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Sex and Secularism
by joan wallach scott
princeton, 240 pages, $27.95

While traveling in Spain about twenty years ago, I attended the nearest Ash Wednesday Mass I could find. Upon returning from the communion line, I realized that, aside from the priest, I was the only male present. Catholicism, it seemed, was for women, especially older women. Statistics on Mass attendance bear this out, though the gap has narrowed over the past twenty years as Mass attendance, generally, declines.

Even when we acknowledge the gender disparity in religious practice, we rarely think it through. Christians call God “Father,” believe that God became incarnate as a man named ­Jesus, and transmitted his message to a group of male apostles. How did this faith become the domain of women? The answer lies at the very heart of secularism.

When we tell the story of political and religious emancipation, we tend to employ a simple Whiggish narrative. Destroying the alliance between throne and altar is held to have been the necessary precondition for bettering the condition of women and other groups. Rousseau may have been a chauvinist, and the philosophes were probably less diverse than the Church Fathers, but eventually, women were able to receive real education, enter the workforce, wear jeans, and exercise control over their bodies. Nation-states made laws so that women and non-land-owning men could share the rights called ­human.

Joan Wallach Scott, one of the foremost historians of gender, challenges this view in Sex and Secularism. First, she attends to smaller histories of how the liberation of women was stymied by different figures who often used secular reasoning to justify delaying emancipation. Second, she appeals to the social theorizing of Michel Foucault to show how secularism was a tool of power. In Foucault’s account, secularism is better thought of as a discourse than a historical movement. Certain political actors appeal to it to justify certain policies. To live in a secular age is to live in an age when the vague term “secular” can be usefully invoked. Secularism is not, however, a coherent set of ideas, for if it were, it could not at one point oppose women’s liberation and at another point demand it. Likewise, secularizers could not in certain stages regard organized religion an obstacle, and in others a necessary ally. 

Scott thus arrives at a startling claim: Far from improving the status of women, modernity and secularism presupposed and reinforced their subjugation. In Theology and Social Theory, John Milbank showed how secularism made it possible to view religion as private and domestic. Scott highlights how secularism also cast religion as feminine. The architects of modernity imagined secular space as a masculine realm—natural and brutish—where the demands of industry and politics could be met only by men. Women were confined to a domestic and religious space. Some might assume that this misogynistic view was a vestige of the ancien ­régime—one cannot shake free of the bad old ways all at once! Yet Scott demonstrates that gender distinctions sharpened at the onset of modernity.

Scott’s claims, which at first sound implausible, cannot be dismissed. Her learning as a historian is on full display as she cites studies showing a heightening of gender disparity in modernity. The female and the religious became mutually reinforcing threats requiring domestication: “Like the female sex, religion was considered the source of the irrational and the violent.” If religion was a virus, women were most susceptible to it.

Long before John Lennon, many champions of secularism imagined a world with no religion. But how to erase all those religious houses that dotted rural areas and dominated city centers? The premodern world not only tolerated an incredible diversity of religious life—secular and religious, male and female, austere and baroque. It also provided a religious tapestry in which the laity and the clergy could follow different callings.

Modernity was less capacious. The monastery and abbey caused offense as sites of both excess and spoliation, their inhabitants both unproductive and lascivious. The publicness of these institutions was the problem, along with the claim that a person could flourish without fulfilling modern ideas of production. Monastic communities produced no excess capital, their women produced no children, and thus they challenged the necessity of male potency. By contrast, the secular imagined a domestic sphere complementary to the public sphere. In the former, one could find refuge from the latter. This domestic haven was affective and necessarily female.

Scott’s work helps readers connect modern anticlericalism with modern sexism. Like the monastery, the figure of the priest gave tremendous offense to the secularist imagination. Scott employs Jules Michelet’s 1845 Du Prêtre, de la femme, de la famille to highlight the nexus of religion and gender. ­Michelet cast fear into his male readers when he wrote that clergy, especially secular clergy, would interfere between husband and wife. In the new order, men should work in public, secular space, and women in private, domestic space. But the contradiction of clergy, representing a religious mode neither exclusively private nor public, endangered the new modern order that was symbolized in the neatly divided sphere of public and private. 

Scholars such as Claire Cage (­Unnatural Frenchmen) and ­Michael Gross (The War Against Catholicism) have already demonstrated how mandatory celibacy made Catholic clergy a particularly convenient Other against which the modern nation-state could define itself. Anticlerical literature portrayed the priest as effeminate, biologically male but female in dress and demeanor. Priests, it was said, were putting their Jesuitical hooks into weak, credulous, female minds. Predictably, convents became, in Scott’s words, “the negative counterparts to the family home.” As religion became domesticated, and the domestic became feminine, so too did religion. The French anticlerical laws and the code of family law normalized the patriarchal, nuclear family by portraying any other form of life as aberrant, unnatural, and dangerous to the state. Family and contract law were, for the first time, divided into two separate legal categories, corresponding to domestic and secular spheres.

Those who blame modernity for the downfall of the nuclear family betray their amnesia. When it first emerged, modernity valued the ­nuclear family far more than had the Western religious cultures that preceded it. But why did secularization change its tune toward the family, if a straight line can be drawn from 1789 to 1968? Here, Scott proves insightful. Initially, the secular nation-state confined women to the domestic sphere in order to ensure high levels of fertility. Large populations were needed for staffing factories and fighting wars. In time, automation, outsourcing, and immigration changed labor force needs. Wars were no longer fought with large armies. By the middle of the twentieth century, nation-states could finally imagine a world in which populations needed to be sustained and educated, rather than grown.

Today our nations need consumers who drive the global market by exercising their autonomous desires. A show such as Girls or its predecessor, Sex and the City, reveals the connection between sexual autonomy and a certain late-capitalist economic orientation. Liberated female sexual desire apes a late-capitalist form of liberated male desire. The West’s Other is no longer the celibate priest but the veiled woman.

Scott’s account of the relationship between secularism and the current consensus about the meaning of the words modern and liberal strikes another blow against the secularization thesis, which, truth be told, has been under assault for decades. The thesis holds that, as technology increases and standards of living rise, the West, and therefore the world, will become less religious. Historians and social theorists debunked the thesis in the 1990s, but it lives on as a popular myth. Scott’s work, which lacks theological grounding but is full of religious and theological implications, calls into question the identification of the progress of secularism with the progress of women’s interests.

Might, then, the Christian and the women’s liberationist have more in common than they’ve come to believe? Both, after all, have suffered from a domestication forced upon them by a secularizing logic. Horkheimer and Adorno observed in Dialectic of Enlightenment that the intellectual movement that sought to replace myth with sober rationality ended up constructing its own set of myths. Too often, both the Christian and the feminist have accepted these myths uncritically. Scott’s commendable book does the work of helping her readers imagine a different kind of story.

Grant Kaplan is a professor of theology at Saint Louis University.

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