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Neither slaves nor free

Kate Kirkpatrick

Women still earn 23 per cent less than men, have a one in four chance of suffering domestic violence and account for 90 per cent of eating disorders - so whatever happened to equality of the sexes? KATE KIRKPATRICK calls for a prophetic lead from Christians.


In 1910, the word 'feminist' made its first appearance in the United States. It had arrived in England several years before - a word imported from France and viewed with much suspicion. It smelled of 'women's rights', which were, in Queen Victoria's words, a 'mad, wicked folly'.

One hundred years on, 'feminism' is still viewed with some suspicion. Perhaps there are more reasons for this being the case. After all, many extreme views have paraded in its name - for example Sheila Cronan's insistence that marriage constitutes slavery for women, and that it must be abolished for women to be truly free.

But there is more to feminism than such extremes, and contrary to the 'post-feminist' view that equality has been achieved, women today still need advocates. The debate about women bishops has caught the attention of the secular media, and got the church talking. But in working out women's roles in ministry, the church should not lose sight of its broader responsibility towards women in general.

In February, a new book by Guardian journalist Natasha Walter hit the shelves - Living Dolls: The return of sexism. Walter, who published The New Feminism in 1998, then argued that feminists should target specific political, financial and social aims. Private life didn't need reform, she thought. Who and how women loved, what they wore, who did their housework, were not central concerns. Rather, 'we had only to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to whither away.'

In her new book, she writes, 'I was entirely wrong.'

Walter's book is the first of three feminist tomes due to be published this year (along with Banyard's The Equality Illusion, and Redfern and Aune's Reclaiming the F Word: The new feminist movement). All share a sense of disillusionment  and a mission to get the post-feminists to realize they need to drop the prefix and go back to being, well, just plain feminist.

But what does it mean to be feminist today? In the academic sphere adjectives like 'stalled', 'fragmented' and 'failed' have been used to describe the movement. And in the perceptions of most young women, they're pretty close to the mark. I am a woman in my twenties - educated and career-minded - but I am a reluctant feminist. Or, more accurately, I'm a keen feminist who is reluctant to wear the badge. Like many women of my generation, until recently I associated the F word only with undesirable extremes - libertinism on the one hand, prudery on the other; bra-burning; 'vituperative man-hating'; a fragmented group who don't know what they want any more; 'angry women who can't have fun'. If not objectionable, feminism was at least (now) pretty irrelevant. After all, women can work, can't they? Suffrage and property are our rights, aren't they? So what can feminism do to change life for the better?

But the pageant of lives unfolding - the celebration of marriages, careers, and births - has made me realize that the men and women of my generation are no longer sure what it means to be male and female in the 21st century. We still read 19th-century novels and watch James Bond; our ideals of love and life hark from very different contexts than our own. In the personal realm some hold on to antiquated stereotypes - as a sort of comfort blanket, or the Sat-Nav approach to navigating life - it seems easier to follow a prescribed route than to get out the map and find one's own way.

Granted, we are still in the transitional stages of 'women's liberation'; it takes time for societies to change. In the US, abolition occurred nearly 150 years ago, and yet there is still racism and discrimination. So is it so surprising that women might feel like the subject of growing pains?

No. But sometimes they feel more like setbacks. When Walters published The New Feminism in 1998, equality was something she could be optimistic about: New Labour had just been elected, and there were female figures like Mo Mowlam, Clare Short and Harriet Harman taking leading roles in politics. There was still a large gap to close, but the goal seemed within reach. Twelve years on, how much further has British culture come? While no one is likely to support the view that sexism ever completely 'went away', in many ways it now seems culturally entrenched.

Living Dolls begins with a surreal and disturbing account of what one interviewer called 'the seedy underbelly' of modern culture, a 'Babes on a Bed' competition in a Southend nightclub - the point being to find a 'glamour model' for Nuts magazine. Why, asks Walter, are stripping and pole dancing now viewed as empowering, liberating? A recent survey concluded that 60 per cent of Mancunian girls would consider glamour modelling as a career choice. If this is the best women think they have to offer, feminism still has a way to go.

Walters wrote and rewrote her chapter on pornography, trying to avoid the accusations of 'prudery' that any criticism would provoke. Her research suggests that it has become increasingly difficult for young women to opt out of the highly sexualized culture, that they are afraid of the consequences of protesting. In the 1980s, writes Walter, 'it was OK to be annoyed about sexism, to take it quite seriously - if you argued about it, it didn't make you the subject of mockery. Even if you didn't particularly identify yourself as a feminist, you could choose where you wanted to be on a spectrum, and you could still say, "I really don't want Page 3 in the common room," or, "I really hate the idea of porn" ... I was surprised when I was interviewing young women that they felt uncomfortable engaging in that way.'

