Saturday, January 14, 2012

Women In Heathenry Questionnaire

Today on one of the groups I frequent, a group focused on women's Heathenry, a member made a request for us to help out one of her friends by filling in a questionnaire about the woman's experience of Heathenry. Normally, I don't bother with this kind of thing, but seeing as the guy doing the survey seems to be somewhat influential in his local area and his purported goal was ' encourage more involvement or interest to create more of a balance in our Heathen community.' , I figured I would give my two cents. As the questions and directions the answers took me in, were interesting, I thought I would post them here for possible future discussion. I have omitted the first two questions as they're just the usual background questions about how and why one came to Heathenry.


3.What is your view of current Heathen gender equality?

It depends on the country. I've participated in Heathen communities in 3 countries to date (England, Germany and the US), I'm a member of the German org 'Der Eldaring' and I'm also friends with numerous Danish Heathens. In my experience, in Europe, the genders are pretty much equal. However in a lot of the US Heathen communities, I've come across all kinds of misogyny. Here are a few examples that I or Heathen women in my acquaintance have come across in various US Heathen communities:

* Being ignored or cut out of participating in more scholarly conversation topics. Or an '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.

* 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 the 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. Or attacks based on physical looks when a disagreement arises in a completely unrelated point.

4.What is your view of gender roles/requirements in the time prior to the conversion of Northern Europe? Both in the scope of appropriateness and your knowledge of them – it is ok to say that you do not have wide or deep knowledge of the subject, many do not (hence why this research).

Well, it would depend very much on which society you were talking about. For example, Anglo Saxon women enjoyed a greater measure of freedom than their Icelandic counterparts. We know from records that Anglo Saxon women could rule and lead armies (see Procopius's 'Island girl' account and Aethelflaed of Mercia), that women could bring cases to court, inherit, own property and trade. We know that the weregild was the same for a woman as for a man and from stories like Judith, in which a woman killed a man that was going to rape her, that the Anglo Saxons saw nothing wrong with women stepping into those 'male' shoes and meeting all attacks with equal or greater violence when warranted. Surviving continental laws regarding women mostly show systems that took great pains to protect women from abuse (be it physical, sexual or even regarding her reputation), to give her recourse if she was abused and that respected her. She could inherit ancestral lands in most cases (the Salian Franks were a notable exception in this) and while each woman had a guardian (Mundwald), that guardian could be male or female. Among the Lombards, there were women warriors and they were treated legally more like men. For more information, see: 'Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens' by Kathleen Herbert and 'Germanic Women: Mundium and Property 400-1000' by Kimberly Harper Dunn.

In sharp contrast, Icelandic women (most likely because of the high number of slaves/freed slaves making up the female population) had very few of those rights. A woman had no say in who she married, her consent wasn't even required until Christianity required it. Her family had the right to physically torture her to a certain degree if she fell pregnant before they could marry her off, in order to ascertain the name of the father. Any children she had were the property of her husband, to do as he wished after birth.
She couldn't inherit and would spend her life going from the guardianship of her father, to any husbands, to any male kin left alive. Maybe when she was a widow of a certain age, would she have a measure of freedom. But that's if she didn't die in childbed after too many births or from disease somewhere along the way.
If she (a free born woman) was to serve someone in her father's hall, she would be expected to serve that man in any way he wished, regardless of how it would negatively affect her marriage chances or honour. One example of this can be seen in the account of the father that promised his daughter that she could stay with him for the duration of a visit by a suitor by the name of Hákon, so as to avoid him exercising his guest's rights with her (Viglundar Saga 14.13:87).

In many cases, women were effectively property, as shown in the Landnamabok in the case of Sigriðr, who killed herself after her husband swapped land and wife with a friend. Yes, women could hold property, but it was only under certain circumstances and yes, there were exceptional women, such as Auð the deep-minded, however even they faced societal rebuke for daring to step out of their assigned roles, as we can see from Chapter 32 of Gisla saga. An interesting paper which examines this aspect of ON society is 'Regardless of Sex: Men, Women and Power in Early Northern Europe' by Carol J Clover (available on JSTOR). For more information about the general lot of the Icelandic woman, see 'Women in Old Norse Society' by Jenny Jochens and 'Women in the Viking Age' by Judith Jesch.

Naturally, as a modern woman, I find the treatment of Icelandic women to have been barbaric and would much rather have lived in Anglo Saxon society.

5.How, if at all, do you feel they have changed?

Well, for starters a woman is her own agent in modern society, with the right to choose her own matches and marry when and who she chooses. Women have the right to hold property and inherit, women can trade, own business, become lawyers, bring cases, join the armed forces, have children without fearing that the father won't accept them and then order their deaths, lead, rule in government and basically have almost the same legal rights as men (although current politics are working very hard at eroding those rights again for women).

