Taking advantage of misogyny in the Church with Teresa of Avila

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Taking advantage of misogyny in the Church with Teresa of Avila

In this series, we are becoming acquainted with Catholic women who took their place in the Catholic Church. We are learning from the ways they succeeded in voicing their truths, even in a male-dominated environment.

Teresa of Avila was almost considered a witch before she was made a saint. What was her strategy?

Teresa of Avila was a Spanish nun, living in the 16th century. During her lifetime, the pope described her as a menacing outsider.[1] She was constantly being reproached that she “taught others, against the commands of St. Paul, who had forbidden women to teach.”[2] However, the papacy quickly came around. Teresa of Avila was indeed beatified only 32 years after her death. How did she manage to become a revered leader of the Church so quickly?

Specialist of female mystics Alison Weber argues that Teresa’s genius was to use a “plain” and “oral style” of writing. By posing as a mediocre author and an uneducated woman, she met people’s expectations towards femininity.[3] That way, she made herself sympathetic to the readers of her time. Nonetheless, Teresa of Avila’s strategy was not only ‘playing dumb to get ahead’. Rather, she adapted her tone and style to different contexts and people.[4]

Why did Teresa need to write strategically?

The 16th-century Catholic Church was hostile to women.[5] The Catholic Church considered women to be spiritually inadequate. This meant that they were not allowed to read the Bible, to learn theology or even to pray on their own.[6] Unsurprisingly, women were also forbidden to contribute to theological studies. During Teresa of Avila’s lifetime, multiple women were taken to court and reduced to poverty for writing and preaching the gospel.

Teresa of Avila was also suspected on multiple grounds. First of all, she pursued a personal relationship with God and read the Bible. Second of all, she held both orthodox and heretic beliefs. This was extremely confusing to the Catholic ministers of her time, who wondered if she was going to turn Protestant – or a witch.[7] Essentially, Teresa of Avila put the theological issues of her day in tension. She used rhetorics as a way to make such complexity understandable and convincing, all in a hostile context.

What was Teresa of Avila’s strategy?

Weber assumes that Teresa of Avila’s priority was to appear inoffensive so as to avoid censorship. Weber suggests that she succeeded in this by adopting a “feminine style of writing.” Conceding to stereotypes of female “affectivity,” “ignorance,” and “weakness,” Teresa of Avila ensured her works’ posterity.[8]

Teresa of Avila refined this strategy by using different clichés to support different types of arguments. In her first book,[9] she adopted a ‘rhetoric of humility’. She resorted to heavy self-deprecation, insisting that she knew she was ‘only’ a woman, “prone to the devil’s seduction.” In her second book[10] however, she relied on the ‘rhetorics of irony’. There, she ridiculed male theologians while making them feel very pleased with themselves. Only women were expected to perceive her irony:[11]

“It may be that my love for the nuns, together with my years and the experience I have in a number of convents, will make me more successful in writing about small matters than learned men. For since they are strong men and have other more important concerns, they do not pay as much attention to things which seem nothing but which can do a lot of harm to creatures as weak as women.”[12]

Both books aimed at testifying to her encounter with God. The rhetorical difference between them was because of their specific readership. The first one she wrote at the behest of her (male) confessors, who were her superiors. The second one she composed for her fellow (female) nuns, who were her subordinates. While she made great efforts to show contrition and inadequacy to male theologians, she tried to teach and inspire female Catholics through humour and complicity.[13]

What do we learn from Teresa of Avila’s strategy?

Weber’s study goes to show that Catholic women, in the 16th century as well as today, share a common method with women all around the globe. Paradoxically, women downplaying their abilities seems to be one of the ways they can make their voices heard. For instance, Teresa of Avila claimed that she did not know what she was saying when writing her third book.[14] There, one recognises the ‘rhetorics of confusion’ that women typically use in male-dominated settings: ‘playing dumb’ in order to not intimidate men and avoid rejection – and silencing.[15] [16]

However, stereotypes of femininity have evolved since Teresa of Avila’s lifetime. Although frailty and sensitivity are still largely thought to be feminine traits, it is hard to imagine any woman convincing a crowd of contemporary theologians because of how incapable she is. “In Counter-Reformation Spain, Teresa’s skills were so anomalous to her sex that they could only be considered miraculous,” Weber writes.

Today, Catholic women are expected to excel at everything their ancestors were not allowed to do. They should pray on their own, read the Bible, and learn all about theology, before they can contribute. This requires a lot of brains, and surely, better strategies than pretending not to be smart.

Stay tuned this September and learn more about how women have been taking their place in the Catholic Church! In the next articles, we will get acquainted with the strategies of women of our day.

Clémence Sauty

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[1] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, New King James Bible

[3] “Rather than ‘writing like a woman’, perhaps Teresa wrote as she believed women were perceived to speak. (…) I have found that by exploiting features from the low-register, private discourse of subordinate groups in general, and women in particular, she created a discourse that was at once public and private, didactic and affiliative, authoritative and familiar.” See: Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[4] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[5] 28% of canonised saints in the 15th century were women. This percentage dropped to 18% in the 16th century. See:Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[6] Teresa of Avila was one the first women who advocated for ‘mental prayer’, i.e silent and direct dialogue with the divine. In her time, women who did such prayers were considered demonic. They were only allowed to participate in vocal and ritualised prayer with their community. See here: Mental prayer – Wikipedia

[7] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[8] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[9] The Book of Her Life

[10] The Way to Perfection

[11] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[12] The Way to Perfection

[13] Alison Weber, Teresa of Avila and the rhetoric of femininity, Princeton University Press, 1990

[14] The Interior Castle

[15] The Era of Women Playing Dumb for Men Has Ended – The Atlantic

[16] Girls feel they must ‘play dumb’ to please boys, study shows — ScienceDaily.