The Pleasures of Her Text
by Alice Bach


The question of how feminism should define itself in relation to other critical methods and theories has caused sharp debate both in Europe and the U.S.A. As Judith Fetterley declared in The Resisting Reader, feminist criticism has been characterized by a resistance to codification and a refusal to have its parameters prematurely set. At this time most feminists agree that there are many communities of women, crucial differences within the category of women, and most important, there is no single message of feminist hermeneutics.

Gender is a word that heralds both risks and resistance. The resistance comes usually from those who have never thought of gender as influencing reading. The male gender has dominated the voice of the text, including also its interpretative voice, for such a long time that it is considered normative, objective, usual. "Objectivity is really male subjectivity," to use Adrienne Rich’s aphorism. As we have noted, the gender code in the interpretation of biblical texts has usually been adopted in its masculine version. But each time the canon is termed universal, the life of the patriarchal myth is extended. When the gender code is implicit, it contains the same characteristics as the moral code. It imposes upon every signifying element of the text a unified and preestablished theme. Only since the development of women’s studies has the gender code been explicitly criticized and explicitly embraced — in its feminist version. If feminist criticism has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated the importance of the reader to what is read.

Of course feminists are products of the patriarchal culture too, and so have to deny the temptation of trying to produce a universal truth, a univocal meaning. Feminist criticism must remain fluid, not fixed, so that each one of us can contend with the ripples and waves of the dominant culture, diving into language to recover everything that is duplicitous and resistant and confounding. Elaine Showalter in a recent article has called for feminists to insist upon the recognition that gender is a central problem in every text, read or taught, whatever the era and whoever the author. A central problem, yes. But surely there are major risks in focusing on gender, splitting the world of reader into two. The first risk is reductiveness, to lose sight of the fact that focusing on certain categories obscures individual variation. Proclaiming the feminist agenda glosses over each woman’s struggle for self-definition. Rather than locking people into categories, feminist literary critics need to form temporary alliances and coalitions. Shifting boundaries of sexual difference must not be prevented from shifting. It is the desire to remain fluid, not fixed, to encourage spontaneity instead of linear argumentation, that inspired this volume. A large part of the pleasure of the text is the sense of process, of moving along a road toward feminism, a term which refuses definition or categorization.

In her chapter "Protestant Feminists and the Bible," Mary Ann Tolbert illuminates general characteristics of the Protestant tradition that are barriers for many women in appropriating a considerable amount of recent feminist research. Protestant feminists, Tolbert argues, experience special problems (not encountered by Catholic or Jewish feminists) specifically related to the Protestant tradition, the diversity of Protestant denominations one of the most evident. A primary problem, the ramification of sola scriptura for feminists, is that Protestant feminists have difficulty dispensing with the authority of scripture in favor of historical reconstruction. Tolbert calls for feminist literary critics to raise the issue of gender, to read with suspicion against the "male as norm" convention of reading biblical texts. Tolbert’s article begins the book because it raises the basic issues that concern each of the contributors: the question of gender and sexual difference in our scholarly lives.

Feminist literary critics are now examining the role of woman in biblical texts as enabler of the patriarchal society. In "The Pleasure of Her Text," I have offered a rereading of the story of Abigail, the prototypical good wife. While interpreters have always praised her, I wondered why, if Abigail was so good, she wasn’t rewarded with a son who became king? What I learned is that women have moments of strong speech and proud action in male-centered biblical narratives, but strong independent women act at the pleasure of their male creators. Too forceful and they embody male fears, and must be silenced or written out of the narrative.

Cheryl Exum protests the marginalization of female biblical characters through analysis of the phallogocentric texts in which they appear. Her chapter, "Murder They Wrote," examines the silencing of female characters by their male creators. Punishing a woman like Michal, who speaks her mind with barrenness and silence (narrative death), is one sort of message to women readers. Another patriarchal message is to glorify the obedient daughter who sacrifices her own life to help her father keep a vow to God. According to the biblical text, this model daughter is remembered in song each year by other obedient daughters. Exum demonstrates that we can choose to read the story of Jephthah’s daughter differently, "to expose the valorization of submission and glorification of the victim as serving phallocentric interests and to redefine its images of female solidarity in an act of feminist symbol-making."

