A Careless Misogyny

Today is the Women’s World Day of Prayer. In many countries it has become simply the World Day of Prayer, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the older title is kept, and I think with good reason. It is a tacit reminder that in many parts of the world women and girls are confined to the roles their menfolk decide for them. Even among Christians, many are excluded from active roles in worship, such as reading the scriptures or leading prayers, while the Churches endorse the social structures that place many at a disadvantage in other aspects of life.

Were I to suggest that we in the West should take a long, hard look at ourselves before assuming that this is a problem for other people in other lands, I should immediately be branded a ‘feminist,’ as though that were a pejorative term, accused of lacking humility or humour or both, and dismissed with a few highly selective quotations from scripture and some very simplistic history. The trouble is, we in the West indulge in what I call ‘a careless misogyny’ which affects both men and women. Perhaps if we could see that attitudes to women and girls affect the whole of society we might learn to drop some of the hostility, the instinctive aggressive or defensive reactions we all tend to have.

I admit I myself just don’t ‘get’ some of the masculine jokes about women or the way in which kind, intelligent people sometimes talk or write about women. I find it demeaning, and trust I never talk about men or boys in the same way. I also don’t ‘get’ some of the angry and contentious remarks of those who see themselves as ‘victims’ of patriarchy, etc, etc. The situation is much more complex, and deserves a much more thoughtful response, especially when it is the Church that is in question.  As I remarked in my post about Cardinal Burke’s remarks on the feminisation of the Church (you can read my post, with a link to the whole text of his remarks, here), some of the arguments put forward in defence of the status quo really don’t stand up. Indeed, they are quite worrying as they seem to posit that the Church, and by extension the whole economy of salvation, exists for the benefit of men only.

I come back to something that, in retrospect, I realise had a profound effect on me. I never once heard my father make a slighting remark about women’s intelligence or crack even a slightly ‘off’ joke about them. He was a great believer in women’s education and had an enormous respect for my mother’s ability and professionalism. But — and this is an important ‘but’ — it wasn’t because he was a feminist, or an old-fashioned gentleman, or a complete wimp, it was because he believed in fairness and the importance of everyone’s contribution to the family and to society.

On this Women’s World Day of Prayer when the women of Cuba ask us to pray especially on the theme ‘receive the children; receive me’, perhaps we could pray for insight into our own attitudes and how they affect the younger members of the Church and of society. I believe that Christ died for the salvation of all; that each and every one of us has a unique role to play in the working out of that salvation; and that in heaven there are no second-class citizens. So, how can there be any here on earth?


7 thoughts on “A Careless Misogyny”

  1. As a man, it’s always awkward to comment on this sort of thing, but I think it’s an excellent, well-balanced, piece, especially in light of the previous one and your tacit allusion to a seeming tit-for-tat, ‘careless-misandry’, or, what might boil down to a, ‘couldn’t-care-less-ness’ about others altogether on ‘both sides’ (implying these people start off seeing it as some sort of competition, or ‘war-of-the-sexes’).

    I do wonder what would happen if we made a ‘return to virtue’ – not in the old, partonising, ‘gentlemanly’, ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about it, dear’, caricature of itself – but defining ourselves by real character (a sort of ‘neo-magnanimity’), rather than ‘personality’ or gender – in our dealings with each other (gender aside)?

    But in that vein, on a more humorous note, what’s the anti-feminised Cardinal Burke missing in this photo?

    Wool and some knitting needles? 🙂

  2. Very well said. In my lifetime, it’s been called World Day of Prayer here in the US, but always ‘organized’ by women’s church organizations. Thank you for enlightening me.

  3. Two points: I was struck by your description of your father, Sr. Catherine, because I had the same experience from mine! From the time I (the oldest of 5 children) I was in school and until Dad was killed, it was very clear that he expected every bit as much from and for his girls, all three of us, as he did from and for his boys. I have happy memories of all of us on Sunday afternoon picnics talking about what we wanted to be and do: it was definitely an equal opportunity occasion. We were all expected to “follow our bliss” no matter where it might lead. At the very bottom was my Dad’s deep respect for the gifts and abilities of all people, regardless of gender.

