Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Feminism, Family, and Work

Source: Feministing

This week, Stephanie Coontz contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times in honor of the 50thanniversary of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz’s article, entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” explores some of the structural and economic reasons hindering equality between men and women. The attitudes and beliefs of individuals are not to blame for the stalled gender revolution; instead, Coontz points to a failing economy and inadequate work-family policies as the major obstacles to gender equality.

Coontz relies on recent research which suggests that many men and women want egalitarian relationships. Specifically, a 2010 Pew Poll found that 72% of men and women think that marriages based on equality are the best. The implication of this research is most people start out with an egalitarian relationship as “Plan A.” If the conditions are right, most couples want to fulfill a utopian vision of gender equality in their interpersonal arrangements. However, as in most situations, “Plan A” rarely comes to fruition, especially under a set of constrained structural conditions. At some point, many people have to fall back on “Plan B,” a plan that involves more work for men and more family responsibilities for women.

Coontz suggests a few reasons to explain the prevalence of this less than egalitarian back up plan. She describes economic conditions in which men make more money than women and in which neither men nor women have adequate access to family leave. When men and women have few economic options, they return to a more traditional arrangement because it is the most lucrative and/or the most obvious choice. Ultimately, Coontz makes a strong argument for better family/work policies in order to create the conditions for gender equality

I think Coontz’s analysis is insightful. As a sociologist, I appreciate her emphasis on the many structural problems that prevent more gender equality between men and women. Importantly, she showcases the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, highlighting the ways in which economic conditions uphold the patriarchal arrangements between men and women. We can’t expect a change in gender relations if our institutions do not reflect the goals of gender equality.

Yet, I am not convinced that these structural alterations are the only requirements necessary to produce the desired changes in gender relations at the individual level. Patriarchy has endured as a system of power not just because of social structures and institutions, but also because of cultural values and beliefs. While we have evidence to suggest that men and women want more egalitarian relationships, we also have evidence to suggest that cultural attitudes still reflect the belief that the household is women’s domain.

For example, when both men and women work, the bulk of the family and household responsibilities fall on the women. While this surely has something to do with economic conditions (for example, who can more easily leave the workplace without repercussions or significant loss of money), it also has something to do with the historical association of the household as the women’s domain.  This link between women and housework persists despite the many gains that women have made in the public sphere.

What I am suggesting is that we still have a ways to go with our cultural ideas about gender and family. Better social structures can help change these ideas, but can we think of others ways to disentangle women from the private sphere?

Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Is feminism really killing the family?

ed balls and yvette cooper

Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper on their wedding day. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

Is feminism “destroying the family“? Plenty of people appear to believe so. Earlier this week, “crop-haired” Katherine Rake, who recently ended a seven-year stint as head of feminist campaigning organisation the Fawcett Society, was accused of continuing to work towards this sinister agenda – her easy-care hairdo cited by the Daily Mail as proof of her malicious intent.

Rake upset the socially conservative by declaring in her first speech as head of the Family and Parenting Institute (a government-funded organisation that we don’t need anyway) that “the days of the typical family are numbered”. This statement of statistical-projection fact drew outrage from David Cameron, who lambasted Labour for its continuing hostility to marriage.

Ed Balls, the minister for children, schools and families, offered a retort. He’s not personally hostile to marriage – he is, after all, married himself, to “crop-haired” work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper – but he is against the Conservative idea that unmarried parents should be treated as “second-class” citizens.

It’s a horrible idea, of course, and its horrible reality is still a raw, living memory. Only days ago, there was a new outpouring of abhorrence – and an apology from Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister – over one of the most ghastly manifestations of the treatment of “unmarried parents”. Who could listen to the stories of children separated from their mothers, told they were orphans, and transported to exploitation in Australia (a practice that ended only four decades ago) without a horrified shudder?

Yet however scrupulously one may reject the idea of unmarried parents as “second-class citizens”, class – as a cultural expression of economic status – continues to dog the “debate”. Single parents do tend to be “second-class citizens”, with 47% living below the poverty line. Statistically, their children do less well at school, and are overwhelmingly more likely to enter the criminal justice system, or to run into mental health or addiction problems.

