhism as a replacement/supplement of Christianity–those places where it was a dominant religion for thousands of years.  In Japan, it was so.  The kami existed and exist alongside the Japanese Buddhist monks from the time of the first Japanese Buddhist monk.  And the same goes for the Confucians and neo-Confucians: kami existed with the Confucians.  Confucianism itself isn’t just a philosophy, that’s another myth.  Confucian thought, like its rival in China Moism, was grounded in the notion of the unity of man and Heaven (which had some but not complete precedence in pre-Confucian tradition): the order of men should mirror cosmic order.  Admittedly, the Confucians were impressively rationalistic and as far as I understand didn’t have as much of an effect on religious life as Shinto or Buddhism; its influence was primarily relegated to the “civic sphere”.  Daoism, while deeply mystical (the “way” is the way of the cosmos), is the only religious influence in Japan that defies the basic model of paganism not prohibiting the possibility of hierarchy.  As it was formed primarily in opposition to Confucianism, and has the distinction of being one of the most antiauthoritarian schools of Asian thought, one might think that, finally, we have here a strain of thinking that is pagan and potentially feminist.  Wrong.  Philosophical Daoist thought never took hold on the popular level in Japan.  Far from invalidating my thesis, the failure of Daoist thought to mean much to the Japanese reinforces it.  Of course all ideas will exist at all times among a people.  What is most important is the constellation of ideas and how this constellation forms the fabric of the society.  Pagan thought in relatively advanced societies simply never leads to any sort of widespread radical egalitarianism, regardless of the existence of rare strains and of eccentric intellectuals (and the great forefather of radical political Daoism was, notably, legendarily eccentric).

I think this is the last post I was in the process of writing before my thread was gassed.  So my argument is not at all complete.  I won’t continue my response, though, because once I tried doing that, I felt like an idiot.  At some point, I’ll make a separate post detailing Japanese religion.  Suffice to say that, if I haven’t done so already, even if Shinto wasn’t dominant in Japan until later doesn’t mean it wasn’t a crucial element of the Japanese religious outlook.  Also that: neo-Confucianism certainly wasn’t secular or exclusively rationalistic, at least not in Japan.  As it was practiced in Japan, at least to my memory from the 10th century onward, it was fused with Zen.  Last, even ORIGINAL Confucianism itself was NOT secular as is often claimed.  Edo Neo-Confucianism, which is the Confucianism that the poster is referring to, was like most brands of Confucianism, when it “can be characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, and that it was up to man to create a harmonious relationship between the universe and the individual.”  Any belief system that depends on cosmic relationships or dao is not secular.

Last, modern Japan is not as secular as is claimed by the West.  When the Japanese claim to be atheists, that’s because of the way they look at religion.  The word for religion didn’t even enter the Japanese vocabulary until recent history.  They adopted it to describe Christianity.  Japanese religious tradition is so ingrained in everyday practices that it simply doesn’t appear as a distinct “thing.”  Indeed, in this sense, the Japanese are among the most religious people in the world.  It is precisely for that reason that the large majority of Japanese polled identify both as Shinto and Buddhist–even as they identify as atheists.

If you have made it this far, read the following article.  It’s good.



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