The second half of the book was inspired by Walters' becoming a mother, and looks at arguments for biological determinism, which have suddenly multiplied in recent years. As mother of a girl and a boy, she criticizes the idea that gender stereotypes have their roots in biology - that all boys gravitate towards blue, cars and lightsabers, and girls are naturally enamored with pink, frills and baby dolls. Though nature and nurture have been battling it out for centuries - and the arguments for both sides can be persuasive - Walter's conclusion is that parents are 'endlessly reinforcing stereotypes'.

The cumulative argument is that Britain has regressed: somehow, women's liberation has met with a reassertion of sexist values. Women are now objectified in the name of 'freedom'; it is acceptable to think that boys and girls (and men and women) are simply 'wired' to behave in certain ways; and therefore, inequality is inevitable.

Her conclusions are supported by other research - attitudes towards women in the private and public spheres are not as widely 'post-feminist' as you might think. While what life is like for 'women' is impossible to characterize in general terms, statistics give us insight into what many experience today:

•    Women working in the UK earn on average 23 per cent less than men.
•    Two-thirds of the world's illiterate people are  women.
•    The conviction rate for rape is only 6.5 per cent in the UK.
•    1.5 million people in the UK have an eating disorder; 90 per cent of them are women.
•    During the 1990s the number of men paying for  sex acts in the UK doubled.
•    One in four women living in the UK experiences violence at the hands of a current or former partner each year.

If the church were to see these as a social justice issues like any other, would our response be different?

In 2009 Jacqui Smith led a Home Office review into the sexualization of girls and young women. Explaining the reasoning behind the review, Smith said that while some parents see Playboy T-shirts for 11-year-olds as 'a bit of fun', others are concerned that their girls are encouraged to look sexually available from a younger and younger age. Music videos and lyrics were similarly under investigation for links with sexual abuse and violence.
In the US - where porn is not as easily visible, not stacked high above Milky Bars in every corner shop - a report by the American Psychological Association found cognitive and emotional consequences. These extend beyond mental to physical health to the development of the body and a healthy sexual self-image.

The results in the UK are similar: sexualization has been linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression. Different studies give different statistics, but whichever set you believe women now are less happy than they have been in the past: a woman aged 25 in 1980 was 3 to 10 times more likely to have suffered depression than her grand-mother. Since then the trend has become particularly visible both among those from affluent backgrounds, and significantly younger women, with the proportion of depressed 15-year-old girls almost doubling (from 24 to 43 per cent) between 1987 and 2006.

One can only speculate about causes of this phenomenon - they're are bound to be many and varied - but in the private sphere the cultural emphasis on appearance over depth, sex over relationship, and power over mutuality might have something to do with it.


The public sphere also leaves something to be desired. In 2006 Britain was ranked 9th-best in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. In 2009 it slipped to 15th, below (in des­cending order) Iceland, Finland, Nor­way, Sweden, New Zealand, South Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Philip­pines, Lesotho, Netherlands, Germany, Swit­zerland and Latvia.

The WEF report's index 'assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities.'

But it also challenges assumptions that women occupy a universal, inevitable place in society, and that Britain is doing as well as it possibly could. The UK is doing some things right for women - it achieves the highest possible score for women's literacy and educational achievements. It is now the case that 69 per cent of women go on to tertiary education, for example, while only 49 per cent of men do.

In the realm of work, however, the results are not so glowing. Though few women are unemployed (4.87 per cent versus 5.54 per cent of men), there are still significant discrepancies in wages for the same work, in personal earnings overall, and in the kinds of work women do: the professions, managerial positions, and government are still occupied mainly by men. In terms of economic participation and opportunity, as well as political empowerment, women have not yet attained 'equality'.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that somewhere along the line women lose confidence. Another is that no one is sure what 'equality' would really look like: certain biological facts mean we can't compare apples to apples.

Women still have to bear children, and psychologists have demonstrated that children need their mothers in the earliest months of life for the best possible development. Where second-wave feminists argued for equal pay and equal work - for public-sphere equality - one consequence of women being more widely able to work is that third-wave feminists have turned their gaze to women's choices. Since the advent of the pill women have had the power to choose different life-paths as never before. Some will choose careers and some will choose children; some will choose both. But our choices are still limited by the world in which we make them.

