Gender inequality is a man's problem

by Joan Chittister

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The headlines are confusing. The questions they raise are even more so. For instance, we "empowered" women, right? After more than 2,000 years, the Western world finally woke up, in our time, to the astounding recognition that women, too, were human. Almost.

By 1922, most English-speaking countries, including the United States, finally allowed women to vote for political leaders. The struggle was a fierce one, and churchmen and politicians alike considered that breakdown in society to be simply the beginning of the decline, "the nose of the camel under the tent" of civilized male society. As Cardinal James Gibbons is said to have reflected, "Imagine what will happen to society when women start hanging around polling places."

And sure enough, the floodgates of immorality swung open: It wasn't long before women were allowed to own property, to work outside the home, to drive cars, to keep their own money, to get an education, to enter into legal contracts, to become "professionals" -- at first, teachers and nurses, but eventually even doctors and lawyers and now bankers and engineers, astronauts and college presidents. Not all at once, of course, but at least a little at a time.

We don't know yet if a woman can be president of the United States, but we do know that some churches -- no names mentioned -- are still sure that God does not want to do business with a woman. And yet, a good number of other churches and countries have done both, and neither their steeples nor their statehouses have collapsed under the strain of it.

The temptation is to think that at least in the United States, women are free, independent, secure, respected, welcomed on a par with their fathers and brothers everywhere.

You would think, with a record like that, that women had really arrived at a point of full adulthood, independence, moral agency and personal freedom.

Yet there is another set of headlines, more powerful, more telling than the first, that expose the lie of it all.

This set of headlines -- women groped here, kidnapped there, murdered everywhere, disappeared forever -- headlines bold and ubiquitous, remind a woman always not to misunderstand, not to assume that she can walk down a city street in the United States and expect to get home safely, in one piece, alive. These stories remind her that however much she achieves, does, saves, earns, manages, or assumes to be her human right, her life is really not her own. It is at the eternal mercy of fraternity boys, football teams, stalkers, prowlers, sex addicts, women-hunters, and rampant testosterone.

This set of headlines talks about the domestic abuse of wives and mothers and so-called "honor killings" or pornographic humiliation women are subject to even now, even here in the United States, if she violates a man's unwritten code for a woman. Regardless of all that talk about "equality."

Indeed, the violation of women crosses all social classes, all racial differences, all cultural more.

The situation is unstated everywhere but in the headlines: Women and girls are still a commodity to be had, controlled, used and discarded.

First, they called it "a woman's problem." Then we got civilized enough to realize it wasn't a woman's problem; it was a human problem. But we will never really resolve the situation until we begin to admit aloud that it is really a man's problem.

It is only when men stand up as a class and confront other men on the subject that women can begin to hope for violence-free lives.

Men must face other men. Men must tell the male judges and male parliaments and male police departments and male servicemen and male coaches and male sports teams and male rap music and male CEOs of everything that they will no longer be silent. That they will no longer look the other direction when wife-beaters and rapists and stalkers and trash-talkers find some excuse for it in male hormones or female "provocations."

Then the dirty jokes will cease to be funny; the locker-room talk will stop being acceptable; the language you must "never use in front of your mother" will not be acceptable anywhere, including in front of other men.

At the end of the day, it all has something to do with the way fathers train their sons and conduct their own lives for them to model. It has something to do with the way coaches train their teams. It sets a standard for the way ministers give their sermons on Father's Day and shape their marriage preparation courses.

It touches, too, on the way courts and colleges deal with the only crime on the books that is not really treated as a crime until it's too late -- for both the woman and the man involved.

There are little girls and college students and young mothers and professional women still afraid to go home alone, still being abandoned by the schools and colleges that promised to protect them but then protect the men that violate them instead, still missing on the streets of the United States.

No, this is not a woman's problem. This is not about the equality of a woman. This is about our definition of a man. This has something to do with what we really believe about the rationality, self-control and spiritual quality of men.

From where I stand, for men to take it for granted that men simply "do these things" is the greatest male insult of them all. Maybe that's why football commissioners and Army generals and college presidents are failing so badly where women are concerned.

But here's the news flash of the day: Just as I was finishing this column, Iceland announced a men-only U.N. conference on women and gender equality.

The purpose of the conference, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson said, is "to bring men and boys to the table on gender equality in a positive way." There will be a special session on violence.

Then, on top of that, the local paper on Oct. 3 announced that dozens of men in a small adjoining town will "Walk a Mile in Her Shoes" -- in high heels -- to show support for women dealing with domestic abuse.

Finally. Finally. Now if men here -- men in clubs, men in parishes, men in administrative positions, men in religious ministry, men in locker rooms and bars and schools and on army bases -- will only do the same, maybe someday, women will be able to walk our streets alone, too.

[Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister is a frequent NCR contributor.]

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