What Difference a Generation Makes?

A few months ago I spoke with a colleague who was almost a generation older than me.  She is nearing retirement after having served the Church for most or all of her career.  We were talking about how far we’ve come as women in the past fifty years.  She was proud of the many gains we had made.  I was frustrated that we weren’t further along.  She was a child in the 1950’s and a teen in the 1960’s.  Women being ordained, working, not being slave to fertility, these were huge gains for women and still incredible to her in some ways.  She was largely content with the huge strides forward in gender equality she had witnessed.  I was a child in the 1960’s and a teen in the 1970’s.  I was raised to assume I had a right to be treated as fairly as men. And, frankly, I am outraged that now as a middle-aged woman, we’re still fighting this fight. That’s the difference a generation makes.

“To promote gender equality and empower women” is the third of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the United Nations adopted for this new century.  The broad category of sustainable development is “social inclusion.”  One piece of that is gender equality.  And we still have a lot of work to do around the world on this front, particularly when so many traditional religious groups can and do still justify keeping women out of the workplace or the marketplace, keeping women out of government or power positions, keeping girls out of school.  These are not only justice issues for 50% of the world’s population, but from a utilitarian viewpoint, it’s a huge advantage for us to empower women and work for full gender equality in education, health care, and government.

Let’s begin with girls in school.  One of the targets beneath this MDG is that there will be a 50/50 representation of male and female students in elementary and secondary schools, as well as universities.  We know that that is not possible in some places of the world.  We’ve all heard Malala Yousafzai’s story of being shot in the head because she insisted she had the right to go to school.  When girls are educated, they may enter the job force.  When they enter the job force, they tend to have fewer children.  So we see a reduction of the fertility rate in those countries that educate girls and we have more workers to add to the GNP.

Other targets include the legal reforms needed for women to own property and be in business, as well as the representation of women in parliaments.  When women are in power positions, there are great advantages.  We bring new insight, new questions, new possibilities, new solutions.  Yet very few countries have reached a 50/50 role of women in governance.

Women’s roles in the Church are still being defined, reformed, or denied by Christians. Women still have no authority or opportunity to be ordained in the church in which I was raised.  Women’s ordination is still a battle in many conservative denominations. In the PCUSA the inclusion of women has deconstructed what we’ve known as “the good old boys’ network” (a term used to describe an informal power network of tall steeple pastors and other white, male clergy).  While most of us see this as a good movement in the redistribution of power, some argue that the old network of structure and relationship was effective in leadership and decision making (see Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment).  In this publication of the Office of Theology and Worship in 2008, there is a clear argument against any mandated inclusion of women or racial/ethnic groups or any other demographic group.  While this may seem “decent and in order” to some,and it may lead to short-term success; it will ultimately lead to long-term failure.  Sustainability requires inclusion and social diversity.

I’m not sure if my perception of a recent backlash in women’s rights (recent public debates on domestic violence, abortion, birth control, etc) is what’s at the root of my real frustration or if it’s the realization that I’m 53 years old and we still haven’t broken the glass ceiling of participation and inclusion in government, as leaders of major corporations or as large church pastors.  Women make up a mere 20% of US senators and 18% of representatives.  And while there is now a seeming “crack” in the stained glass ceiling of women in large church pulpits, the ceiling is still very real.  In Monmouth Presbytery 37% of clergy are female, yet only 9 of our 46 congregations are being pastored by women (and none of them are in “head of staff” positions with other ordained staff).  New Brunswick Presbytery’s statistics show a closer correlation to percentage of women clergy to churches pastored by women.  35% of the clergy in New Brunswick are women, and 14 of 39 congregations are being served by women (yes only one is in a “head of staff” position).  Perhaps as we see another wave of retirements and transitions in pastors, the trend will continue to the 50/50 mark of full inclusion.

I give a nod to my colleague who has seen a tremendous shift in cultural attitudes and the liberation of women in this country.  I wouldn’t be where I am or have the influence or opportunities I do without the work of the women a decade ahead of me.  But we cannot begin to think we’ve made it.  We cannot give up the goal of full inclusion, particularly in the places of power in our nation, world and church.  If we’ve seen this much change in one generation, the dream is attainable … not only for women in the USA for for women around the world.

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