One hundred years ago, Emily Davison fought hard for women to have the right to vote. She was jailed and force-fed several times and eventually died from injuries gained when she stepped in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby with the hope of bringing more attention to the cause.
Emily and her fellow campaigners saw winning the vote as a vital step for women in gaining equality with men. I wonder what kind of society they imagined as they looked into the future, and what they would think of the way we live now.
Because even though men and women have the same rights under law, we still experience significant inequalities in different areas of life. Nearly 100 years after the first woman took her seat in parliament, just over one fifth of our MPs are women. A recent survey of contributors to serious public debate through newspapers, radio and TV found that again just over a fifth of them were women. Women are in the minority in business leadership, and the recession has hit women the hardest with more of them losing their jobs as a result of cuts. Women still earn less than men over 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, with those working full-time earning 85p for every £1 earned by a man.
And it’s not just women who are disadvantaged through inequality. Men are significantly more likely to die from cancer than women, and three-quarters of those who commit suicide are male. Men make up ninety-five per cent of the prison population. Girls are out-performing boys at every level of the education system and more of them go on to higher education. There are considerably more women than men in the congregations of our churches, although the majority of church leaders are men.
These inequalities are damaging the quality of people’s lives, harming relationships between men and women, limiting the effectiveness of businesses and institutions and restricting the freedom our children have to reach their full potential.
And yet when I read the bible, I see a completely different vision of how things could be. God created both men and women in his image and together gave them the task of exploring and developing the world he had made as equal partners. That harmony and cooperation was disrupted when people disobeyed God, and conflict and competition entered the scene. But God always had the intention of redeeming everything that was spoilt by sin, including the distorted dynamics between women and men.
equality is not a call for men and women to be identical
Jesus related to women in a radically different way to the culture around him, treating them with respect, welcoming them into his wider community of disciples, taking time to teach them and allowing them to bear witness to his resurrection. He modelled a profoundly different form of servant leadership that didn’t lord it over others or depend on hierarchy. The early church wrestled with how to enable these restored relationships between men and women to flourish, and women took their place alongside men as leaders and teachers in the community.
As followers of Jesus we are called to work out the redemption he offers in every area of life, allowing his spirit to transform our brokenness, demonstrating the wisdom of walking in God’s ways and modelling something profoundly different to the damaged relationships between men and women in the rest of the world. I’ve also seen the liberating impact of women and men who value equality and are proactive about dismantling the barriers that stand in its way – the churches that take time to nurture all the gifts that both men and women have to offer; the parents who make it a priority to share work and the care of children so that both can pursue their calling; the households where everyone does their fair share of the domestic work; the workplaces that root out sexism and aim to open up opportunities to everyone. Equality is not just a nice concept or an interesting idea; it’s foundational to true human flourishing, allowing people to experience life in all its fullness and pass that on to others.
But it seems to me that equality is easily misunderstood and can be a slippery concept to grasp. For a start, are men and women really equal? We’re clearly different in lots of ways. And aren’t the differences between men and women a good thing? Wouldn’t it be dull if we were all exactly the same? If women were really equal to men, wouldn’t there be as many of them leading businesses, taking part in government and writing opinion pieces by now? Maybe the fact that they’re still in the minority proves that actually they’re just not cut out for it. It’s important to explore what equality is, and what it isn’t, what it means to say that women and men are equal and what stops that equality being experienced in every area of life.
What do we mean by equality?
Equality is the belief that all people have the same value, regardless of any other defining characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or age. A society that values equality will work to eliminate discrimination, disadvantage and barriers to opportunities so that everyone can reach their full potential. Equality is about treating people fairly without prejudice or assumptions. Equality, particularly when we’re talking about women and men, is about being free to choose the direction your life takes and having the encouragement and opportunities to live out that choice, rather than being constrained by stereotypes or cultural convention. It’s about everyone being able to flourish.
To say that men and women are equal is to affirm that we are equally human and made in the image of God. We are of equal value and intelligence and should enjoy the same rights and responsibilities in our world. Women and men are equal in potential, with the same ability to lead, create, innovate, achieve and be agents of change.
At the same time, equality is not a call for men and women to be identical, but it is a call to think carefully about what any differences between women and men might mean. Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and an advocate for equality in the US, says ‘I believe there are differences between men and women. Some are (clearly) biological, others are (possibly) biological and still others are socially conditioned… I do not believe those differences to be universal, prescriptive or indicative of hierarchy.’ In other words, any differences that there might be between women and men don’t apply to everyone, they don’t tell you what people ought to be like, and they don’t prove that one sex is superior in any way to the other.
True equality values and encourages difference but doesn’t legislate for how it is expressed. It values the rich diversity of women and men and the different interests, gifts, personalities, talents and circumstances that they contribute to their families, communities, churches and workplaces without limiting who can do what. It recognises that there can be more difference between two women who have had very different life experiences than there might be between a woman and a man who have been brought up in similar ways. True equality allows difference to flourish and doesn’t squash individuality by saying someone can’t be like they are because of their sex.
So how can we create families, workplaces, churches and communities that value equality and enable people to flourish? My book, Equals, looks at this in detail, and explores how we can practice equality at home, at work, at church, in relationships and while we’re parenting. But here are a couple of things to start you on that journey.
Keep talking about what it’s like to be male or female
It’s possible to say and think all the right things about the equality of men and women, but to act differently because patterns of behaviour and the influence of our background can be deeply ingrained. We need to take time to reflect on the way we behave, and listen to the experiences of others to find out how being male or female affects the real-time activities of our lives. Let’s respond to the reality of who we are and what we are like, not the stereotypes of what men and women ought to be. We can allow space for diversity to emerge through listening to people’s different experiences, and by questioning and deconstructing the stereotypes that are often so limiting.
Be proactive about practicing equality in all areas of life.
Old habits die hard. If we want a more equal world, then we need to be intentional about doing things differently; things won’t just change. How we share things like housework at home or opportunities at church between women and men has an impact on the amount of free time we have, the role models we provide for others and our ability to use our gifts. What could you do differently to put equality into practice?
Jenny Baker has been an advocate and activist for the equality of men and women for many years. She is a host of the Gathering of Women Leaders in London and has an MSc in gender studies. She works for Church Urban Fund and is a marathon runner and keen cyclist. Her book Equals: enjoying gender equality in all areas of life is published by SPCK.
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