Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Balance Series 1: Gender Roles in Heathenry

A few years ago, I did security for a Pagan event in England called Pagancon. Now in England, there doesn't seem to be the same divide between Pagans and Heathens as there does elsewhere. We all tend to socialize together but do our rituals and have our study groups separately and so there was a good mix of different Pagan 'paths' at this event. It was the second day of the event and after a rather stressful morning that involved stopping an impending altercation between a man in a cape and about twenty, large, rugby lads, I'd managed to get hold of a rather nice drinking horn. I went to the bathroom to clean it out and I came across this lady in there, who, on seeing the hammer, first asked me if I was an Odinist.

'Nay lass' said I. 'I prefer the term Heathen.'

Then she looked at me awkwardly, almost as though she was uncomfortable with what she was going to ask next.

'But...but...isn't that a terribly sexist path for a woman to be in?'

At the time, I defended Heathenry. I told her about strong goddesses and strong women, about women in Northern Europe having more rights than their counterparts elsewhere and about modern Heathen women being respected by Heathen men. For her part, she looked at me with pity, as if I was somehow deluded.

But now I'm not so sure if I was or not. Looking at the wider Heathen community, I see so many ideas and so much bad behaviour from Heathen men towards the women in the community that just scream 'imbalance'.

For me, the biggest imbalance for Heathen women is the overall lack of knowledge that Heathens have about the roles, rituals and rights of women during the Heathen period. People just tend to leave it at 'women had the babies or did the Seidr and they're cool' and leave it at that. Conversely, there is so much discussion out there about the various roles that men held - especially when it comes to the role of warrior (and shock horror, the Viking), so much so that it's become our stereotype. When outsiders think of Heathenry, they tend to think of it only in terms of being a warrior religion, but what of the farmers, the craftsmen, the traders, the fishermen, the businessmen and women, the travellers, the thinkers, the wives, the husbands, the poets, the writers, the children and every other role/s that a person can hold in a society?

Thankfully, farmers are receiving more of a mention nowadays, but still, that the gender roles only seem to boil down to warrior/farmer or mother/Seidkona as far as the wider community is concerned seems a little myopic to me. We need to look much deeper.

And we're already seeing the effects of these ideas, especially when it comes to women and some of the behaviours I've heard of being used against women to get them to conform to the ideas that each particular community has about what women should be and how we should behave. The following is a list of examples that I or Heathen women that I know have come across:

* Being ignored or cut out of participating in more scholarly conversation topics. Or a 'Ok, now the 'estrogen' has left, we can talk about serious stuff' kind of attitude

* Being subjected to personal abuse for daring to (politely) disagree with a man about a point of lore when in the same conversation, a man can express the same disagreement and in the same way and get a perfectly peaceable response.

* People addressing your husband and asking them about you when you're standing right there and obviously capable of answering for yourself. Or asking your husband if they are allowed to speak to you or friend you on Facebook (well after all...we're the property of our men, right? Duh!).

* People mailing your husband when you disagree with them to complain about you and then wishing your husband 'luck in being married to you/that' after he tells them that they deserved what they got for their rudeness.

* Being subjected to peer pressure to have children and conform to this role of being a motherly 'peace-weaver' type.

* Unmarried women receiving messages about how they need to hurry up and get married or they'll be too old to have children and then will be therefore 'too old' to marry and what about 'breeding for your folk'?

* Judgmental comments that imply a link between childlessness and lack of worth in community.

And of course, most of the people that display these behaviours and communities in which these behaviours are prevalent also usually claim to respect women and sometimes will even wax lyrical about how great Heathen women are (within the confines of the aforementioned gender roles, of course).

One typical example of this kind of thing is this note.

The author probably thought he was being complimentary in writing this but there are so many flaws, so much that is based around the idea that the woman is the 'helpmeet' of the man and it's scarily very much focused on the idea of the woman as a mother. In fact the author refers to the woman's role as childbearer in relation to no less than five of the 'Nine Noble Virtues'(as he has written them 'for women'). And yes, while it cannot be disputed that childbearing did play a huge part in a woman's life back then, was that her only role? Nothing more than a baby-machine with no views of her own that can only find freedom in widowhood or death in the childbed, always ready to lay back and think of Freyja whenever her big, hunky, viking comes by wanting to spill some seed?