    Second Point: This attitude may have been unusual in the 1960s and 70s, but it was my bedrock, as was my Dad. Now most younger folks look at the role of women in churches which exclude them from full sacramental roles, and see in it the “careless (careful?) misogyny” that makes no sense to them.

    As someone who tried to make a living in the RC church as a liturgist and music director, I know very well that the misogyny is not so “careless.” It’s extremely institutionalized. A dear friend, a lay-woman who has given her life to working for the RC church in faith formation, having brought hundreds into the Church, was fired this week and given absolutely no cause, after 5 years of service in this parish. The parishioners are terribly upset: she was highly effective, very dedicated, and beloved (and worked for a salary at the poverty line). It turns out that the pastor decided to install an old friend of his, recently divorced, and long out of service in the church, in her position.

    My friend’s a widow now, but for many years was only able to work for the church because she had her husband’s income, and then his retirement income, and then window’s benefits. I was in a similar situation when I was able to work for over 20 years as a liturgist/church musician because I had some private income.

    In the U.S., where many parishes have large staffs, married women are the seriously-underpaid worker bees, doing everything except sacramental duties out of deep love, sacrifice, and devotion. Because most of them a husband to support them, they are viewed by the clergy as working for their “pin money.” They don’t need a living wage. Working for the Church was only made possible for my friend because she was married and had more to live on, but at the expense of not accruing enough social security retirement income in her own name. My friend, myself, and all the “worker bees” serve at the whims of a pastor, who has to give no reason for any hirings and firings he wreaks on entire the entire parish.

    I once overheard a pastor remark that a particular female staff member didn’t need adequate health insurance: she was covered under her husband’s policy!

    This is a very un-subtle misogyny: use and financially abuse women because they have others/husbands to support them. Feminization of the church? You betcha! At least in the States, we’re doing all the work.

  4. An excellent article. I too look back to a family where there was no diminution of expectations of me because of my being female, and I’m sure this has had an ongoing effect.

    I would, however, take issue with your description of your father. You say his attitude was not formed because he was a feminist, but rather because he believed in fairness and the importance of everyone’s contribution to the family and to society. But isn’t that exactly what feminism is about – fairness and equal importance, irrespective of gender?

    • I mentioned three possibilities (being a feminist, a gentleman or a wimp) as a way of emphasizing that we should look beyond labels, which is important in a world where labels often determine whether someone will be listened to or not. I would argue that my father was certainly a gentleman, for example, but I wouldn’t use that as an explanation of his attitudes. And, Ruth, forgive me, but gender (grammatical) isn’t sex (biological). You were always so precise in U.L. tea-room days . . . 😉

  5. At the risk of being somewhat contrarian (wot, me guv?) I think that ‘fairness and the importance of everyone’s contribution to the family and to society’ is the key.

    I’m very conscious that women, on the whole, are still disadvantaged as compared with men – and they certainly should not be. On the other hand, when I hear politicians talking about issues such as the problems of women in prison, I fear that they are merely tending to obscure the fact of the problems of fellow human beings in prison, irrespective of sex.

    Sure, most women should probably not be locked up but, equally, neither should most men – or at least not the socially-inadequate ones with mental health problems who account for a rather high proportion of them. And one of the reasons why we lock up so many people now as compared with thirty or so years ago is that politicians have increased minimum sentences and reduced judicial discretion in sentencing (on the Michael Howard principle that ‘prison works’) instead of making any serious headway on the issue of prisons as reformative institutions. We need to learn to treat each other better and, as a society, to take better care of the poor, the underprivileged and those who have slipped through the cracks of the welfare state. And that does not have a whole lot to do with sex or gender (whichever people prefer to label it).

    But that said, I’m an incurable, soaking-wet ‘sixties liberal – so I would say that, wouldn’t I.

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