When we turn to the Enlightenment period, and to our second paradigm shift, interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly we find ourselves turning not so much to the theologians and the churches but rather to the scientists and society, for it was science and society which led the way, and the church followed. Of course, Luther and company assumed without question the prevailing scientific ideas about sex and gender of their own day. In the early modern period, relying still on the ancient sources of Aristotle and Galen, scientists understood woman as an imperfect version of man; that is, there was "one sex" hierarchically arranged. It was thought that men and women had the same genitals (testes and penis), but women's were imperfectly formed and therefore remained inside. This fitted well with
Aristotle's notion, which was also prevalent, that female bodies were formed because of deficient heat in the reproductive process (i.e. they did not quite make it to being men). Women were governed by cold and wet humors, men by hot and dry humors, with the result that all people were on a scale of male to female, according to the quantity and quality of humors they had. It was the heat in men that drove their genitals outside. These ideas about women and men were widespread, even in popular culture, as evidenced by folk tales from this era of women who jumped over fences, with the result that their genitals dropped and they became male. The sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Paré told the story of Marie who became Germain, a shepherd, at the age of 15 when she/he jumped over a ditch with too much vigor. The French essayist Montaigne repeated the story and reported that the girls sang a song reminding themselves not to stretch their legs too far in case they became male (Laqueur 1987: 13). The historian Thomas Laqueur has named this the "one-sex model" (Laqueur 1990). An interesting feature of this understanding of gender was the belief that both women and men had to emit seed - both had to have orgasms - in order for conception to take place. Women were therefore seen as just as sexually active as men: Luther's insistence that women were fully sexual beings was quite in step with the scientific understanding of women and men in his day.
This idea was challenged in the Enlightenment. Laqueur has traced the history of the very significant shift from this "one-sex" model to the "two-sex" model and has thus charted the transformation in ideas about sex and gender that occurred in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, scientists sought "sexual difference," thus creating a "two-sex" model. According to Laqueur, this intellectual shift was not a result of scientific discoveries; rather "the eighteenth century created the context in which the articulation of radical differences between the sexes became culturally imperative." Thus "a biology of incommensurability became the means by which such differences could be authoritatively represented" (Laqueur 1987: 35). Scientists sought sexual difference in women's anatomy and physiology. The womb became more important; people began to think that conception could take place without the woman experiencing orgasm, and, as Londa Schiebinger has demonstrated, distinctively different female and male skeletons began to be drawn for the first time (Schiebinger 1987). Both Laqueur and Schiebinger argue that the drive towards sexual difference occurred in a political context where the old hierarchies of society were being questioned, the new language of natural rights was beginning to circulate, and a radical rupture in the hierarchical social and political order occurred in revolutionary France. The question was: who had rights? No one seriously wanted to give women rights, so the question became: how then to deny them rights? The answer was sought in the "facts" of biology: if women were essentially different from men then that might lead to all kinds of political and cultural conclusions - and it did. As Schiebinger points out, for example, skull size became extremely important - there was a lot of measuring of skulls and pelvises and other body parts in all of this - because it was thought it could provide an "objective" measure of intelligence: women's skulls were smaller, therefore (it was deduced) women were less capable of natural reason. This meant "the study of anatomical sex differences played a part in underwriting the increasing polarization of gender roles in the Enlightenment" (Schiebinger 1987: 67).
In particular, the notion of the complementarity of the sexes came to prevail - that is, the idea that women and men have distinctly different qualities (and that these are rooted in biology) and this suits them for different (but "complementary") roles in life. Men were seen as hardy and robust with an aggressive sexual appetite, while women were portrayed as frail, rather prone to weakness and sexually passive. This was a dramatic shift from understandings of female sexuality in the pre-modern era. This emphasis on sexual difference and the notion that women and men were suited for different "roles" in life necessarily set up the terms in which feminists - from Mary Wollstonecraft onwards - argued for women's rights. They either had to argue that women were the same as men, and therefore deserved equal treatment; or that women were essentially different from men but on those grounds "womanly" qualities should be brought to the public spheres of education, politics, and religion. Hence the French feminist, Luce Irigaray, writing in the late twentieth century, has suggested that sexual difference is our modern obsession, the philosophical question that we must work out (Irigaray 1993).
