Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Doing "Tampon Theology"

I recall vividly the most jarring and insulting comment I've ever received on this blog. It came from an anonymous commenter during a period of time in which we (Ronnie and I) were dealing with some contentious issues at our local church. I imagine, but don't know for sure, that the person was a disgruntled parishioner. He/she called what I had written, "nothing but tampon theology." At the time, the verbiage hit me like a punch in the stomach. Whoever the person was, they picked an incredibly creative and offensive metaphor, one with destructive force that, I'm sad to admit, did some damage. I didn't publish the comment, but the accusation stayed with me--has stayed with me--to this day. So, why did the accusation of doing "tampon theology" bother me so much? I think it might be helpful to deconstruct this a little bit...

First, and perhaps most obviously, the imagery of the tampon is culturally weighted with the concept of uncleanness. Despite the proliferation of bright and bouncy tampon commercials attempting to say otherwise, I think it's safe to say that there is a visceral reaction of disgust among many (most?) in our culture to the thought of menstruation. This is not a new thing, of course. Menstruating women have been the object of scorn and derision for a long, long time. The Old Testament has laws concerning menstruating women, specifying rules to follow for the duration of their uncleanness, as well as rituals for their "cleansing" and restoration to full fellowship with the covenant community. The message is loud and clear: menstruation = unholy. As progressive as Westerners think they are, this perspective continues today. So, a vivid way to denounce something as dirty and foul is to call upon the image of menstruation--and not just the physical experience of a woman "bleeding" uncontrollably, but the mechanism by which a woman catches that blood for disposal (a tampon).

(I won't take the time at this point to talk about why the perception of menstruating women as unclean is so very wrongheaded and unfortunate. I'll just have to point out that the OT perspective of menstruating women as ritually unclean was tied to a pre-scientific worldview that saw all bodily fluids and abnormalities as signs of unholiness. Moreover, the biblical point of view on this matter later wedded quite well to Greek notions of female bodily weakness and, a couple thousand years later, the notion that woman = body and body = evil, is alive and well.)

Now in the context of my blog, the commenter referenced above obviously chose his/her metaphor out of this cultural milieu. He/she lobbed it at me like a grenade because I was presuming to do theology intentionally from a feminine point of view. I had recently revealed the fact that I considered myself a "feminist" (with a number of qualifications I have since made here and here) and that I thought the pursuit of theological reflection out of womanly experience was a worthwhile endeavor. Needless to say, my commenter did not agree. Theology of/for/by women = unholy, unclean, dirty, and foul. Of course, I disagree strongly with this assessment. So, why did the comment bother me so much? Why do I still think about this comment today? I have a few ideas...

When I was an undergraduate biblical studies student considering a future in theology, one of my early mentors warned me ominously, "Just make sure you don't end up doing women's issues for the rest of your career. You should be doing real theology." At the time, this characterization of "women's issues" as not constituting "real theology" was powerful. It seemed self-evidently true. "Women's issues" are things like marriage, family, children, sexuality, women's ordination, and abuse. These issues only apply to women, right? So, they can't possibly be significant enough to merit a lifetime of theological work. "Real theology," on the other hand, includes meaty (=manly) theological issues like christology, eschatology, ecclesiology, epistemology, metaphysics, etc. These issues obviously apply to everyone, so they're of sufficient import for my extended study. The point (again) is clear: "women's issues" are weak, relatively unimportant, secondary and tertiary issues for theologians.

Always a quick learner, I imbibed this perspective rather quickly. I took a dive into a variety of "big" theological topics that included God's providence, apocalypticism, suffering, and more. I don't regret any of the work I did in these areas, but I did so while intentionally trying to steer clear of "women's issues." Or, at least, not to spend too much time on them.

Now, of course, I see the absurdity of my (sincerely) misguided mentor's advice. Women's issues aren't just women's issues. They're human issues. They're body of Christ issues. If women are imago Dei alongside men, co-laborers in the Kingdom of God, recipients of the one faith, one baptism, and one Spirit of God, then "their" issues are really our issues. To suggest that the matter of marriage and family, for example, is somehow only a "women's issue" is ignorant at best. Last time I checked, marriage and family involves men, too. Moreover, if the Kingdom of God encompasses all of human life, if God is making "all things new," then the Christian marriage and family (along with children, women's ordination, abuse, sexuality, etc.) are not marginal issues. If Jesus Christ is Lord of all, then all of life is included as the appropriate purview of our theological reflection. The drama of God's story of redemption is being played out in all of creation and the Church's theologians are right to reflect on all aspects of that story.