Is our view of Heathen women really so one-dimensional?

Can a woman not be more than some compliant baby-machine that basically cleans and cooks for her man's comfort? And more to the point, what is the remedy for this imbalance?

As I have previously mentioned, Heathens in general are woefully ignorant of the 'Spindle side' when it comes to Heathenry and the rituals, history and roles that that entails. The current views that are prevalent when it comes to the roles of women are simply a symptom of this ignorance. I think it is also telling that these views are generally not held among Reconstructionist Heathens who are more concerned with building up a picture of community as a whole rather than just one particular, favoured role.

So, as with many other issues that we face, the key is education. The problem is how to encourage more people to look at the 'Spindle side' in any kind of depth.


Joxy said...

Fascinating, thanks for writing this, hun.

The Hermit said...

A very interesting and thought provoking read, I really do love your writing through it you have taught me a lot about the heathen community. I have to admit that the issues you raise above have been one of the things that made me wary to some degree of Heathenry, as I am very much of the opinion that women and men are equally important and neither should be kept under the others thumb as it were.

I know I am taking as a non heathen so can't speak form experience, but I think you make some very valid points, and that things do need to change, the perception that women are just baby machines and their to do their warriors bidding is one that needs to change. The problem is how to educate the wider community. and that's something I wouldn't know how to do, other than by people such as yourself keeping on doing what you do, and writing what you write, eventually the message may start sinking into a few of those skulls and thoughts/opinions will begin to change. Keep up the great work that you do Birka, just because there are elements of the Community that do not appreciate you or it, doesn't make it any less true or any less important and something that people need to think about.

Birka said...

@ Joxy, Thank you!

@ The Hermit

One thing you have to remember with the Heathen community is that there is no one Heathen community and it varies from place to place. Each community has different thews (roughly 'values'). Some are nuts, others are perfectly sane and the people are good.

The Heathen communities I actually hang in are egalitarian (not a shock because they're recon) but every now and again with other work I do, I come across crap that reminds me of how it is in some places or the expectations that some men have.

It will be a slow process for this kind of thinking to get about. Too many newbie lads join because of the image of the strong viking and then too many folks don't look far enough into Heathenry to realise that there's much more than that. They only get to see the viking and miss the beauty of the rainbow bridges and worlds alive with all manner of beings.

AuĂ° said...

I live in the US, and I found that the "baby machine" view of some heathen men is quite prevalent, at least in the Pacific NW.
Being a woman who is happily child FREE, I am thrilled to play with friends' and families' kids and spoil them mercilessly with both homemade and store-bought gifts...and then hand them back to mommy and daddy at the end of the day.
When I became more open about my child-free choice, I found quite a bit of opposition in the kindred that I belonged to at the time - and, surprisingly to me, it was mostly from men.
The United States as a whole is quite child-centric. Most people expect that they'll have children, and they are well-supported in that choice by government programs, tax credits, paid maternity leave, and the like.
I really got tired of being asked if I had children, or when my husband and I will start trying...because the kindred NEEDS more children. :P
Honestly, if I WERE going to have children, that wouldn't be why I would ever have them in the first place.
Lately, if someone is quite rude about it, saying things like "WHY don't you want to have kids? etc, etc", I tell them point-blank that the state of my uterus is none of their damn business.
Some of my friends say that motherhood is terrific (I wouldn't and don't want to know), but women are more than just child-bearers. We are really SO MUCH MORE!

Henry said...

You might like this archaeological article, which strongly suggests that the "baby machine" picture of history is pretty much an artefact of modern prejudice. Things back then may well have been much more ambiguous and complex than they are now...

Birka said...

Thanks for that Henry!

I've been studying gender roles in the Viking age for a while now and this is part of the reason why I find all the modern baby-machine stuff so disconcerting. A few scholars have now argued for a wider consideration of what female roles were in the Viking age and with good reason. One excellent dissertation on this topic if you're interested in this (and can get hold of it) is 'Bridging a Gap:Finding a Valkyrie in a Riddle' by Jennifer L Culver. It does focus on Anglo Saxon women however as the article you linked shows, there's plenty to suggest that things weren't so clear cut in Old Norse society either. The Historiska Museet in Stockholm makes this point very well with their exhibit that challenges how we interpret history from our own modern viewpoints.