Un-Womanly Me? (A post about, and full of, paradoxes)

“I very much like the idea that the opposite of masculinity is not necessarily femininity.” – Judith Butler[1]

“All true and serious conservatism, and all true and serious belief in progress, presupposes that there is a certain compatibility between the new order and the old, and that they can stand in a certain neutrality the one to the other. But the new thing of Jesus is the invading kingdom of God revealed in its alienating antithesis to the world and all its orders.” – Karl Barth[2]

“Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” –Ice-T[3]


 After my blog post a couple of weeks ago, about being the girl who wanted to get into the boys club in theology, I got into a conversation with a good friend about the different ways in which we tried to situate ourselves in said club, which then turned into the both of us musing about the various reasons why we wanted to “be a part of it.” While we definitely acknowledged how our own internalized sexism played a role—our assumptions that men in theology were better and smarter than the (few) women, that we wanted that sense of exceptionalism and the sense of power that came with the boys club in general as well as with being one of the few women who made it “in”—we also acknowledged that, in theological circles and elsewhere, we were in some respects just the types of women that liked hanging out with guys. There are a number of reasons and scenarios where this tends to be the case. For instance:

I like beer, especially IPA’s, way better than I like girly drinks, or even wine. I really like talking theology, and I especially love arguing about theology. I simply love arguing, about nearly anything. I like taking risks. I care deeply about my career. I like camping far, far more than I like shopping—in fact, I’m pretty averse to shopping. I’m terrible at cooking, and I hate it, but I’m really good at eating. I curse like a sailor.

Of course, there are plenty of men that don’t like beer or arguing or camping and that love to shop. And of course there are lots of women like myself that would identify with many or all of my aforementioned interests and personality traits. Nevertheless, these traits and affinities tend to be more…manly.

At the risk of sounding a bit whiny, it strikes me as interesting—somewhat ironic, really—that while, on the one hand, I just wrote a blog post about eschewing and interrogating my desires to conform to the boys club in theology, on the other hand, I also find myself irked at how difficult it is to hang out with guys sometimes—both because of and in spite of how much I have or haven’t made it in to the boys club—despite many shared interests. This is especially salient in theology, I think. Not only is there the fact that for some of us ladies (not all), the mere fact that we’re in theology means we like talking about what the guys are talking about—that despite the loneliness and pain and frustration of the good ol boys club of it all, there was and is something about the field that drew us to it, that makes us put up with all the bullshit we face. Moreover, it’s pretty male-dominated, especially at some schools, and well, having friends is kinda nice.

If anything, it seems like being a woman in theology means being stuck between a rock and a hard place, or maybe being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, whatever that doing or not doing is. [4] I think this comes through both in one’s personality and interpersonal interactions, and in one’s scholarship.

In terms of the latter, I think about the brilliance both of Janice’s recent post, On Not Reading Barth, and of Kait Dugan’s equally brilliant response, On Reading Barth. For Janice, being a woman in theology means resisting various things that Barthian scholarship represents—things that are bound to the masculinized, normativized order of things in the theological academy. For Janice, not reading Barth means trying to broaden the notion of what counts as serious scholarship, to try to widen the circle a little bit, or at least to make space for folks interested in and engaging in theological scholarship whose work isn’t Barthian. On the other hand, this doesn’t work for Kait. Why? She legitimately likes Barth—not because its what the boys do.[5] If anything, as Kait points out—a point that struck me as incredibly profound and vulnerable—her love of Barth makes her more of an outsider. She still doesn’t really fit in the boy’s club, even though some of her interests may overlap, and moreover, her interests put her at risk of not fitting into the girl’s club. Yikes.

