Are Women Persons in Heaven?
Persons Day is coming up; that day when Canadians remember the court case that won women (well, white women) the status of independent legal entities, or “persons.” Yes, until October 18th, 1929, women in Canada were not considered persons. The women involved in the case, all from Alberta, are still referred to as The Famous Five. Traditionally, this day is celebrated with lectures on women in politics, women’s rights, the history of the suffrage movement, and discussions about the gaps between men and women still existing in Canada and elsewhere in the world. This year, the Women’s Studies Department at my university chose to mark the day with a multi-faith dialogue called “Are Women Persons in Heaven?“
I am presuming that the reason they have chosen to look at the legal definition of half the population in the world’s various representations of heaven (which, to an atheist, is somewhat akin to asking if the Gingerbread People in Candyland have proportional representation) is that every other sex-related problem on earth has been solved. We have solved the problems of women being disproportionately poor, victims of domestic violence, paid less than men for equal work, sexually assaulted (and then blamed for it), sexually objectified, prone to eating disorders, victims of honour killings, and the fact that women with disabilities, women of visible minorities, immigrant women, and non-heterosexual women face compounded problems based on their double handicap. All that’s left is to let representatives of religious groups talk to each other about how fabulously egalitarian they are.
I understand that the event was planned by a professor who specifically teaches courses about women and religion, so keeping to that theme was important, but I do not understand why heaven is the location where we ought to be concerned about women’s status, rather than earth. There are so many women-and-religion related topics that would be appropriate discussion topics for Persons Day, I am left thinking that the reason they chose this one is simply the fact that it makes for a good title.
Well, the talk was yesterday and, while it wasn’t awful, it could have been better. For one, the question was one which did not even make sense in reference to most of the religions represented. The Christian speaker told us that while Christians believe in heaven, heaven isn’t really the point. The resurrection is. The Jewish speaker and the Baha’i speaker both explained that in order to apply the term “Heaven” in their religions, you had to really torture the definition. The Mormon speaker had to spend half her time explaining what the Celestial Kingdom is, since it’s not quite the same as heaven.
Similar gymnastics had to occur to make sense of the word “person.” In reference to Person’s Day, person is a legal term. They obviously were not expected to talk about the legal status (within Canadian law, no less!) of women in the afterlife, so they all had to define person. And they all defined it differently.
In some ways the talk went how I had expected it to: some of the speakers answered with a self-congratulatory “Of course,” and really, what more could they say? None of them have ever been to heaven, many of the traditions they were representing were really collections of hundreds of sects who disagree on most everything, and usually the answers were something like “the spirit has no gender, so women are ‘persons’ as far as anyone is a ‘person,’ which is to say – not really at all.” What else can be said about that? Nothing particularly useful.
The discussion got interesting, though, when people started to talk about practices. Why can’t women hold the priesthood? What is the standing of unmarried women? What are the religious obligations of women and men? How have the religious roles of women changed over time? This is the fascinating stuff. This is what the talk should have been about in the first place. A few people had some really fabulous questions and most the speakers represented their religious traditions very honestly. I was impressed with the representatives, even though I was disappointed with the professor and the students who hosted them.
Overall, I think the panel was a worthwhile discussion, but I think that the important stuff happened despite the plan and organization of the event, not because of it.