Elevate Difference

Forgiveness from a Feminist Perspective

Forgiveness is everywhere. Oprah is extolling its necessity when not engaged directly in seeking it for herself. Female celebrities seem to be forever forgiving (or not) someone, though among the most talked about are unresolved differences between mothers and daughters (a la Jennifer Aniston and Tori Spelling). Adulterous and embezzling politicians regularly ask for forgiveness in public—a request of their families as much as their constituents. Self-forgiveness is a frequent topic among the most high-minded and thoughtful among us. Spiritual leaders and renowned writers like Desmond Tutu and Hannah Arendt have said that forgiveness is an essential aspect of everyday life.

In Forgiveness from a Feminist Perspective, feminist philosopher Kathryn Norlock attempts to reframe the conversation about forgiveness and fill the existing gaps in psychology, philosophy, and gender studies. Norlock argues that despite what many philosophers have ignored in the relationship between gender and forgiveness, the act of forgiving is very much a gendered act. Women are overwhelmingly expected to forgive—not necessarily because they are more wronged, though that argument could certainly be made—and often, forgiveness is associated with a particular type of femininity, though Norlock is clear to separate “femininity,” “forgiveness,” and “weakness.” To deal with the blatant sex bias in forgiveness studies, Norlock debunks the historically gender-neutral approach to understanding the moral power, compassionate communication, and radical activism of forgiving.

Norlock’s work is highly academic and departs from a specific self-identified perspective—that of a white, heterosexual, middle-class, Western feminist academic. While her point of view may therefore be limited and lack engagement with certain texts and cultural scripts, it wouldn’t be fair to assume Norlock should begin her investigation from an impersonal point of departure. As feminists of varied persuasions, backgrounds, and vantage points, we understand too well the necessity of searching for answers from your own experience.

Norlock’s search for truth is dense and compelling, drawing necessary attention to relational power imbalances. It isn’t light, everyday reading, but maybe understanding forgiveness should be a bit heavier than that.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, June 1st 2009

I think for me, it comes down to not judging women who don't leave. I've been one who didn't go "when I should have," and while certainly I did not stay in the extreme ways that Tammy Faye or HRC did, I think it's tricky ground to say who should leave and to judge their motives (since really, we have no idea what really happened b/c it all comes through these unreliable, overspun media filters). I actually don't blame either woman for staying at all, though I've always felt they were simply entitled to their choices, and I worried when people judged them too harshly without knowing the full story. I think forgiveness in public and private are two very different things, and I think the ways we judge public forgiveness might say a lot about how we perceive it in our own lives. I don't know if I'm a particularly compassionate forgiving person (I'd like to believe I am, but who doesn't hope they're the best they can be?), but I do suspect my desire to have sympathy and empathy for women in these types of public situations comes from my own resistance to judge them after being judged myself. I also think I resist the idea of judging fundamentalist women's choices because they have so few to begin with. In my deeply religious family, for example, women simply have fewer options. The systems that have created and continue to support women's oppression are clearly the problem, but should I turn around and blame the women who feel trapped and act as though they are? The reality is that many do the best they can - sort of what we all try to do, in our own ways. I've also had to learn to forgive my female family members' resentment that I've escaped, that I have a freedom they cannot fathom, and how they misdirect their anger at me. I never think about it as overt forgiveness but more as compassion.

On the other hand, I have no compassion for violent and/or subversive oppressors. The men who have hurt me, who have hurt women I love, who systemically oppress women, my neighbor who screams and throws shit at his girlfriend - I don't care about them (in the larger sense - I do call the fuzz when the neighbor sounds physically violent). I choose not to actively hate them but also to not actively forgive them. Neither seems particularly worth my time.

I'm not even sure that directly responds to anything you said, Lawrence, but I just wanted to put it out there. While I believe Norlock's intention in her book was to reframe the academic discussion about forgiveness, I think it's important to consider that perhaps we should be more forgiving of women for some of the reasons we've been discussing - that they often have a harder time of things, and that judging how they navigate that might be further damaging.

Q: Okay, so how is Tammy Faye Bakker like Mt. Hood?

A: Half an inch of base . . . and three inches of new powder.

This is what I love about FR. Great discussion and great review!

So, what I hear you saying is that you don't want to hear a Portland, Oregon-specific Tammy Faye joke then current?!

