“to work for dignity . . .”

. . . kindness that is justice in the face of such dignity.

Second in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

“The Women’s Center at LPTS exists to work for the equality and dignity of all people, including in religious professions . . .”

The Women’s Center’s mission explicitly includes work for the dignity of all people. At first reading, this commitment seems straightforward and innocuous, if not somewhat banal. We contemporary readers are likely to skim over a word like dignity on our way to something juicier. We register its positive valence. We gather a vague impression that it evokes an amicable relation between well-behaved people who treat one another with respect. Our heads nod in easy agreement. All well and good, let’s move on.

Let’s not. As Giorgio Agamben has shown in Remnants of Auschwitz, “dignity” is a problematic concept. Worse, his critique of dignity, and of an ethics based on that concept, indicates that it ought to be an especially problematic notion for a Women’s Center. This mission of working for the dignity of all people calls for more thought.

Agamben’s critique of dignity begins with the history of the idea in Roman law and western philosophy. That history persists in dictionary definitions of “dignity” as “a high rank, title or office, especially in the church,” “one who holds high rank or position, a dignitary,” and “persons of high rank, collectively” (i.e., “the dignity,” a usage similar to that of “the clergy” or “the aristocracy”). Dignity in antiquity was an office or title, therefore something bestowed upon a person, separate from that person, and requiring a deference distinct from anything due to the person apart from the person’s dignity (office).

Much later, as the offices that were dignities passed into antiquity, the “stateliness and nobility of manner, serenity of demeanor, gravity” that had been required of their human bearers came to be valued for its own sake, and to be cultivated as a moral good. Aristocrats no longer in possession of economic or political power who made much of a dignity that took the form of refined manners, tastes and speech make a good example of this understanding of dignity. The notion of a dignity that takes the form of cleanliness, sobriety, discipline in work and rejection of unearned charity that 19th century progressives lauded as the virtue of the laboring class, which had never been in possession of economic or political power in the first place, makes another good example. Dignity in these cases is a way of appearing and behaving as respectable, despite lacking the cultural substance that commands respect.

Agamben’s problem with the traditional notion of dignity is precisely its dependance on a separation and distance between “life and norm.” This irreducible distance requires living people to shape themselves according to that norm in order to have dignity. That is, a life that coincides with its physical, embodied, biological processes must take on and keep up something additional, a specific form, to possess dignity as understood in this way.

But dignified upkeep is not always possible. In certain extreme situations no separation or distance between life and its norm, its “what must be done,” obtains. Recall that Agamben develops his critique in the context of a reflection on the catastrophic extremity of the Nazi death camps. He notes, however, that in the very different, every day extremity of the relations of lovers, dignity also becomes untenable. The maintenance of dignity as distance and decorum is incompatible with that physical, biological, incarnate love that is inseparable from its abandon in and to the beloved.

In fact, a dignity measured as distance from what Agamben calls bare life is arguably least available in the very situations in which the protection that it might afford is most sorely needed. If people who aim to be good must aim for dignity, those people suffering the worst indignities of injustice and violence are precisely those most excluded from the consolation of goodness; and if dignity in that sense is held to be the condition for deferential treatment, that holding leaves the most abused lives the most exposed to further abuse.

Further, the distance from physical, embodied, biological processes wrapped up in this sense of dignity has been particularly denied to women, along with others identified by their embodiment, by the long tradition of western thought. The identification of “woman” at every point with an intrusively female body, the paradigmatic site of undignified sexuality, animal reproduction, and vulnerability to victimization, long made “woman” a pregnant symbol of the opposite of dignity. Real live women could only pursue the social goods that accrued to such dignity by “rising above” their womanly station in the direction of man’s [sic] invulnerable spirituality. Feminists, in opposition to this disastrous denigration of women’s embodied lives, have sought to reappraise precisely these physical, biological processes that take place as flesh-and-blood women.

Dignity as distance, then, cannot be what the Women’s Center exists and calls its friends to work for. That notion, which a cursory reading would leave unchallenged, must be rejected in favor of a more possible and promising understanding of dignity.

That more possible and promising understanding begins with the sense of dignity as “the state or quality of being excellent, worthy, or honorable,” along with a clear understanding that this state or quality cannot rest on anything that would be separable from life, whatever its circumstances. Instead, this state or quality must be understood to coincide with that life, as created by God, embodying the image of God, and beloved of God. Dignity understood in this way does not depend on an irreducible distance between life and life’s conformity to a particular dignified standard. It is, rather, a life’s innate and intrinsic claim to deferential regard, to honor in the face of its constitutive excellence and worth. This dignity is not something that can be gained or lost. Its presence is no protection or guarantee. It can be ignored or recognized, violated or respected. It is, however, the ineluctable posing of a choice, against or for the radical kindness that constitutes justice in the face of such dignity.