What was the impact of all this on theology and the church? It was everywhere apparent that the church readily took on these new scientific and societal ideas. Women came to be especially identified as guardians of morals and religion. This fitted very well with the new economic structures of society, in which work became separated from the home, and the middle classes (as well as the working classes) emerged. For as society was transformed by the industrial revolution, so separate spheres for work and home were developed and the home came to be seen as the special domain of women (at least middle-class women). Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, in their study of middle class families from 1780 to 1850, put it like this:
The advances in English society which made possible this retreat of women, away from the dangers of "the world" into the home which they could construct as a moral haven, was thus a mark of progress. The idea of a privatized home, separated from the world, had a powerful moral force and, if women, with their special aptitude for faith, could be contained within that home, then a space would be created for true family religion. Women were more open to religious influence than men because of their greater separation from the temptations of the world and their "natural" characteristics of gentleness and passivity (Davidoff and Hall 1987: 115).
This new ideology of sexual difference was particularly apparent in the evangelical revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries where new ideas about the differences between men and women were given a theological grounding by preachers - and blended with old ideas about the subordination of women. Women were seen as spiritually equal but, in practical terms, socially subordinate. The Pauline texts about headship (1 Corinthians 11.3; Colossians 3.18) still exercised a powerful influence. The result was that sexual complementarity did not mean "different and equal," as so often claimed, but rather (combined with Pauline ideas of female submission) it came to mean "different and entirely unequal."
A popular Christian writer on this topic in the nineteenth century was John Angell James, one of the most well-known Congregationalist ministers of his day and a leading figure in the evangelical revival. His Female Piety (1853) articulated in theological terms many of these late-Enlightenment ideas about women's proper sphere, once they had filtered down to a more popular level, and argued strongly against women "sullying" themselves in the world of public work. He wrote, "Christianity has provided a place for woman for which she is fitted [the home], and in which she shines; but take her out of that place, and her lustre pales and sheds a feeble and sickly ray" He continued:
The Bible gives her her place of majesty and dignity in the domestic circle: that is the heart of her husband and the heart of her family. ... A woman who fills well the sphere assigned to her, as a wife, a mother, and a mistress; who trains up good citizens for the state, and good fathers and mothers of other families which are to spring from her own; and so from generation to generation in all but endless succession, need not complain that her sphere of action and her power of influence are too limited for female ambition to aspire to. (James quoted in Dale 1983: 129)
As James's work illustrates, Pauline notions of female submission were made to fit with gender complementarity (just as they had with older notions of gender hierarchy).
Woman scarcely needs to be taught, that in the domestic economy she is second, and not first, that "the man is the head of the woman." This is a law of nature written on the heart, and coincides exactly with the law of God written on the page of revelation. It is first of all an instinct, and then confirmed by reason. (1983: 130)
Woman "instinctively" knew all of this; it was in her nature: "She generally knows her place, and feels it her happiness as well as her duty to keep it. It is not necessity but even choice that produces a willing subjection. She is contented it should be so, for God has implanted the disposition in her nature" (1983: 131).
These ideas about sexual difference did not of course go uncontested: in the nineteenth century, there were vigorous debates about the balance between possible gender equality and male headship within marriage, not least when English marriage law was reformed in the middle of the century (giving wives greater rights to property, for example), and later in the century when women argued for their admission into higher education and the professions, and for universal suffrage (see further Witte 2004). Nevertheless, these ideas have continued to have an impact in modern theology: in the early twentieth century, Karl Barth's writings about women and men illustrate how embedded in the Christian tradition these relatively recent ideas have become. Barth insists on both the distinctively different and complementary "essences" (and therefore roles) of women and men and the observance of the Pauline texts on male headship. He writes that the distinctive natures of women and men is "the command of God" which tells them "what here and now is their male or female nature, and what they have to guard faithfully as such" (Barth 1936-75: III/IV 153). For Barth, these distinctive natures lead to sex-differentiated functions, and any temptation to disregard these must be resisted: "the sexes might wish to exchange their special vocations, what is required of the one or the other as such. This must not happen" (Barth 1936-75: III/IV 154). This notion of sexual difference is regarded by Barth as absolutely rigid: the distinction between masculine and non-masculine or feminine and non-feminine is not, he insists, illusory. He writes:
