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Journal of Women's History 15.2 (2003) 188-196

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A Failure to Communicate

Jo Ann McNamara

Lesly F. Massey. Women in the Church: Moving Toward Equality. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. xi + 221 pp. ISBN 0-786-411-953 (pb).
Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg. Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society, ca. 500-1100. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998. x + 472 pp. ISBN 0-226-740-536 (cl); 0-226-740-544 (pb).
Anne Jacobson Schutte. Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. ix + 337 pp. ISBN 0-8018-6548-4 (cl).
Walter Simons. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. x + 352 pp. ISBN 0-8122-3604-1 (cl); 0-8122-1853-1 (pb).

Sometimes, in my more ambitious fantasies, I ask myself what I would do if I were God. Such a fantasy took shape as I read through the four books that form the subject of this review. Suppose I wanted to get my creatures to modify their behavior. How would I go about it? Presumably, there would be no limits to my power but a quick survey of the biblical record clearly indicates that the more obvious didactic methods have not had a very high rate of success. The books of the Old Testament record God's direct interventions on any number of subjects. There are laws dictated to Moses and other prophets. There are rewards given to favored individuals and punishments meted out to the disobedient. There is an unstinting parade of miracles which seem to have made no impression whatsoever on wayward humanity. How, then, might I instill a higher regard for my female creatures in my male creatures? The history of the Christian West suggests that God has made more than one effort in this direction. That history is, of course, founded on the belief that Jesus was the divine incarnate, whose life was a living sermon. In a slender polemic aimed at bringing women into full equality in modern Christian churches, Lesly F. Massey provides a brief survey of church history beginning with the Gospel record itself. He is in full agreement with the many feminist scholars who have labored for several decades to reveal the importance of women in Jesus's ministry. With his blessing, they undertook to preach [End Page 188] and offer every variety of pastoral care. Moreover, it is generally conceded that they played similar official roles in the early church. Massey then proposes a study of Christian prescriptive literature in view of the social prejudices that produced it as the source of the misogyny that has systematically excluded women from full participation in the life of the church.

As a theologian, he focuses on Paul and particularly the anonymous author of the pastoral letters attributed to Paul, long privileged over the Gospel message itself by the creators of Christian dogma. He briefly exposes the constructed character of the resulting patriarchal church. Under the heading, "Roman Catholic tradition," Massey focuses on how the subordination of women became an indispensable criterion for determining the canonization of texts. Thus, the so-called apocryphal gospels, the traditions of women prophets, and the example of early Christian women were relegated to the margins in favor of the prejudices of the male authorities. His treatment is strictly theological, with little effort to discern what women, or even men, in the early church were actually doing. Within these limitations, Massey's book provides a succinct and persuasive overview of the misogyny governing the formation of Christian tradition. It is clear that whatever God, in the persona of Jesus, intended to teach mankind about the value of women and their services in his church was swiftly drowned out by a chorus of "fathers" intent on maintaining their subjection.

Let us imagine, however, that God is not so easily discouraged. Massey has no interest in the historical alternatives women devised to carve out roles for themselves in religious life. He gives virtually...