By Mary Bennett
There are only a few places in the world where women have some semblance of equality. The U.S. is one of them, thanks to the brave work of feminist scholars and researchers who helped bring about this seismic shift in our cultural understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman. Moving toward more egalitarian relationships hasn’t been an easy transformation, but the gains made have greatly enhanced the well being of American families and institutions and it has also given hope to others in the world struggling for equality.
The so-called “war on women” playing out in the media has served to heighten awareness of potential threats to women’s rights. Powerful coalitions between religious conservative groups, including Catholics, with the blessing of the Vatican, are working together over issues relating to sexuality in particular. Adding to the concern is the recent attacks on women religious in the U.S. who have been ordered to reform their statutes, programs and affiliations and conform to “the teachings and discipline of the Church.” However, before you dismiss this matter as a Catholic problem with little consequence for the rest of us, please consider that the Catholic Church has worldwide influence over the lives of women throughout the world and many of them are depending on that influence to hopefully bring some semblance of equality into their lives too!
And, what are these statutes, programs and affiliations these women religious have engaged in that have given rise to so much criticism? They are programs supporting impoverished Americans, antiwar efforts, social justice issues including abolishing the death penalty, health care for all people, etc., and, according to the Vatican, not enough on abortion, contraception and gay marriage. And, heaven forbid, some of their affiliations were in support of the ordination of women! Now that will get you in trouble with Rome!
What women religious have done is really quite extraordinary for they moved way beyond outdated patriarchal constraints, and transformed themselves into models of egalitarian non-hierarchal communities. And unlike their brothers in Rome they have applied what Vatican II encouraged 50 years ago, more collegiality and a decentralization of power.
Perhaps Rome has demonstrated something here that is worth noting, because the way in which they stepped in without regard for the sensibilities or accomplishments of these women, with such remarkable disregard for their feelings and needs, serves as a chilling example of patriarchal thinking and entitlement and how it leads to abuse.
Although the Catholic Church has never been a democratic institution, the recommendations of Vatican II for greater collegiality and shared decision-making were an invitation to at least “open the window” in that direction. It is not surprising that Rome would have problems with the idea of shared decision-making and shut the window. Believing in their own superiority, most men in the world have done the same. One of the problems with power is that it is so hard to let go of. This is the same type of resistance that occurred in so many families throughout the U.S.
Growing up in Worcester in an Italian American family, I recall my father struggling with this shift in thinking that questioned his authority as head of the family as he insisted that he had to be in charge because he reasoned someone has to make the final decision. To his credit when his three daughters questioned this logic with hands on hips insisting on shared decision making between he and our mother, he changed.
Whether you are for or against abortion, contraception or gay marriage – we need to ask why conservative religious groups place so much emphasis on matters of sexuality? Abortion and gay marriage in particular have rallied so many conservatives. Yes, these issues are part of what they believe to be true. The question is, why isn’t there the same fervor and concern for issues related to nonviolence? Jesus was all about nonviolence. Love of neighbor. Sell all you have and give it to the poor. You would think war making, economic injustice, corporate greed, climate change and its catastrophic consequences, to name a few, would get the attention of conservative religious institutions. Perhaps the focus on sexuality and “traditional family values” may have more to do with a longing to return to the past, where male dominance was the rule?
Nonviolence and equality go hand in hand. What happens to women when cultural, familial and religious values do not promote equality? Women suffer. Some of the horrors include acid in her face, beatings, coercion, and female circumcision. She can’t drive, she can’t go out, and she can’t speak. You know this list.
Inequality also harms women’s psyche. As a young woman coming out of the Worcester public school system in 66 career options were very limited for women and there were constant reminders of my inferior status. A few examples include my guidance counselor who said, “You don’t need math because you are a girl.” Getting a job meant I had to endure the humiliation of being asked if I intended to get married and if I did would I use the pill. At home it was clear that my father was in charge (it was a slow transformation for all of us) and at church a male hierarchy would not allow women to come near the altar. In so many ways, like so many women I put myself last and believed I was less. It is shocking to remember how much I believed these cultural messages. 46 years later, it is shocking to note that most women in the world probably still do.
However, the real problem IS NOT MEN! The real problem is power. Women are just as likely to abuse power and act with aggression if they have the power to do so.
We have been studying women’s anger in Worcester at UMass Medical Center. There is ample research on interpersonal violence showing that if there is aggression in a relationship it is bilateral –unfortunately, women are “manning up,” and acting tough as men has done. This is bad news for women, because men are generally more physically powerful, which means women are still suffering and dying due to male aggression. The bilateral nature of the aggression suggests that women feel more empowered in their relationships and they are also using aggression just as men have done to try and get their needs met. In other words, it seems that equality has given women an equal opportunity to be aggressive. We certainly do not want this to be the end product of women’s rights!
There is also evidence that the perpetrator suffers as much as the victim. Acting out with verbal or physical aggression will generally cause an increase in cortisol levels, heart rate, blood pressure, stomach acid, etc. We are in fight or flight mode and this causes stress to our vital organs and we suffer psychologically. Did you know that almost 60% of men and women coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? That’s moderate to severe PTSD! We are just beginning to catch on to the fact that the human species may not be designed to do harm!
Equality is a fundamental human need – women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, Palestinian and Israeli, Bahraini, Egyptian, Libyan, environmental justice, animal rights, etc. All beings have an intrinsic value and they have their own needs, which also means there will be conflicting needs. Power struggles are inevitable and using aggression to try and win the argument, to make others comply by force is ultimately self-defeating. Conflict resolution skills / nonviolent communication / anger management – these skills are giving men and women the tools they need to navigate conflict safely.
We can’t afford to wait for Rome, Wall Street, Corporations or the Dictator, to change. The church belongs to the people of God – that was also recognized by the Second Vatican Counsel. We the people are the 99% who own the government, not the other way around – The Occupy Wall Street Movement showed us how to remind those in power of that fact with their awe inspiring, radically egalitarian, non-hierarchal and nonviolent methods.
We have other examples in Worcester that are also showing and teaching us how. The Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester is an amazing resource and Professor Michael True, who helped found it, has been one of Worcester’s most preeminent teachers of nonviolence. The Goods for Guns program founded by Dr. Michael Hirsh is another. The Quakers at Worcester Friends Meeting House, with their emphasis on the peace testimony, The SS. Francis & Therese Catholic Worker House, along with Scott and Claire Schaeffer-Duffy and Annette Rafferty who started Abby’s House in Worcester and Rose Tirella who had the guts to start this newspaper and keeps those in power locally accountable. That’s just a few. Worcester is an awesome place to work for peace.