The term 'proto-feminist' loosely refers to women in a philosophical tradition who preceded, expected or anticipated modern feminist concepts before the term 'feminist' was coined; prior to the twentieth century. Scholars often present Buddhism and Taoism as 'proto-feminist' traditions, as compared with Hinduism and Confucianism, which are sometimes viewed as being hopelessly committed to gendered hierarchies. With specific reference to the following articles, the merits of this perception will be discussed, taking into account ideological, institutional, and social considerations.
According to the article “The Mahadevi” by David Kinsley, the inherent unity of all goddesses can be symbolized through a specific goddess who is either confirmed as the highest deity or as the companion or sakti of the highest deity, and consequently all other goddesses are understood as manifestations of her (Kinsley, D., 132). This approach is typically considered from the perspective of male deities to demonstrate a sectarian desire for supremacy of one deity over others (Kinsley, D., 132). Despite the fact goddesses retain gender specific traits that ultimately promotes gendered hierarchies, an underlying theological assumption in texts celebrate the Mahadevi and conceive her as the powerful, creative, active, transcendent female being, and as a source of worship; ultimate reality (Kinsley, D., 133). Moreover, the Sakti is commonly identified with a female being to represent two interdependent poles of equal status within the divine economy (Kinsley, D., 133). Although these complementary divine poles reinforce a binary division of humans into male and female categories (which may ultimately reinforce a sectarian gendered hierarchy), the inclusion, consideration and recognition of both genders as equal may arguably indicate a 'proto-feminist' characteristic of early Hindu theological assumptions.
In the article, “Hinduism”, Katherine Young (1987) indicates that investigation into portrayal of Hindu women is explicitly confounded by the notion that such conceptions are based primarily on an analysis of Sanskrit texts that are dominated by a Brahman, masculine, and North Indian bias (Young, K., K., 60). Regardless, Young (1987) notes that goddesses were generally viewed positively during the Rg-Vedic Age, and paralleled the positive regard of women in society at that time (Young, K., K., 71). Particularly, despite the influence of the Brahmanas' hierarchical influence distinguishing men and women, the Rg-Vedic’s representation of woman as “auspicious, vital to the well-being of the family, and necessary for the presence of the gods”, was later reinforced by later Bhakti and Tantra and provided substitutes in classical and medieval periods (Young, K., K., 71). Ultimately, Young (1987) suggests that the nominal categorization of women with a goddess and their episodic rise to supremacy during times of ritual provided relief for Hindu women from patriarchal and other hierarchical organizations, and established a woman’s merit and spiritually lifted her existence (Young, K., K., 75).
Alternatively, according to Nancy Schuster Barnes (1987), Buddhist philosophical precept and core teachings are fundamentally rooted with egalitarian presuppositions (Shuster, B., N., 105). However, the insights provided in her article “Buddhism”, are confined to canonical literature of Buddhism produced in India (Shuster, B., N., 105). Hence, Barnes' support for an egalitarian sentiment promoting gender-neutrality is confined to the limitations of her article, which only considers conventional Buddhist literary tradition, transmitted to other Buddhist countries (Shuster B., N., 105). Despite the gender-neutrality assumed within the fundamental precepts describing human condition (the 4 Noble Truths), the implementation or practice of the 4 Noble Truths maintained a subordinate position for women in the formation of nuns’ order (Shuster, B., N., 106). Thus, a supposed gender-neutrality embedded in core scripture contradicts historical implementations and a discord between philosophy and practice further complicates the possibility a 'proto-feminist' movement or ideology existed within early Buddhism. Accordingly, Barnes (1987) suggests that once the nuns' monastic order was condoned, disparate and excessive rules were set for the nuns’ order in comparison to the monks’ order as a means for the monks to maintain power in the sangha (Shuster, B., N., 107). Moreover, the rituals focusing on the deceptive, decaying and illusory state of the female form perpetuated gender-inequality within the sangha since the focus on depictions of rotting female corpses ultimately affiliated the female body with domestic life, the antithesis of ascetic pursuits in Buddhism (Shuster, B., N., 112). Despite the disparate treatment of women within monastic life, Barnes (1987) supports the notion that Buddhism is a 'proto-feminist' tradition with the aid of other historical evidence. For instance, she notes that Buddhist theory has been used to sustain secular authority made by women rulers in China and elsewhere, such as by the seventh century Chinese woman emperor, Wu Ze-tian (Shuster, B., N., 132). However, evidence of 'proto-feminist' tradition is not consistent with Brahminical ritual influences and with the gendered hierarchical foundation within the sangha, which sanctioned a subordinate position for women via the nuns' order.
