Men I meet, when they find out, or already know, that I have a reputation for commenting on gender justice, often tell me they’re a feminist.
Here’s why I don’t care.
When I was 15, I was sexually harassed and stalked by a police officer linked to my school who was clever enough to stay just the right side of the law, and also to play my psychology. I was never quite sure whether I had heard him correctly, whether I had interpreted the situation rightly. Whether I was being oversensitive. Seeing and hearing things that weren’t there.
As this situation progressed, he eventually crossed the line over which I knew that I wasn’t misunderstanding what was happening. It was frightening, but thankfully it stopped short of physical abuse. At this point, because I knew that I had ongoing and real evidence, but mostly because I knew in my own mind what had happened, and the correct interpretation, I reported him. I had information that he had behaved like this in the past, and with a broad selection of evidence, he was dismissed from his post.
Part of the process which I went through involved being interviewed by the Police Family Protection Unit. I remember being told that this man’s colleagues had said that they had long known him to behave in this way and that they had known that it would end like this.
I think they felt they were reassuring me that what I was saying was to be believed. But I distinctly remember the deep sense of anger and contempt that I had for them – if they knew that this is what this man was doing, why did they not stop him, why didn’t they ‘tell’? Perhaps that sounds very hard. However, I was 15 years old, and I had more courage, strength and integrity to ensure that something was done to prevent this happening to anyone else.
Now, the corollaries that I can bring to my experiences of sexism in the Church must be sensitively drawn. But the truth is that this same sense of injustice, anger and contempt has been part of my faith experience far too many times. This is the truth. Too often I have heard people explain and excuse downright bad behaviour to the detriment of others and their own health, wellbeing and faith journey with God. We allow people to walk the thin tight rope of ‘just the right side’ of sexism, we turn a blind eye to jokes told about other people in our presence, because to raise the issue puts us in the firing line. We collude with people in their prejudice because we are affirmed for doing so, and also protected, like collaborators.
In the Church I have had my breasts commented on, I’ve been called a ‘feminist’ with spitting hatred, I’ve had fingers painfully dug in my shoulder in order to have the ‘chip wiped off’, I’ve had someone run away from me (literally) because I had become persona non gratis, I’ve been accused of being disobedient to God for being in leadership. This is just a small window into my experiences, without any mention of those things that have been said or shouted at ‘women in general’. I have gained friends and lost friends for all the wrong reasons, I have had people want to be my saviour, and denigrate my name when I haven’t acquiesced. I’ve seen friends bullied and marginalised, and been such myself, simply because we are women. It seems all around us know it happens, but, and this is the worst injustice of all, we are expected to put up with it!
Or in the Church, it’s called ‘being gracious.’
So, I have to admit that I have very, very little patience for mealy-mouthed words any more. And this is where people find the walk of gender justice too heavy or costly. I often encounter men who are keen to tell me how much they believe in equality. They want me on their side, but when I explore more with them, I find that they are rather reluctant to listen to the experience of women, to listen to how we hear things, how we receive and interpret the language, actions and culture. They want to explain why we’re over-egging the situation; how it’s ‘not that bad really’. If we suggest ways in which to counteract the imbalance, we are often accused of ‘going too far’.
Okay, and now for the less controversial stuff. I’m pleased to meet allies, and I don’t denigrate the sincere motivation behind offers of support and words of solidarity. They are not wasted, as polemical as the above argument has perhaps appeared to some of you. I need to be clear that I know some great men who understand something of their privilege and who are in it for the long-haul to understand. But don’t expect delighted surprise when you announce that you are a feminist. I will wait and see, if that’s okay.
So now you’re a feminist. Prove it.