Two fascinating examples of women’s resistance to oppression
An excellent historical example of increasing patriarchal domination of women, and their ensuing resistance, is feminist historian and professor Ulrike Strasser’s “Bones of Contention: Catholic Nuns Resist their Enclosure.” The Pütrich nuns of Munich were established in the 13th century. Like all nuns at that time, they were not cloistered and therefore served extensively in their community; for example, as a place of refuge for community women of the laity, as textile crafters and traders, and as healers and public mourners. Since all of these, to differing degrees, involved financial remuneration, the nuns were self-supporting and self-governing. However, beginning in the 15th century the male clergy increasingly saw this female freedom as deeply problematic, placing ever-greater male governance over the nuns, and increasing strictures upon their conduct. Simultaneously the secular government was struggling to assert both power and moral authority within a deeply religious society through legal control over the monastic communities within its borders. The ensuing intolerance for diversity — which was seen as symbolic of the breakdown of law and order — powerfully strengthened patriarchal rule, especially as “masterless” women (as in, women not living under the control of a man) became increasingly socially defined as unrespectable.
In the consequent conflict between church and state, the nuns became a point of contention, and ultimately lost their freedom (both financial and personal agency) through strict new cloistering rules imposed upon them in 1621. Trapped behind convent walls for the rest of their lives, the nuns’ resistance was ingenious: they secretly purchased the relics of a saint to be displayed in the public room of their convent, that they might still participate (even if only vicariously) in the life of their community. From the writings of one of the sisters (upon which the article is based), it would seem they did indeed understand how closely concepts of male honor of that time had become intertwined with displaying control over women — and therefore how their actions would consequently shame the men charged with their management, whom the nuns felt were remiss in their caretaking duties towards the nuns. Thus, despite angry attempts to stop them by the Franciscan monk charged with keeping them safely under lock and key, the nuns used the rules of the cloister to keep men out of the convent where the sacred relics were kept. In the end a compromise was reached, where the requisite parading of the bones through the town was accompanied by Franciscan monks, but the decorations adorning the relics, and their ultimate home, was the convent itself. Through these actions we see how even the invisible may strongly fight back against oppression — since while the nuns were by no means free, they imaginatively interpreted the rules of cloistering in order to successfully (if only partially) contest patriarchal oppression.
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Anthropologist and professor Youngsook Kim Harvey was born in the extremely patriarchal country of Korea, and did much of her research there. In “Possession Sickness & Women Shamans in Korea” she fascinatingly explores one of the few culturally acceptable reversals of this patriarchal norm. Describing the process by which certain women are encouraged by their husband’s families to assume the role of shaman, she notes the radical nature of this step due to the ensuing social outcasting of the entire family. Such a dramatic step also alters the family’s standard hierarchy, commonly shifting the wife from a position of powerlessness to head of the family. Of interest is the patriarchal cultural norm of ordinarily simply “politely” ignoring women’s pain and anguish, coupled with the religious use of radical upheaval — as in, the possession of the woman by ancestral spirits with specific demands — to reverse a deeply unjust social paradigm. Also of interest is the author’s word choices within the article, which strongly suggests the anthropologist sees this social ritual purely from a secular perspective.
(Both articles can be found in the 2001 book Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross)