Equality of The Sexes
It is possible to argue interminably about what have been the most significant changes during the 20th century, and indeed there is no simple answer, or even any one answer.
Some will press the claims of a particular scientific invention or discovery, others look to advances in technology. Is the invention of the atom bomb and the associated work on nuclear fission and fusion the most notable achievement? Or is it the growth in knowledge about the origins of the universe in which we dwell? Others will look to the invention of the internal combustion engine, the motor car, followed by the aeroplane. Again, what of communications with telephone, radio and television bringing information to us all, even as events unfold on the far side of the world.
Others will turn to medical science, with the discovery of penicillin, followed by a plethora of miracle drugs; the surgeon who transplants organs almost routinely, or to the pathologist who, with his vaccines, has all but eliminated a number of life threatening diseases.
One will turn to the arts, another to philosophy. Explorers, innovators and sages will all have their supporters.
One can go on and on detailing the differences that have occurred within the world since the birth of a friend of mine who was 90 years of age last October. When he was born, in 1901, humans had not yet invented flying machines. The journey to America took at least a week, instead of today’s five or six hours, with a return journey possible within the day. A journey of several days faced the rich few who ventured on holiday in Spain or Italy. Ultimately men were to build rockets to carry them to the moon, a mere fantasy in a science fiction world throughout my friend’s working life, but to become a reality after only his retirement at the age of 66 years.
My friend was born in a world where there were no radio sets carrying speech and music. He was a young man before crystal sets received the human voice, and wireless sets and the BBC came into every home. Television broadcasts were hardly known until he reached his early fifties. Many common illnesses now treated by doctor’s prescription were killers throughout most of his teaching career. Horse drawn vehicles, steam trains and ships were virtually the sole means of transport during his childhood, though the electric tram operated in some urban areas.
But one can make a strong case that one of the greatest changes in our country during this man’s life is not scientific, but social and political. It is the emancipation of women, an evolution not yet complete but one that has made remarkable progress.
It is surely appropriate on the day a Sunday School May Queen is crowned, to look for a moment at this development – for it is not merely of political and social significance, but of religious significance as well.
At the beginning of this century, the role of women, the position of women in our society, was little different from what it had been for centuries. No woman sat in parliament, no woman had a vote, few professions allowed women entry. Those who advocated greater equality for women were derided, persecuted and sometimes imprisoned.
Women voted for the first time less than five years before I was born, and I was at school before women under thirty years of age were given the vote, and so achieved equality in this respect with men.
In my own profession of teaching, a woman’s salary has been the same as her equivalent man colleague for merely the last thirty years. Only in recent years has it become illegal to discriminate unfairly against women in employment recruitment, though sadly in practice much discrimination still persists.
The quiet revolution in the position of women in British society, a revolution which is still proceeding, can surely rank among the most momentous events of the century.
But why do I refer to this today, in a church service?
I believe that there are two aspects to our worship. One is personal, perhaps inward looking and reflective. The other is communal, outwardly directed and practical.
The first part is important. We meditate and pray, we rest in tranquillity for a while, then, as the prophet wrote, “we renew our strength” that we may “mount up as eagles….”. But vital as that purpose of worship is, it is not, or it ought not to be, our sole purpose in gathering here.
The second part is to put that renewed strength to some purpose in our daily lives. To see how that which we profess to believe is turned to common purpose. And to do that we must recognise the world around us as it is, and as it is developing.
Some do regret change, and will continue to do so. Things aren’t quite how they were when we were young. If only the clock could go back, or the pendulum would swing, they complain. The ranks of those who regret the emancipation of women are not filled with men alone. Some women cry, “Would that the tide ebb.” But tides don’t even obey the commands of kings and queens, let alone the pleas of the commoner.
At the core of christian faith lies the obligation to others, succinctly expressed in the phrase, “… love your neighbour as yourself”. Over and over again in the gospels the criticism of what is implied by a master and servant relationship can be found: “Why call me master?”: “He who would be the master of all, shall be the servant of all”: “Except ye become as little children…” and so on. The story of the washing of the disciples feet also comes to mind.
If, as I believe, those who profess the ethics of Christianity – the master is also servant, the servant is also master – must accept that all members of the human race are valued equally. Categorising into males and females and valuing the groups as of different worth, is wrong. If you prefer the term, it is sinful. The movement for equality of opportunity for both men and women may be social and political in form, but it is surely powered by a religious engine and spiritual fuel.
Unitarianism is often referred to as having a liberal christian tradition. That refers not only to forms of worship, theological arguments and freedom from creeds and dogmas, but to the tradition of commitment of members to social reform. (Many examples are to be found of Unitarian reformers.)
Women have long been received in our pulpits on equal terms with men, a possibility which some other christians debate with anxiety and apprehension. It is for the members of those churches who consider the issues, to reach their own conclusions, but we should continue to value the contribution, and not pre-judge it by the sex of the contributor.
There are those who argue that it is inappropriate in a society moving to greater equality to have women’s groups and men’s groups, for this, they say, reinforces inequalities and differences. This is a viewpoint I do not accept. Equality does not imply sameness. Loving one’s neighbour is an acceptance of difference and variety.
The predominantly male view of society has lead until recent times to that very belief in exclusiveness and male superiority, a certitude which now is rightly crumbling. A view that one sex has a God-given position of superiority over the other is incompatible with a faith that puts love of neighbour at its heart. Largely due to a comparatively few courageous, tenacious women the century will close with a very much improved position for women in society than was the case when it opened.
What then for the future? What message should there be, what lessons have been learnt than can be applied elsewhere?
Within the world, and within our own country, much inequality still is prevalent. Many groups, because of their religion, their colour, their beliefs, their ethnic background, or for other reasons, are at best denied equal treatment, or are at worst persecuted. Love of neighbour has a limited acceptance or is applied selectively.
Women have personal experience of discrimination which should make them particularly sensitive to the needs of others. Because it is a woman who carries the new life and gives birth to it, she has a sympathy to the weak, the helpless and the oppressed. They will surely be in the van of their fight for a fairer world.
Men more frequently are the oppressors, or are those who are insensitive to the aspirations of others. They are the ones who have to be educated, cajoled, compelled to help change the world.
Emancipation of women, even when complete, is not the end. It is a start on a long road to the removal of injustice, intolerance – an attitude which is fundamentally irreligious.
I started by speaking of a man born at the beginning of the century into a world which, had it been able to see forward would have gazed with unbelief. That a new born babe would live to see men in space was incredible. That women too would go into space was ludicrous.
That a woman would become Prime Minister was cloud cuckoo land. That this baby should live to watch a report from a battlefield halfway across the world of events as they happened, was barely understandable; that the reporter would be a woman was taking things too far.
We have come a long way in a short time, and much is due to the determination of women. We have a long way still to go, and recent, past history shows the inconceivable is achievable.
With the partnership of both men and women we can tramp the road ahead to the goal of a society truly based on christian ethics, where the contributions from all are sought, and respect to all is given.
A hundred years ago it was taken for granted that men alone would draw the plans of the new world we were seeking. Surely we now know better. A Sunday School May Queen has this morning pledged herself to service. May she grow to see a world where equality is not a matter for comment, but represents the accepted norm.
Fulwood 10 May 1992