The ghost of Aristotle suddenly appeared in the Michigan House of Representatives last week when House Speaker James Bolgersilenced State Rep. Lisa Brown for using the word “vagina” at the end of a speech opposing a sweeping anti-abortion bill under debate
In an opinion piece for The Detroit News, Rep. Brown talked about her speech and her colleagues’ reaction to her using the word “vagina” in a House debate:
“I used that word because we were debating a women’s health issue. Vagina, by the way, is the correct medical name of a part of women’s anatomy lawmakers want to regulate. My statements were within the rules of the House and were clearly appropriate in relation to the bill we were discussing.
“One of my counterparts, Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, said “vagina” is such a disturbing word that he would never deign to use it in the presence of women or ‘mixed company.’ This, from a man who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.”
The obvious revulsion of these Michigan male legislators at the term “vagina” goes well beyond politics. If you really want to understand why some Michigan legislators find the word “vagina” disturbing and unsuitable for “mixed company,” you’ve got to go all the way back to Aristotle.
Aristotle thought women were more material (carnal) and men more rational (active). According to Aristotle, the fully developed human is male, and a woman “is as it were a deformed male” (Generation of Animals, 737a. 28). This has disposed western culture, and especially Christianity, to consider women’s bodies as profane rather than sacred, and thus by extension too offensive to talk about in public.
But wait, this isn’t the mid-fourth century BCE, the time when Aristotle wrote. It’s not even the Middle Ages. It’s the 21st century, and women will not sit still and have their bodily parts considered “disturbing,” while simultaneously being regulated without their consent.
Almost instantly a Twitter feed appeared from the ACLU, and a Facebook page.. “VAGINA. Can’t say it? Don’t legislate It” is the message. And, even if you can say it, in my view, if it’s not in your biology it’s not your call.
This outrageous action by the Michigan House is having further consequences. Rep. Brown and State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic leader, will join Tony Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler to read through Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, in Lansing, Michigan on the steps of the Capitol on Monday, June 18.
The Vagina Monologues have given voice to the way in which women are suppressed through their sexuality, and to the affirmation of women’s equality that includes all of their sexuality. Ensler started writing the series of monologues in 1996; they are drawn from women’s real experiences of sexual violence, relationships, and healing, and new ones have been added over the years. On “V-Days”, a global movement to end violence against women, the play is often performed as a fund-raiser.
The Detroit News (
quotes a press release from Ensler:
“‘Censoring a woman for saying a word that is a body part that 51% of their constituents have is a repression that we have not and should not ever witness in this country.”
Well, we are witnessing it, over and over. The repression of women, the denial that women are deserving of equal dignity and respect with men, rooted in revulsion at their bodies, is on the rise once again in American politics.
In this moment, it is crucial to point out that treating women’s bodies as profane is fundamentally at variance with what the Bible actually teaches. In Genesis, women as well as men are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and the whole creation, including the human body, male and female, is called “good” (Gen. 1:31).
Aristotelian biology has warped and distorted the biblical views on both the goodness of the human body, and the God-given value of women. Today, Christian theology, as well as western culture, needs to leave behind these legacies of Greek philosophy.
Treating women and their bodies not only as unequal, but as profane, is at the root of the so-called “war on women” in contemporary political life that deprives women both of respect and equal treatment under the law.
Not only should an extreme “anti-woman” bias be considered bad from a Christian theological, and western cultural perspective, therefore, it also makes for incredibly bad politics. A blog post on the American Civil Liberties website points out the voter backlash from what happened in Virginia when the legislature there took the “war on women” to an extreme.
“According to a poll released this spring, voter approval for the governor and legislature plummeted among both men and women and across party lines. According to the poll, this is the first time the Virginia Legislature has ever received a “negative grade” from Virginia voters. The poll also revealed that 72 percent of Virginians do not want the government using its resources to interfere with a woman’s personal and private decisions about abortion.”
Note to the Michigan legislature and legislatures throughout the country: Do you really want to be this extreme and risk this kind of backlash?
Women are equal to men in body, mind and spirit. Their vaginas, as well as the rest of their bodies, are not an object to be legislated against their will. This “war on women” needs to stop. It is un-American and unbiblical.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. She wrote this article for On Faith