Middle- and upper-class people are more likely to have their children later, when they are financially stable. Middle- or upper-class teenage pregnancies are more likely to end in abortion than teenage pregnancies among poor families. And so on. Delayed and structured parenthood, even marriage, is now, broadly, the choice of people – men and women – who have real choices. Early and unplanned parenthood is now, broadly, the choice of people – men and women – who look around them and perceive their options are narrow.

Feminism has liberated aspirational and affluent women, because it has ensured that women who are capable of financial independence are more able to achieve it, within marriage or outside it – although the continuing gender pay gap (much-monitored by Rake when she was at the Fawcett Society) is testament that even this success has been highly circumscribed.

I don’t imagine that 1970s feminists envisaged the rejection of educational opportunities, the refusal of family planning options, and the graft of bringing up children alone and on the breadline, as brave-new-world female choices for a post-liberation era, any more than they envisaged the advent of boob-jobs, pole-dancing supermodels and store-card bankruptcy. Actually, it is a big fat irony that feminists are now obliged to defend the right of lone mothers to stay at home with their young children, when the initial idea was to liberate women from the obligation to, well, stay at home with their young children.

Notwithstanding his dislike of the idea of unmarried parents as second-class citizens, Ed Balls has long been a senior member of a political party that has directed policy – admittedly without great success – at pressurising unmarried parents, in particular, into work. The Conservatives believe that, with rings on their fingers (placed there with the help of a tax break), the mothers who have caused Labour such angst would have stayed at home very much more happily. But that is only because of their blind adherence to the middle-class portrait of the pre-feminist world.

I don’t believe in that world, in which women got married, then gladly gave up work. Both of my grandmothers worked. My father’s mother worked in a factory that made ladies’ foundation garments, supporting her five surviving children alone after her husband, an asthmatic miner, had died young of lung disease.

My mother’s mother left “service” after she had married. But as the wife of a landless rural worker and mother of seven, she kept chickens, grew vegetables, made jams and chutneys, baked, cooked, sewed and knitted interminably, all year round. My aunts worked, all 10 of them, especially the widows – in offices, as barmaids, in shops, as cooks, even though they were married, even though they had children. My mother, like her sisters and her sisters-in-law, stayed at home when we children were small. But she returned to work, first part-time, then full-time, as soon as she could.

So, when Fay Weldon ruffles feathers, as she did at a literary festival this week, by declaring that one of the down-sides of feminism is that it has “made wage-slaves” out of mothers, I can only shake my head. Mothers always had access to wage-slavery, and those mothers who had husbands who drank the pay-packet, or handed over risible “housekeeping”, were particularly glad of their “pin money”. Feminism gave women much greater access to, or at least hope of, “careers”. Its rejection of marriage was bound up with the fact that a married woman was a woman who could forget about professional progress.

Now feminists defend their distrust of marriage, as if out-of-work mothers, living with a succession of boyfriends with whom they have a succession of children, was the intention and the dream all along. It wasn’t, and other social factors, such as the sexual revolution, the mass exodus from religious belief, and changing patterns of work (including the annihilation of the earning power of manual-labouring males), have played just as large a part in “promoting” alternative family structures as feminism.

For Conservatives, the feminist rejection of the taboo against unmarried motherhood has been fuelled by a welfare state that “puts children first”, creating a society in which the female poor have little incentive to work because they can get an income and a home from breeding. There is certainly some truth in this argument, but it ignores the counter-intuitive fact that throughout human history, and in our own era too, the poorest people are always the ones who have children most frequently, whether there is a welfare state to offer incentives or not.

So, if David Cameron is worried about his recent poor showings in the polls, he should reconsider his lazy homilies about the magic of marriage, and take a look at the possibility that “broken societies” are often teeming with very broke people.

Posted in A2 Sociology: Religion

Perspectives: Jesus was a feminist and so am I

I find myself living in an interesting tension. My Christian friends chide me for my overtly feminist views, while the atheist-feminist circles I move in despair at my commitment to what they see as a patriarchal religion.

It would be much easier to choose one or the other; Christianity or feminism, but I believe they should be – and are – utterly compatible.

Empathising with my non-religious feminist community is easy. From an initial glance Christianity does seem overtly male; its language is strongly masculine, using terms like father and son rather than mother and daughter, to describe two thirds of the Trinity.

