Friday, September 02, 2016

A Faith Group Adds Its Own Cracks to the Glass Ceiling

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.- Galatians 3:28

The Scriptural passage included above served, way back in the 17th Century, as justification for equality between the sexes. In the middle of civil war and a resulting power vacuum, a new faith emerged in England. Like so much with the massive text we call the Holy Bible, every faith selectively picks and chooses which verses and passages to emphasize when codifying its own theology and inner vocabulary. As many have noted before me, the text itself is broad enough that there is more than enough room for interpretation for a multitude of religious persuasions and personal persuasions. My own chose this particular verse to suit its own ends. It happens also to intersect neatly with my political and personal beliefs, which is a large reason I became a Quaker.

But I digress. If current trends hold, the United States of America will soon elect its first female president. In the midst of the insults and craziness of this nasty election year, there simply hasn’t been enough attention given to the significance of what may well result on Election Day. The achievement would be more notable in a predictable, routine election cycle, but this has not been the case. Electing and then re-electing the first black President followed immediately by placing the first woman President in the office of the Chief Executive would be very significant for many reasons. Some of them are merely symbolic, some are real and tactile.

What may be confirmed the first week of November will satisfy my own thirst for equality in both a religious and a political sphere. More than a few members of the Religious Society of Friends, usually known as Quakers, will note three hundred and fifty years of steady progress finally fulfilled. Gender equality of any sort in 1640's England was a radical proposition, extreme enough to arouse great fear in government leaders and offensive enough to produce mocking insults from prominent commentators and essayists of the day. Some never took Friends seriously, others would sooner throw them in jail or even subject them to public execution. Only a half-mad group of religious zealots would dare propose such audacious ideas and have the crazed insistence to try to live by them.

Notable about the early Quakers was the amount of side by side work that men and women performed, in organizing and in preaching alike. As a matter of fact, without the assistance of a particularly influential woman as benefactor, the entire movement might never have gotten off the ground. Her deep pockets, inward convictions, and political clout made the movement much of what it was. I use this particular example as the benchmark of what I wish to see in my own life and in my own time. I have benefited from the progress made. I have had many fruitful collaborations with women co-workers and women who are of my same religious persuasion. I have appreciated their insight and skillful eye for the detail. They have been mentors as well, and I am grateful for their presence in my life.

Returning to the past, Margaret Fell, an early convert to the faith, was both wealthy and politically influential. Fell was also a member of the landed gentry, owning an estate named Swarthmoore Hall, which served as the hub of Quaker activity in the early days. In time, she would take George Fox, the founder of the faith, as her second husband. This union followed the death of her her first husband, who had been a barrister and member of Parliament. As a brief side-note, Swarthmore College, located in the state of Pennsylvania, is named after this estate. Swarthmore was once affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, but now it is independent, though the college does retain some of its traditions.

Nothing in life is quite so simplistic, no cause purely fair or unfair. Even those committed to gender integration and egalitarian worship are not always the purest of believers. Friendly audiences will justly point out that business meetings at the outset were often segregated by gender. This was a decision not necessarily made to exclude. Many women felt as though they could speak more frankly and honestly if they weren’t surrounded by their husbands, brothers, and male relatives.

Idealism must sometimes be tempered with pragmatism. To this day, in the older Meetinghouses, one can often see the partitioned space that separated men from women. To show how far we’ve come, we have progressed enough as a society and a Religious Society that this real and visually prominent separation is no longer deemed necessary. Some would build partitions. Others would seek a day where we would question the wisdom of building walls of any shape or size or height. Robert Frost wrote that something there is that doesn't love a wall.

Speaking in broader terms, it may be instructive once more to take the long view. These are a few examples. In the beginning, the United States, by way of Thomas Jefferson, insisted that all men should be created equal, but it was implied that equality in this context meant only white men with some degree of social standing and wealth. After the Civil War, the victorious Union was divided amongst itself as to what suffrage really meant. Did this mean the extension of the vote to freedmen formerly in bondage? The country as a whole never managed to resolve an issue almost as contentious as the war that had immediately come before it, necessitating a second Reconstruction that we now collectively call The Civil Rights Movement.

Following the first Reconstruction, women demanded the right of suffrage, but were not granted the ability to cast a ballot until about a hundred years ago. To today’s audience, it seems incredible that women wouldn’t automatically have what we now consider the most basic right of citizenship. A hundred years ago is a blink of an eye in the vast expanse of time, but likely none of us currently living can remember an epoch where women weren't allowed to vote.

Not long ago, women were valued for their behind the scenes work, their domestic duties, while men were expected to be the public front of any marriage or relationship. Now, if Hillary Clinton is elected, I wonder if we are finally ready to cast aside old prejudices and embrace the future. I know that some people out there hold silent reservations, even today. I hear the same criticisms about women heads of state that are made about women police officers or women who hold occupations where the dual qualities of emotional strength and decisive decision-making are part of the job description. 

To even begin to answer that question, it is possible that we need to speak to the parts of us that we usually prefer to keep hidden. Some of us might think any female President lacks the toughness needed for, without hyperbole, the most stressful, most challenging, most intense job in the world. The great responsibilities required have utterly destroyed men, if we presume that men are somehow more innately geared for a task that Herculean, requiring the toughest hide imaginable. These are the assumptions that must be challenged, the subtle doubts many still entertain within themselves.

We would be debating issues like these if someone other than Donald Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. We would be circumspect and contemplative, not reactive and confused. Instead, the media has been chasing around the antics of a buffoon. We would be debating the evidence of the cracks in the glass ceiling, but instead we have been driven to distraction by a news media that can't resist obsessively documenting the behavior of a charlatan. Let’s not take the bait and instead try to make sense of where we are and where we want to be.

Quakers can view the likely election of Hillary Clinton as the culmination of its own hard work. As the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement proclaimed, we’ve come a long way, baby. I am willing to celebrate, even if, like so many, if I am not enthralled the candidate. Friends can be justly proud of their accomplishments, assuming the election goes for Clinton, but I would caution against seeming too self-satisfied or smug. Men and women are not yet equal, in ways that go beyond rates of pay and long held fears. It would be best for us to discard the distractions of spectacle and courageously move forward to nobler pursuits.

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