Women Walking on Water

Argus title : Women still held back by attitudes

Last Sunday at Brighton’s St Peter’s Church, Deacon Julie Newson told a gag during her sermon. It went like this.

A parish needed a vicar and voted, after due thought and prayer, to invite a woman to take the position. Most of the parish supported this, but there were some, including a male churchwarden, who did not. Almost all the objectors bent to the will of the majority, but one or two – led by the church warden – did all they could to make life difficult for the new vicar.

The parish had an active social life and one of its most popular events, especially with the male parishioners, was a fishing competition. The previous male vicar had been a keen angler and so there was a lot of pressure on the new incumbent to attend. The Churchwarden thought his chance had come to make a fool of the woman vicar, whom he assumed would chicken out of the event. He was wrong. On the day of the competition there she was by the lake, the only woman among several men.

The parishioners boated out to the middle of the lake only to find that they had left the fishing tackle on the bank. They turned to row back, but the Vicar stopped them “Don’t worry” she said “I’ll get it.” With that she stepped out of the boat, walked across the water and fetched the tackle from the bank.

As she strolled back across the lake to the astonished parishioners, the churchwarden was heard to sneer “Isn’t that typical…she can’t even swim.”

This is a good story at several levels – and very apposite considering the ongoing furore in the Anglican communion about the ordination of women bishops. It gently reminds the church that women are as capable as men of spiritual greatness. It also suggests that some church leaders, obsessed by tradition and authority, might ignore or condemn Christ’s miracles if confronted by them.

The story reminded us that women in work situations – particularly in traditionally male roles – often can’t win. Whether they aspire to be carpenters, city traders, plumbers or priests, they frequently need to be better than men to train at all, often have difficulty finding suitable employment and once in work may be passed over for promotion.

As we have seen of recent weeks, mothers have an even more difficult time of it. They are expected to be able to work effectively within the British culture of long hours and overtime and at the same time undertake the bulk of the housework and child care. Despite the continuing shockingly high incidence of domestic violence towards women and the fact that many men provide little domestic support in the home, it is still women who tend to be blamed for the breakdown of the family and subsequent social dislocation.

A recent report by academics at Cambridge University revealed that in the UK both women and men are becoming more likely to believe the family will suffer if a woman works full-time. The conclusion was based on analysis of social attitude surveys over the past 30 years. In 1994, 51% of women in Britain and 52% of men said they believed family life would not suffer if a woman worked, but by 2002 these percentages had fallen to 46% of women and 42% of men. There was also a decline in the number of people thinking the best way for a woman to be independent is to have a job.

Professor Jacqueline Scott who led the research said: “It is conceivable that opinions are shifting as the shine of the ‘super-mum’ syndrome wears off, and the idea of women juggling high-powered careers while also baking cookies and reading bedtime stories is increasingly seen to be unrealisable by ordinary mortals.”

Recent media coverage of the report has tended to focus on the notion that support for gender equality is declining. However, other aspects of the research suggest a less bleak picture. For example, the research reveals that far fewer people now believe the proposition “it is the husband’s job to earn income and the wife’s to look after the children”. In 1987, 71.7% of British men and 63% of women agreed with this statement, but by 2002 the proportion had fallen to 41.1% of men and 31.1% of women.

Kat Banyard, campaigns officer for the Fawcett Society said: “Women still shoulder the bulk of caring and housework at home. The long working hours culture and lack of flexible working means women are presented with impossible choices – forced to choose between caring for a family at home or maximising their career opportunities…”

Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, commented: “Many mothers tell us that in the first year of a baby’s life they want to stay at home, but often feel they have to return to work too early because of financial constraints. We need to do more to help mothers and fathers by increasing well-paid parental leave and changing how it can be shared between them.”

Scott said women should not conclude that “the game is up” on combining career and family life, stressing that there was not yet a level playing field for women and men. She said “We are still educating to confirm a gender role division that people thought was eradicated 25 years ago,” adding: ” We have had a string of economic measures to get women into the workforce without a social drive to address the problems that may result.”

Since Labour came to power in 1997 the government has taken effective steps to improve maternity and childcare provision and expand women’s capacity to work. However, despite pouring many millions of pounds into education, it has failed abysmally to challenge traditional attitudes about gender roles in the home or to provide effective training in schools on domestic skills and childcare.

In a similar fashion, the government has improved services to victims of domestic violence, but has done little to challenge the sexism and cultural assumptions which create and underpin abuse. All this may go some way to explain apparently contradictory attitudes.

Labour’s male leaders have been so fearful of tabloid accusations of “political correctness” – and of offending so called “white van man” – that they have created cultural confusion on a grand scale – something that Harriet Harman, Labour’s new deputy leader, is struggling to counter.

It is ironic that the only prominent male politicians who now seem confident to challenge male attitudes are conservatives, such as MP Michael Gove, who recently criticised attitudes to women expressed in “lads mags”.

Attitudinal shift is never easy, but there must be some hope when even the Church of England is making changes. There seems no doubt that there will eventually be women bishops in the church and it doesn’t end there. At the recent Lambeth Conference bishops and their wives (and husbands) spent a whole day discussing the issue of rape and domestic violence. According to a report in the Church Times, the events of the day left several men in tears.

Dr Maria Akrofi, wife of the Bishop of Accra, spoke of the need to address widespread rape and hidden domestic violence. She described the worst form of such violence as “spiritual” because she said “if it happens in the church, and your husband happens to be the pastor or the bishop, you don’t have anywhere else to go” adding “You sit there and hide your brokenness.”

Dr Akrofi spoke of the need for a change in attitudes towards children, saying “In Africa, the girls are kept under lock and key and the boys play football and fool around as they want to. Who’s taught these children to do that?” …“If you want to change the environment, it’s no good doing it when he’s become a bishop. Change it at the level of parenting.”

As the Labour government sinks beneath the waves – and it will take a miracle to save it – my spirits are lifted by Dr Akrofi. She seems to signal a stronger church, one prepared to confront the misogyny which for centuries has distorted and corrupted it.

Deacon Julie take note. The Anglican communion may not yet be ready to walk on water – but it seems at last that it is beginning to swim.

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