This distinction insists upon being observed. It must not be blurred on either side. The command of God will always point man to his position and woman to hers. In every situation, in face of every task and in every conversation, their functions and possibilities, when they are obedient to the command, will be distinctive and diverse, and will never be interchangeable. (Barth 1936-75: III/IV, 158)
Barth's insistence upon the distinctively different "natures" of men and women enables him to hold together the seemingly incompatible notions of both the mutuality and the hierarchy of the sexes. Distinctively gendered natures and consequent roles lead, for Barth, straight to the superordination of the man and the subordination of the woman; the subordination of woman to man indicates the submission of the church as a whole to Christ. The "difference" of the sexes is therefore understood in a christological context in which all Christians must submit to Christ, and women express that submission in their relationship to the "headship" of man. In short, Barth goes straight from his reading of Genesis 2 to the Pauline texts on headship, writing always with the presuppositions of his own day about the "nature" and "roles" of men and women. He ignores not only the first-century context of the household codes to which Paul is alluding, but also the context of Genesis 2, that text which he cites in support of his understanding of the "difference" of the sexes. He writes, "woman is of the man and the man by the woman. Both are told us by Gen. 2. Woman is taken out of man, but man is man only by the woman taken out of him. Yet only an inattentive enthusiasm could deduce from this that man and woman are absolutely alike" (Barth 1936-75: III/II, 309). The irony here is that Barth has his history wrong - or just plain absent - precisely because it was only with the advent of modernity that scientists began to think that women and men were not, in their "nature," absolutely alike. It is Barth's "inattentive enthusiasm" for his own views about women and men - deeply influenced by the societal norms of his day - that leads him to read them into the Scriptures. Any attempt to re-appropriate Barth for modern (even feminist) purposes necessarily keeps these views about women and men intact. The systematic theologian, Paul Fiddes, makes such an attempt and ends up reiterating the notion of sexual difference: "We have continually to discover what particular functions of men and women might be, as these emerge in reciprocal relations" (Fiddes 1990: 153; emphasis added).
Barth's understanding of gender relations points to a prevailing problem within a particular strand in contemporary theology and ethics. Ideas about sexual difference and complementarity that our ancestors would have barely recognized 300 years ago, let alone 3,000 years ago, are regularly mapped back onto the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the creation stories in Genesis 2. This exists in a group of texts today, all aimed at promoting a conservative line about homosexuality in the Anglican Communion in the present climate (in the midst of fierce debates about the subject), in which Genesis 2 is taken as the blueprint for sexual difference and therefore for heterosexuality. The position outlined in these texts is described by its proponents as "traditionalist" and is pitched over and against views which are often more attentive to the nuances and history of the Christian Scriptures and tradition but which are misleadingly called "revisionist." "The narrative in Genesis 2 portrays the creation of male and female as of central significance to humanity" argue the anonymous authors of the recent pamphlet True Union in the Body? This narrative "is fundamental to a Christian understanding of marriage" (Anonymous: 22). At the heart of it is a "bi-polar relational nature of humanity" (Anonymous: 11) - in short, sexual difference. But what is that narrative? In a talk given at Sarum College in Salisbury in 2004, Andrew Goddard sketched out the six "acts" of that narrative (borrowed from the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright). It is in Act One, "Creation," that "the goodness and significance of the distinction in humanity between male and female and the goodness of marriage as a gift of God in creation" are established (Goddard 2005: 48). Genesis 2 is the "shadow" text here (if not directly quoted by Goddard). Goddard therefore argues - echoing directly the language of True Union in the Body? - "the traditionalist paradigm is structured around the created bipolarity of humanity as male and female" (Goddard 2005: 44). In this scheme, "the traditionalist paradigm holds that marriage between a man and a woman is the divinely intended pattern in creation for human sexual relationships and so for human flourishing" (Goddard 2005: 48). All of this is posited as if there were a seamless line from the world of Genesis to the early twenty-first century; no account of marriage and household relations in ancient Israel is given; no account of prevailing understandings of women and men in ancient Israel is provided; modern notions of marriage and sexual difference are mapped back onto a text from a completely different culture, without explanation. The "revisionists" are then criticized for failing "to take seriously the bodily difference of male and female and the meaning of this material differentiation in God's creative purpose for human sexuality." This misses the point that the "revisionist" position takes material bodies very seriously, recognizing that we cannot make any sense of material bodies without understanding the context in which they operate and in which they are assigned meanings as "male" and "female" - be that ancient Israel, nineteenth-century Britain or twenty-first century America. It turns out, then, that the so-called revisionists take the tradition far more seriously than the so-called traditionalists.
