I’m taking a class called The Archaeology of Sex and Gender (I’m an anthropology and art history major), and we were studying female figurines from the Neolithic era. Some girl in my class brought up the point that when male figurines with giant phalli were discovered, they were interpreted by academics as symbols of power. When female figures with giant vulvas were discovered, they were interpreted by academics as symbols of fertility. “Why can’t the giant vulva be a symbol of power too?” she asked.
It blew my mind and reaffirmed my decision to study anthropology and art history.
This reminds me of a conversation a friend and I had recently about our work. She’s in the very early stages of writing her dissertation on scribes in early medieval England, specifically female scribes. One of the things we vented about was the universal assumption that men copied the vast majority of manuscripts in the period, when there’s actually very, very little evidence to suggest that level of exclusivity. There are very few manuscripts we know for a fact were copied by men, and most are anonymous. And if you look at the nature of religious institutions in England and the status of women between 700-1000ish,
1.) quite a few monasteries were founded by aristocratic women;
2.) many were dual houses, which housed both male and female religious, and some of those houses were politically influential—and also headed by women—and thus were likely to have access to good libraries;
3.) there is evidence that women in important institutions were reading and writing correspondence in Latin; and
4.) there is also evidence that noble women were patrons of book production and literate themselves (in the vernacular if not in Latin), because wills from the period survive in which women bequeath their libraries to various people. None of this is concrete, but I don’t think it’s a leap to argue that it’s almost just as likely any given anonymous copyist could as easily be a woman as a man. But in manuscript studies, the assumption is always that, unless the text might have some “obvious” interest to women, the copyist is a man. Which is pretty damn ridiculous, and just another reminder that the effacement of women’s contributions to civilization and the transmission (and generation!) of knowledge is an ongoing process of willful forgetting, as well as ignorance.
I can relate to the statues of women with giant reproductive parts being labeled as “degrading” or “fertility” when I thought it represented power.
Basically not everything revolves around 1950’s middle class/Victorian period gender roles people.
The same thing goes in my field (Theology and Biblical Studies) except maybe even more so, because the Bible openly acknowledges women who held a great deal of social and economic power in both the Old and New Testaments- and yet they are routinely glossed over by scholarship and indeed erased in official translations*. We know so comparatively little about Ancient Israel that there’s no overwhelmingly compelling reason to suggest women could not have played a role in the composition of the Tanakh, and the New Testament itself makes explicit the importance of women within the early Christian movement, especially older, educated and wealthy women- so what’s to stop a woman being behind some of the New Testament writings (especially given that so many are disputed in authorship)?
*Easy way to detect if the Bible translation you own has a sexist bias: look up Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8. If the former calls Phoebe a “servant” of the church but the latter refers to regulations for “deacons”, congratulations! The translators of your Bible deliberately chose to erase evidence of the ordination of women in the early church! Both verses in fact feature exactly the same word, diakonos, which certainly can mean servant, but is also the word for deacon, an order of Christian ministry that exists to this day.