The Women’s Center exists to work for this dignity for all people — women as well as men, alternatively as well as customarily gendered, of whatever specific qualities and qualifiers. That mission is, in actuality, our most radical, and religious, commitment.

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You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

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Mission – ‘to work for equality’


Equality is a necessary, relevant, and desirable goal

The Women’s Center has a mission statement. It comes in longer and shorter versions, something it has in common with the Westminster Catechism. In its briefer, condensed form, it reads:

The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally. To this end we seek to:

  1. Discern new ways of being and living into these realities by support and advocacy for women and other disenfranchised groups;
  2. Supplement the academic program of the Seminary and provide a prophetic voice on the Seminary campus;
  3. Celebrate and affirm the gifts and contributions of women in all spheres of life in past and present;
  4. Provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories and supply resources for information and edification.

[Read the longer Statement of the Purpose and Mission of the Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary]

Periodically reviewing and reflecting on that mission, which articulates the reasons we do what we do, seems helpful. It reminds us of our historical roots, and helps us recognize the persistent relevance of this work in the present. Just as important, it acquaints or reacquaints members of the communities we serve with the Women’s Center’s vision and goals, and with their connections to the common enterprise of reconciliation in the church and the world. Summer, when the work of the Women’s Center focuses on planning for the coming academic year, seems like a good time for this review and reflection. Devoting some close attention to this mission, which drives the activities and events we are so absorbed in planning, seems likely to focus our efforts on what matters most. To this end, during the coming weeks Wimminwise will devote a series of entries to reflecting on key elements of the Women’s Center’s mission statement.

“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions . . .”

The word “equality” in the context of the Women’s Center’s mission statement is a sign of the Women’s Center’s historic roots in the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s. The women who made that movement move used the language of women’s rights unselfconsciously. They diagnosed the persistent problems women faced, and had faced historically, in every society as those of profound inequities around gender. Inequalities in division of labor, income and wealth, education, mobility, access to critical resources like health care and nutrition, power and privilege, formed a vicious cycle with an entrenched ideology of women’s inferiority and men’s superiority. That pervasive ideology of male superiority allowed most people most places to take for granted that women were “for” a restricted set of social functions, typically silent ones; that women were, “just saying,” deficient in key areas (strength, intelligence, competence — all, one might note, legitimators of the power women were reaching for in society); that not only was it “a man’s world,” but that the world was going to stay that way, either because it could not or should not change.

The face of that world has changed, to a degree, in the intervening three or four decades. One index of that change is available in looking at media from the 1960s, in which the classified ads list help wanted – men and help wanted – women, and images of the public world — a press conference, a political convention, a business meeting, a seminary graduating class — reflect a world without women.

Some of those changes raise the question of whether working for equality is still necessary. It is now easier for some women, in some places, to take for granted that all the equality people need or desire has been achieved. Some women, in some areas of social life, in some groups, in some countries of the world, are on visibly more equal footing with men. The mission of working for equality now includes articulating the continuing necessity of that work, reminding those of us who might be tempted to privileged denial not to focus exclusively on the areas of greatest achievement while ignoring the manifestations of perduring inequality elsewhere.

Some may wonder whether work for equality is relevant to the demands of the present. Sexual difference theorists, for instance, have argued that liberal egalitarian language obscures the important and under-theorized dimension of sexual difference. Womanist thinkers and other intersectional theorists point out that multiple determinants of structural patterns of domination — race, class, and sexuality pre-eminent among them — complicate accounts of and demands for equality. The language of “women’s experience” is an over-simplification, and calls for “non-discrimination” or “equal opportunity” are inattentive to the asymmetries inscribed in male and female embodied subjectivity. But against those who might jettison the language of equality, we would maintain that the word “equality” always pointed towards and is now capable of accommodating these more complex, nuanced, and attentive accounts of human happiness and flourishing.

Because, as has been said repeatedly, “equality” in this context does not mean “identical” or “the same.” The concern that it does is a perennial red herring, raising the diversionary question of whether equality is really desirable. The problem of sameness is really more the problem of the persistent androcentrism that is challenged by work for equality. The androcentric understanding of “man” as the human norm is profoundly unaware of the gendered particularity of the word “he;” it accepts without question the premise that “humanity” has one essential and fully acceptable way of appearing and being in the world, a male way, and that difference from that way represents a falling-away from ideal humanity. This androcentrism contributes to resistance to inclusive and expansive language in liturgy, hymnody, and scriptural translation, since it cannot fail to register “Father” as a more honorific title than “Mother,” or “Lord” as a more authoritative position than “Teacher.”

