In my last post, we considered Steiner’s discussion of what he (rather quaintly, to our ears) called “The Women’s Question,” particularly as he developed it in his 1906 lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage). We left off just at the point where Steiner had completed trouncing his contemporaries’ views on women, which he demonstrated were either contradictory, culturally or socio-economically specific, or otherwise based on false assumptions about how society and gender work.
At that point, Steiner introduces a surprising twist to the discussion. Anticipating Jung’s theory of the anima/animus by about ten years, he claims that, if considered in totality, each human being encompasses two poles, male and female. According to Steiner, the physical body expresses only one or the other of these poles (though we might wonder, here, about transgendered people, including hermaphrodites). In the emotional life, however, he claims that we can clearly see that both stereotypically “feminine” and “masculine” qualities can, in fact, belong to human beings of either physical gender.
In this description of the human being as two-poled, Steiner not only looks forward to Jung, but also backwards to Aristophanes (or, at least, to Aristophanes as channeled by Plato in his Symposium). The ur-myth of the bi-gendered human being, Aristophanes’ tale in the Symposium proposed that the original humans were composed of two gendered parts that made up a complete whole. (Though unlike Steiner, Aristophanes held that these two halves could be either male-female, male-male, or female-female, thus explaining the varieties of human love as we each search among our prospective lovers for our severed half.)
Steiner was less interested than Aristophanes (at least, in this context) in the effect of this double gender on human sexual behavior than he was in the way in which we can harness this dual energy to best develop our full potential as human beings. In this emphasis, he once again anticipated Jung’s work on individuation as it relates to anima/animus. We must consider in every human being, Steiner urges, the totality of that person’s nature, both the revealed and the hidden parts–the male and the female. And moreover, we must strive to integrate within ourselves whichever characteristics we are “missing.” In other words, “a complete human being” combines so-called male and female characteristics so that our external gender is complemented by an internal tendency towards the opposite traits.
But, not content to simply scoop Jung, Steiner goes on (in good Marxist Feminist form) to insist that gender discrimination is inherently tied to a culture’s means of production. If, he argues, we find ourselves in an entrenched patriarchy, it is because materialism “impels itself towards an external culture.” In other words, the same impulses (or discourses, if you prefer a post-structuralist term) give rise to both patriarchal attitudes that place a premium on male bodies and experiences, and our materialist/positivist culture. The two–patriarchy and materialism–are coeval, birthed by the same forces.
Steiner turns to a somewhat counterintuitive place for evidence of the interdependence of patriarchy and materialism: the language of mystics. Mystics, he claims, on some level understand that our material age is a reification of “masculine” forces at work in our bodies and our world, and therefore often use feminine imagery to describe their journeys in the non-material world of Spirit. And it is true that many female, as well as male, mystics, frame their union with the divine using female imagery. (Though of course, there are exceptions on both sides as well–men and women who envision themselves as “marrying” or otherwise communing with a male deity or spirit. Consider, for example, John of the Cross’s somewhat homoerotic mystical imagery.) The prime example, for Steiner, of this feminine spirituality is Geothe, whose “Eternal-feminine” leads Faust (and us) from the illusory world of material to the immaterial “event” of Presence.
If, however, you are not an accomplished mystic, and the prospect of a deeply entrenched patriarchal materialism gets you down, Steiner reminds us not to indulge in apathy or despair. Cultures change, and it is our job, as human beings, to change our surroundings by developing ourselves to our highest capacity. To this end, he urges us, “men and women must look on their physical body as an instrument which enables them, in one direction or another, to be active as a totality in the physical world. The more human beings are aware of the spiritual within them, the more does the body become an instrument, and the more do they learn to understand people by looking into the depths of the soul.” It’s a gendered version of “think global, act local.” If you want to change the world, change yourself–become the doubly-gendered human being you are meant to be, and in so doing, you will change the culture around you. Patriarchy, by definition, requires men and women to be adhere to strictly defined gender roles. (Which is why the cartoon that started off this post was so rattling to early 20th century men.)
“What does all this have to do with pedagogy?” you may ask yourself. (And well you might ask, 1000+ words into this blog entry.) Quite simply, it is one of our main tasks as Waldorf educators to help young people experience and develop both sides of their human nature. We can do this in many ways–by encouraging, as Steiner did in some of his first teacher lectures, both genders to participate in stereotypically “male” or “female” crafts (woodworking, knitting, etc.); by nurturing through skillful pedagogy certain behaviors that we notice are dormant in our students (encouraging retiring students to become braver about speaking, encouraging aggressive students to become more compassionate, etc.).
