On January 6th, Nollaig na mban in Ireland, social media was alive with appreciation of women and hope for our future. It coincided with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Ireland and the UK. People announced that this would be the year for women’s rights.
This morning the impact of women wearing black to the Golden Globe event is reported across the world. 2017 was the year of revelations about sexual harassment in the movie industry and its doyens were anxious to include in their movement for liberation all women in all industries and the home, who have been prey to sexual violence and harassment.
Female family and friends agree that sexual harassment and discrimination has affected pretty much every woman. Whether abused as a child; threatened or coerced as a teenager; touched, groped, raped as an adult; financial disadvantage or the daily comments or innuendo, few have escaped. If we stand up to this we pay the price – with blame, labelling, missed opportunity, poverty, discrimination or violence.
This is all equally true in churches. Or, perhaps, more so. In churches there are theologies which support discrimination against women and taboos around our full involvement. There is tacit permission to disregard or to treat women badly. Churches are exempt from equal opportunity legislation, and church leadership and (Irish religious) theology departments are expected to be all or mostly male clubs. Elected representatives, universities, activists raise no cry about this and leave the churches to their own devices.
Will things change for church women this year? Probably not. Those most vocal on behalf of women in other spheres show no interest in the liberation of women in churches. There is an unspoken understanding that women in religious settings have brought our fate upon ourselves because we choose to be involved in religion. Some of us are pro-life and so disagree with a fundamental cause embraced by many other feminists. In Ireland this issue is dividing feminists across the country. So we are left to struggle on without solidarity from other women, and those who perpetuate the oppression of women in religion know no-one will touch them.
We need other women to stand in solidarity with us – not judge us. Maybe it is hard to understand our reasons for faith and membership of churches which discriminate against women, but the struggle we are engaged in for human flourishing in these settings is the struggle of women everywhere. Church women are also the citizens feminists wish to support in the workplace, home and culture.
I would like to see women in churches included in the calls for equality and fairness made by activists and leaders in 2018. We do not want to be disregarded, undermined, harassed and abused any more than women in any other sector. I would equally like to see theologians included in Women’s Studies programmes, and women’s studies specialists working with feminist theologians to explore the intractable sexism in our culture, and ways of addressing it. I would like to see Time’s Up include women in all spheres of life and perhaps 2018 will bring a new solidarity and more effective action for the flourishing of women and girls.