Depending on which feminist theologian, or even which “good ol’ boy” theologian, reads Janice’s and Kait’s post—depending on the mood they’re in even or what social and scholastic space they’re trying to carve out for themselves or fit into—might identify more with one or the other. Hell, I identified with both in different ways. In fact, I don’t think their posts oppose each other—I see them as opposite sides of the same coin: one side (Janice’s) noting the damnedness if you don’t (but the importance of it), and the other noting the damnedness if you do (but the importance of it too). And it’s quite interesting, while Janice’s post got a lot of pushback and criticism, I didn’t see those same guys praising Kait for her affirmation of Barth. Moreover, Peter Kline also wrote a very moving and thoughtful follow-up to Janice’s post—an affirmation of sorts. The content of Peter’s piece aside, it is very, very interesting to observe (as Katie Grimes and Anthony Paul Smith did in the comments to the piece) that, whereas Janice received a great deal of pushback and criticism, Peter’s post was met with a slew of “thank you’s” and lauded for its thoughtfulness and honesty (at least until some quite recent comments by a certain Barth scholar…). If that doesn’t elucidate male privilege in the theological academy, I don’t know what does.

Moreover, coming back to this whole feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place thing, I think this can also evidence itself in terms of personality, interests, and interpersonal stuff, which can make for a very lonely road sometimes. The way the two different women who represented the boys club and otherwise in my earlier post seem to affirm this for me—especially because of how my experiences were the opposite of Scherm’s. It seems like, in so many ways, women in the theological academy (and elsewhere, obviously) have to walk on eggshells sometimes, or at least feel like they have to walk on eggshells.[6] You don’t want to be too feminine, but you don’t want to be too masculine. You want to be chummy with the guys, but not so chummy that it appears that you’re flirting.  And it’s hard to know which way the scale is leaning/tipped, so to speak, depending on the context. Amusingly, I think this is actually one of the ways that my queerness works in my favor. Guys are less threatened by me—and, perhaps more importantly, their wives or girlfriends (usually wives) are less threatened by me. In some effect, I can and do function as one of the boys—at least in terms of shared sexual attraction to the ladies.[7] From conversations I’ve had with some of my single straight female friends in the theological academy (all three or four of them, ha), it seems like shooting the shit with the guys is a bit more tenuous and tricky for them because of the seeming risk of sexual attraction—and shooting the shit over a cold beer is where some of the best theological conversations and networking happens.

Thus, it seems to me that, if you really think about it, this simultaneous desire to resist the good ol boys club and this draw towards/identification with it isn’t all as ironic (nor, hopefully, as whiny) as it appears at first glance…. Anyone who knows me at all knows I have an enormous intellectual crush on Judith Butler (Really, it’s far past the “intellectual crush” stage—I think it surpassed crush-status about five years ago…). This is in large part why…And by “this,” I mean (at least) three things (each of which aligns—to varying degrees—to the epigraphs above, which I’ll reprint here).[8]

1) “All true and serious conservatism, and all true and serious belief in progress, presupposes that there is a certain compatibility between the new order and the old, and that they can stand in a certain neutrality the one to the other. But the new thing of Jesus is the invading kingdom of God revealed in its alienating antithesis to the world and all its orders.”  – Barth[9]

First and foremost, Butler calls for feminism to move beyond (even a strategically) representational politics. Not only does Butler examine how “the insistence upon the coherence and unity of the category of women has effectively refused the multiplicity of cultural, social, and political intersections in which the concrete array of ‘women’ are constructed,” but she argues that, moreover, the gender binary itself is part of sexist culture—or, as she puts it, “power appeared to operate in the production of that very binary frame for thinking about gender.”[10] Or, as she puts it later, “the presumed universiality and unity of the subject of feminism is effectively undermined by the constraints of representation discourse in which if functions” (7). While I think these three quotes I cite are all saying something a little bit different, what they all point to for me is how the idea of two stable genders or sexes is itself part of patriarchy and sexism![11] In short, “woman” as the subject of feminist theory and politics is potentially problematic, depending on how said subject functions and what said subject represents, because it can be (is?) freighted with various norms that function in various ways—ways that govern recognition in ways that exclude and constrain.[12] A question Butler poses is “Who can I be, given the regime of truth that determines ontology for me” (2005: 25). How do the very categories of gender (and sex!) constrain us, and delimit our flourishing and well-being? What might it mean, then, to push back against that, to envision different expressions of gender, of being in the world that extend beyond “this is how I should act or what I should like because I have a vagina?” or “this is what I should be because I have a penis”?