In addition to potential misconceptions concerning extent to which Buddhism is considered a proto-feminist tradition, conceptions of Confucianism are also comparable. Specifically, in the article “Confucianism”, Theresa Kelleher (1987) purports that women played a central role in Confucianism by virtue of their place in both the cosmic order and in the family (Kelleher, T., 135). Nevertheless, as a patriarchal religious tradition, Kelleher (1987) suggests the estimation of woman's' nature was by and large a low one (Kelleher, T., 135). However, limitations of Kelleher’s (1987) use of sources such as classical ritual texts, literary sources written by women for women, and biographies of exemplary women, support a bias that only attends to a privileged group in society (Kelleher, T., 135). Despite the bias embedded within use of sources that support a gendered hierarchy, socio-political movements or rule can be used to determine the extent to which Confucianism is a proto-feminist tradition. As a result, the core teachings in regards to both the male and female function is potentially context-dependent. For example, the effect of socio-political influence over Confucian tradition during the Han dynasty played a role over a 'proto-feminist' eligibility. Specifically, the religious path according to Pan Chao, revolved around the full acceptance of woman's inferiority and obedience to the relationships in marriage (Kelleher, T., 147). Such evidence reduces the merit of perceptions regarding Confucianism as a proto-feminist tradition.
In the article, “Taoism”, Barbara Reed (1987) illustrates the importance of female imagery in the Tao te ching as it expresses the way of nature, the Tao, and is synonymous with the role assigned to women in society (Reed, B., 163). Specifically, adjectives such as “weak”, “flexible” and “lowly” are promoted as the way of the Tao, even though these descriptors are commonly understood in other contexts as negative (Reed, B., 163). Moreover, in Chuang tzu, the other canonical Taoist text, descriptions of people who lived in harmony with the Tao are typically male characters (Reed, B., 164). Despite evidence of gendered hierarchy, Reed maintains that the Tao te ching and Chuang tzu do not assign value to social hierarchy since “there is no place for denigration of women” (Reed, B., 164). However, the necessity of interdependence between Yin and Yang is arguably symbolic of value placed on dependence, submission and passivity of the female in a relationship. Furthermore, Reed (1987) notes that some religious Taoism appraised Yang as superior (Reed, B., 165). Ultimately, emphasis on the importance of harmony between male and female cannot cancel out the significance of negative connotations associated with the female despite the positive regard associated with embodiment of the Tao as female. Ultimately, the mere assignment of gendered qualities reflects a socio-cultural emphasis on gender differentiation or of importance placed on gender categories. As a result, regarding Taoism as a fundamentally 'proto-feminist' tradition is questionable.
Barbara Reed, “Taoism”. Women in World Religions. Ed Arvind Sharma. SUNY Press 1987. 161-181.
David Kinsley, “The Mahadevi”. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: U of California Press. 1988. 132-150.
Katherine Young, “Hinduism”. Women in World Religions. Ed Arvind Sharma. SUNY Press. 1987. 59-103.
Nancy Schuster Barnes, “Buddhism” in Women in World Religions. Ed Arvind Sharma. SUNY Press 1987. 105-133.
Theresa Kelleher, “Confucianism” in Women in World Religions. Ed Arvind Sharma. SUNY Press 1987. 135-159.