Some readers may be familiar with the Bechdel test. Usually, it is used as a measure of gender bias in works of fiction. A work passes the test if it has two named women characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man. While the Bible is not (at least in my eyes) a work of fiction, it does have within it a number of narrative works, and as narratives they are as prone to displaying the biases of their authors as any others. I thought it would be an interesting exercise, then, to see which of these works pass the Bechdel test. I’ve put a summary below, along with comment where I thought it was warranted (for the sake of completeness, I’ve included the apocrypha, without meaning to imply anything about their canonical status. That is a whole other topic!)
First, some disclaimers. The Bechdel test is not the only or a perfect measure of gender bias. It can be criticised on a number of grounds. I don’t mean to suggest, by compiling this summary, that the books of the Bible which pass are thus free of gender bias, or indeed that the books which fail are intolerably biased. I was simply curious, when I learned of the test, to use it as one measure which might be food for thought. If anyone were interested in serious considerations of gender bias in the Bible, the necessary reading would be well beyond the humble scope of this blog.
For the purposes of this analysis, I have treated God as without gender; that is, a conversation about God is not about a man, and does not fail; and a conversation with God is not with a woman, and does not pass.
I notice, too, that this post has been linked to from Twitter and there are some comments there asking about which translation of the Bible I work from. To the best of my knowledge, different translations would not make a difference to this analysis, but for the curious, I generally work from the NRSV (or for the New Testament, from the original Greek. Sadly, I have not yet mastered Hebrew and need to rely on translations for the Old Testament).
So, without further ado:
Books which pass the Bechdel test:
Books which fail because there is conversation between named female characters, but it is about a man:
Books which fail because there is conversation, not about a man, between female characters who are not both named:
Samuel (taken as one work)
Kings (taken as one work)
Books which fail because named women speak, but only to men:
Chronicles (taken as one work)
Esther (including the additions)
Daniel (including the additions)
Books which fail because only unnamed women speak, and only to men:
Books which fail because no woman speaks:
*(only a small portion of the book is in narrative form, so it is limited by genre)
Books to which the test does not apply, since they are not in narrative form:
Song of Songs
Wisdom of Solomon
Letter of Jeremiah