But, perhaps most importantly to the Humanities teacher, we can also accomplish this by encouraging our students to “live into” the experiences of the both genders by offering them opportunities to do so in literature, story, song, film, and so on. We all know how a work of literature can get us “inside the head” of even such as insidious a character as, say, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. If we harness this power of imagination (something which, incidentally, Steiner describes as “female”) to live with and inhabit the perspectives, feelings, and bodily experiences of women as well as men, then we will have gone a long way towards accomplishing two goals: a) countering the prevailing patriarchal/materialist world-view, and b) encouraging the students’ inner growth along the lines Steiner is advocating. (1)
So what is the “take-home” of the foregoing (rather long) re-cap of Steiner’s consideration of “The Women’s Question”? I’ve boiled it down to six things to strive for in our classrooms:
1) Given the importance Steiner places on gender issues, it is imperative that we as Waldorf educators make an active effort to include women’s voices and perspectives in all aspects of our curriculum, from literature and history to math, science, physical culture, and the arts. One simple first step: using gender-neutral language such as “human” or “humanity” instead of “man” or “mankind.” This is standard practice in public schools, but has been painfully slow to catch on in Waldorf circles, perhaps because of a wish to remain faithful to Steiner’s German. But folks, it’s time to let the ladies into the human race.
2) We need to embed women’s voices and perspectives in their specific socio-economic, political, geographic, and temporal location. Steiner would expect no less.
3) We should expand our notions of “influence,” “power,” and “contributions” beyond those valued by our own culture and look towards ways in which women have historically exercised their personhood, power, and influence. This will vary by geography and culture. Be alert to ways in which women, through their domestic, religious, or economic endeavors, might be participating in networks of power that we, with our contemporary Western lenses, might not immediately see.
4) Tokenism (throwing in a brief consideration of one or two exceptional women) is insufficient to do justice to women’s voices and experiences. We need examples of both heroic/outstanding women and attention to the lives of everyday women. In addition to covering famous queens, female authors, and other notables, put on your social history cap. When you’re discussing cities, describe what the homes look like and what activities might have taken place in them. Who was providing the childcare? Who was making the food? Who did the farming? Who made the clothes? Good social and economic history will address the role of women. (2)
5) As Waldorf teachers, we must nurture those gendered aspects of our own personality that are less well-developed. Although these “hidden sides” are often qualities associated with the opposite sex, it varies tremendously from person to person. As a form of inner work, we need to make a good and honest appraisal of the gendered qualities we most need to develop in ourselves–not only once, but again and again over the course of our spiritual and professional development. An ongoing meditation practice can be extremely useful in helping identify areas of weakness to address.
6) We need to be intentional about the importance of the moral/spiritual work we are doing when we engage in questions of gender in the classroom. It’s all too easy to feel like gender inclusion is something we “add on” to our usual lesson, or that we simply don’t have time to be as inclusive as we would like to be. But Steiner has assured us the question of inclusion is of vital importance, and is not a matter of trends. In fact, in seeming anticipation of the accusation that he’s just espousing some sort of newfangled feminist claptrap, he emphatically declared that we “cannot solve the Woman’s question with ideas and trends!” Rather, as he painstakingly shows, he is arguing is for the centrality of gender inclusion as a spiritual practice. He sums up: “In reality you can only solve it [i.e. the “Women’s Question”] by creating that concept, that disposition of soul which enables men and women to understand each other out of the totality of human nature.” (translator’s italics)
I think that last line just about says it all. Don’t you? Now, let’s get to work.
(1) The question of whether other minority perspectives might open up similar “breaches” in the patriarchal/materialist discourse is a fascinating one, and though beyond the scope of this entry, deserves consideration. To what degree would post-colonial narratives (which disrupt the dominant discourses of imperialism and capitalism) have a similar effect on spiritual growth?
(2) It’s interesting that if we simply follow the template of Steiner’s three-fold social order when planning our history lessons (making sure to always cover the political, economic, and cultural spheres), it’s hard to completely exclude the ladies. Hmmm…perhaps that man was onto something.