Wednesday, October 12, 2016

C S Lewis: Sexist Dinosaur or Gender Progressive?

A year ago yesterday, the following was posted to the now defunct 

Women and C S Lewis: What his life and literature reveal for today's culture

Narnia author C. S. Lewis was often critical of progress, and once referred to himself as a "dinosaur." But his views on women were more progressive than many understand. At least that is what the writers of the new anthology, "Women and C. S. Lewis," assert.

Those who know of Lewis only through the Chronicles of Narnia could easily jump to the conclusion Lewis was sexist on the basis of a few passages. The words of Father Christmas in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" about how "battles are ugly when women fight," and the fact the White Witch is female are two examples commonly brought up as arguments for Lewis' alleged sexism – or even misogyny. And Susan's supposed exclusion from heaven because of "nylons and lipstick" in "The Last Battle" put the nail in the coffin on the matter for some.

However, Section Two, which examines how Lewis portrays women and girls in his fiction, provides many examples to counter this view. The problem with "the problem with Susan" is the critics are not examining the applicable passages very closely. Susan is not excluded from heaven; her fate remains uncertain because life on earth goes on. And she is absent not because she is interested in boys and other things girls of her age normally think about, but because she is interested in nothing else. Susan and Lucy are excluded from the battle in LWW, but in "The Last Battle," Jill Pole has a major role to play. And there are certainly many positive roles given to female characters, as well as negative roles for males.

Many critics point to "Till We Have Faces" as Lewis' crowning achievement in fictional writing. Lewis writes the book from the first person point of view of the female protagonist. While many presume the book was written in collaboration with his late-in-life bride Joy Davidman, the writers of the anthology point out what a remarkable feat it was, requiring sensitive insights no misogynist would be capable of, collaboration or not.

Besides Joy Davidman, a brilliant writer in her own right, Lewis had close relationships with several highly intellectual and talented women, who greatly influenced him. His mother, whom he lost when he was not quite ten, had degrees in Mathematics and Logic—very rare for a woman in the late nineteenth century. Although Lewis himself struggled with math, his mother also taught him French and Latin at a young age. Other friendships include Stella Aldwickle and Elisabeth Anscombe. Aldwickle was the founder of the Oxford University Socratic Club. Anscombe was also a member of the Club, and was a profound influence on Lewis; she was the impetus for his rewrites for the second edition of "Miracles."

Besides his wife, perhaps the most famous female friendship Lewis had was with Dorothy L. Sayers, mostly through written correspondence. Lewis was so impressed by her radio play, "The Man Born to be King" about the life of Christ, he made a habit of reading through it every Lent. Lewis did disagree with her on the subject of the ordination of women, but his respect for her intellect and talent is evident.

Some of Lewis' views certainly did not match with what most would consider feminist today, but the authors of this book would argue he was a positive influence toward more progressive views of women in his day – and even in our day. New York Times Best Selling author Randy Alcorn points to Lewis as the influence which inspired him to "speak out for women."

In the Conclusion to the book, co-editor Carolyn Curtis sums up the findings of the book, which included a variety of perspectives: complementarian and egalitarian, conservative and progressive.

We conclude that both Lewis' life choices and his writings take a high view of women, noting that the direction of his attitudes about women continues higher as his life goes on. Said differently, as he aged and matured, he grew in faith. Likewise, as he aged and matured, his views of women grew "higher."

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