Diabolical Dichotomy: Women’s Roles in Early American Tradition

Over the past couple of weeks, it’s become clear that most of the ideas about women being innocent and pure are fairly new.  This first came to light for me while reading Becoming the Goddess, by Bruce Lincoln.  He describes a Navajo ceremony called “Kinaalda,” which celebrates a girl’s first menstruation.  This signals her reproductive power as a member of the community.  Celebrations like this are rare if nonexistent nowadays, and at first glance, this ceremony may be considered positive.  A society celebrated something that, in 2013, is usually hidden or just not talked about.  In the Kinaalda, the girl becomes Changing Woman, a goddess who, among many things, symbolizes fertility in Navajo tradition.

Navajo men and women bake a corn cake in the ground during a Kinaalda ceremony.  The cake is a solar image, alluding to the conception of Changing Woman's twins by Sun.

Navajo men and women bake a corn cake in the ground during a Kinaalda ceremony. The cake is a solar image, alluding to the conception of Changing Woman’s twins by Sun.

However, later in the reading, Lincoln mentions the legend of Changing Woman, who bore twins, fathered by Sun, to save the world from horrible monsters.  The origin of these monsters?

Masturbating women.

Apparently, these monsters grew from women using their sexuality for non-reproductive purposes.  Therefore, Changing Woman had to bear sons to slay the monsters and bring peace to a chaotic world.

The dichotomy of women’s roles in early tradition is blatant.  On one hand, women are held up as both productive and reproductive members of society.  They are laborers, and they bring new life into the world.  Their position as potential mothers is respected and, in matriarchal societies like that of the Navajo, women seem to be placed on a pedestal.

The other side of the coin is far less encouraging.  Unbridled female sexuality is regarded as sinful and base, and harms the society as a whole.  When a woman goes against what would be considered her natural, reproductive nature, she creates chaos.

Puritan tradition was similar in its attitudes towards women.  According to a chapter entitled “The Serpent Beguiled Me,” women had to be modest and loyal to their husbands.  Women were not naturally good, by Calvinist standards.  According to page 97, “Because the potential for evil was innate, lust might break out anywhere,” suggesting that evil and lust go hand in hand, and that women should be guarded against superficial, sexual tendencies.

Further in this chapter, the author turns to Eve, the first woman in biblical tradition.  She caused sin to enter the world by eating the Forbidden Fruit, disobeying God.  The resulting punishment on all mankind after her has caused views on women to become skewed. Women are seen as “weak, unstable, susceptible to suggestion,” by their very nature.  This attitude makes women seem like children who don’t know any better and need to be either disciplined or taught their place.

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The bottom line throughout all of this is that women have a very specific role to play, and those who toe the line are sinful and unnatural.  A woman’s job was to make babies and work hard for the good of society.  Lust was wrong.  Expression of sexuality was wrong.  From Eve to early Navajo, women have been stuck in very narrow, defined gender roles that limit their freedom of individuality and sexuality, for fear of damaging a society.  Though their gender roles have changed over time, freedom of sexual expression has always been limited and regulated by myth, legend, and Bible verse.




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One Response to “Diabolical Dichotomy: Women’s Roles in Early American Tradition”

  1. Arrrbuckles says:

    Nice post, Miss Kuhn! 🙂 I, too, found it problematic and worrisome that it was female masturbation that caused the monsters to arise in the first place. This is a bit of a stretch, but if any of y’all are interested, I can hook you up with some Gnostic texts that seem to mirror this idea that it is a woman’s creation, WITHOUT the assistance of a male counterpart, that results in chaos and, by proxy, an evil, confused, unruly world.

    Trust me, between the angels, argons, and thrice-male figures, you will find it both fascinating and mind-bogglingly weird… 🙂