Children of God come in two kinds, men and women; and through most of history, for reasons bad and good, women's lives have had a narrower scope than men's. Feminists believe it is high time for women to enter the full heritage of humanity, but there are better and worse ways of this happening. In reaction against ancient stereotyping, the first instinct of people who want to liberate women may be to deny that gender matters and try to make men and women interchangeable. Though a man cannot bear a child, and a woman cannot lift a heavy weight, maybe with creches and machinery these differences can be minimized. Women must be strong-minded and men gentle, and remaining prejudices must be legislated away. Sadly or triumphantly, people find that gender still matters: that 'unisex' is not practical; and indeed that neither men nor women much want it to be practical. So traditionalists try to refurbish 'complementarity', while feminists begin to emphasize, not deny, that women are different from men. Their basic premise has changed from 'Women can do what men can do' to 'What men have done is treat women badly.'
It is a strength and a perplexity of the Christian Churches today to have become belatedly aware of long-standing forms of oppression. 'In Christ', said St Paul, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female' (Gal. 3:28). For people who believe themselves to be children of a loving Father, it should go without saying that humanity matters more than race, class, gender.
When it comes to gender, the very premise of the Christian argument is part of the problem. Once consciousness is raised, the Fatherhood of God is part of 'patriarchy'. 'The brotherhood of man' from being inspiring has become objectionable. Knowledge of good and evil is an uncomfortable acquisition. The clash of principles cannot readily allow a moratorium and this war is a civil war. Women have fathers and brothers, and even if they reject husbands they may still have sons. Sisterhood cannot be enough any more than brotherhood is. In a civil war the victory of either side is a defeat for both. There is reason to fear that a victory of either anti-feminism or feminism would be a defeat for humanity. What women need cannot be independence from men; nor a legalistic notional 'equality' which remains vulnerable to the facts of biology. They need, of course, attention to specific grievances; but there remains the problem of the pervasive asymmetry which is summed up by saying that it is difficult for women to enter the heritage of humanity. When a man says, 'We are men', he usually means, 'We are human beings; we have something in common', not 'We are male.' When a woman says, 'We are women', she usually means, 'We are female: we are different'; and 'different' probably implies 'superior' or 'inferior'. Unlike a man, she cannot take her gender for granted. The quest for inclusive language can even be a hindrance. What are women to do, for instance, with Wordsworth's mourning over Venice?:
Men are we and must grieve when even the Shade Of that which once was great is passed away.
Complacency supposes that there is no problem, that 'men' includes women; but substituting 'people' or 'human beings' is not always easy or even possible. The overdue raising of consciousness has had the unhappy side-effect of reinforcing the notion that femaleness is the problem. Woman have achieved the doubtful freedom to repudiate disapprovingly those areas of our common past where it has become clear that women are not included.
It is too late to establish a genuinely inclusive language of 'mankind' in which women too could say naturally 'We are men', not viri but homines; but perhaps it is not too late for women to avoid the temptation to exclude men in their turn. The language of humanity is less neat and elegant that the language of 'man', but men and women need to learn to speak it and think it: not in a 'unisex' way, but indeed in a humanist way, which will recognize gender among the vital and valuable ways in which human beings differ from one another (Oppenheimer 1990: ch. 11).
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