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By Jason Michael
The politics of Scottish independence have become increasingly bogged down in gender politics, with certain factions of the wider independence movement now almost entirely defined by their opinions on women’s and transgender rights. This article does not intend to explore this important discussion. What it hopes to do instead is assess the compatibility of radical feminism — both mainstream radical feminism and ‘gender critical’ radical feminism — as an ideology and the ideology of Scottish independence within a single struggle or social/political movement.
Such a curious title for a political discussion. Allow me, then, to explain. Tertullian, the second century Carthaginian Christian apologist, in his work Against Heresies, asked an important question with which the Church and Christians have wrestled for two millennia. Considering the different types of knowledge on offer from the Hellenistic World (philosophy and reason) and from the Church (revelation and faith), he wrote:
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!
Whilst most theologians would tend to agree with Dimitri Kepreotes that, during their long co-existence, philosophy and theology have been mutually enriched by each other, Tertullian’s question remains valid. Unlike later theologians who sought to deepen and advance their thinking with philosophical tools, Tertullian was interested in ultimate meaning; which of these two disciplines, he is asking, brings us to the truth. Reason, à la Søren Kierkegaard, useful as it is, cannot bring someone to salvation. The salvific journey is of course one of reason, yet this is a pilgrimage — according to theology — that can only be completed at the end by a leap of faith.
Tertullian’s question is asked in a different world to that inhabited by later theologians. This is before Aquinas and scholasticism, before the reformations and the counter reformation, before Karl Rahner and Hans Küng; all threads in the tapestry of Christian tradition which accepted the light of revelation a priori and employed philosophy to articulate mystery with reason. Tertullian asks this question at a time when philosophy and theology are in competition — each vying for the claim to ultimate truth. Implied in his question is the answer that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot have our cake and eat it. It is either one or the other, and he chooses Jerusalem; his symbol of revelation and faith.
What is exposed in this choice are two mutually exclusive worldviews, or what the German sociologists of the late nineteenth century called Weltanschauungen. How can we explain this? Both Athens and Jerusalem in this schema describe a point of view, a place from which to see the world or a lens through which we can interpret reality. A physicist and an anthropologist, for example, will see reality differently — as through different lenses. And this, without omniscience, is unavoidable — which is to say we must have a standpoint before we can have a viewpoint. And to have a point of view we must first be standing somewhere, and we cannot all be standing in the same place.
At this point in time in Scotland — apologies for the overlong introduction and theological excursus — the independence movement occupies a number of standpoints, or loci, over the political landscape. The greater schism is that between the ‘gradualists’ (the Scottish National Party) and the so-called ‘fundamentalists’ (ALBA, the ISP, and the AFI) — a division which suggests at least some level of class conflict between the bourgeois consensus of the SNP and the working-class ‘street politics’ of grassroots pro-independence organisations like All Under One Banner and such like. Clearly, both of these positions provide independence supporters with two mutually exclusive standpoints from which they are articulating their competing points of view. But there is a lesser schism — one which is deeply rooted in a wider, global, culture war; the conflicting worldviews of gender critical radical feminism and that fraction of society which sees the advancement of transgender and non-binary rights as an integral part of the project of extending human rights.
This theatre of the culture war is global, but in Scotland it poses a unique and particular problem within the political discourse of the independence movement. As an internal dialectic of radical feminism, the opposing factions of the debate — the conversation in toto — constitutes, albeit fractured, a discourse or a Weltanschauung of its own; the worldview of modern radical feminism. This conversation, however, is happening largely within one constituent element of the Scottish independence movement (which is in itself a discrete Weltanschauung). Both the loci of radical feminism and the locus of pro-independence politics are worlds in themselves, and as this debate rages within the independence movement we are experiencing the shock of a planetary collision.
It is for this reason I have mimicked Tertullian’s question in the title of the present article: What has Gilead to do with Bethel? Like Tertullian, I am using these places — biblical towns — as symbolic representations of discrete political worlds. Gilead, as those familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) will have already guessed, represents the myth (qua story or narrative as opposed to mere falsehood) of radical feminism and Bethel — for reasons which we shall unpack below — is representative of the world and mythos of the Scottish independence cause.
Myth is used in this context quite deliberately. ‘Myth,’ wrote Roland Barthes, ‘is a system of communication … a message.’ As he explains in Mythologies (1957):
Since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse.
What he is saying is that myth, in its truest form, is a language; a grammar and vocabulary of ideas, words, and symbols of significance which communicate information within a particular culture or field qua human environment. Everything can be a myth or mythologised, and this process says nothing whatsoever about any specific object’s veracity. We can, for instance, speak of a fable as ‘a myth.’ That the fable itself is a narrative fabrication has no effect on its power as a myth — as a means of communicating a truth. Ideologies too are communicated through myths; to this we have the myth of the American Dream and the myth of combined labour and proletarian solidarity: ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.’