Jesus and his men

The key players in the religion are mostly men: the patriarchs, the Jewish priesthood, Jesus, the 12 apostles and St Paul. Their stories are recorded in a sacred canon of texts, the Bible, written down by (you’ve guessed it) men.

Add to that a few voices from Church history like St Augustine, who once said that “women should not be educated in any way; they should be segregated” and it’s not exactly rocket science to grasp why many forward thinking women are initially suspicious of Christianity.

I’ll be honest, I have found the dominant male imagery of the Christian story difficult to embrace at times.

The Church has also directed its fair share of criticism toward me for being a woman who is passionate about teaching theology, and for campaigning on issues of gender equality. Suffice it to say, it has not been an easy journey.

So, why do I stay? Because I believe those masculine impressions of Christianity are not, by any means, the full story. When you take a long hard look at the life of Christ, you see a radical revolutionary.

Jesus didn’t just overturn the tables in the temple, he overturned the cultural norms of his society and sent them crashing to the ground. The way he related to women was a key part of this.

Jesus and his women

Women in the Anglican Church

Elizabeth Ferard (used by permission of Richard Mammana /
  • 1862: Elizabeth Ferard (pictured) becomes the Church of England’s first deaconess of modern times. The role is considered an office of the Church rather than part of the formal ministry
  • 1944: Florence Li-Tim Oi, was ordained the first female Anglican priest in Hong Kong. She voluntarily resigned her orders at the end of WWII
  • 1989: In the US, Barbara Harris is ordained as the first female Anglican bishop
  • 1992: The General Synod vote allows women to become priests in England- eight years after the law is proposed – the first 32 are ordained in 1994
  • November 2012: The synod rejects women bishops in England after failing to secure a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity

In an era when women were uneducated, not given a legally valid voice, and treated like property, Christ refused to bow to those cultural stigmas.

He talked freely with women to the shock of those watching. He encouraged women to engage in theological study. He also chose to appear to Mary after he rose from the dead, making her the first official witness of the resurrection and the person who delivered the news to the male apostles.

Many of Jesus’s followers were female. They were not included in the 12 apostles, but the community surrounding him was far larger than that. Women were also among his key financial supporters, paying the bills for him, his team and their mission.

So, Jesus treated women with dignity, equality and respect. But how about St Paul? Initially he may seem difficult for a feminist to embrace, but a deeper look into his writings suggests this is not the case.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul highly commends Junias, thought by many scholars to have been a female apostle. Paul also penned the powerful statement in Galatians 3:28 that there is “neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus”.

Many believe that these words transcend his culture-specific concerns about uneducated women teaching in Church.

Christianity and bra-burning

Even if I can convince my feminist friends that the Christian faith embodies radical equality for women, it is still a hard sell to persuade my Christian friends to embrace the term “feminist”.

They ask: “Isn’t it a shrill, harsh movement of bra-burning and man hating?” Yes, feminism has been caricatured by the media of the 1960s and is sometimes presented as abrasive and anti-men.

But the real meaning of the term needs to be reclaimed: true feminism is simply a belief in the total equality, dignity and value of women.

Christianity and feminism are often misunderstood by one another; each side needs a PR overhaul to slough off the old stereotypes and see with new eyes. Far from being an oxymoron, the two perspectives are deeply compatible.

I look forward to the day when eyebrows will no longer be raised at that notion, but in order to achieve this the Church must continue to move forwards in living up to the high standard set by Christ himself.

Hopefully he’ll continue his work of turning over temple tables in our generation, until women have an equal voice and an equal place inside the doors of his house.

Posted in AS Sociology: Family

Push to ordain Mormon women leads to excommunication

Kate Kelly stands frozen at an empty intersection in Salt Lake City. There is no traffic coming in either direction.

“I need to wait for the signal,” she says, “I’m obedient, I’m a Mormon.” She laughs, her eyes twinkling behind her thick, retro-style glasses.

But if Ms Kelly thinks she’s an obedient Mormon, her Church leadership does not. She was excommunicated in June for founding a campaign to ordain women to the priesthood.

“You know, normally excommunication in our Church is for really grave sins like murder and child abuse,” she says. “I was excommunicated for stating a fact, which is that men and women are not equal in our Church.”

