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.