2) “I very much like the idea that the opposite of masculinity is not necessarily femininity.”   -Butler


Moreover, Butler also highlights the links between sexism and heterosexism—examining the connections as well as the distinctions between sex and sexuality. Giving more content to the epigraph above, Butler writes:

I very much like the idea that the opposite of masculinity is not necessarily femininity….in Bodies that Matter, I emphasize that sexuality is regulated through the shaming of gender, that of course could not work if gender were not itself rendered proper only in the context of a certain regulation of sexuality…But I have read much feminist history that assumes the both the proper and the ‘un-proper’ in women’s sexuality are kinds of heterosexuality… The question I want to pose has to do with what is left outside those boundaries, what is not even speakable as part of the unproper or improper (283-284).

Or, as she puts it quite overtly during an interview with Radical Philosophy, “Gender Trouble was a critique of compulsory heterosexuality within feminism.”[13] (This, however, works both ways, as she goes on to note that “insofar as some people in queer theory want to claim that the analysis of sexuality can be radically separated from the analysis of gender, I’m very much opposed to them” [ibid].)

For Butler, gender and sexuality are connected because “the ‘unity’ of gender is the effect of a regulatory practice that seeks to render gender identity uniform through a compulsory heterosexuality” (1999: 42). The static notion of “woman” as the subject of feminism has the effect of not only limiting possibilities of gender expression, but—part and parcel with that—of assuming and bolstering heteronormativity. What might it mean, then, to pursue feminist aims in a way that doesn’t assume heterosexuality? What possibilities does this open up, not only for queer women, but for straight women, and for men?

3) “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.” –Ice-T

Finally, one of the things I most appreciate about Butler is her account of how change happens, about what it means to envision different possibilities in light of the current order of things. I definitely do not have enough time or space to really go into any sort of depth here—perhaps this is the subject of a later blog post for me—but in short, I simply love the possibilities I find in Butler’s notions of troubling gender. As she writes in an essay “Contingent Foundations:”

To deconstruct the concept of matter or that of bodies is not to negate or refuse either term. To deconstruct these terms means, rather, to continue to use them, to repeat them, to repeat them subversively, and to displace them from the contexts in which they have been deployed as instruments of oppressive power.[14]

Again, I could speak—and cite—at length about Butler’s notion of performativity, but love this because it not only enables a way to envision resistance inside the current order of things (perhaps the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house??!), but it also seems to affirm, at least for me/however subtly, that breaking down gender norms doesn’t mean ignoring gender entirely. There’s something eschatological for me about Butler’s approach, some feeling of a recognition of already-not-yet-ness…

* * *

All of this, I think, why I continue to come back to my mentors’ advice, to just keep trying to just be me. I recognize that is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds. Moreover, those who know me will chuckle at the irony of this too—one of my biggest academic soapboxes is my interrogation of and irritation at the notion of a stable or solid self. But this too, I think, is less ironic then it may first appear, cause what I’ve at least tried to articulate in this post is that being oneself is anything but stable or solid, certainly not in terms of the various boxes we try to put others and ourselves in. I think Foucault captures this feeling well for me when he writes “do not ask me who I am, and do not ask me to remain the same.”[15] Moreover, I think this too is deeply theological—eschatological, Christological, pneumatological…. As Barth puts it, “as participators in this possibility, we are a riddle to ourselves.”[16]


[1] Irene Costera Meijer, Baukje Prins, “How Bodies Come to Matter: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Signs, vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter 1998), p. 283.

[2] Church Dogmatics The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Volume 4, Part 2: Jesus Christ, the Servant as Lord (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), §64, 177.

[3] “Don’t Hate the Playa,” The Seventh Deadly Sin, Coroner/Atomic Pop, September 12, 1999.