I'm sorry about the way that she passed away, and it's never wise to speak of the dead, but yes, she did have a gloriously bizarre talk show, although when most of the audience don't know that, it becomes even more troubling than campy, for me anyway. She, like Hillary Clinton, has stood by her man, although I think that's an admirable trait only if a good man is involved. The jury quickly returned a verdict in the former's case. It's silly for me to say "if I were a woman," but were I Hillary, I would have kicked Bill to the curb a long, long time ago. Jim Bakker was too bizarre for words, and watching live video of his arrest in 1987, being pulled out, crying, from under the couch, was one of the high points of the '80s for me. Oral Roberts' faked claims, Jimmy Swaggart's crocodile tears, Iran-Contra--people forget how much fun it was for radicals in the '80s! But I digress: how could a woman be married to such a man, such an obvious lizard, he. That's just my opinion.

I'd like to learn more about the forgiveness studies angle, for what you say about the various gender biases in a couple of fields is surely true, especially the "crap lie" to which you rightly point. Try convincing men and women on the street of that, however . . . I'd go out on a limb and argue that nearly just as many women as men would agree with Hegel. Today's version of Christian fundamentalism is just one of the examples of anti-feminist backlash that are so troubling.

Just shows how very far we all have to go, how much more work needs to be done. I'm convinced that forgiveness is not the way to go unless and until remorse is expressed and genuine, unless and until consciousness is changed and behaviours begin to line up accordingly. Most perpetrators of violence don't (yet) deserve forgiveness, although insight and understanding and compassion are sometimes warranted. Again, just my opinion.


Hi Lawrence,

I thank you too for the thoughtful comments, which I always enjoy so much! I have to admit to having my head a bit elsewhere today, so this may or may not clear it up :) - but what I meant to convey was the idea that psychology and philosophy (where this inquiry is rooted) have been largely shaped by men's scholarship, and in that, the gender differences between concepts like forgiveness have been rather overlooked/ignored. It goes back to the argument (made by Hegel maybe? certainly many men after him) that deconstructionist theory was unnecessary because when philosophers had written "he" or "him," we - women - were supposed to just assume we were being included. Of course we all know this is a crap lie, and that's essentially what Norlock is saying, though with much more analysis and grace than I am presently doing. Forgiveness - theories about it, the psychology of the act - have not been investigated through a specifically gendered lens, so regardless of the discipline that has been used as a framework in the past, this book begins the process of re-examining forgiveness as a gendered experience - a psychological and philosophical one at that.

I grew up in a somewhat fundamentalist tradition and for all the crap that I was taught, I still have an enormous soft spot for Tammy Faye and even got into an argument a few years ago about what a feminist role model I felt she had been. She definitely stood by her man, but she also eventually left and went on to have that fabulously bizarre talk show with a gay co-host. I argue she did a lot better than any of us could, especially under the circumstances. Or maybe I just like forgiving people like her. I know so many of them :)

Cheers, b

Another fine review, Brittany, as per usual. I'm curious as to your comment about the "blatant sex bias in forgiveness studies." Are those generally restricted to psychology and philosophy (not my fields)? Are they placed in a wing or strand or school of feminist theory somewhere? If so, does she do a good job in laying the textures and content of forgiveness studies in those fields? Do they differ markedly? I mean, even the intellectual genealogies of "forgiveness studies" must evince as much as attempt to explain the "sex bias" of so many academic disciplines.

It'd be interesting to pitch those various arguments and tentions also at the "stay sweet" and "stay subservient" modes of femininity in the LDS and Christian patriarchy movements. "Roman's" admonitions on "Big Love" to his many females to "stay sweet" is particularly difficult to swallow, but so were similar pablums offered to Tammy Fae Bakker, to Jimmy Swaggert's missus, and to that of Ted Haggard more recently.

I like the final sentence of your penultimate graf; so true. I feel that an unhealthy development of Feminism (capital F intended) over the years has been the tendency to erect Straw Woman arguments that can and sometimes do easily slide into White Woman Feminist-bashing tirades that are more properly aimed elsewhere. The sad part is that they don't have to, that healthy critique and auto-critique have been hallmarks of feminist theory and practice at least since the Second Wave.

I dunno, maybe I need to forgive more . . .

Anyway, thanks for such a clearly written and enticing review.

Lawrence Hammar