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) – which claims a membership of 15 million worldwide – any male from the age of 12 and “in good standing” can join the priesthood. No female can.

Unlike other churches, including the Church of England which last month agreed to allow women priests to be promoted to bishop, the LDS Church does not have a professional priesthood. It operates what it calls a “lay” clergy – male members take turns to fulfil the roles.

Take the bishop of Ms Kelly’s former ward in Virginia – the man who excommunicated her. He is a lawyer for ExxonMobil.

She is also a lawyer, a human rights lawyer, and she sounds like one as she dissects the process her bishop and other male leaders followed to remove her from the Mormon faith.

“We’re talking about an Inquisition,” she says. “The men who punished me think they are kicking me out of heaven.”

The 33-year-old clearly does not agree, and she is unrepentant for founding the web-based group, Ordain Women, where several hundred men and women have posted their profiles in support.

While there have been earlier calls for the ordination of Mormon women, Ms Kelly’s group posed a new challenge, using the web and modern, political methods to agitate for change. That prompted the Church leadership to take tough action.

Mike Otterson, the managing director of public affairs for the LDS, says he will not speak specifically about Ms Kelly’s case, but he insists that the excommunication process is always fair, conducted locally, and decided only after careful consideration.

“We often refer to these proceedings as courts of love,” he says.

“We show a great deal of patience, because ultimately, frankly, there’s a soul at stake here and we’re concerned about that.”

He insists that women already have a lot of responsibility in the Church, including the right to preach from the pulpit, but that most women do not seek the priesthood.

Ms Kelly was excommunicated for apostasy. Dictionaries define an apostate as someone who renounces their faith. But in Mormonism questioning church teaching and, “especially encouraging other people to take the same position,” says Mike Otterson, will qualify someone as an “apostate”.

Ms Kelly says the charge of apostasy was “completely absurd” and she is appealing against the decision.

Having faced persecution after its founding in the 19th Century, the LDS Church continued to encounter hostility and suspicion, and is still sensitive to criticism.

Kate Kelly has crossed a red line, says Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. Mormonism functions as a family, she says.

“And if the family’s going to fight, it’s very disloyal to have that fight outside the family.”

The male hierarchy speaks of a Church that is led by divine revelation and follows the Bible. Jesus and the apostles were male, and Jesus did not ordain women. Full stop.

But those on the side of women’s ordination – a small but vocal minority – insist that the leadership at the top has changed its position on one critical issue before.

The exclusion of black men from the priesthood is a long and painful chapter in Mormon history. The leadership changed that in 1978, after what they described as a revelation from God, and more than a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

So, if God can change his mind about black people, why, asks Kate Kelly, can he not do so with women?

“It’s a red herring,” says Mike Otterson. He says that the Church leadership had put out statements before 1978 indicating that the ban on black male priests was temporary, based on comments made by the early leader, Brigham Young, among others.

“There is no such condition you can cite in relation to women’s ordination. It is simply not on the agenda for the Church,” he says.

Gender differences are clearly defined in Mormonism and central to the theology. The Church teaches that families will stick together in the afterlife. Men will inherit planets. Women will help populate them.

And while the practice of polygamy was dropped in 1890, the concept remains in the afterlife. A man can be married or “sealed” to more than one woman after death, but not the other way around.

If the religion is so patriarchal, why does Kate Kelly want to return to the fold? She could join a more liberal offshoot, the Community of Christ, which ordains women. Or she could leave religion altogether.

“Mormonism is my spiritual home,” she says.

“And if I see that my home needs renovations I invest in making it a better place.”

Jane Little’s documentary, “Sister Saints – Women and the Mormons” can be heard in Heart and Soul on the BBC World Service.

Posted in A2 Sociology: Religion

Why feminists are less religious

In our survey of British feminists, more than half said they were either atheist or had no religion. Here’s why that might be

Feminism, said evangelist and Republican broadcaster Pat Robertson in 1992, “is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”. The feminist retort: “Sorry I missed church. I was busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian,” has since made its way on to T-shirts, fridge magnets and bumper stickers.

Where religion’s concerned, maybe Robertson was right. Maybe feminism does lead women to reject traditional religion.

