Patriarchy Is Alive and Well in Pentateuch

Sarah Shectman

Graffiti in Turin, Italy, November 2017. Photo by WikimediaCommons user Prof.lumacorno, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ed. note: This is an extended version of the piece that appeared in the print edition.

I told my husband recently about an all-male conference that had female scholars and their male allies outraged; a couple of the latter, on finding out about the gender ratio, withdrew their participation. One of the organizers, who was unwilling to admit any problem with the lineup, responded to criticism by noting that they had invited six women (the conference had nineteen men lined up), all of whom had declined. My husband was sympathetic to the organizers: they had tried and failed to get women involved, but they shouldn’t have been expected to cancel their conference as a result. And I realized: “Yes. Yes, they should have canceled it.” That is exactly what they should have done. They picked a topic and invited people and failed. Let me explain.

The first problem with the organizer’s response—“We invited x number of women [always far fewer than the number of men invited], but they all said no”—is that it plainly puts the onus of involvement on women: “We men invited you women, but you turned us down; the gender ratio is not our fault because we tried.” Such shifting of responsibility away from men is reminiscent of the so-called incel (involuntary celibate) movement: “I (a man) tried to get you (a woman) to have sex with me, but you turned me down; my lack of sexual satisfaction is therefore your fault.” Though the latter takes the blame further and has had far more violent results, both betray an unwillingness not only to recognize a problem (in both cases, whatever has caused the lack of participation by women in a desired activity) but also to take responsibility for addressing that problem (attempting to change the behaviors and social structures that have prevented that participation).

The second problem with the response is that it is premised on the idea that a collection of scholars and their scholarship can be considered to represent the best of the field when it is limited to participants who do not fully represent the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of scholars involved in the field. The result of non-diverse conferences and books is that the same few people end up representing the field over and over again; without an infusion of new ideas from new voices and new perspectives, the field risks stagnation. Scholarship that reflects a diversity of perspectives—exposure to more people of more backgrounds using more methods—is stronger scholarship.i Excluding women leaves the field poorer. And this exclusion is not a problem women should be expected to fix by accepting every invitation to participate—a move that would further overburden scholars who are already more overburdened with commitments than their male counterparts are.ii

The marginalization of women is not accidental: all-male panels and all-male collected volumes don’t “just happen.” Because the mainstream academic conversation is dominated by men, largely as a result of the legacy of Enlightenment thinking that equates science and rationality with the male, the agreed-upon parameters of this conversation push alternative voices to the margins and brand them “less scholarly.” Such biases are often unconscious and therefore unacknowledged,iii but they create and reinforce systemic inequalities that have resulted in a field in which women participate at a lower rate. Scholars may claim that they simply took “the best” proposals that they received in response to an open call or that they asked a certain number of women to participate in their invited event, insisting that they are “gender-blind” when in fact they have simply turned a blind eye to their own biases and to the structural inequalites that they are helping perpetuate.iv

My own experience of the marginalization of women is colored by the fact that I am a woman in Pentateuch—a field in which diversity, traditionally, has meant having not just Protestants but also Catholics and Jews. Pentateuchal criticism is synonymous with composition history; when people use the term, this is what they mean. People who do things like literary analysis or perspectival criticism of the Pentateuch mostly don’t participate in sessions of the Pentateuch Section at SBL (despite the fact that any textual analysis, even a historical-critical one, necessarily requires literary analysis). In my years on the SBL Pentateuch Section steering committee, first as a member and then as co-chair, I saw firsthand how its narrow focus—its synonymity with historical-critical method, especially composition history—has resulted in the same few handfuls of scholars being the primary participants; the vast majority of these scholars are men.v Though the steering committee itself has achieved and maintained remarkable gender balance, it was often difficult to achieve the same balance in our sessions. Open calls for papers on topics like gender that seemed likely to attract women scholars elicited a total of two or three proposals—people working on feminism likely did not even look at our call for papers.

As a newly minted Ph.D., I was at first optimistic that the historical-critical tunnel vision of pentateuchal studies might change and that other methods, like feminism, might make some inroads. My book, Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (2009), which sought to bridge the divide between historical-critical and feminist scholarship, was published by a well-respected academic press, and it was well reviewed. That it was only reviewed in two places (and notably, both reviews were by women), however, demonstrates the difficulty involved in effecting such change. One review of a volume on the Priestly (P) material that I coedited went through the various essays summarizing their major points in a few sentences. When the reviewer (a man) got to my essay on women in P, he simply gave the title and moved on to the next one—in the same sentence! My ideas, apparently, did not even merit a full sentence.

So why has my women-focused source-critical research not been engaged with and cited by mainstream Pentateuch scholars, most of whom are more than happy to devote considerable room to the ideas of scholars they don’t agree with?vi Their lack of engagement suggests that most Pentateuch scholars simply haven’t read my book because they don’t think it’s relevant. Although this can feel personal, it is not a criticism of my otherwise well-received scholarship. Rather, it is a symptom of the culture of the field, which overvalues methods typically embraced by male scholars, which are deemed more “serious” and more “scientific.”

My experience is not an isolated incidence; women scholars continue to be marginalized. Nevertheless, I have seen a few signs of progress. More and more of my male colleagues are expressing solidarity with women and refusing to participate in all-male panels and books. Many of them are younger men, which makes me optimistic about generational change. They genuinely want different voices to be heard and are more likely to seek out women and scholars of color who employ a wider range of methods. For biblical studies to move forward—to make sure that its output remains vital, innovative, and relevant; to attract new scholars and ensure that they are provided with a safe space in which to do their work; and to address its gender and racial gaps—will require not just colleagues but allies.vii

i On the correlation between diverse authorship and increased quality and impact in scientific papers, see Richard B. Friedman and Wei Huang, “Collaboration: Strength in Diversity,” Nature 513 (Sept. 18, 2014): 305, doi:10.1038/513305a.

ii See Cassandra M. Guarino and Victor M. H. Borden, “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?,” Research in Higher Education 58, no. 6 (2017): 672–694, doi:10.1007/s11162-017-9454-2.

iii On unrecognized bias, see, e.g., Kelly Long, “How to Recognize and Overcome Your Unconscious Bias,” The Guardian, Dec. 14, 2015.

iv See Lauren Bacon, “The Odds That a Panel Would ‘Randomly’ Be All Men Are Astronomical,” The Atlantic, Oct. 20, 2015 (this article is particularly pertinent because the suggested rate of women with mathematics PhDs, 24 percent, corresponds closely to women’s membership in SBL, which is about 22 percent); Elizabeth Weingarten, “Why Pretending You Don’t See Race or Gender Is an Obstacle to Equality,” Slate, May 23, 2017; Adia Harvey Wingfield, “Color-Blindness is Counteroductive,” The Atlantic, Sept. 13, 2015.

v A recent high-profile case in point of the (white) male domination of history is the “Stanford sausage fest,” a conference on history featuring only white men; Laura King, “We Hear Too Many White, Male Voices on History—Let’s Have a Wider Range,” The Guardian, Mar. 29, 2018.

vi On the importance of citation and the gender citation gap, see Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Barbara F. Walter, “The Gender Citation Gap in International Relations,” International Organization 67, no. 4 (2013): 889–922, doi:10.10170/S0020818313000209. Though this research relates to political science and notes that the gender gap varies by discipline, the authors’ general observations about the importance of citation for career advancement apply across fields. I am not aware of a study that deals with citation trends in biblical studies specifically.

vii My thanks to Ilona Zsolnay and Jacqueline Vayntrub for their feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.