Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gender equality

I've been reading a lot about fundamentalism lately. It just kind of led naturally off of my research about spanking -- research that uncovered a lot of scary stuff, I'll admit. I was reading a testimony of someone who had endured tremendous spousal abuse within a fundamentalist group. She was talking about how she was never considered an equal, and quoted lots of stuff about the subordination of women. Then she tossed off something about how it's a throwback to that awful, terrible, woman-hating thing -- the Catholic Church.

I actually felt a little amused. This woman was beaten by her husband in the name of religion, and that's almost as bad as being Catholic. You know, that religion I grew up in and still possess, the one where I have spent 25 years being treated absolutely as an equal? Yeah, that one.

The thing is, people really do think that. They think that the Catholic Church hates women because women are not allowed to be priests.

Personally, I never felt bad about not being able to be a priest. Lots of people can't be priests: married men (in the Roman Rite at least), people with various disabilities, people incapable of living in total celibacy (which, hello, this is hard!), and, oh yeah, women. I can't be an astronaut either, because I'm out of shape and didn't major in the right stuff. It wasn't a big deal to me.

After all, priesthood is something that's meant to be about service to the Church. Admittedly, it hasn't always played out like that. But the best priests usually end up living a life of obscurity and self-sacrifice, rarely getting a break, being hated for what they represent, and being expected to be perfect. The life itself, if you're doing it right, isn't a path of roses.

And as far as "leadership" goes, since the Church can't change its doctrine, it's hard to say why exactly one would want to be a leader of it. Mainly you're there to be the front man, to take the fall when everything goes wrong (as it does all the time), and to spend your life quibbling with the quibblers and pushing papers around to get the right people in the right places. It's not as glamorous as it looks.

In any event, I don't have any particular argument to put forward about the male-only priesthood, except that, as I said, the Church doesn't change its doctrine. Since the male-only priesthood is what we received from Christ, that's what we have. I presume Our Lord knew what he was doing. It sure was useful back when the Church was started, and even now there are some practical advantages.

Instead, I'm thinking more about my own life. Am I, as a Catholic woman, equal to a man?

The standard answer is, "Men and women are equal, but different." However, that could play out a lot of different ways. Some people say, "Men and women are equal (in that they both get to go to heaven in the end), but different (in that they are supposed to be subordinate to every man, all the time)." So the only real way to see if men and women are equal is practically. Practically speaking, am I ever treated as less than an equal? Am I expected to limit my dreams and desires to make way for those of a man, or to fit an ideal of women that doesn't fit me?

The answer, in short, is no. Well, almost never. I have met men who do not treat me as an equal. I can detect a man like that after five minutes of conversation, and it ruins him in my mind forever. It happens when I join a political conversation men are having, and they nod to me, say hello, and then continue their conversation over my head. It happens when I give a contribution in a meeting of some kind, and they go on as if I haven't spoken. It happened when I was told I wasn't welcome at a certain party, because it was a "guys' night," and everyone came home having founded a debate society and voted each other into office. (Yeah, I'm still a little mad about that. It turned out okay though.) Chauvinism is still alive and well, and sadly some traditionally-minded people get it in their heads that chauvinism is "traditional" and "Catholic."

I even was once told by a philosophy professor that I did not have as much of the image and likeness of God as a man does, because reason is how we resemble God, and women are less rational. Need I even say that this is not a doctrine of the Catholic Church? I was steaming mad when I walked out of that class. Luckily all of my friends agreed with me completely, and my male classmates were the first to take on the professor in the class discussion.

The most basic level of equality is within marriage. Am I my husband's equal? Most definitely. In fact, I am often treated as more than an equal, because he takes his role as one of service and self-sacrifice, which often means giving up what he wants so I can have what I want. When it comes to decisions from choosing the ice cream flavor to choosing where we're going to live, John always puts his vote toward what will be best for me. I try to do the same for him, but ... well, butter pecan has a strong pull.

So far, we've never had a disagreement within our marriage that we couldn't solve by discussing it and coming to an agreement. Sometimes neither of us is all that happy with the compromise, but it never comes down to a strongman decision out of him.

Sure, our roles in the family are different. I stay home and he works. That tends to mean that I do more housework, and also that I'm the authority about when naptime is and what the baby gets for snack. John gets the privilege of traveling two hours each way to a job that he hates in order to make it possible for me to stay home doing what I love. It's what makes most sense for us right now. If it was more practical to do it the other way around, we might do that -- though I doubt that would happen. I am just so into being a stay-at-home mom, and John is hoping for an actual career in library science. But you never know.