Female scholars working with historical texts are confronted with a problem similar to that of their literary colleagues: they are reading the female voice as a palimpsest through the script of the dominant narrative. The texts that concern Carole Fontaine in her chapter, "A Heifer from Thy Stable," come from ancient Near Eastern societies: Mesopotamia and Anatolia. One of Fontaine’s major concerns is whether patriarchal texts can speak the reality of women’s lives. Fontaine searches for a model to evaluate the status of ancient women and the relationship of that status to the presence of goddesses and their worship. While Fontaine is faced with methodological considerations, she is attuned to the voices of these long-forgotten women. Never losing the thread of the women themselves to the temptation of scholarly method, Fontaine listens to the past. In their own words ancient women reflect the strength and wit with which they addressed and expanded the roles decreed for them by society.

Ellen Ross wonders what use feminist theologians have for a concept that characterizes human persons as imitators of a God who is often portrayed as a male deity. By creating a dialogue between two medieval theologians of the Augustinian tradition and two feminist theologians, Rosemary Ruether and Dorothee Soelle, Ross suggests that the heritage of the concept of imago dei may yet offer guidance to contemporary communities of renewal and hope. Ross’s exploration points to the role of feminist theology in recognizing the implications of the image of God theme for shaping our political experience "insofar as theological claims have praxis implications that call for concrete responses."

Martha Reineke looks at an important time of women’s history, the witch hunts of 1450-1750. In "The Devils Are Come Down Upon Us," she sets out to redress the Reformation historians’ neglect of this period of victimization of and violence against women. Through a synthesis of methodologies, especially the work of Rene Girard, she challenges other scholars in religious studies to refocus current strategies of analysis in order to be more responsive to the charge of feminist history. Reineke argues that "we seriously underestimate the resources of our discipline at a point where they are most crucial for our work in memoriam on behalf of our foresisters. To speak adequately of the witch craze, to remember all that we must remember if we are to free our foresisters from a history of victimization, we must treat myth as essential to the witch craze and its violence."

For some female scholars devising a new voice as well as new methodologies in which to cast their ideas is a way of deconstructing the patriarchal mold. Thus genre becomes a means to a political statement. While I am not suggesting that all female scholars search for a new means of written expression, or even that such a universal search would be desirable, let us consider some questions that Luce Irigaray has raised: "What other mode of reading or writing or interpretation and affirmation may be mine inasmuch as I am a woman, with respect to you, a man? Is it possible that the difference might not be reduced once again to a process of hierarchization? Of subordinating the other to the same?" Based on a corporeality of difference, writers such as Irigaray and Helene Cixous attempt to dislodge the primacy of the phallogocentric binary opposition of sameness by breaking down the hierarchy of presence/lack, or what Irigaray calls the "old dream of symmetry." In the "new" syntax, as she imagines it, "there would no longer be either subject or object, ‘oneness’ would no longer be privileged. . . . Instead the syntax would involve proximity that would preclude any establishment of ownership, thus any form of appropriation."

Whatever forms are constructed, the important element is to appropriate a nonhierarchical articulation of sexual difference in language. However, a language of universal gynocentrism is not the answer. Women do not share the same cultural and social conditions. Feminist writing should be resistant to sameness, to speaking someone else’s language, even if that language imitates other feminist scholars. Cultural and racial differences are often first noticed (and first submerged) in language. Women must take the initiative in preserving the particularity of their own language. And feminists will have to work to assure diversity of language in scholarly publications. Women in all scholarly disciplines will have to work together to assure diversity — to bring pleasure to the text.


New York City

June 1990