What equality means, among other things, is that when we say “a person,” we can mean “a woman” fully as well as “a man,” and that when we say “people,” we consciously understand ourselves to include both men and women, of all descriptions, in that designation. It means that we do not in fact presuppose that “the real prople” are all men, or that women are deficient, “lite” or honorary people. It means that we do not imagine women to be people insofar as they are like men, but something different from people — women, actually — in all the ways women differ from men. Work for equality anticipates a day when that consciousness is simply and actually practical common sense, because it is consciousness formed in a world in which equality is a reality.

The mission of the Women’s Center is to work for equality for all people. That means that we advocate for the difficult, necessary, relevant, and desirable goal of coming to terms with the meaning of a humanity created in the image of God in its diversity. We believe this is consonant with a scriptural and religious tradition that looks forward to a time when God’s spirit is poured out equally liberally on all flesh, and sons and daughters alike prophesy with equal voice.

Holiday Reading

Some mail worth reading


In the last few days, the Women’s Center has received some pithy holiday reading.

On the health front, there is The State of Reproductive Justice in Kentucky: A Social Justice Perspective on Reproductive Health, a report by the Kentucky Health Justice Network. The report provides the basic information for an understanding of how the intersecting issues of poverty, education, race, gender, violence, pollution, unemployment and discrimination affect health outcomes and access to reproductive health care in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Until the report is available online (plans are to make it accessible at kentuckyhealthjusticenetwork.org, folks who are interested in the report are welcomed to drop by the Women’s Center and read through our copy.

While the Kentucky Health Justice Network’s report is amply illustrated with graphs and charts, the illustrations that make up the latest issue of S&F Online, Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert, would probably strike most readers as more . . . dramatic. We at the Women’s Center always look forward to this journal, published three times a year by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. This issue features a juicy table of contents that emphasizes the practical challenges of working towards feminist visions, and the specific needs for “polyphonic,” creative and developing, concrete methods addressing those challenges. We encourage our readers with a few moments of holiday leisure to check out the polyphony.

Outrageous Truth

Another word for this is justice.

The term “co-humanity” probably seems strange, but it isn’t hard to think of what it might mean. If co-operation means working together, and co-habitation means living together, it’s a good guess that co-humanity means something like being human together.

I ran across the term the other day, while doing some research for a writing project on world religions. It was like finding a $20 bill from last winter in a coat pocket. It struck me as a neat, compact way to express an idea I have often struggled to express — the idea whose negative is “it’s so hard to quit thinking of men as the real people,” as a faculty member here once bemoaned. The same idea is encoded in Genesis 1:27 — as humanity, created in God’s image, male and female.

In the early days of what people are now calling second-wave feminism, the sound-bytes usually contained language like “equality” or “equal rights.” But the ideal named co-humanity — humanity, created in God’s image, diversely gendered — probably has about as much to do with “equality” or “equal rights” as “developing body, mind and spirit” has to do with teaching our glutes to read.

Not because “equality” isn’t imperative. It is, in various critical contexts (men and women need equal access to education, for instance, or equal pay for equal work). Equality just doesn’t go far enough and isn’t precise enough. Equality doesn’t necessarily cultivate an appreciation for diversity — and by appreciation, I don’t mean a mask for exclusion or oppression (as when “complementarity” means “some us of will make all the decisions, and some of us will make all the sandwiches”). Equality leaves too much unchanged.

It only makes sense that it would take time and work to find or invent words that name a still-distant goal. When day to day reality is a long way from what would really be good, people’s imaginations of that good have to advance from approximation to approximation. Down the road, maybe someone will find a word better than co-humanity to name the ideal. If that means we are even closer to the goal that co-humanity is trying to name, I would gladly add that new word to my vocabulary.

In elementary school, my teachers used to give us the assignment of using a new vocabulary word in a sentence. Here’s a sentence for “co-humanity:”

“To be effective, feminism needs to become an ongoing practice of changing one’s language, one’s expectations, one’s ideas of normalcy, which happens as soon as things ‘click,’ as soon as one ‘wakes up,’ using Buddhist language, to feminism’s fundamental and outrageous truth of the co-humanity of women and men.”
[Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993) p. 128.]

With due respect to Rita Gross, “waking up” is Christian language, too (see e.g. Mark 13:37); the language of awakening works in an interfaith context. The outrageous truth of the co-humanity of women and men is an equal-opportunity eye-opener.