International Women's Day, 2014, is celebrated around the world, even though many of the world's communities and cultures have yet to transform into something that looks like equality of the genders.
Of course, there are shining platinum examples of outstanding women in all sectors of most developed countries, including medicine, law, politics, corporate and government leadership, the military and most of the traditional "trades". And that could have and would have only been possible through a concentrated emphasis on closing the gender gap that began at least a half-century ago.
Most of our traditional professions, and the graduate schools that produce those entering the professions, are now demonstrating a majority of female practitioners and students respectively.
Fighter pilots, space explorers, bus drivers, heavy equipment operators, insurance sales and executives, researchers both inside the laboratories and on the street where the more practical and impactful findings are gathers, and also in the highest ranks of all our institutions, both private and public are women.
And for this large and growing cadre of ground-breaking women, the people of the world can and must be thankful and proud.
However, on this day, we learn of thousands of sexual assault complaints in the U.S. military, of hundreds of missing aboriginal women across Canada, for whom aboriginal people have taken to the streets and the rail lines in protest to draw attention to this tragedy about which the official political class does not want to speak or inquire. We also know that, millions of young girls are still being denied access to education in too many countries across the globe, and that those who attempt to acquire an education are expected to surmount obstacles not confronting their young male counterparts. Still, in the U.S. and Canada, and in most western countries, wages for similar work are considerably less for women than for men (in the U.S. it amounts to $.77 for every $1.00 earned by a male worker).
However, there are still many embedded and virulent, although almost imperceptible, indications that a male culture dominates everywhere. Just this week, in a funeral of a young, vibrant and accomplished professional mother of two, a Roman Catholic priest told his congregation that we are all in a race to eventually be with God, that this young thirty-six-year-old who succumbed to many cancerous tumours had won her race and was now with God.
While most mourners would be comforted by those words, there is an implicit kind of competition implied, if not actually asserted, in the metaphor of the "race", as if we have to compete with each other, or even with God, for his love, attention and eventual embrace upon our death. That notion, at the root of any faith, smells so masculine and yet remains so innocuous and imperceptible that there is little likelihood the priest will be even asked about his choice of words, certainly not confronted.
Acceptance of gender equality is not only a matter of sociology and statistics; it is also a matter of attitudes, vocabularies, metaphors that are "baked into the cake" of a culture's educational, political, economic and even religious diet.
Start with an exclusively male deity. No matter how that translates, into whatever language and culture, it is about power, authority, judgement and a kind of divide that includes those compliant with the "standards" and the "rules" and the "expectations" that men have attributed to a deity, and excludes those who bring scepticism, doubt, and even rebellious questioning of the premises, traditions and the practices that those who wrote the first words of dogma, and institutional development and continued for centuries among those who considered "control" of their wayward adherents of prime importance.
Even among the Christian 'right' there is a strong group known as "Real Women" whose rejection of gender equality is supported by their clinging to the scriptural notion that a ship can have only one captain, the husband, to whom the wife must look for decisions of the family, once again, as if family life is and can only be constructed on the principle of a hierarchy of power, with the male on top. Metaphors of "ships" on high seas, while evoking heroic images of competing with violent storms and images of Jesus calming the waters on the Sea of Galilee, see to serve a male-oriented culture that needs order, control and a firm hand at the helm. Families, we have learned, are more complex and more nuanced and need power to be both shared and exercised by both "parents" in a collaborative not a combative and competitive model. One of the most tragic things one can learn is that a spouse is and has been competing with another spouse for the affections of the children, a direct result of the embedded competition that subtly and dangerously underpins too many of our cultural norms. Competition too, while it recognizes one aspect of human nature, tends to minimize others equally and sometimes even more useful and needed aspects of that complexity that we know as human nature.
