The Washington Post


The Birth of the Myth That Men Are Closer to God

Robert S. McElvaine


It could be the Taliban mantra: "Women may not." Women may not work; women may not go to school; women may not go out in public unless accompanied by a male relative; women may not show their faces or bodies. If they take off their burqas in public, they may be beaten; if they commit adultery, they may be stoned to death.

That women have no rights in Afghanistan today is something we know. But what we struggle to fathom is the impulse beneath the seemingly relentless drive to dehumanize half the country's population -- and the fact that this effort is made in the name of religion. The men who rule Afghanistan invoke the laws of Islam to justify their actions and attitudes. I agree that a kind of religion motivates the Taliban; but the religion in question, I'd say, is not Islam. It's the religion that the Woody Allen character in the director's latest film, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," identifies as his own: insecure masculinity.

These men are terrified of women.

The bizarre will of terrorist hijacker Mohamed Atta, including the provision that no women be allowed at his funeral or gravesite, is just one example of the sexually insecure mind-set from which they operate. Another is the likely reason that men are required to wear beards: so that they will not be confused with women. That mind-set has led, in Afghanistan, to the creation of a religion-based dystopia even more ghastly than the one imagined by novelist Margaret Atwood in her 1986 book, "The Handmaid's Tale," in which women are divided up into functional categories to serve men, some as childbearing vessels, some as servants, some as prostitutes and so forth.

That the fictional regime of woman-hating religious fanatics in Atwood's cautionary tale is set in a future United States where an extreme fundamentalist Christian movement has seized power should give us pause. Of course we do not treat women with the brutality of the extremist Muslims who wrap their masculine insecurities in the cloak of Muhammad, but we should realize that male envy of and hostility toward women is also deeply imbedded in other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. From the Torah to the Taliban, men throughout history have enjoyed the pastime of telling women what they may not do, and the practice continues to this day. Just in the past decade, questions concerning women's "place" have caused bitter controversy in various Christian churches. Consider Pope John Paul II's vehement reaffirmation of the doctrine that women may not be priests, or the Southern Baptist Convention's 1998 proclamation that a wife "is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband."

What has led religions to play a major part in the subordination of women for thousands of years are the prehistoric conditions on which they are based, which reach back to the Neolithic Age and the dawn of agriculture -- a female invention that dramatically transformed the conditions under which humans live.

The story that Christians came to call "the Fall of Man" is, I believe, an allegorical representation of the "fall" that men experienced as a result of women's invention of agriculture (symbolized by Eve's eating from the Tree of Knowledge): Once food could be intentionally produced, the traditional male role of hunter was greatly devalued. This story, like many other ancient myths in a variety of cultures, blames women for the loss of the hunter-gatherer way of life, which from a great chronological distance came to look like paradise to men obliged to go "forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground" and earn their bread by the sweat of their brows doing the "woman's work" of supplying plant food. And women's punishment was henceforth to be totally subordinate to men.

Hell hath no fury like a man devalued -- and it was devalued men who retold the story of women inventing agriculture in the symbolic way it comes to us in Genesis, and then used that myth as a basis for dominating women.

It was also devalued men who gave birth to the notions that creative power and God are male. These, too, are the products of particular prehistoric circumstances that resulted from the development of agriculture. Creation had always appeared to be a female power, as reflected in early references to Mother Earth and to nature as a feminine force. But when men began to place seeds in plowed ground, an irresistible metaphor arose. The apparent analogy of a seed being planted in furrowed soil to a male's "planting" of semen (the word even means "seed") in a female led to the conclusion that men provide the seed of new life and women constitute the soil in which that seed grows.

This monumental error in understanding (in fact, of course, each parent provides half of the "seed") has had profound effects on all of recorded history and continues to plague us today, centuries after we learned for sure that it is an error. What had previously seemed to be a principally female power was transformed into an entirely male power. No longer apparent bystanders in reproduction, men now claimed to be the reproducers, while women were reduced from the seeming creators to the soil in which men's creations grow: in a word, dirt.

This belief inevitably led to the conclusion that the supreme Creative Power must also be male. The other day I saw this quotation posted on a sign outside an Assembly of God church: "The Lord is a man of war." It sounds like something Osama bin Laden would say, but it turned out instead to be a quote from Exodus 15:3. The idea that God is a male, and one who favors war and male domination of women, comes to the three major monotheistic religions straight from the Bible. It starts with the Book of Genesis, in which God, who is said to be male, performs a Caesarean section on Adam and, in effect, pulls out the first woman. Just how basic this literally incredible story is to the subordination of women is apparent in the fact that in many languages, beginning with Hebrew, the word for "woman" means "out of man." Despite the fact that every man and woman who has ever lived was born out of woman, women are known by a word that falsely indicates creation happens the other way around.

The combination of the belief that God (or the chief deity in a polytheistic system) is male with the notion that humans are created in God's image also yielded the inescapable inference that men are closer than women to godly perfection. The belief that women are deformed or "incomplete" men followed logically, and was given its classic expressions by male thinkers from Aristotle -- who, in his "Generation of Animals," called women borderline "monstrosities" -- to Aquinas and Freud. There is no telling how much evil throughout history might have been averted or eased had the growth of this vine of thinking somehow been nipped in the bud. It has been a major basis for the claim that women and everything classified as feminine are inferior. It has led men to seek to prove that they are the opposite of women (what I call the "notawoman" definition of manhood), and war and other forms of violence have been common means of doing so. The evil that we are presently seeing done in the name of God is yet another outgrowth of these ancient developments and errors concerning the sexes.

But the bedrock upon which the structure of male exclusion of women from positions of importance was built must be sought at an even deeper level. A statement from an American Catholic bishop in 1992 strongly suggests the particular male insecurity that is the deepest source of restrictions on the activities of women throughout recorded history: "A woman priest," the bishop said, "is as impossible as for me to have a baby." Exactly.

Women can do all the important things that men can, but there are some essential things that women can do that men cannot: bear and give birth to children and nourish them from their bodies. Because of this relative incapacity, many men suffer, largely subconsciously, from insecurities that might be termed "womb envy," "breast envy," or what I call "Non-Menstrual Syndrome." This is why insecure men exclude women from places they want to reserve for themselves. To compensate for the things that they cannot do, men tell women that they may not do other things. Which activities women are excluded from varies from one culture to another, but some form of exclusion seems to exist in all cultures. The reservation of the priesthood for men is one of the prominent manifestations of this practice in Western civilization.

The various proclamations restricting roles open to women issued in recent years by the Pope, Southern Baptist clergymen and others are obviously not nearly as extreme as the horrible oppression the Taliban inflicts on women. Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell's inclusion of feminism and homosexuality on the enemies list he said God had compiled before allowing the attack on America is not in the Taliban's league. But all of these statements and restrictions emanate from the same well of masculine insecurity. These modern religious leaders, like so many men before them, are whistling past the birthing room. Until we all come to accept a sensible religious view of men and women as equally created in the image of a God who is both male and female, we will run the risk of the sacrilege of insecure men imposing, in the name of God, the sort of reign of terror to which women in Afghanistan have been subjected under the Taliban.

 Copyright 2001, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

Robert McElvaine, the Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts and Letters and Chair of the Department of History at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., is the author of "Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History" (McGraw-Hill).  He is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times and Newsweek and has been a guest on many major news programs, such as CNN and ABC News with Peter Jennings.  Prof. McElvaine recently was one of only nine historians chosen by Life to provide introductory essays on key periods of the twentieth century for its latest book, Our Century in Pictures.