While it is often held that Gnosticism is particularly open and respecting in regards to women, especially with the belief that all humans contain a divine spark (not to mention anything of Sophia ["Wisdom"], who plays a vital role in many Gnostic texts and traditions, and exemplifies the "Divine Feminine" principle which is at present our latent spark, waiting for gnosis to turn it into a Divine Flame), there are a few passages in certain texts that raise an eyebrow or two for some readers. In particular, there is Verse 114 of the Gospel of Thomas, which reads:
(114) Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life."
Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
For some (if not many) people, this verse initially leaves a bad taste in their mouth, especially if they haven't been exposed to many Gnostic teachings or the sometimes stark nature of some of the metaphors some Gnostic teachers used. Indeed, anyone who was to try taking a literal interpretation of this verse might be astounded at the implication that women are inferior to men, and "are not worthy of life" (which, one should note, is said by Peter, not Jesus, and Peter is again the one who dismisses Mary's vision of Christ in the Gospel of Mary, which suggests a recurring theme of his views on women). Worse yet, this could easilly give some misogynists a scriptural backing to their own behaviours, so that they could enforce it as "the word of God" (though one has to take into consideration that the Gospel of Thomas was widely used in Gnostic circles who taught regarding the Divine Feminine [and therefore would have not suggested misogynism], whereas it was not accepted into the corpus that eventually made up our modern New Testament at the time of the Council of Nicea).
However, and this is where I feel the misleading potential of this verse is crumbled, how can you actually take this verse literally? I mean, how exactly is she to be made literally male (and therefore worthy)? Firstly, I don't think sex changes were around at the time, and even if they were, would they be accepted as an honourable and indeed scriptural procedure for women to undergo? In fact, if all women were to make themselves literally (therefore physically) male, how would humanity survive? Is Jesus suggesting the eradication of the human race by sex change?
I don't think so. So then, what is he getting at with this unusual and provocative saying? This is where the distinction between gender and sex comes in. Sex is biological. I have a penis, therefore I am a man. This is sex (not to be confused with that strange excercise people do under blankets or in the back seats of cars). Gender is not limited to your biology. Many males have a male gender as this is the "code" set out by society, and indeed, the code is what establishes what is male in the sense of gender in the first place. The same goes for women. However, and I must stress this, a man can uphold a female gender, and vice-versa, regardless of general society's insistence on "none of that sort of thing".
Gender also, more importantly, goes beyond the realm of the sexes altogether and applies to a polarity view of the world around us. For example, from ancient times to the present, there has been a set of "binary opposites" established, which includes these two poles of male and female. On one side you have male, light, day, active, positive, fire, spiritual, and the Sun (among other things), and on the other you have female, dark, night, passive, negative, water, physical, and the Moon (think Moon Goddess versus the Solar Gods). Again, the sometimes misleading terms of positive and negative here do not actually equate with "good" and "bad" as we know them in everday terms, but two essential, equal, and complementary aspects of a symbiont process of existence. You cannot have day without night.
If we take two of the above polarities of male and female, those of spiritual and physical, then we start to get a much different picture of what Verse 114 is actually saying. Firstly, Peter says that Mary should leave them because she is not worthy of life. Life, in this instance, would be the spiritual Life after being "reborn in gnosis", as it were, so it is not suggesting that Mary is not worthy of physical existence. However, if we take the myths regarding Mary's role as a prostitute in her time in Babylon, and her possession by seven demons (possibly relating to the seven Archons [or planets], which bind her in captivity to earthly existence), we can easilly see how she is, at that time at least, still a physical, carnal, or "hylic" person (going with the Valentinian notion of "hylics" - people of the physical; "psychics" - people of soul [such as orthodox Christians in the case of a Gnostic viewpoint]; and "pneumatics" - people of spirit). Jesus suggests that he will "make her male", i.e. a spiritual or pneumatic person (or Gnostic), and that "she too may become a living spirit resembling you males". "Living spirit" in this instance again suggests a spiritually reborn person, and the use of the word "spirit" (pneuma) also reinforces the idea of gender being used to represent these polarities. "Resembling you males" would then refer to not necessarily all biological males (many of which would be likewise hylic in nature), but the apostles (as he is talking to them), who would be seen to have become spiritual people by their following of the teachings of Jesus (though some apostles were venerated more than others in this regard, depending on the Christian group).
One does have to wonder why the author (or rather compiler, which seems more likely, as there is conflicting viewpoints given in some of the sayings, which suggests potential multiple authors) kept this saying for last, or, indeed, included it at all. Understandably, the shock value is strong (though perhaps stronger now in today's society with feminism and other social drives), and perhaps the compiler felt it was best to keep it to last so as not to turn off some readers, allowing them to become more familiar with the rest of the material and therefore get a better understanding at what this verse might be saying. However, as a last verse, it's also the one that's going to stay in their mind for longer, with no others to follow and change that viewpoint. Was the compiler deliberately intending to shock his audience? Indeed, why did the writer use such a metaphor in place of other ones? As a poet myself, while I would be very reluctant to use gender in this way, given our "politically correct" sensitivities, I can see how the impact of this metaphor can really get a person's attention (and potentially, through its shocking nature, wake them up). It also points to the universal polarities of nature, and gender is much closer to us than the cycles of day and night are, for example - and if a person meditates on this verse to uncover its meaning, it helps them to unlock this universal principle of polarity that exists all around us. Finally, there is also the political mind of the author at the time, which, like everything else, influences the language in which we write things.
At this stage I would also like to quote another verse from the Gospel of Thomas, which gives a completely different (on the surface) suggestion of what to do with our maleness and femaleness (among other polarities):
(22) Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, "These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom."
They said to him, "Shall we then, as children, enter the kingdom?"
Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; and when you fashion eyes in the place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness; then will you enter the kingdom."
While the suggestion that we should become "like children" deserves a whole exegesis of its own, the large reply from Jesus that we should "make the two one" is important. While in Verse 114 it is suggesting we become spiritual people (by abandoning the bondages of physicality, and therefore entering into the eternal life of the spirit, and "not taste death"), here in 22, I feel it is suggesting that we return to our original state of oneness, to our primal image (tzelem) as Adam Qadmon, or Anthropos, the Heavenly Human that is Androgynous and therefore has all polarities intrinsically entwined, like the Yin Yang (which is another good example oh how polarities have been mapped over the millenia).
So, while this verse will remain controversial for many (so much so that some translators felt the need to add a note to explain the spiritual versus physical idea), it can still lead us to a well of truth that language can neither idolize nor defile.