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Why we need feminism

1101920120_400A recent Grove Ethics booklet, Women, Justice, and the Church: An Apology for Feminism, is a really compelling study by Kate Kirkpatrick from St Clare’s in Oxford. She wants us to move beyond current debates about women in ministry to ask much more fundamental questions about the place of women in society—and in particular to be alert to the different between the de jure and de facto status of men’s and women’s equality. Her study includes some startling statistics.

There is good news about equality, especially in education:

In the UK, for example, girls now outperform boys at all levels of education, from age 7 to university. In fact, in 2013, the growing disparity in achievement between girls and boys led to the suggestion that the government should commission a study on boys’ underachievement. In 2010, for the first time in history, women became the majority of the workforce in the United States. The majority of managers in the US are now women and there are three women graduating with bachelor’s degrees for every two men. (p 8)

This accounts for the declining interest amongst women in the label ‘feminist.’ Yet when we look at the workplace, there is still significant disparity:

The proportion of women in governments is rarely proportional to the number of women in the population, and the higher the position of power—at the national level of parliaments and senates, prime ministers or presidents, the fewer women representatives we find. The UK is 58th in international rankings for women in such positions, with only 22.5% of its representatives being female. The USA is 80th, with 17.8%. Rwanda is in first place, with 63.8% women representatives in their lower house and 38.5% in the upper. In second (with a neat 50% of representatives in a single political house), we find Andorra. Economically, in the UK a woman’s mean gross hourly earnings are still 81p for every £1 earned by men. Despite the attention third-wave feminists have drawn to the gender pay gap, it is still there, and the discrepancy in pay widens over time—as women age their earnings drop in relation to men.’

Women today are still widely expected to perform certain types of work. According to a 2012 report by the UK Trades Union Congress, ‘Around 17.2% of men in work are low paid, compared with 28% of women workers, with those women who work part-time the most likely to be in low paid employment.’ There seem to be persistent problems of occupational gender segregation, both vertically and horizontally. In the UK women are still less likely to have higher-paid professional and managerial jobs; they are ‘concentrated in a much narrower range of jobs than men, particularly the five “Cs”—caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work. For example, 19% of women in employment do administrative or secretarial work compared with 5% of men; 15% of women are employed in the personal services compared to 2% of men; and 10% of women work in sales compared to 5% of men.’

And if we look at the domestic situation, things are even worse:

In Britain 8 out of 10 married women do more household chores, and just 1 in 10 men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife. The remaining 1 in 10 men do more housework than their wives. What this means is that while the past 50 years have seen greater numbers of women shouldering a greater proportion of the economic burden of their households, patterns of household work have changed only slightly since the 1950s.

Kate explores the complex issues around these facts—and of course there is the huge issue of childbirth and parenting to be considered. Mothers are always more likely to be involved in parenting, and what is it that makes us value ‘paid employment’ more than the serious business of raising a family? So perhaps the most startling, measurable issue is the role of the media in differentiating men and women.

Style over substance: the media is more likely to dedicate column inches to female politicians’ fashion sense (or perceived lack thereof) than that of their male colleagues.

Personal lives and familial descriptions: journalists tend to focus more on female politicians’ personal lives—their marital and maternal status is given much greater attention, which many take to reflect double standards in society with reference to women’s ability to balance their professional and family roles, and women politicians are often described in familial terms—as ‘a grandmotherly redhead dressed in a sensible suit,’ for example, whereas men are described in professional terms, highlighting their experience, accomplishments, and positions on political issues.

Discrepancies in reports of speech: men’s speech is likely to be reported using neutral speech verbs (eg say, tell, talk about), whereas women’s was reported with more violent/aggressive language (eg blast, slam, attack, accuse).

Paraphrasing: journalists are more likely to paraphrase women’s statements than men’s.

Negative gender distinctions (ie a reference to one’s sex that is described as a hindrance): men are more likely than women to be described in sex-neutral terms, in which the subject’s sex is irrelevant to how he or she is portrayed.

And, last but not least, there are the archetypal or clichéd images of women, which present a narrow range of iconic images of women: mother, blonde, teacher, iron lady, witch, ice queen, seductress, old maid.

Kate goes on to explore biblical and theological issues and resources. But the facts above are enough to show that we need to continue to take the ‘feminist agenda’ in some form seriously—whatever our theological presuppositions.


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5 Responses to Why we need feminism

  1. Liz Shercliff July 10, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    I’ve recently been thinking about differences between the way men and women preach. I think it’s important because preaching courses are more often than not written and taught by men, and the masculine is assumed to be the neutral position. It’s important because it’s only when women preach as women that women’s experiences, spiritual and otherwise, are validated. And only when the church presents is message from both masculine and feminine viewpoints can it really incarnate its message. Here’s an article I wrote for The Preacher magazine (the journal of the College of Preachers): http://www.collegeofpreachers.co.uk/preacher-promotional

    • Ian Paul July 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

      Thanks, Liz. Very interesting. But I have been struck that, compared with liturgy revision and *that* issue, how little interest there has been on Facebook and the blog in this question.

      Looks pretty important to me!

  2. Bishop Alan Wilson July 10, 2014 at 10:33 pm #

    Thanks, Ian for this. There is a justice problem, but there’s also a theological problem: God makes people and gifts them, only to have the purpose for which he gifted them stymied by locked-in attitudes to the possibility that he might have done what he did!

    • Ian Paul July 11, 2014 at 10:52 am #

      The information on the media shows how deeply ingrained these things are…

  3. Rosie Finnegan February 3, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

    Thank you Ian for writing a post about this matter. Sadly, not everyone who speaks out about the need for feminism is always taken seriously. Sometimes they are even ridiculed and bullied, as this article shows: http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2013/jun/20/why-i-started-a-feminist-society

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