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La Educación
Número: (118) II
Año: 1994

Reseña-Ensayo/ Book Review-Essay

Gerda LERNER. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. From the Middle Ages to 1870. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, i-xii, 395 pp.

In her latest work, Gerda Lerner continues the inquiry on women’s history that she began in her excellent first volume (The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press, 1986). There is no need to paraphrase what the author states with unassuming clarity and simplicity about the scope of her study: “I am not so much writing a history as seeking to trace historical patterns. The subject will be covered over a vast span of time and space: nearly 1,200 years of history (from A.D. 700 to 1870) in England, France, the German and Italian realms, and in its more limited time span, the United States of America. Inevitably, the selection of the countries to be studied is made on the basis of one’s own training and knowledge of languages. And so, at the outset, I must admit that this book is centered on Western European cultures, not because I think that entirely desirable—I would consider a cross-culturally comparative approach to be more effective—but because I could not have written it otherwise” (p. 15). “It is quite true that the group of women I am studying in this book is largely white, upper class, wealthy or economically privileged, but that is precisely the problematic of women’s intellectual history: for women, far longer than for men, education was a class priviledge” (p. 16).

Feminist consciousness is defined as a woman’s awareness of belonging to a subordinate group that has been wronged; it is also the knowledge that subordination is unnatural and societally determined, and that women need to join and develop an autonomous definition of goals and strategies for change. Although historically the birth of feminist consciousness was in the 19th century, Lerner contends that its development, in the form of isolated insights, took a far longer time. In her study, she intends to trace the continuity and tradition of women’s long-range resistance to patriarchy and the factors that have wrought changes in their consciousness. Of course, the continuity exists only for us, beneficiaries of the long look back, and not for the women who were forced, time and again, to think and to work in isolation. How does one write a history of what has not existed (I am referring to the feminist consciousness)? The challenge cannot be overstated: it is nothing less than trying to write a history of exceptions or of absences.

In two very valuable chapters, Lerner documents how women have been deprived of education (chapter 2), of cultural prodding, of a space for dialogue and criticism (chapter 10). Their knowledge has had the quality of the survival knowledge of the oppressed, which teaches how to manipulate those in power to gain maximum protection. On the question of education, the statistics Lerner offers—for instance, the low point in our century was in 1960, when 35% of all students with a B.A., and only 10% of the doctorates were women (p. 44)— clearly show that the ups and downs of women’s education do not reflect a straight line of progress, but merely the male’s needs of the moment: during the Crusades, or World War II, women received more education or were encouraged to work outside the home, in order to compensate for men who were absent and fighting (p. 26). The large spectrum of useful historical information invites the reader to ponder and to question.

To be heard, women had to overcome a series of obstacles. Their authorship was often questioned, and women were forced to convince others that their works were, indeed, their own (Hildegard of Bingen and Christine of Pizan faced charges of plagiarism). Women defied the misogynist tradition that denied them the right to their own thought, and they asserted their own ideas, in spite of the fact that they may have been rooted in a different experience or realm of knowledge from that recognized by their patriarchal mentors and predecessors. Finally, they had to find (or create) their own audiences. All this amounts essentially to the task of authorizing their own voices (chapter 3). Some women authorized themselves by invoking divine inspiration, mystic revelation, or the sense of a special religious calling; others resorted to the authority conferred upon them by their roles as mothers and educators of the young; still others, by their own creativity.

At times, Lerner’s exclusive focus on women and on exceptions conveys an implicit triumphalist vision, as it were, that makes one ask: so, then, why did it take so long? Other times, the inevitable decontextualization leads to wrong or doubtful statements. I will take here, at random, a couple of examples. For instance, Lerner points out that although women writers claimed merely to translate or rearrange ideas once the prologue was over, they felt freer and asserted themselves (p. 52) without stressing the fact that these protestations of ignorance are equally present in both women and men writers because they simply constitute an expression of the humility topos prescribed by rhetoric. Along the same lines, Lerner quotes Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who speaks about “the stupidity” of her disposition, as an example of internalized self-denial (p. 34), when one could read it as the same humility topos, this time, mixed with clever duplicity. On a different note, Lerner states that, coinciding with the rise of the universities, and the acceptance of Latin as the language of the university-educated male clergy, women’s use of Latin declined, perhaps owing to the increase in female religious expression and activities, which had begun in the 11th century and encouraged the use of the vernacular (p. 27). The use of Latin, had actually declined during the Carolingian Reform when the use of Latin was stressed and only succeeded in pushing the people further from its use. By the Renaissance of the 12th century, Latin was the language of only a small minority of learned intellectuals, notably the clergy.

