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.