Myths pre-exist written mythologies. Homer’s Iliad pre-supposes the commonly held ideas and assumptions of the shared worldview of ancient Achaia. The stories contained in the Hebrew Bible existed as oral folktales across the Levant and the Near East long before they were codified in writing. The myths themselves are the conscious and unconscious cultural norms of a people or a culture, and not necessarily a story. The written story, when such is produced, is merely one attempt — possibly among many — to express something of this mythic worldview in narrative, in literature. The entire corpus of modern cultural production — books, novels, films, art — are attempts to express something of the myths of modern realities.
In this respect, then, The Handmaid’s Tale, is an expression of the mythos of modern feminism. Atwood brilliantly exaggerates the primordial fear of feminism; the absolute subjugation of women and their power of reproduction by an elite class of warrior men, ‘the Commanders’ — itself a re-telling of the ancient Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat (the male warrior god slays the great mother goddess in order to create the world from her corpse). Her dystopia is set in a future New England, a nod no doubt to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), after the collapse of the United States and the creation of a right-wing religious fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. And aware of the power of myth to inform and shape the thinking of the individual, Atwood describes a meeting between two ‘handmaids’ in red habit and white wings and some Japanese women tourists:
Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.
Offred and Ofglen, aware of their subjugation and imprisonment, reproduce their oppression within themselves and so enforce it upon each other because they have been formed by the myth. As Offred herself remembers:
Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Gilead has become their ordinary. They have become at once the products and the producers of the myth that is Gilead. And Gilead is a deliberate choice on the part of the author. In its allusion to the patriarchal narrative of the Hebrew Bible — the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the biblical ‘patriarchs’), where Gilead is a land of exile. East of the river Jordan, it is outside the land promised to Abraham by God. This is a foreign land, both alien and alienating. In the Bible it is the home of the mythical king Og of Bashan, an enemy of the people of Israel. This is a powerfully symbolic narrative, describing how in the Republic of Gilead women have been in a real sense transported from the Promised Land — a land flowing with milk and honey — to a land over the Jordan (a euphemism for death) and away from the land of Canaan; away from freedom.
Remembering that Moses and the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, according to the Cold War nation-building myth of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic film The Ten Commandments, was itself a myth of 1985 Americana, Atwood’s narrative deportation of women to Gilead is an undoing — ‘unwomen’ — of this sacred and mythic promise of freedom and security. And just as The Ten Commandments gave expression to an American white settler-colonial myth, The Handmaid’s Tale gives expression to the mythos of modern feminism. Its genius as a myth is that it has shaped feminism and is reproduced by feminism (the iconic image of the handmaid has become a cypher for the campaign for women’s rights, women’s reproductive rights, mainstream feminism, and indeed both radical and gender critical radical feminism). What is communicated — one of the messages of text — by this expression of myth is the idea of women as a people, a nation, a sex-class. We will return to this idea of feminist separatism below.
In this piece I would like to juxtapose this locus of feminist struggle, Gilead, with another place associated with the biblical patriarchal narrative, the town of Bethel — ‘Bet El’ in Hebrew, the house of God. Gilead in the Genesis account is the place where Laban, the cousin of Abraham, catches up with the patriarch Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, after Jacob escaped with his wives, the sisters Rachel and Leah — the daughters of Laban:
Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsfolk camped in the hill country of Gilead. Laban said to Jacob, ‘What have you done? You have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword.’
— Genesis 31:25-26
So already this is a tale related to men capturing women who lack autonomy from their fathers, brothers, and husbands. But there is more — something of which Margaret Atwood is perfectly aware; it was while living with his father-in-law outside of the promised land that Jacob’s wife Rachel, unable to have children and envious of her sister, gave her ‘handmaid’ Bilhah to Jacob that she might bear a child through her servant (Genesis 30:1-6). Bilhah’s story is the handmaid’s tale.
This whole narrative of Jacob soujouring out of the promised land with his father-in-law is bookended with his departure from and his return to the land of promise — another iteration of the myth of exile and return, a foundational biblical and Jewish myth. His departure from the land begins with a prayer to the God of his ancestors that he will be watched over and protected while abroad, and this coincides with a strange dream of a stairway to heaven. ‘So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel… (Genesis 28:18-19)’
Why might this place — Bethel — be symbolically important to us? This is the place where Jacob has a dream. He was asleep there. And he rested his head on a stone and it is this stone — ‘Jacob’s pillow’ — that is important to us. Why? Well, because of this:
From time immemorial it has been believed among us here, that unseen hands brought Jacob’s pillow from Bethel and dropped it on the site where the palace of Scone now stands. A strong belief is also entertained by many in this part of the country that it was only a representation of this Jacob’s pillow that Edward sent to Westminster, the sacred stone not having been found by him.
— A letter to the editor of the Morning Chronicle (2 January 1819)
According to ancient legend, a national foundation myth of Scotland, the stone on which Jacob slept and dreamt of the gateway to paradise at Bethel in the promised land is the same stone on which the kings of the Scots were crowned. No, this is not a historical fact. Geologists have determined the stone to be lower Old Red Sandstone, quarried not far from Scone. But anything can become a myth, and it is in its mythical quality as a symbol of Scottish nationhood and nationalism — a solid token of our peoplehood and sovereignty — that it gains its power and importance.