Lerner devotes three chapters to tracing the history of women in religion, in mysticism and in biblical exegesis because she assumes that it was in the area of religion that women’s struggle for emancipation first began. The work of women mystics and exegetes is viewed by Lerner as women’s major enterprise for more than a thousand years; that work, she states, was an effort to re-conceptualize religion in such a way as to allow for women’s equal and central role in the Christian drama of the Fall and Redemption. Lerner traces women’s commentaries on the Bible, which seek to counter misogynist readings of the Old and New Testaments. Here, the problem is twofold. As interesting as it is, the substance of their arguments does not represent a break with the misogynist tradition, but merely mirrors it with a slightly different slant. In the second place, women’s commentaries find their doubtful validation through various strategies that Lerner carefully describes: they contextualize or decontextualize passages of the Bible; they base their interpretation exclusively on the literal sense or on the spiritual reading; and they blow out of proportion minute details of the text or dwell on linguistic oddities. The non-specialized reader may not realize that these very same practices characterize the male, misogynist, patristic exegesis. “It remained for feminist criticism to step entirely outside the bounds of the Christian world-view...” The phrase, although acknowledging the need for a radical change of frame, also seems to suggest that these women’s exegeses contributed to the emancipation progress.

The case of women mystics is more troublesome. Although Lerner rightly states that the misogyny of the Church, which shaped ideas of gender in society, was far more detrimental than women’s inferior education, her treatment of mystics does not seem to take into account the full impact of that basic statement. This reviewer questions her assumption that mystics fostered female spiritual and mental emancipation (p. 65). Lerner is interested in mystic perception because it is “an alternate mode” from the dominant one (religious, theological). Nonetheless, this alternate mode is precisely the space where we find gathered all the proverbial traits that misogynist thought has attributed to women for centuries: being open to receive, inarticulateness, love against reason, heart against brain. Particularly disturbing is Lerner’s reading of the mystic Margery Kempe’s autobiography, one of the earliest in English literature. Illiterate (she dictated her Book to two clerks), Kempe suffered continuous mental crises, and bore fourteen children before beginning her pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain (finding, without a doubt, a little therapy through space). Lerner acknowledges that the image of that loud and pitifully sobbing woman, who wept and shouted on the streets, had all the traits of a freak. Nonetheless, her freakishness is read as a sort of triumph (“Despite all accusations of heresy, she remained a faithful daughter of the Church all her life. Where patriarchal society had confined women to the choice between cloistered virginity or domestic drudgery, Margery Kempe developed a new way...”). In fact, Kempe confirms, as if through a magnifying glass, all the misogynist commonplaces about women’s unrestrained “emotionality.”

Lerner distinguishes history from recorded history. On the surface, the statement seems reasonable enough. And yet, the book’s central proposition—the impact of the absence of a recorded history  on women’s lives, which she amply demonstrates with a provoking profusion of case histories—, makes that initial, seemingly uncontroversial, statement, a problematic one. How does one have a history without a record of it? I am not speaking necessarily of written but also oral record. I would feel comfortable saying that women have suffered, loved, enjoyed life, procreated, expressed their thought in writing, in oral poetry and narratives. But they have had no history of it. Had it existed, would they not have been able to benefit from it? I am only reinforcing the very core of Lerner’s book.

Gerda Lerner’s book is a welcomed introduction to the history of women; her chosen method, that of focusing on case histories, provides a good general point of departure from which to undertake more particularized studies. The book’s central proposition—announced in the introductory chapter, fully developed in the last one, and worked out throughout the study—deserves reflexion: the absence of a written record of women’s intellectual work has had vast consequences in the struggle for emancipation. It means that every woman, every generation of women, has been forced to ponder the same arguments, alienated from their own collective past and experience. Lerner’s over-view of their work unequivocally attests to this colossal waste of time and energy prolonged throughout the centuries.

M. Ana Diz