What bothers me more than anything, though, is people's assumptions. I tend to stay out of the political fray and to be non-confrontational in relationships with others, but when I do come in, I tend to agree with John. So people say, "Well, of course you agree with him, he's your husband." And then they proceed to discount whatever I say. It has gotten to the point that people actively leave me out of discussions because obviously I'm just going to parrot whatever John says.

Needless to say, I find that kind of offensive.

John and I are both very opinionated people. In fact, a lot of our five-year friendship/courtship was a process of hashing out our opinions. I couldn't have married a man who didn't believe in homeschooling, for instance. He couldn't have married a woman who was closed to the idea of a large family. I would have broken up with him if he'd considered entering the military -- I know what I'm willing to do, and what I'm not. So by the time we got married, we agreed on all of our really important ideas. Either one of us had convinced the other, or we agreed from the beginning.

Sometimes he talks me into things. He's got me agreeing to put Ron Paul signs on the lawn. Sometimes I talk him into things. I've got him agreeing to a home birth next time. But neither of us believes we have the right to issue commands to the other. Sure, in a moment of need one of us might say, "I really, really need you to do this." The other usually answers, "I don't understand why you need that, but because I love and trust you, here goes." Sometimes it takes a lot of discussion to get that point. But I wouldn't have married this guy if I hadn't trusted him, so in the end I don't always insist things go my way (though they usually do).

There's that pesky Bible verse that always comes up: Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as to the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

I've heard that explained in this way: It's not telling wives to be subordinate, because they already were. That was the law and the standard of the times. It's saying, "When you are subordinate, do so as if it was to Jesus. That will make it easier. And husbands, don't be jerks about it, but see it as an opportunity for sacrifice." But even if you take it as a command, it still does say elsewhere that wives and husbands should be subordinate to one another, mutually. So there's no room for saying, "God intends women only to obey and men only to command." That's just never said, and I don't think it's true.

So, there you have it. I, as a Catholic woman, believe myself to be an equal of my husband. And as far as other men are concerned, they have no right to boss me around. I love to jump in on internet debates, and I usually find myself agreeing with my husband. That's because he's a smart guy and agrees with me. It doesn't mean I don't think for myself, that I think I have to agree with him, or that I think he has the right to tell me what to think. And I stay at home, but it's hardly a prison. It's the job I like to do, and I do it my way. I only wish my husband were so lucky in his work.

What is your opinion on men's and women's roles? Equal, not equal, equal but different?


Tawny said...

Sheila! For some reason I didn't realize this is your blog...but I think the first time I looked at it was before we met officially when that whole circumcision discussion went down.

Anyway,this is a lot of what I have been thinking about lately since I have been fascinated by somefundamentalist protestant ideas like patriarchy and quiverful. My blog is a little more boring :)

I agree though. The male priesthood doesn't bother me and maybe it's just because I've never wanted to be a priest.

As for the whole authority in marriage I kinda think the more a couple is not focused on 'the rules' and the more focused they are on love, the better everything will work out. And we figure things out similarly to you guys it sounds out. If one of us knows more or has more experience they usually have more of a say. And most of the time I see Andy trying to do what he thinks will make me happy and is best for me. Being loved like that makes the whole who is in charge thing seem like an unneccessary discussion for us.

Sheila said...

Definitely. "Who is in charge" is totally a moot point in our family. It all depends on what the decision is, who knows more about it, who is most affected by it, and so forth. And for many things, we don't need to come to a single decision, so we each keep our own opinions.

It's funny, I've been reading a lot about the "quiverfull" movement too. I like some things they do (who could dislike lots of kids?), but the patriarchal aspect bothers me.

Tawny said...

Exactly, and since we are both trying to work for the good of each other and our family so far we've been able to work things out well.

Yeah the whole quiverfull life is fascinating to me probably because some of my family went through very similar ideas when I was younger (and still kinda go in that direction), although it does seem different since they believe in the church more. But many of the ideas remind me of ones I learned as a kid.

JenniC10 said...

Sheila, I wish we were nextdoor neighbors. :) Love your post. For the record, I grew up in a Fundamentalist home. I don't know if I ever mentioned that in our back and forths? I found that way of life extremely oppressive to women and have not experienced that kind of oppression in the Catholic Church. Anyway, thanks for a great post. :)

Elena said...

I am a single mom of two wonderful daughters and I stopped too complicated for my life now.

Sheila said...

Jenni, I did know that from your other blog. I have no personal history with fundamentalism, though I have come across Catholic families who try to adopt fundamentalist customs/views. Sometimes it's harmless, but other times it's truly disastrous. I believe the Catholic Church has a much healthier view of the human person.

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