Orthodox America

  The Orthodox Woman … and Feminism

    Our materialist culture has always been a source of temptation to young women. The problems evoked by the Madison Avenue image, however, pale before the onslaught of the new feminist ideology. Encouraged by the reform mentality of the '60' s, the women' s liberation movement in two decades has succeeded in overthrowing the traditional ideal of a woman as wife and mother.

    The original impetus for the movement lay in fighting the economic injustices brought on by the Industrial Revolution, when great numbers of women left the home and entered the work force. With the help of the media and leftist political tactics, a more militant philosophy gradually gained acceptance. This has developed into an ideology governing not only economic, but political, psychological, and even spiritual spheres. Women are told that they suffer from an inferiority complex, that they have been oppressed over the centuries and must be awakened to their enslaved condition in order to fight against it. There is great emphasis on sexual "freedom ," on the "healthy" expressions of pride and anger, on developing one's "inner power." What was once the art of homemaking is labeled drudgery, and the raising of children is placed on the level of a profession for which one should demand a salary. Those women who do not favor such "emancipation," are made to feel psychologically suppressed. It is little wonder that girls today face a severe identity crisis as they grow into womanhood.

     Communist ideology has always championed the movement for women's "liberation," in theory if not in practice. Women in the Soviet Union soon found, however, that their "independent'' status only brought them into a deeper bondage. Groups of women formed to discuss the problem which was resolved when they discovered that true freedom lay in faith in Christ and the Church's teaching on humility, A few years ago several of the women found themselves exiled to the West where they tried to share the lessons of their experience with Western feminists. Below are excerpts from the writings of two of these Russian Orthodox women. May their profound observations help other women avoid the snares of the contemporary women's movement here in the West.


Tatiana Goricheva:

      "Here I had to exert all my efforts in trying to explain how our Russian "feminism" became religious and why it is that only in the Church can today's Russian woman find freedom and consolation; only there does she receive strength for life and spiritual struggle. Even now it is the Church alone which takes on problems unique to women,

      "I remember the long lines of women waiting for confession. I remember the tearful eyes and heavy sighs--and I remember just as clearly with what bright faces and quiet strength these women walked away from the father-confessor and into battle in a world which had become for them a place close to hell. To this day it is our priests who have resolved questions concerning the raising of children, alcoholism, family quarrels and abortion, Our Church--80% of which is comprised of women--is a suffering and persecuted Church. Her priests always  approach situations concretely;., they never give the same counsel to everyone. , For example a priest will never force a woman to marry as if she were destined for this alone; he sees how casually people enter into marriage nowadays and how many marriages are annulled.

    "My Western friends assure me that in the Catholic Church it is expected a priori that all women, with the exception of monastics, will get married and have children.[This does not necessarily reflect the true opinion of the Catholic Church]. The spiritual guidance in the Orthodox Church is of a quite different nature; it is more flexible, less abstract. For this we are indebted in large measure to the wisdom of our father confessors. These are our most direct instructors; all abstract and rigid norms of conduct melt before their prayers and their love. I remember our priest who looked upon spiritual guidance as a process of creating an individual. He molded us, laying out before us the potentials of our freedom; he demanded of us not blind obedience, but a boldness in serving God and the Truth. He never forbade us (although for our Western friends religion is full of "forbiddens”); instead, he created around himself an atmosphere of such seriousness, such substance, that we were ashamed and even uninterested in sinning. It is thanks to such priests that we are learning to live in the Church and according to the Church; the church prayer is becoming the innermost, the most concrete and essential part of our existence."


Alia Sariban 

     "From childhood it was impressed upon us that a person should be proud, strong, bold; that he must be a fighter, actively transforming the world, etc. The idea that one ought to be meek, humble, patient--this seemed positively primitive, a debasement of man's dignity.

     "All of us quickly assimilated this model of behavior. No one wants to humble himself; on the contrant, all want to push forward the 'self' to the maximum, to assert his 'will, to be independent. Each desires to act solely according to his own way of thinking, even though it quite often works against the interests of those around him.

     "The result of all this is a lack of meekness and patience; this is the underlying cause of the unhealthy socio-psychological situation in our society. Families are breaking up, personal relationships are being destroyed, friendships exist only on the rotten

foundation of mutual self-interest, there is no closeness among family members; feelings of estrangement, enmity, and lack of mutual understanding are all too common.

