In case you missed it, Sister Joan Chittister wrote a beautifully compelling piece yesterday for NCR entitled “Gender inequality is a man’s problem.” As a Catholic, a woman, and a feminist*, it took me some time to process my reactions to her post. After all, I don’t want to authorize men to speak on behalf of women; the suppression of women’s voices has been one of the greatest contributing factors to gender inequality in the Church and the world. I certainly don’t want to perpetuate it by setting up a knight-in-shining-armor-model in which the already over-exposed male voice speaks on behalf of the oft-silenced female one. But the more I reflected on Chittister’s words, the more I realized how necessary they are.
Up until this point, I’ve been letting men off the hook way too easily. Given the number of male acquaintances and relatives I have who genuinely do not recognize gender equality as a valuable or important goal, my general sentiment has been, “the ones who support the fact that I personally am a feminist are already counter-cultural, ahead of the Catholic norm, so I can’t really expect anything more from them beyond tacit support.” After processing Chittister’s words, though, I’m done with that mindset. It is not enough for a Catholic man to resist flinching when I mention feminism. That does not make him an advocate for women. What is needed are not men who simply allow women to speak (which should be a bare minimum), but men who notice cultural norms that are oppressive to women and who vocally identify them, who aren’t afraid to speak up and identify as a male feminist.
In a system in which women consistently articulate their hopes/dreams/expectations of a world that values them equally to men, it is not women who are at fault when their vision of an equitable society does not materialize. It is the fault of those who benefit from the status quo, who can appear “progressive” merely by not vocally disagreeing with women who advocate for themselves and their fellow women. It is simply not enough to passively sympathize. I know many men—both ordained and lay—who get a free pass by merely refraining from criticism when a feminist articulates a position (how progressive!), who have no stake whatsoever in the fight for gender equality, and who therefore make no active effort to participate in advocacy.
On the cross, Jesus demonstrated what it means to truly love. It means to sacrifice one’s self, particularly when you have nothing to gain from it. Women have been doing everything we can to advance the cause of gender equality, and yet we still have a significant wage gap, an absurdly disproportionate number of male elected officials, a devastating number of rapes and sexual assaults that go unreported, and a Church that doesn’t always recognize the many gifts of women. So I echo Chittister’s call for a male voice in the fight against gender inequality. It is not only the most efficient path to justice, but also the example of Christ.
What does this look like concretely? When someone makes a joke about a woman’s intelligence, body, or any other sort of demeaning comment, instead of remaining silent (even if you do not laugh), express your discomfort with such a remark. In any conversation that strikes you as male-centered, think of what your feminist friend would construe of the situation, and see if you can articulate her objections out loud. If you have the privilege of preaching in a congregation, see if you can impart the necessity of respecting women as equals to your congregation.
Don’t simply allow women to advocate for themselves; be the prophetic voice for gender equality.
For another recent, secular take on men being advocates for gender equality, see Emma Watson’s powerful speech to the UN about the HeforShe campaign.
*I realize “feminist” is a loaded term for many people. I mean it here in its simplest of definitions: a person who believes and advocates for the position that women and men have equal human dignity, and should therefore be treated equally. Which, I’m hoping, is a pretty non-controversial position.