The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, hold a press conference after the General Synod vote on women bishops. Photo: Getty
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Women are humans too – and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be bishops

For far too long, in too many spheres, women are told that their exclusion from positions of authority is simply a mark of their “difference”.

I’ve just witnessed a self-described radical feminist describing how God “created men and women equal – and different”. Speaking to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News, General Synod member Susie Leafe is expressing her dismay at the news that the Church of England has voted in favour of having women bishops:

What I’ve seen in society, and in the church over the past 20 years, is that when women try to take on roles that have been given to men, what we see is men disappearing and women’s roles being underestimated, undervalued. […] I’m all for women taking their places as CEOs of companies, […] I think it’s really important that women use their skills and abilities, but the church isn’t a job, it isn’t a role, it’s a family […] I’d hate to think that any girl who is born in England today thinks that she has to become some high-flying something in order to be valuable in God’s eyes.

On the face of it, it’s an attractive argument, one that’s used not just in theological debates but in discussions on childcare, politics and relationships. It taps into the feminist urge to re-evaluate what it is that women do and to say, not that women should be doing what men do, but that women’s work should be valued more. I’m sympathetic to that, truly I am, but I’m conscious that it’s also a trap. The point is not that what men do is more valuable; it is that the distinctions between what men and women do, and why, are not arbitrary. Women do not have to feel pressured to be “some high-flying something” to know that right now, they are simply seen as less. Presenting men in authority roles as carrying out some great male calling is all very well, but take away the leap of faith – which I will neither challenge nor buy – and we’re left with the same excuses as before. 

I am not a member of the General Synod. I’m not even a believer, but I am a woman and I am a feminist. We all have an investment in how women are perceived in the world around us. We do not live separate lives in hermetically sealed bubbles. One person’s misogyny, no matter how sincerely felt, and regardless of how it is justified, harms the dignity of all women. Writing on pornography, Andrea Dworkin – a radical feminist who didn’t have much time for weasel words about difference – argued that “the people who think that woman hating is very bad some places, but it's all right in pornography because pornography causes orgasm, are not feminists”. As a non-believer, I know it’s easy for me to translate that into woman hating not being all right in religion because it grants you salvation, but I think it’s true. And when there are people who believe that “men must never be taught by women”, I can’t see it as anything other than a fundamental belief that women are inferior.

For far too long, in too many spheres, women are told that their exclusion from positions of authority is simply a mark of their “difference”. That we are surrounded by evidence of the impact this supposedly neutral “difference” has on women’s lives – we are poorer, we have less freedom of movement, we’re less likely to have a say in the policies that shape our lives, our experiences are always positioned as “other” – is meant to be something we just accept. Nonetheless, saying women and men are essentially different but have equal “roles” is just sexism marketing speech. We all know this. We might tell ourselves otherwise because it makes us feel better but does anyone really believe women were born to be paid less, heard less, understood less, included less than men? And yet that’s what we’ve come to expect because changing things would mean changing the entire world, not because women have special woman-powers that haven’t yet been tapped into, but because we still see the default person as male. To suddenly realise that every single person you meet is just as human and just as entitled to take up time and space can be disorientating.

Women need to be visible. Not colourful, nurturing, motherly, spreading their women’s touch around those dull, dusty spaces that men alone have occupied for far too long. Women just need to be there, in plain sight, as equal human beings with talents that are unique to them (“oh, but not the same! Let’s make sure no one thinks women are the same!” says that nagging, separate-but-equal voice, frogmarching all men and all women into two rigidly differentiated camps in the name of “diversity”).

I want to see women having authority over men, not as part of some shoulder-padded aspirational feminist project. I want men to see women in the way women see men, and for women to see themselves as men see themselves: as real, solid, diverse, complete, as close to and as capable of representing whatever higher power any of us might believe in. We are not hollow vessels, waiting to soak up the teachings that only men can transmit, whether it be through theology or politics or porn. Freedom of conscience is one thing – no one should ever police what goes on inside an individual’s own head – but the fundamental humanity of women should never be up for public debate.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.