     "The so-called 'independent' women present an especially sorrowful picture. In striving to impose their will upon those around them, they have a tendency to squash and debase their close ones. As a result, they themselves suffer from misunderstandings, loneliness...

     "... The sad but instructive experience of our life may be of benefit to others. It was originally assumed that a true brotherhood of the people and 'genuine human relations' would only emerge from a society of free and proud individuals (with a capital 'I'). In practice it proved to be quite the reverse; among the 'proud and independent', not only have relationships failed to improve, they have deteriorated altogether. This convinced us that society cannot exist without humility and patience; that it is precisely these qualities that are the source of mutual understanding, mutual love and the brotherhood of man,

     "If, for the non-religious, 'materialistic' person the concept of humility is burdensome, oppressive, for the religious person it is entirely natural. It is not difficult for a religious person to be humble: on the one hand, he has too great a respect for the Image and Likeness of God within himself; on the other, hind, he is keenly aware of his lack of perfection. Also, he has too much respect for his inner life, his life in God, which is his chief concern; because of this external circumstances become quite secondary. For the non-religious person, the manifestation of one's “I” is possible only in the external world; in order for the life of such a person to have any meaning, it must be defined in terms of some sort of outward activity, otherwise it seems to lack existence altogether. This forces the person to feverishly chase after illusions of ' success, ' 'prestige.' To such a person, humility is equivalent to self-debasement, a conscious annihilation of one's 'self'."

     "Concerning intellectual freedom--at first glance it would appear that the proud and independent' person, accustomed to relying only on his own mind, must experience greater freedom than the humble person who has the capacity for coming under the influence of so many authorities. It is often the case, however, that because the primary concern of the 'proud independent' is to assert himself, he has difficulty in listening to another point of view; it is hard for him to examine his own opinion in light of external change. Self-love, the cult of the ego, leads to close mindedness, to conservatism and, as a result, to a complete la ck of inner freedom. He becomes enslaved to himself, to his own narrow-mindedness.

     "A humble person, however, will never consider himself absolutely correct. He is always ready to accept the possibility of another, better point of view, or that, in a given situation, there exist possibilities still unknown to him. This means that he is more open to the world, more flexible, more easily reached. And it turns out that as a rational being, he has the greater freedom.

      "As far as professional activity is concerned, we women find ourselves today in a most lamentable position. In spite of the theoretical equality with me, we are often the victims of discrimination, forced in the professional sphere to endure scornful and humiliating attitudes. The only antidote for this traumatic situation is--humility. Only humility is able to help women not to fall into despair--under any circumstances, to be at peace, and to continue to work actively and creatively."

    The essence of the Russian women's experience is well summarized by Tatiana Goricheva in her essay, "Hope Above All Hopes":[1] 

    "Pride was the fundamental character trait. Nothing wrong was seen in this .... Morality was scorned. It was not long, however, before this 'emancipation' was shown to possess some very undesirable consequences, The philosophy 'everything is allowed' resulted in much that was lost. Contempt bred a state of dependence on others: one was constantly concerned about keeping others in a position of subordination while exerting one's dominance and displaying one's 'power.' This stemmed from insecurity, the hysteria of despair. But the worst was the absence of love, the inability to love anyone which, as Dostoevsky said, is the very meaning of hell.

    "I mention ail this by way of explaining how it was that we came to Christianity. We did not arrive at the central Christian understanding of 'humility' and 'sacrifice' through any naive provincialism, but through experiencing for ourselves what life meant outside this understanding." 

    Clearly, the lesson of these Russian women penetrates to the very root of the problem regarding woman’s identity in the contemporary world. It is not a  question of subservience, nor even of economic injustice (who can argue that women shouldn't receive equal pay for equal work?). It is, as their experience shows, a matter of seeing the problem for what it is--the loss of a spiritual perspective, the loss of an identity in Christ.

    Men and women are created equal in the eyes of God. Each has been assigned a certain place in the universal hierarchy. And if women find themselves offered the lower seat, may they learn to see this as art opportunity to learn humility--which is the surest way into the heavenly kingdom. 

[1] This and all other quotations were translated from issue #3 of the journal "Maria," Leningrad-Paris, 1982.