Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gender Roles In Heathenry

There has been a recent resurgence in the discussion within Heathenry on racism and the role it has played, and is continuing to play. This discussion reflects on the way Heathenry is seen, not only by those who are unfamiliar with our ways, but to those who have recently come to Heathenry, as well as those who have been on the Heathen path for years or even decades. Let me be clear: there is no room in my Heathenry for racism.

This discussion has reminded me of a conversation I once had with a fellow Heathen about gender roles in Heathenry following a workshop on Seiðr given by the amazingly knowledgeable and gifted (now dearly departed) Rod Landreth. In the lore, there is a word, ergi, which is an Old Norse term of insult, denoting effeminacy or other unmanly behavior.The practice of Seiðr by a man was considered ergi in the Viking Age, as well as in Icelandic accounts and medieval Scandinavian laws. No one would deny Odin’s prowess as Seiðmaðr, yet he was still called ergi for practicing it.

This, I think, illustrates a long history in western culture of the delineation of the genders, and what happens when those lines are crossed. Women could do certain things that men could not, and in turn, men could do certain things that women could not. Historically, there were usually good reasons for this division. Women cared for the estate because the men were called away to war every season. The logic in this situation is that, if the woman cared for the estate, there would be a consistency of leadership within the household. The women literally held the keys to the kingdom while the menfolk fought to protect it and provide better resources for it.  

From the Viking Age moving forward, as the world changed due to the influence of Christianity, the role of women became more marginalized while the role of men expanded. I’m not saying that Viking women had it good, but they did have a lot more freedoms than many of their descendants (and even contemporaries) had. It wasn’t until the late Victorian period that women would make a push for equality, something that still hasn’t been fully realized in the western world.

Whatever our motivations for reconstructing Heathenry, there is one thing that we must come to terms with: our Heathenry is a modern one.  There is no unbroken line of Heathen practice coming down to us from the early medieval period. With that in mind, we are reconstructing Heathenry in a century very different from the last century it was practiced in. We have cars, computers, the internet...we put human beings on the Moon! Why then must we reconstruct the outdated gender roles of a long dead society in our own culture -- a culture that has fought for at least a hundred years to bring equality to the genders? Ergi is an insult. Calling someone a sissy is an insult. Equating somone to the “lesser sex” is meant to be derogatory. When men seek to learn how to weave, to sew, to be stay-at-home dads, society degrades them. “That’s women’s work.” The inverse is also true.  When women seek careers instead of kids, we call them selfish. When women assert that their skills and intelligence are equal to that of men, they’re called bitches and dykes.

This has to stop. To pigeonhole genders into specific roles in this modern age is archaic and ridiculous. Men can be stay-at-home dads. Women can have careers. Men can practice Seiðr. Women can be Chieftans.

Reflecting on the conversation that spurred this post, I found it surprising and disheartening to find a modern day Heathen that thinks there will always be areas that are “women’s work.” As a woman, I regularly experience gender bias. When I walk into the auto-parts store I have to assure the sales associates that I do, indeed, know what a socket wrench is. When I have to assert that I’m not a simple headed woman, that I actually know how to install my own GDDR5 SDRAM. When I have to fight for my right to control my own body, to insist that I have the right to ask for and receive a tubal ligation even though I have never had children. To hear a man insist that activities traditionally considered to be in the realm of women should remain that way, widens the gulf between the genders even further.

Gender based discrimination is not, generally speaking, something that men have to worry about. I do, however, recognize that men experience gender bias. Ask a dad who's changed his daughter's diaper in a public bathroom how many times he's been called a perv. What I never expected was to hear from a man that he can’t sew, not because he doesn’t have the ability, but because it’s in the realm of women. My eldest brother was taught how to sew. He made really good money in college fixing clothes for fellow students...and met a lot of women that way too.  The point is, there is no such thing as “women’s work” anymore.  Men are just as capable at sewing, knitting, weaving as women. Women are just as capable at fixing cars, grilling meat, and playing sportsball as men. We are past the point of reserving certain mysteries for certain genders. Such exclusionary, sexist beliefs have no place in a modern Heathenry, just like racism has no place in Heathenry. Our Heathenry is not perfect. There is no Heathen Pope, no central organizing authority, and therefore, no "wrong" way to practice Heathenry. That being said, it's a failing of society as a whole, not necessarily just Heathenry, that particular groups within our society experience marginalization and prejudice.

~Sara Gavagan Conley


  1. I agree, with everything but the Bias part regarding men. Your situation is exactly the opporsite in an auto parts store where I am expected to know what a socket wrench is, how to size a nut with my eyes and I have no idea what GDDR5 SDRAM even means. Men for years were denied their children because it was a womans area, men are over 90% of work place deaths. Great article but Men are forced into certain areas as well, every day.

  2. I agree with what Derek says, and to build upon that men and women are not physically created equal. In the realm of sport the average man will almost always have the advantage over the average female. There are exception and rarities but that is why there are so. There is a reason why the majority of professional sports are male dominated. Great article though!