‘What has religion done for women?’

A superb documentary by Shelagh Fogarty, on BBC Radio 2 this week, asked ‘What has religion done for women?’ The programme sought to understand why some women feel valued and empowered by their religion, whilst others find religious dogma oppressive and misogynistic.  Cleverly melding pop culture and kick-ass music clips with incisive journalism, it’s well worth a listen on BBC iplayer . There’s also a great article on a similar theme in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune, by Rabbi Adam Chalom, ‘Religion’s treatment of women key to understanding progess’.

Listening to Fogarty’s documentary has inspired me to dip into some Hildegard Von Bingen, a heroine of mine both for her ideas (that were centuries ahead of her time) and for her startlingly beautiful choral music. Hildegard was a 12th century nun unlike any other, an extraordinarily talented woman who was inspired by her Christian faith, but also by science, cosmology, art, music and medicine. She believed that both men and women were made in God’s image, a progressive view for her time and she extolled sexuality as natural and a symbol of the union of God and humanity. In a diversion from 12th century medical opinion, she claimed that female orgasm was an important part of conception (not entirely medically correct, but a great push for early feminism!) She writes:

“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat
descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”

One fabulous 12th century nun, who valued sensuality as well as celibacy.

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