The woman shall not wear what belongs to the man, nor shall a man put on a woman's
garment: for all who do so are an abomination to the Lord your God..
Earlier in this century, it seems that a majority of Christians would have taken this
prohibition quite literally. The first women to wear "bloomers" were regarded as immoral
and even as blasphemous. Most Christians nowadays would regard this as one of the laws
that is no longer in effect, like the laws concerning slavery or diet.
The concern that it expresses, though, has not gone away. It represents a sense that there
are distinct and appropriate domains for male and female and that it is harmful to deny or
ignore the differences. In these days when the traditional roles for the sexes are being
reexamined, there is a good deal of emotional energy involved, but there is no unanimity.
Some would insist that any claim that the sexes are inherently different is prejudicial.
Others, equally concerned with issues of equality, would insist that women bring something
special, something unique, to any enterprise.
Swedenborg clearly--and not surprisingly--counts as one who believed there were inherent
differences. Perhaps one of his more controversial expressions of this is found in Marital
Love 91, where he describes the activities of women as "domestic" and those of men as
"forensic" or "public." The examples he uses are clearly drawn from his own culture and
his own times, though, so we must ask how valid his differentiation is in our own times,
or perhaps better, on what level it is still valid.
A book published last year by the Harvard University Press brings the issue directly to
the fore. The book is called In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, and it
is by a Harvard faculty member named Robert Kegan. He sees contemporary thought on the
subject as moving from relatively superficial and simplistic contrasts to deeper and
subtler ones, and in the course of his thought he draws a contrast that sounds
surprisingly like Swedenborg's. He refers to it as a contrast between "private" and
"public" work, and explains why he would classify psychotherapy as "public."
By "private" I refer to adult relationships of love, family, and friendship governed
principally by bonds of blood or affection. By "public" I refer to adult relationships
regulated principally by the contaxts of work, business, or hire. All public relationships
are really "business relationships," whether they are professional relationships between
colleagues, where neither is hiring the other; civic relationships between public servant
and constituent, where the "hiring" is highly indirect; or customer relationships, where
the hiring is quite direct. Of course, money may figure in many, if not most, private
relationships (younger children are economically dependent upon their parents, nonemployed
spouses on their employed spouses); but it is blood, love, or affection, not money, that
is the governing principle or medium of exchange. And, conversely, affection and even love
may develop in public relationships, but, again, it is not love or affection that is the
governing principle; rather it is the preexisting "terms" of, for example, a professional
code of conduct or a contract-for-hire. Money for service is the principal medium of
exchange in a public relationship, no matter how warm or loving that relationship has
become (Kegan, p. 235).
There is a very simple way in which this contrast is quite obvious. Responsible
professionals have a profound distaste for favoritism or nepotism. They want to be hired
on their merits, not because someone "likes them best," and they want to be paid for what
they accomplish. Conversely, devoted spouses wold have a profound distaste for putting a
monetary price on their services. They want appreciation and understanding, and money
would be a poor substitute indeed, even an insult.
As Kegan notes, the "public" domain has its affectional dimensions and the "private"
domain has its financial ones. If we translate Swedenborg's differentiation into these
terms, then, we find it saying that men are likely to be more comfortable than women in
situations where financial considerations are primary, and women are likely to be more
comfortable than men in situations where affectional considerations are primary.
But two other matters need to be brought out at this point. The first is that
generalizations like this can be valid only for large groups. They do not necessarily hold
for any particular individual. It may be quite true that more men than women know how to
adjust a carburetor. That does not mean that every man knows and every woman does not. It
may be quite true that more women than men will stop and ask direction when they are lost.
That does not mean that all women will and all men won't.
Second, and equally important, neither Kegan nor Swedenborg is at this point trying to
tell people what to do. Both are simply observing, and trying to understand what they
observe. Swedenborg is not saying that women should focus on "domestic" or "private"
matters, he is saying that they in fact do.
If we add one more principle, the importance of this distinction becomes clear. In n. 248,
and again in n. 291 of Marital Love, Swedenborg says very explicitly that any effort to
dominate or control the other destroys a marriage. It is worth quoting part of the latter
. . . competition springs up . . . for authority in that men insist on superioroty in all
affairs of the house because they ar men, and women are held to be inferior, because they
are women. Competitions like this, commonplace in our times, arise simply because there is
no consciousness of true marriage love and no vivid sense of the blessedness of that love
. . . .
We can extend this principle, I believe, to say that any effort to control is destructive
of affectional ties. So the use of gender differences to control each other--to say "You
should not do this because you are a woman" or "You should not do this because you are a
man"--may have that kind of destructive effect.
It "may," but there are circumstances where it may not. To take a couple of simple
examples, if my wife leaves me directions as to how to get dinner when she is at work,
those directions exert a controlling influence on my behavior--as do my directions on her
behavior when I leave a note about tending the furnace while I'm away. In the business
world, it is possible to take either a leading or a subservient role toward a friend,
recognizing that this relationship is appropriate in this particular context, to reach
these particular goals.
We are doing something very different when we use generalizations prescriptively--when we
say, "You should not do that because of the category you belong to." This has nothing to
do with getting the task done, with trying to discover what gifts this particular
individual brings to the task, with trying to match resources and needs--and these needs
and these resources may be either "domestic" or "forensic." Each of us is, now and to
eternity, unique, and none of that uniqueness should be effaced in the interests of
conformity to a stereotype.
It seems as though we have come a long way from our text, from the verse about men's and
women's garments, but it is a short way back. There do seem to be some general differences
between male and female sensitivity. Kegan notes that in work-oriented groups, men "speak
more frequently and for longer periods of time," while "Women tend to dart in and out
around the edes of the conversation" (pp. 213f.). Then he goes on to note that in
mixed-gender therapy groups, the same pattern tend to hold with the gender roles reversed.
"Women speak most frequently and longest . . . while men make brief commennts on the side
. . ." (p. 214).
In this sense, perhaps the image of wearing the garments of the opposite sex is best
understood as judging oneself by the values of the other. Perhaps it is actually all right
to be a woman. Perhaps it is even all right to be a white male. Perhaps "all right-ness"
is not a matter of gender at all. I have been intrigued for some time by Mark's account of
the reactions to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Some people were fascinated in a
superficial way, some were deeply drawn to him. Some people, especially those in
privileged positions, felt threatened. And some simply thought he had lost his mind. The
first were the crowds, the second his disciples, the third the scribes and Pharisees, and
the fourth--the ones who thought he had lost his mind--were "his friends."
No wonder he looked around him and asked, "Who is my mother, or my brothers? . . .
Whoever will do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and my mother."