In other countries, there is greater flexibility between parents to organize care for their children. In the streets of Oslo it is just as common to see a father pushing a pram as it is to see a mother. Here couples are allowed to split parental leave (54 weeks at 80 per cent of salary, or 44 weeks at 100 per cent salary), with the sole restriction being that the father must take at least 6 weeks off, and the mother must take at least three weeks before and six weeks after the birth. The EU Parliament's suggestion that maternity leave should be extended to 20 weeks at full pay (which many British politicians rejected in March as putting an unnecessary strain on businesses, and likely to lead to discrimination) looks conservative in comparison. Norwegian politicians are also more representative of the population they represent, with nearly half of party leaders being female, and women in key posts in the cabinet. Like the other Nordic nations that receive top marks, Norway has made a priority of creating a society that allows women to be more active in the public sphere.

Meanwhile, Britain has slipped down another list: the EU rankings for the well-being of children, where it comes 24th of 29 countries ranked. At the top of the list, again, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland occupy four of the top five spots. Greater equality between men and women and flexibility for parents doesn't make children worse off; quite the opposite.

In 2003, the authors of Talking Equality - a report on gender equality commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission - concluded that while 'inequality' (defined as discrimination on the grounds of sex) was alive and well, the mass of the population was reluctant to admit the fact. Many believed that women were worse paid and worse treated by nature or their own choice.

Whether or not there is an 'equivalent of racism' operating against women - the conclusion Ger­maine Greer draws from this evidence - we have seen that in both economic and psychological terms, women's hopes have been left unfulfilled. And it is difficult to believe that this stasis (or decline) is always the result of women's choices, freely made.

Perhaps Greer is right to argue that equality was an empty notion. The original vision of women's liberation's  was of a world where women could 'blossom into full self-realization'. On that project, she writes 'we have got precisely nowhere'.

'Self-realization' may not seem like a political pursuit, but it is. As far back as Aristotle there were two politically constructed spheres of human existence - oikos and polis - which were recognized to yield different satisfactions and different esteem. The polis, the place of politics and production, results in tangible, often quantifiable benefits: income, social reform, achievement. The oikos, the world of women and children (in Aristotle's Athens and recent history), is a realm of maintenance and reproduction. The oikos entails necessary, monotonous repetition, where creativity is often overridden by caretaking, production by reproduction, and development by duty. This is hardly fertile ground for self-realization. But it has been women's lot.


However, the question of self-realization is not one that should be posed for women only. One interesting debate in Norway has developed from the fact that men would like to spend more time with their children, but feel constricted by macho roles and long working hours.

Men now have more choices about how they want to live their lives, and these, too, present challenges. In a society where economic gain and status are valued highly, if men are no longer 'the provider' ­­- if primeval identities are being undone - then who are they? Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook, now argues that it is men who are 'cowed' in the 'sex war.'
In Britain, where successful women can be called 'ball-breakers' or demonized for daring to combine paid work with childcare, men can often be viewed with suspicion if they don't conform to the 'bread-winner' stereotype. The father at the school gate may be viewed as 'a little odd'. The Sat-Nav approach to men and women can take its toll on both.

As a young woman, I hear the voices of popular culture shouting at full volume. One of the Bible's most revolutionary messages was that there is 'neither slave nor free, neither male nor female'. But is the church committed to counteracting society's siren song? If so, it needs to turn up the volume.

Where society is struggling to figure out what 'equality' between men and women is, the church must seek to embody something it similarly doesn't fully understand - how to be 'neither male nor female' in Christ.

There is nothing new in arguing that Jesus was a feminist, where feminist means 'a person who is in favor of, and who promotes, the equality of women with men, a person who advocates and practices treating women primarily as human persons (as men are so treated) and willingly contravenes social customs in so acting.' But the church is still seen by many to perpetuate stereotypes and live in the past.

In the Gospels, Jesus neither said nor did anything that suggested women are inferior to men. Rather he elevated them to the same status, subverting the social order of his day. In a world where rabbis thanked God daily that they had not been born women, Jesus sought women out, even the most untouchable. In a world where women were expected to provide hospitality while men discussed religion and grew in faith and knowledge, he told Martha that attending to his teachings was more important than attending to the kitchen. In a world where women were lowly, he used a parable that likened God to a woman, a creature made in his image (the lost coin, Luke 15). He came that we may all 'have life, and have it to the full' (John 10:10).

The church must not lose sight of its responsibility to all women in debates over female consecration. Whoever is wearing the mitre, we must attend to women's - and therefore also men's - changing needs in a changing society. Gender should not just be on the agenda in politics (whether of church or state), but in working out our faith - in working out what it means to live the Gospel as men and women today.

In the New Testament Christians were called to be paroikoi, 'resident aliens' who live in the world, but are not of it. In respect of sexism especially, Amen.