September 7, 2006
National Catholic Reporter
Vol. 4, No. 19
From Where I Stand by Joan Chittister, OSB
The day Katie Couric became the first woman anchorperson of a prime time
news broadcast, Princess Kiko of Japan gave birth to a baby boy. If you
think the two items are unrelated, you're right. If you think the two
items are related, you're right, too. The question is: Why?
Here's the problem: If you're a girl, we have a little good news, a little
bad news for you.
The good news is that you, too, can grow up to be Katie Couric. The bad
news is that you cannot yet grow up to be empress of Japan.
The question is not whether or not you want to be either. The question
is why it is even an issue. And this is where life gets a little sticky.
The basic problem seems to be that being a Katie Couric simply means
that you must be a hard-working, talented, competent and effective woman
in a country that has legislated against sex discrimination.
Getting to be ruler of Japan, a once-divine position, on the other hand,
means you have to have some established relation to God. And God, we are
led to believe, does not express divinity in girls. There's just something
about girls that seems to lack what it takes to be divine.
It's not God's fault, of course. It's not anybody's fault really. Things
just are what they are. It's just that it can't be done because girls
are not as good as boys for some reason that no one can discover. Or if
they have discovered it, they don't want to say it because when you say
it out loud it sounds so silly. I mean, the answer is that girls are not
as good as boys because they're girls. See what I mean? Silly.
The difficulty comes when you realize that this problem is not peculiar
to the Japanese. We have a bit of the same problem ourselves - Katie Couric
or no Katie Couric - in case you haven't noticed.
Jesus became "man" we are now supposed to say - despite the
fact that for centuries we said, "And the Word became "flesh"
- as in human. Now, we mean what we mean. The Word became man. Male. No
argument about that one. They tell us that they mean "woman,"
too, when they say "man," of course. Except not always.
And in Japan, too, since the emperor was a god and the gods were male,
well, what else could you have for over 2,500 years but male emperors
- with the exception of six women who ascended to the throne under special
circumstances, a few of them twice. But only when it suited the men in
the system. As widows or regents or rulers in exile, they were put in
the position simply in order to save it for male relatives and so eventually
abdicated in their relatives' favor. They were, if anything, only the
exception that proved the rule. Like pastoral administrators of otherwise
empty parishes, for instance.
Katie Couric, on the other hand, is not an empress. She is only an anchorperson.
Not a descendant of the gods. So she can be anything she wants to be and
get away with it. Once all the tests are in and there's not one piece
of data to prove that women are less fully human than men, it's a straight
shot to just about anything: scientist, president, corporation executive,
heiress, policewoman, doctor, lawyer, whatever. It boggles the imagination
what might happen, what has happened.
But emperor in the only recently demoted divine line of emperors? Now,
that's another story.
It looked for awhile there, given the lack of male heirs since 1965,
that the Japanese were going to have to decide whether they wanted a hereditary
emperor or just any male they could find.
So, conservatives came up with amazing ideas for how to avoid the constitutional
conflict. One idea was simply to hire concubines - an age-old remedy for
the reckless propagation of girl-children - until someone finally got
it right. So much for marriage or children or family life, let alone the
dignity of women. What we need here is simply sexual service for the sake
of the realm.
Or, others said, Japan should create a new aristocracy in order to widen
the pool of possible heirs. That way there might be at least one male
second-cousin-once-removed somewhere who could simply step in, as they
once did in Europe, to preserve the line from getting messed up with female
Fortunately, Japan was saved from having to make the choice. Princess
Kiko, wife of the emperor's second son, has just given birth to a boy.
Whew. Close. Now we won't have to worry that Aiko, the 4-year-old daughter
of the Crown Prince, will someday ascend to the throne. There is a boy
standing by. The throne is saved. The country is safe. The imperial family
is intact. The heavens are pleased.
Whether or not Japan will now go on to amend the Imperial House Laws to
open the throne to women in the future is unclear. (My bet: unlikely,)
More than 70 percent of the Japanese say they are ready for a woman emperor
and that there is no reason that a female heir ought not to ascend to
the throne but why take this equality thing too far if it's not necessary.
Furthermore, you can be sure there will be fierce conservative opposition
to the very thought of abandoning the male imperial line. There will be
even greater resistance to allowing the idea to be debated in parliament.
"It has always been this way," is a powerful argument. It's
tradition. It's the will of God.
We, on the other hand, don't have an imperial line to protect, of course,
so it all seems quite irrelevant to us. Quaint even. After all, it's 2006.
It's the 21st century. Who can possibly let a little thing like a chromosome
stand between a woman and her desire to lay down her life for her friends,
to serve the tradition as its legitimate heir?
Well, Katie Couric may succeed or fail on her competency. But don't think
for a minute that the case is closed or that we ourselves are immune to
In the middle of the Rhine River, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, on a boat
on a river in Pittsburgh, women who feel called by God to serve the people
of God are being ordained beyond legitimate diocesan boundaries. Why?
Because they have no other choice. There's nothing they can do about it.
They have no authority to open the theological discussion of whether or
not Jesus became "man" - meaning male - or Jesus became "flesh"
- meaning human - and the implications of that answer for the life and
structures of the church itself.
They have no right to change what God has made immutable.
So that's that. It's not their fault.
But it's still sexist.
From where I stand, the answer is clear. It's not only what sexism says
about women that's wrong. It's what sexism says about God that is the
problem. Sexism says that femaleness is the only thing in creation before
which God is powerless. It says that the God who parted the Red Sea, drew
water from a rock and raised the dead to life goes impotent before a woman.
It says that the only substance on earth that God cannot or will not work
through is a female. Poor God.
Lucky for us, we don't have an emperor.