TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Gendered oppression, or a broader issue?

Most weeks I mull over a couple of ideas for the week’s message, but on Friday (23 October) as I turned the pages of The Newcastle Herald, which is the usual beginning to my days since commencing work here ten years ago, I was convinced of a need to respond. While I munch away on my cereal, I usually digest our local news and scan the paper for items which may report on the diocese or material to which we should be paying attention.

I came across this on the opinion page, “Gendered inequity is real” written by Mia Sanders who was going to speak on a panel on Saturday, “Fighting misogyny and sexism today”. The byline for this piece was “Reproductive rights are key to ending violence against women”.

As I read the piece I found myself becoming quite disturbed by the assumptions and assertions made by the writer. I quote from the article:

Social structures, particularly those related to women’s reproductive biology are what make us poorer, more housebound and thus more socially vulnerable…

Reproductive rights, specifically contraception and abortion rights, have been a cornerstone of women’s rights since the 1960s.

Feminists argue that access to a safe and affordable abortion is a fundamental precondition to having control over one’s life and should be an inalienable right.
  In this context, the governing of our bodies and reproduction, as a specifically gendered oppression, cannot be ignored…

If gendered oppression could be resolved by individual soul-searching, why then are we still living in a reproductive prison subject to unequal pay and domestic violence?

The perpetuation of women as the carers and bearers of children, and the main labourers in the home, means we are prevented from becoming a political force that can challenge our role as second-class citizens.

It also saves the capitalist system a load of money.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the inequality of women as a global issue but the argument posed by Mia Saunders presented a dilemma which has not left me since reading it on Friday. I don’t believe equality is about “reproductive... gendered oppression”.

It is hard for me to fathom that women would opt for abortion, the taking of life, because this will result in their being less than equal. The violence of abortion to the life of the child, as well as its mother and father, cannot offset the “reproductive rights to end violence against women” as stated by Mia Sanders. Violence is about the abuse of power and control, and I think we need to be careful in how we define ourselves and our actions.

I don’t think that taking the narrow view around women’s reproduction as a cause of domestic violence and inequity is helpful when speaking about the rights of women. People need to be valued because of who they are and not because of their gender.

Men and women will always be different and equality is about a mutuality of persons for the good of the whole − for individuals, for families, for children, for people in the workplace and for the community. Equality is about becoming the best man or woman I can be. I will name this as attaining full human maturity to benefit the whole community.

Women have the reproductive organs which nurture new life. This is an amazing gift, even though pregnancy for some women can be a real challenge. Ideally, a child is meant to be created by two people who are so much in love that they wish to share that love and become one flesh and to share in the creation of a new life. Over the next nine months, the woman shares her body with this new person who needs the womb as a home; a warm, safe, secure, friendly and nourishing environment. This child has a right to be safe and to grow, and then once outside the womb, to continue to grow in the safety and security of a family in which his or her physical, emotional, social, psychological, educational and spiritual needs are met. Both mother and father have special roles to play in the development of the child.

The role of the woman, and the man, as parents is a privilege and not to be seen as “gender oppression”. I know it has become more challenging for couples to decide who should be the primary carer when the child is dependent. However children need to know they are loved unconditionally and that they really matter. Love is selfless and to attempt to put an economic value on this ‘commodity’ devalues both male and female roles. The complexity we now face around parenting and the language used to diminish the role of the woman can create angst for both women and men, compromising the joy of being family.

The skills learned in parenting should not be undersold. Having assisted in the raising of our five children did not give me a transcript of subjects covered or passes scored. However I believe that I bring many skills into the work environment which I would not have otherwise obtained. Not all skills are quantifiable, and yet I trust that life experiences have provided me with some great qualities. For those who choose to take time away from paid employment, to care for children or in some instances their parents, there may be disadvantages when returning to their work or their profession, because the skills developed while parenting children and organising a household are not recognised, and they are deemed to be not as effective if they had remained in employment. This should not be blamed on reproduction, but on a system that may not see value in the time spent in caring, or the fear that now this person is a parent, they may be less committed to their role in the workforce.

Some inequality also results from our present emphasis on rewarding a particular type of intelligence, the logical or rational. Those who possess visual, aural, verbal, physical, social and interpersonal intellects are less likely to receive an equivalent remuneration for the tasks they perform. We know that those who work in the business, financial and legal sectors are more likely to receive greater financial rewards for their work while those who work with people are not as highly valued, at least monetarily. This has little to do with a woman’s reproductive biology.

It would certainly be my hope that the conversation could shift from this narrow negative perspective of “gendered oppression”, to a more holistic positive stance, in which I, as a woman – and all women − can feel proud to be called a wife, a mum, a grandmother, and the men in my life − my dad, my husband, my brothers and work colleagues − respect me because of the person I am and the contributions I make. That would be true gender equality.

The principles of the dignity of the human person, along with solidarity and the common good, are what we need to hold as an ethic of life and living. Let’s work towards real respect for ourselves and the other so that we can live in peace and harmony. To seek out to apportion blame is not good for the individual or the community. It will not achieve the much needed restoration and renewal for which the community is searching.

I think the best gift we can give to young people is the gift of self-worth and the capacity for them to see that they can achieve great things, if that is their desire. Family support and education are key to this, while systems need to honour those who choose a variety of pathways to contribute to our society.

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Teresa Brierley Image
Teresa Brierley

Teresa Brierley is the Vice Chancellor Pastoral Ministries of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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