6.Do you support the re-establishment of traditional gender roles, as much as possible in our current state of living, in modern time? Why or why not? To what extent? How would you frame the roles?

Define 'traditional gender roles'. We often discuss the female gender role in terms of the 'Peace-weaver/Shield-maiden' dichotomy, however historical record shows that this isn't entirely accurate (except in Iceland and hopefully the examples I gave above demonstrate why that would not be an acceptable model to try and recreate) and that women simply did whatever they must, as they must, to get by and/or look after their families. I don't think that any gender roles should be established in modern Heathenry except perhaps in the ritual sense (such as the role of horn bearer at Sumbel) and that any attempts to establish these 'traditional gender roles' in modern Heathenry would only result in more Heathen women marrying non-Heathen men or withdrawing from the communities that attempt this. I know of several instances where this has already been the case.

7.How involved do you find most women to be in Heathenry in modern times?

It depends on the community. In communities where women are mostly treated as equals, in my experience, you find greater involvement by women. However because of aforementioned issues in question 3, I know a lot of women that stick to their local communities and that don't participate on a wider scale, instead preferring to limit their participation to the safety of their inner-yard.

8.In what ways do you think that women could be involved in the future? Do you think that it is necessary for this?

Women should be involved in all the ways that men are, only then will Heathenry gain some balance, maturity and become more sustainable as a movement.

9.What is your opinion with the modern focus on the Vikings and much of the warrior-centric views of the worldview?

First of all, I'm no fan of the implication that the warrior-centric view is a 'man-only' kind of deal. Being a woman doesn't exempt you from life's issues and troubles. It doesn't exempt you from having to fight attackers or wanting to take dangerous forms of employment if capable. We do a great disservice to (to name one glaring example) the many women in the armed forces that, due to the nature of modern war, are increasingly on the front lines and in combat. They are warriors too, more so than some keyboard warrior that *feels* that Odin wants him for a snowflake.

Secondly, to my way of thinking, the wannabe-viking thing is something that modern Heathenry needs to grow out of. While I'm aware that it's a great draw for many males, it gives a skewed impression of the worldview to outsiders. Heathenry is about much much more than lame wannabe-vikings. One of the ways that we could do that would be to promote education about Heathenry from the perspective of the spindle side and all that's sacred in that. There is relatively little written about the Asynjur, there is relatively written about women's rituals or hell, even the importance of traditional ritual roles like that of horn bearer during Sumbel!!! We also need to work on removing the seeming (unspoken) taboos surrounding men that worship goddesses. If there is true respect there for the goddesses, that would not exist. Anyone that has truly experienced a goddess, knows that offering to a goddess is no wuss's game and was often a bloody affair in the past.

At the same time, we also need to deepen our understanding of men's roles on both a community level and when dealing with the sacred. We've kind of gotten stuck there on some kind of superficial level that's all sound and fury that really, mostly signifies nothing. Without that depth, we have confused men trying to live up to an ideal that was never really commonplace in the first place. I believe this is endemic in modern society for males anyway. There are no guiding principles anymore for men, no definition of what a 'real man' is and so it tends to fall back on treating women as being lesser in order to feel greater. However this is not greater. If anything, the misogyny that I listed in question 3 is a symptom of weakness, of a lack of self esteem and confusion as to what they're supposed to be in order to be 'real men'. Our sons need to know that both men and women are equally valuable, that we are all our deeds and that it is ultimately a man's honor, integrity and responsibility that will define him in the minds of women as a 'real man'.

10.Any other thoughts, observations, comments or other things that you believe should be addressed in the questionnaire?


I left the last question blank, I could have gone into more aspects of modern Heathen society that I think need to change in order to help affect change for women in Heathenry, but for the purpose of this questionnaire, I think I covered everything I wanted to say in the other answers. However what would those answers be for you? How would they differ from mine? Not just the ladies that read this, but what about the guys? How would you answer these questions about women in modern Heathenry?

In other news, I need to stop procrastinating and get back to researching some damn paper.


Gwen said...

just found your blog.
Seems really interesting. Have not got time to read it now, but I will be back.

Heidianne said...

Birka, I agree with your responses. There is I think, an underlying racism, neo-conservatism that drives the whole " Heathen woman as baby makers for the faith" nonsense.Which I have heard before, only it was being spouted by the Third Reich..and then it was our duty to the Fatherland, not Faith..
I could go on and on about this..but I won't.
Thanks for the info on the Saxons, I need to get that book.

Birka said...

Heidianne - I totally agree with you re: the 'women as baby makers' thing. Before dealing with American Heathens, I'd only ever heard of it from nazis back in Europe. Most of the time it's underlying in the States, but I honestly don't think a lot people are always aware of the origins of that viewpoint. I think it's just something that's gotten passed on and regurgitated.

Gwen - Thank you :). I look forward to reading your comments!