Elevate Difference

The Pious Sex: Essays on Women and Religion in the History of Political Thought

I could comment extensively on each of the essays in The Pious Sex, but seeing as there are eleven in total (not counting the introduction) and I have limited space here, that will not be possible.

At the beginning of the introduction, the editor, Andrea Radasanu, immediately apologizes for calling to mind “the worst of the prejudices associated with women over the ages: the characterization of women as superstitious and inherently irrational creatures that must be kept firmly in hand by the patriarchal establishment.” I admit the first thing I thought of when I read the title (and subtitle) was the injustice levied on ‘the fairer sex’ by the religious order(s) of the day. This set of essays tries to untangle the mistreatment of women by religious sects and leaders and more fully examine the relationship of women to religion (and vice versa) in the history of political thought. In other words, it’s sort of like reading a meta-history: history about the history of women and religion.

The titles of the individual essays hint at what kind of education (formal or otherwise) the reader must have in order to fully grasp the essays themselves. For example: “The Piety of Esther,” by Clifford Orwin, requires having read the Book of Esther in the Old Testament of the Bible; “Love and Piety in Machiavelli’s Mandragola,” by Catharine Connors, assumes prior knowledge of Machiavelli and his work, or La Mandragola if nothing else; “Jane Austen’s Education of Women: A Study of Mansfield Park,” by Amy L. Bonnette, requires having read Mansfield Park, if not other works by Jane Austen as well as information pertaining to the author.

Each of the essays has endnotes for further reading in case you, like me, aren’t as well read as the writing assumes you to be. (Actually, I would have preferred footnotes over endnotes because it’s annoying to have to keep flipping back and forth between the page and the note, but at least the endnotes for each essay are at the end of said essay and not at the end of the collection.)

All that said, I really benefited from reading and learning about the relationship between women and religion in a more complicated way than, “Eve ate the forbidden fruit first; therefore she is the root of all evil.” Also readers should note that the essays are written from a Western philosophical viewpoint and focus primarily on ancient Roman, Jewish, and Christian settings. I would be interested to read a similar collection about women, piety, and religion that are written from a more Eastern viewpoint and focus on other world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Native American and native African religious traditions.

Overall, I recommend reading the introduction before you commit to the bulk of the collection. I was able to enjoy most of the pieces, but I would have to be much more well-read to understand these essays at any great depth. I got the gist of it, but I think I was hitting the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.

Written by: Viannah Duncan, February 6th 2011