[4] And this is being a white woman! I couldn’t imagine the complicatedness and stuckness that may come with being a woman of color in this field. I just want to acknowledge that.

[5] Moreover, I also must note, Kait is brilliant at what she does, and her scholarship—engaging Barth, and otherwise—is, in my humble opinion, smart, astute, and relevant.

[6] Again, just want to emphasize the sometimes… not always. Some guys are awesome and make me feel very comfortable and welcome.

[7] Obviously, not all dudes are attracted to the ladies, but the majority of the guys I interact with in theological studies have been straight, and addressing gay men in the theological academy is a whole other conversation, way outside the scope of this meager blog post.

[8] This is in no way an adequate summary of even part of Butler’s argument… Rather, I’m simply pointing to a few of the things about her arguments that I find compelling.

[9] They’re not in the same order, but that’s cause I really wanted to lead with the Butler quote, not with a Barth quote, for some obvious reasons J.

[10] Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 10th Anniversary Edition, (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 19-20; xxvii.

[11] One of the key points/contributions of Gender Trouble is the very notion that not only is gender constructed, but sex too cannot be understood as a stable/unchanging/essential/ontological thing—that, as Wikipedia so aptly puts it (yeah, I’m citing Wikipedia right now, don’t tell my students…), “Sexed bodies cannot signify without gender, and the apparent existence of sex prior to discourse and cultural imposition is merelu an effect of the functioning of gender.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_Trouble).

[12] For more on Butler’s beautiful examination of the relationship between normativity, universiality, recognition, and relationality, see Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

[13] Lynne Segal and Peter Osborne, “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler.” Radical Philosophy, 67, 1994.

[14] “Contingent Foundations” in Seyla Benhabib, ed. Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange(New York: Routledge, 1995), 51.

[15] Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 17. “leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order,” he continues,  “at least spare us their morality when we write.”

[16] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, §16.2, 267-268. Also, I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that I’m ending this post with a Barth quote.

8 thoughts on “Un-Womanly Me? (A post about, and full of, paradoxes)

  1. Pingback: To Read Barth or Not to Read Barth? That is the Question (being intensely debated)! | NEAR EMMAUS

  2. Pingback: Reading Barth, Not Reading Barth, and Reactions to the Barthian Industry | Cheesewearing Theology

  3. I am always left confused when someone claims that the feministic resistance to Barthian culture is, in some way, anti-intellectual. I suppose the confusion arises from the realization that the choice to not read a very influential figure in any academic discipline is a decision that is anything but anti-intellectual, in most cases. In fact, it is, at least in my experience, usually entirely an intellectual decision, for one must be familiar enough with the work of the person they are refusing to read and the commentary on that work in order to understand why they don’t want to read them. It may be the most intellectual position in all of academia–the not reading of someone. It requires an in-depth understanding of the literature being dismissed while also requiring one to think less orthodox–it is usually an orthodox opinion that is being opposed–and more creatively.

    Of course, if someone refuses to read Barth, without any familiarity with Barthian scholarship, then the implication is obvious.


  4. Pingback: Tuesday Reading Roundup | (Mostly) Consolation

  5. Per Estelle Freedman, one of the best questions to ask when contemplating a feminist perspective is “Which women?” This, I think, is what you’re getting at frequently here. Especially with the different feminist perspectives that have emerged over the last 130 years or so, many of which really have been quite exclusive. I think a complete feminist critique would also go beyond asking which women, and would think about which individuals, all. In Ani DiFranco’s words, “Feminism ain’t about women / that’s not who it is for /
    It’s about a shift in consciousness…” I would say it really is quite a lot about women, but it’s also about people and societies and structures. And it’s *for* everyone. Best to you, fellow in-and-out-of -the-clubber.

  6. Also, I highly recommend José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations, Oxford University Press, 2013, ISBN 9780199929047.

  7. You really make it seem so easy together with your presentation but I in finding this matter to be really something that I think
    I would never understand. It kind of feels too complex and extremely huge for me.

    I’m taking a look forward on your next publish, I will try to get the
    hang of it!

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