It is the contention of this chapter that powerful ideas from the Reformation and Enlightenment periods, which were startlingly new in their day, namely that marriage is the "norm" in the Christian tradition and that gender relations are determined by an understanding of sexual difference, still powerfully affect our thinking today and are frequently presented as "traditional" with little or no regard for their history. This has repercussions for another historical narrative: that of homosexuality in the West. It is not within the remit of this chapter to rehearse the history of (or, indeed, the complex historiography about) modern homosexuality. But it is important to indicate the significance of the emergence of sexual difference for the creation of "homosexuality" as an identity. For these two concepts are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: only with the advent of sexual difference could het-erosexuality emerge as an identity; and only with heterosexuality could homosexuality emerge as an identity. "Sameness" and "difference" must necessarily rely upon one another for their meanings.
There is, then, a parallel - and related - narrative to that told by Thomas Laqueur and other historians about sexual difference and gender complementarity in the modern period, and it is an account of the emergence of sexual identity. This narrative suggests that in the Enlightenment period, sex went from something one did to something one was, from a verb to a noun. In short, heterosexual and homosexual identities were created. Not all historians agree with this story - in particular, the medievalist John Boswell argued strongly for the existence of homosexual identity in the pre-modern period - but it is generally accepted that this shift occurred. This is not to say that sexual activity between two people of the same sex did not take place before the modern period! But all sexual activity - whether between men and women, men and men or women and women - was regarded as just that: activity. And, of course, some activities became illegal: in the 1530s, as the Protestant reformation was getting going, sodomy was made a civil crime in England in 1533, and became a criminal offence in 1562. It had long been a capital offence. From the sixteenth century, sodomy was defined as a felony without benefit of clergy - the most serious sort of capital crime. Sodomy, like the activity of prostitution, with which it was often linked and which was also clamped down on in this period, was considered threatening to marriage. Despite this, the number of sodomy cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries remained quite small: in order to prove sodomy, several elements had to be in place - both penetration and ejaculation, and two witnesses (not the participants!) who could attest to both of those activities occurring. Crucially, the activity was not at that time connected with any particular sub-culture. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has put it:
There was no descriptive term at all in the prescriptive literature for the notion of a homosexual identity; sodomy was a matter of corrupted individuals making choices to carry out certain acts. All people could fall, and the consequences were dire, not just for the individual but for all society. . . . Therefore sodomy was linked to any group which could be represented as threatening the structure of society" (MacCulloch 2003: 622-3).5
Most historians suggest that it was only in the late seventeenth century at the earliest, and into the eighteenth century, that "sub-cultures" of "homosexual" men began to gather, first in Amsterdam and London. Male homosexual sub-cultures in London gathered in "molly houses" and in various open-air venues, especially Moorfields and St James's Park. That such an identity could begin to emerge had everything to do with shifting ideas about gender in society. As older Galenic ideas about man and woman being "one sex" on a hierarchical continuum declined, so "male" and "female" developed as distinctively different identities, and there was a new notion of sexual or gender difference (what Laqueur calls the two-sex model). The notion of gender complementarity - the idea that male and female are somehow naturally made for each other - likewise developed, and those who did not fit into that scheme began to emerge with a different identity: the effeminate man and the mannish woman, whose sexual desire lay with those of the same sex.
The development of male homosexuality as an identity in the modern West is well charted; in recent years historians have also argued that women formed homosexual subcultures in the same way that men did, piecing together the threads of a history of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century lesbian identity. There are numerous cases of women living together, running businesses together, sometimes with one of them cross-dressing as a man - as in the case of Charlotte Charke (the daughter of theater man, Colley Cibber) who wrote her scandalous memoirs in 1755 (Donoghue 1993 and Charke 1755). One of the most revealing historical finds has been the diary of one Anne Lister, a gentlewoman from Yorkshire, born in 1791. Her extremely frank diary entries (written in code) suggest the existence of a lesbian sub-culture in the early nineteenth century which was regarded as normal, and was therefore accepted and very much a part of the gentry culture in which she lived (Whitbread 1988; see also Liddington 1993).
When the medical profession started to label, medicalize and pathologize homosexuality in the nineteenth century then a clear homosexual identity emerged. Of course, what followed this medicalization was persecution of the identity as much as of the activity, and pastors and theologians have participated in that as much as any other institutional group.
Was this article helpful?