With competition come gender stereotypes which help to fixate a culture on gender models that limit and even restrict the full development of both genders, and those stereotypes spring primarily from a male-dominated premise that is based on fear, weakness and the need to dominate. Of course, those fears are not acknowledged, and are rather denied, in order to preserve the veneer of dominance that may have originated with a need for physical strength to survive, and a need for sexual prowess to procreate. However, we have long since passed out of a phase of meta-history that witnessed such dominance as either needed or acceptable. And yet, we are still "fighting" a competitive war between men and women on too many fronts. In fact, some of the worst aspects of the virulent feminism that has reared its ugly head in the last few decades has adopted the worst of male behaviours and attitudes as a sign that women are as "strong" as any man, and that, if men could and did dominate their women, then the reverse is also possible. And now, we face the spectre of a demise of masculinity, and those bodies and minds and spirits so genetically disposed, given that the "gene" of competition is so deeply integrated into the masculine identity and that a considerable amount of evidence mounts everyday that men are, rather than lose the competition, leaving the playing field, in those grad schools and those professions that once were the accomplishments of generations of male children.
A culture of rape on university campuses, along with a cataract of sexual assault cases in the American military, linked to an entertainment culture that makes billions from both illicit and "conforming" presentation of sexuality, including hard porn, soft porn and the now legitimized sexual objectification of the female body as a primary resource in the advertising industry, together and separately will do much to protract a culture in which men do not learn to control their libido and women increasingly emulate a form of male dominance that never served men well and will not serve its female acolytes either. When greed and power are permitted to dominate the cultural values agenda, then our gender and our sexuality become inevitably slaves to those "ironic" values. They are not, no matter whether pursued by men or by women, ethical or moral values. They are legitimized as surrogate "values" for the unleashed testosterone that is running rampant across the planet, mixed tragically with a deluge of carbon, in what appears to be a headlong stampede to our own demise.
Integration of both masculine and feminine traits, in both men and women, while an ideal worth both acceptance and the work that such "androgyny" requires, is nevertheless still a long way off, in most contemporary cultures. Similarly, schools that understand and appreciate the complexities and uniqueness of their male students and faculty to the same degree that they understand and appreciate the complexities and uniqueness of their female students and faculty, are a long way off. In fact, we have replaced male-dominated cultures with female-dominated cultures, as if that were pay-back for centuries of concerted and organized abuse of women by centuries of unconscious men. And on International Women's Day, we need to acknowledge that dominance by either gender creates a deficit of both.
The abuse of power, whether that abuse comes from a man or a woman, is invariably the expression of weakness, either real or perceived. And both men and women are capable of abusing power against the opposite gender, as they are of abusing power against their own gender. And all religions that use a deity to underscore and enforce their abuse of power, for whatever reason, are both implicitly and explicitly complicit in generating a culture in which power, status, control and dominance are the brass ring for which both young men and young women strive.
Even the Genesis wording giving man "dominion" over the earth and all its creatures is a male-infused cornerstone of a Christian culture that continues to view sex, gender and equality as somehow a reduction of the potential of one gender or the other, or both, depending on one's relationship with power, authority and identity. And that word "dominion" has been, and in some quarters continues to be, so sacralised, and thereby so influential, that it has seen unfortunate application to most, if not all our social and institutional structures, as if man's creations were an extension of masculinity over all of the rest of nature, including women.
Saying "no" to the abuse of power, no matter what the situation, nor no matter which gender is imposing the abuse, nor under what deity, is one of the universal goals to which all humans of all cultures, religions and geographies can aspire. And that goal is so needed and sustainable that it could revolutionise both our politics and the cultures of our institutions so radically that we might even see a ready acceptance and deployment of androgyny breaking out all over. From a personal perspective, I can honestly observe that to the degree that I have embraced both my masculinity strengths and weaknesses and my feminine strengths and weaknesses, I have opened doors to insights, emotions, and sharing with my life partner that were never available previously. And I give Michelle most of the credit for accepting my brokenness, and my failures as well as my gifts, earlier and more completely than I ever could.
And that would be something both men and women, especially those currently locked into some neurotic, obsessive preservation of a stereotype of masculinity and/or femininity, could and would celebrate. And we could all point to International Women's Day 2014 as the day that social transformation began. Our grandchildren would be so grateful!