For our book about the resurgence of feminism in 21st-century Britain,Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement, Catherine Redfern and I surveyed nearly 1,300 British feminists. We wanted to find out who the new feminists were, what inspired their engagement with feminism, which gender issues they were concerned about, and so forth.

One of our questions was: “Please describe your religious or spiritual views (including none/atheist/agnostic)” (the wording is worth mentioning, since how you ask questions affects the results, as debates on the religion question in the census reveal).

The results show that, when compared with the general female population, feminists are much less likely to be religious, but a little more likely to be interested in alternative or non-institutional kinds of spirituality.

When the 2001 census asked “What is your religion?”, more than three quarters of women said they belonged to a major world religion. In the smaller 2007 British Social Attitudes survey (which asked the question more openly), 60% of women said they regarded themselves as belonging to a religion.

But in our project, only one in 10 identified with a major world religion (mostly Christianity). Just over half the feminists said they were either atheist or had no religion. One in six was agnostic. One in 12 considered themselves spiritual but not conventionally religious and the rest answered in other ways (there were a couple of pagan atheists and Buddhist Christians, for instance).

It seems, then, that feminism does inspire women to reject religion.

Robertson was worried that feminism was challenging traditional Christian values – at least, values he considered Christian. Many liberals and feminists, concerned about the rise of fundamentalism and its erosion of women’s rights, conclude similarly that feminism and religion have little in common. As Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

Sidestepping the arguments about whether or not religion is irredeemably oppressive to women (Christina Odone has refutedOphelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s recent claim that it is), it’s important to ask why feminists think like this. Is it that they have all undertaken a rational examination of the claims of different religions and found them wanting?

Some of them will, no doubt, have done this. But there are other possible explanations for this feminist antipathy towards religion.

The first is secularisation – in other words, the process of religious decline evident in much of Europe, especially from the latter half of the 20th century. Rates of churchgoing are falling, and younger people (who made up most of our survey participants) are especially unlikely to be religious because fewer of them were brought up to be so. Combine this with the gendered nature of secularisation – secularisation confines religion to the private sphere and the family and squeezes religion out from public life – and the reasons why feminists are less likely to be religious than other women become clearer.

Feminists challenged the traditional Christian discourse that associated femininity with service to family and church. Feminists argued for women’s right to decently paid employment in the public sphere. Feminists argued that marriage wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all of a woman’s life and she should be able to choose whether and when to have children. In other words, feminists are unlikely to be among the groups of women who are catered for by traditional religious institutions, which operate principally in the private sphere: women married with children who are not in full-time employment. There is no “natural fit” between feminists’ public, activist lives and traditional religion.

The proportion of feminists in our survey who were not heterosexual is high (40%). Given the tendency of many religious organisations to condemn homosexuality, it’s unlikely that these gay or bisexual feminists would feel at home in them.

Second, feminism’s intellectual public voice has largely been a secular one. As the philosopher Rosi Braidotti has argued, European feminists are heirs to the Enlightenment rationalistic critique of religion, and socialist feminism (with its dismissal of religion) was one of the major strands of British feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s. Even today, feminist academics tend to dismiss religion as unimportant and not worth of studying. It is likely that this secularism has influenced today’s feminists, perhaps without them noticing. (Whether this secularism has much to offer the millions of women who are, by socialisation or choice, religious, is a prescient issue that is being raised especially by postcolonial critics.)

Third, feminists’ lack of interest in religion is joined by a somewhat increased attraction to alternative or holistic forms of spirituality, from yoga, Reiki and Zen meditation to Paganism and Wicca. These forms of spirituality set themselves up as gender-equal, and this is probably why feminists like them.

In contrast to the perceived devaluation of women’s bodies in traditional religion, holistic spiritual practitioners have created female images of divinity, developed positive rituals around menstruation and childbirth and given women positions of spiritual authority.

We need to know far more than a survey can tell us about how religious attitudes are formed to tell whether these hypotheses are accurate.

In the 21st century, religion has become visible again. Around the world, state approaches to religion and secularism have significant repercussions for religious women’s wellbeing, so it’s vital that feminists consider carefully their approaches to religion – for other women’s sakes, if not for their own.