What we are looking at here, then, essentially, are two distinct myths belonging to two very different Weltanschauungen — one of feminism and its radical separatist struggle and one of nationalism and its separatist aspirations. These are, at their core, mutually exclusive mythoi. As these are both absolute aspirations, we cannot have both within the same myth field. Now, this is not to say that one cannot be both a nationalist and a feminist. We can. But what this means is that the causes symbolised by these myths cannot be fused, blended, or otherwise confused. The feminist struggle cannot be the struggle for national independence and the campaign for national statehood and self-determination cannot be the theatre of sex-class struggle. Gilead and Bethel are both foundation myths and as such cannot be employed syncretistically nor as a hypostatic [con]fusion.
It may strike some as hyperbole to describe Gilead as a symbol of feminist separatism, and so this will require some discussion. Separatism as a feminist aspiration is nowhere explicit in The Handmaid’s Tale, but it is implied throughout the book. It is certainly implied in the territorial designation of Gilead as a land of exile, a place from which the reader is informed women must escape — to an implied land of their own, a land away from the threat of men. We see a latent separatism in the kitchen, the domain of the Marthas Cora and Rita — the traditional domain of women, where Offred finds herself longing to be (in the ‘time before’ she avoided these places and conversations). We see it in the garden, the domain of the Commander’s wife — where a woman has control and gives orders to male Guardian helpers, where Offred remembers her own garden. These are desired — hoped for — sanctuaries, territories away from male power. These are women’s spaces in the book, and their very territoriality hints at the ideal of separation.
Not all feminism is separatist, for sure. Neither is it true that The Handmaid’s Tale is the myth of feminism. The work is but a myth of feminism, and like all myths it produces a culture and a culture which reproduces the myth. The feminist myth it produces allows for — in fact, begs the reader to consider — a feminist separatism. As a symbol, then, Gilead cannot exist without at least the possibility of a separatist solution to the sex-class struggle — much as Bethel, the myth of Jacob’s pillow, cannot exist without the possibility of independence as a solution to Scotland’s national struggle.
But what do we mean by feminist separatism? Essentially, feminist separatism is the theory that opposition to patriarchy — the system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property — can be achieved through separation from men and thus from male power. Atwood, a Canadian, has no doubt been influenced by her contemporary, the French-Canadian novelist, philosopher, and feminist theorist Monique Wittig (died 2003) — one of the principle proponents of this branch of ‘queer nationalism.’ In her critique of heterosexuality, and not merely the patriarchy, as an oppressive political regime, Wittig sought to go further than the radical feminism of the 1980s by developing new social values and praxis within separatist lesbian communities.
Nowhere in Margaret Atwood’s writing do we find any support for this extreme. In fact, according to one research paper — Women disunited: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a Critique of Feminism (2008), by Alana Callaway MA:
Separatism also fell short in Atwood’s view, for it argued that the way women can best care for and/or support one another and combat patriarchy is through the creation of female-only spaces and relationships. These spaces manifested themselves in the form of all-female banks, businesses, and social agencies, and the like.
Admittedly, this is far short of a feminist, lesbian, or queer nationalism, but it still advocates the creation of a society within society akin to the proto-national status of Jews in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and much of the Early Modern period. Atwood may think it falls short of what feminism hopes to achieve, but separatism is everywhere latent in her work.
Gilead, therefore, to return to this symbol, represents a particular philosophy of radical feminism which has its own separatist tendencies within the nation. Bethel, as a myth of Scotland’s aspiration for national independence, can only be achieved with the participation of the nation — women and men of the nation — as a whole. Its separatism requires the collaboration of Scottish women and men in order to be realised; something that simply cannot happen if the women or the men of the nation are prioritising a sex-based separatism.
It is not the purpose of this article to evaluate either of these symbols and the philosophies they represent. This is a matter for each one of us individually. Nor is it my intention to make moral judgements of either. Again, this is for each individual. What this piece hopes to articulate, rather, is that as myths, the symbols of Gilead and Bethel — like Athens and Jerusalem — represent two very different and mutually exclusive worldviews. While it is entirely possible for one person to be both an independentista and a feminist, or a socialist, or a social conservative, it is not possible to merge the radical feminist and nationalist separatisms into a single struggle. These are both absolutes — they both offer an ultimate truth/narrative resolution — and therefore are necessarily in conflict with one another in their unique demands for adherence. Quite simply, in the context of the Scottish independence movement, activists — independentistas — must decide where they belong: Gilead or Bethel. A house divided cannot stand.
Alanna A. Callaway, Women Disunited: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a Critique of Feminism (San Jose State University, Master of Arts dissertation), 2008.
Dimitri Kepreotes, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?, Greek Orthodoxy and the continuity of Hellenism (St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College).
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies.
A Gender Critical Analysis of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’