I picked Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults by Laurie Penny up in the little indie bookshop, Camden Lock Books which is based in Old Street Station. It was one of those books I picked up because I liked the bright green cover and because the recommendation on the front came from Caitlin Moran. I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed as I read it, the cover wasn’t the best bit.
The feminist essays inside are a set of thought which speak out for justice (and not just gender justice) in a way which is clear and generally well argued. There were points I fervently disagree disagreed with but these relate specifically to different outlooks on “religion”, “sex” and “family”.
Over eight chapters Penny shares a set of essays on the interlinked yet diverse topics of :the US election and what it teaches about madness and resistance, love and other chores, culture, gender, agency, backlash, violence and future.
The basic premise can be seen as the world is messed up due to the behaviour of individuals and institutions and to get real justice we need to start to dismantle those institutions which are inherently oppressive. Rather than basing the arguments around class, as so many men on the left have, this book engages with a structural approach from the point of view of identity politics (which are not a bad thing).
This could be seen as confusing as at times, as in the discussion of polyamory where the view taken is somewhat individualistic but at the same time directly engaging with structural issues. However, it makes sense as an argument, although I disagree with the premise underlining it. Where Penny argues that polyamory makes sense because it frees one from the oppressive ideology of the family and notions of romance and love it is linked to showing how religion has used family as a weapon of control.
This is where as a Christian Feminist I agree with some of her arguments but argue it is the church which has been at fault not the faith on which it is based. If one reads the bible (as opposed to reading just other people’s critiques of it) you can see that there are major problems where multiple partners are involved (in narratives which the church has generally sought to look at in a more positive way – glossing over the patriarchal violence involved by some of the heroes of the bible). Jesus himself referred to a radically different way of looking at family when he asked “who are my mother and brothers?” – but within this he is not advocating polyamory. In Matthew 5 he makes the point that it is the woman who suffers when there are not a set of social customs in place which promote monogamy. The problem is not monogamy, but rather it is the misuse of power and sex as well as the social stigma towards women. However, we can also see in our modern society how men suffer too. When you look at the statistics young black men are less likely to make it through education and more likely to end up absent fathers in jobs which are below the level they’d be in if they didn’t have to leave education early to provide for their children.
Now, the answer here could be – as Penny argues – to reduce the shame around abortion. However, I disagree with that as an answer. Yes, I believe women should have a choice and their bodies and lives are of equal value to that of children, but if we were to encourage men to wear condoms as well as women to use contraception then their lives would often be improved too. Ideally, encouraging people not to have sex until marriage is more likely to be the ideal. However, religion has too often used this to encourage too many people to marry young and have children too early. Parts of this agree with what Penny is talking about in the book, parts of it are totally opposed.
What I am arguing is that if one starts reading the bible there is much which agrees with the analysis in this book, but there are also things which enable you to question some arguments.
One area if we read the bible in this way it backs up what Laurie Penny says we need to really adjust to – that good and nice men after often the rapists and abusers. The bible doesn’t excuse their behaviour it gives radical different approaches to seeing the impact and to looking at relationships.
Take for example Hagar the immigrant slave, who how ever you dress it up, was raped by Abraham on the suggestion Sarah who wanted a surrogate child. Now I have all sorts of problems with some parts of this text but at the end of the day it is God who meets Hagar and allows her to see him and say his name (a really big deal) and God who provides for her and her son, allowing her to prosper. This is the God who argues that single parents must not be exploited against and all women are of value.
If the church allowed people to wrestle with these texts more and see their implications, I believe much would change. However, as Penny says with regard to recent high profile abuse charges it is uncomfortable to wrestle with this stuff and realise nice men commit the majority of assaults. Abraham, the great patriarch was a rapist who used his power in a way which was contextual but still wrong. We’re now thankfully exposing where this same pattern has been at work in the church damaging the lives of generations of men and women. What would have been different if the church hadn’t been controlled by men ensuring the women and others asking these types of questions down the century were censored? How much sooner would we have moved on from they couldn't possibly have done that? The climate is thankfully changing from where it was as Penny points out and this is as true in the church as elsewhere. We have moved from, although we still have distance to go, from the point Constance Coltman described a century ago when she said, “the only right that no branch of the Church has ever denied to women has been the right of confessing to faith by martyrdom”. (note there is now a q&a sheet which says more about Constance which has been developed to go with Kevin Snyman's film Constance which I have blogged about previously).
So as you see there is much which the book says which fits in with what I believe as a bible believing Christian……so the problem is not religion in itself but the misuse of religion, as so many Christian feminists have said in the past.
A final note on this book, which I highly recommend if you are willing to engage and intellectually debate and wrestle with what the writer is saying, is thankfully it includes material about and relating to the experience of Trans*. It questions the feminist “haters” who do go back to binary essentialist biological views of sex and confuse them with gender as well as ignoring the validity of non-binary and intersex people.