So, going back to my disgruntled commenter, it should be clear why the accusation that I was doing "nothing but tampon theology" was so very bothersome. Not only did it (wrongly) call to mind images of filth and uncleanness, but also struck at a deep-seated and long-held concern that "women's issues" don't constitute "real theology." He/she was taking aim at the core of who I am as a woman and as a theologian. And it hurt. A lot. But now, with a couple years of reflection between me and that offensive remark, I'm finally ready to put that anonymous commenter in his/her place.

First of all, tampons aren't dirty, my friend. Sure, the culture says that they are, but they are merely a tool by which women cope with a perfectly normal bodily process--a process, I might add, that allows for the propagation of the human race. "Be fruitful and multiply" would not be fulfilled without the womanly cycle of ovulation and menstruation. So, you can hurl "tampon" in my direction, but it doesn't hurt. (The only problem I have with tampons is that they probably aren't the safest or healthiest way for women to deal with their menstruation--not to mention the way the practice of using tampons contributes to women's understanding of their bodies. But, that's another post for another time...)

As for the matter of working with "women's issues," I don't have a problem with that either. In fact, I'm proud of the fact that I'm putting the concerns of women at the center of my theological reflection. Of course, as an evangelical theologian, I cannot make women's experience a normative criteria for doing theology. Scripture, tradition, and reason have to come first. But, I think holding the stories and voices of my sisters around the world close to me while I do theology is a very good thing. I think the issues of marriage, family, children, sexuality, and abuse are really human issues and that women concerned with such matters are calling attention to the fullness of what it means to be human. If the image of God is male and female, then the voice of our sisters is needed to fully understand ourselves as male and female in the drama of God.

So, there it is. A hateful epithet once intended for harm is the impetus for a revised vision of what theology entails. Whoever and wherever that angry commenter is now, I'd just like to say: Thank you. What you intended for evil, God intended for good. And, my vocation as a theologian is more clear to me as a result of your obnoxious and offensive choice of words.

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen" (Eph 3:20-21).


Karla said...

Just wondering.. wasn't the idea of "uncleanness" and the practice of cleansing in the OT because of the possibility of bacteria growth and/ disease that can accompany bodily funtions and fluids, especially blood? I was taught there were scientific reasons behind most of the laws. Is that not considered accurate anymore?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I know the sorts of explanations you're talking about. And, I think some of the OT laws did have to do with these things, especially those pertaining to dietary restrictions, open sores, and other sicknesses. (Of course, none of us can really know why God allowed for certain laws, right? Such "scientific" explanations remain educated conjecture, since we don't really know for sure.)

As far as menstruation, though, there's nothing unhealthy or sickness-inducing about menstrual blood. It doesn't cause disease or infection. I would imagine it was simply culturally impossible to understand what good could come from a woman bleeding uncontrollably for so long. Since they had no concept of eggs (most ancients believed men had the "seed" and women merely incubated the seed) they had no explanation for why a woman would bleed. That combined with the other ritual laws against blood and contamination by other bodily fluids, it makes good sense why they'd be afraid of menstrual blood. But, I don't see any scientific or medical reason for it. There's a good article here about the science of menstruation that you might be interested in.

Jade said...

You go girl!! That's all I have to say as a fellow Christian and feminist. I really enjoyed this post and I think you'd enjoy some of the readings we're doing in my Feminist Theory: Writing the Body class...we have far too much to catch up on! In class, we're discussing these "unclean" images of women and learning how to WRITE our bodies, "cleansing" from the degrading and sullying interpretations of our culture. And I'm surprised your ignorant commenter didn't call it "douche theology" - that would've been one for the books...and a whole other issue concerning women's bodies.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thanks, Jade! We totally didn't get together over the break like we were supposed to. Bummer. We've got to make a way to remedy that. About the "douche" issue, I considered including a parenthetical aside about that, as well, especially with the proliferation of the "douche bag" insult in TV and movies these days (which I detest with a passion). But, I decided against it. One issue at a time. Maybe I'll get to that later in the semester.

Christiane said...

the Catholic Church has three women Doctors of the Church,
out of a total of thirty-three.
A beginning.

Perhaps you will become the evangelical equivalent of a 'Doctor of the Church' one day . . .

I hope you find a way to put a greater light on the fullness of the humanity of women in the Church. Women are possessed of the same fullness of humanity that God took to Himself in the Incarnation.

'In Christ there is no male or female' cannot be ignored forever.

NathanColquhoun said...

my wife being a feminist, and me being into theology, and us rarely crossing paths only to tell the other person that they are more of a theologian/feminist that they would like to admin - i can say that this was excellent and my wife would be proud, well written.