Drawing on the lives of women primary teachers from Evangelical Presbyterian communities in Scotland, I explore their lived experience of embodiment in Christian worship and the primary classroom. This work is underpinned by a theoretical framework which brings together understandings of power as hegemonic, of gender as ‘performance’ (BUTLER, 1990) and of the body as socially constructed (CONNELL, 1995). If we understand gender as performative, we expect to observe participants engaging in acts which are culturally associated with bodies encoded as ‘woman’. That is not merely to understand bodies as “the passive bearers of cultural imprints” (CONNELL, 2000:58). Rather it acknowledges the materiality and agency of bodies. This work asks in what ways, and with what consequences, women engage in such acts in church and school.
The notion of ‘the male gaze’ is premised upon visuality as the acculturation of sight. Feminist analyses of vision have constructed practices of looking (mostly at women by men, but also at women by themselves) as enactments of patriarchal power. In such critiques, not only is the male gaze “a masculine position which is to look actively, possessively, sexually and pleasurably, at women as objects” (Rose in MACDONALD, 2009), it also signifies a relationship of power. Thus, vision can be understood as a discursive practice through which “the experience of being watched encourages women to be conscious of themselves and invest in their bodies as the expression of self” (HOWSON, 2004:57). I suggest that there is something in the very bodily presence of women in this and, by implication, other religio-cultural locations across global contexts, which is different from the presence of men. This difference goes beyond the dominance of space associated with hegemonic masculinity (CONNELL, 1995), and the particularities of inhabiting a female body (HOWSON, 2004). In worship in settings where women’s ‘silence’ remains a necessity of orthodoxy, the possibilities for the female body are limited in additional ways. While the embodiment of men holds the promise of power, the possibilities for the female body are limited to the ocular, to be seen, to see oneself being seen, and to see others. Further, within Evangelical cultures, the female body is a ‘troubled body’, conceived of as the site of ‘sin’, and as a symbol of moral jeopardy for men (HOWSON, 2004:58).
Similarly, primary teaching has been conceptualised as bodywork (BIKLEN, 1995, ESTOLA and ELBAZ-LUWISCH, 2003, BACKET and MILBURN, 2001). Steedman argues that the woman primary teacher’s role is one of constant physical presence with children (STEEDMAN, 1985). Discourses of child-centredness, such as those re-emerging across Europe and beyond, depend on the location of social actors within bodies, and serve to re-establish the equation of woman with the body. The passivity, receptiveness and nurturing to which women are called is performed in bodily acts of looking at, listening to, touching and holding children. By rendering up their bodies as ‘docile’ and ‘useful’ in this way they surrender power, as theories of hegemony would lead as to expect.
This paper emerges from a wider Life History Narrative study of the lives of Presbyterian women teachers in Scotland. Central to the ideology behind narrative research is the notion that stories are the linguistic form in which human experience is expressed, and that lives can be usefully thought of as enacted narratives. Accordingly, the stories of six women, purposively selected, are reflexively juxtaposed in order explore the complexities of the social relations of gender and the processes of gender and power within the historic and socio-political worlds of education and religion. The versions of ‘reality’ I offer are, therefore, constructed by and contingent on my own understandings and perspectives.
A sense of bodily surveillance attends acts of worship where theologically legitimized practices of clothing, mean that “…women are obliged to produce their bodies as adequate and acceptable spectacles” (HOWSON, 2004:56). Discourses around Evangelicalism and sexuality confirm the woman’s position as object of the male gaze. Participants performed gender by restricting their bodily presence to spaces encoded ‘woman’, thus roles which for men involve visibility (and status) are performed by women ‘behind the scenes’. To take up a physical space which is the preserve of men in worship settings is not to produce one’s body as an acceptable spectacle. Rather it is to transgress a gendered and spiritual norm and thus invite one’s body to be conceptualised as transgressive.
There are competing conceptualisations of the proper conduct for the primary teacher’s body. On the one hand child-centred pedagogies position her as ‘environment’, her body watching, providing, available. On the other hand, longstanding discourses position her body as focal point (ESTOLA and ELBAZ-LUWISCH, 2003:704). This notion was in tension for participants with the picture of alongside-ness which the women used to articulate their core understanding of what it is to be a teacher, that is, to be with the children
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