Ideas Have Consequences

Once upon a time those who opposed women exercising any leadership in the church, the family, or the workplace, spoke of women’s “inferiority” to men. In the post-sexual revolution world, the “inferiority” term became socially unacceptable, so in the 70’s those of a theological bent coined the term “complementarianism”. Women were not inferior to men, but complementary… the role of men is to lead, and the role of women in the church and in the family is to support and submit. Humans have been designed for this and are happiest this way, apparently. (They had to backtrack too on women not exercising leadership in “secular” spheres, as this also became utterly socially unacceptable.)

In the teaching of Jesus, the one who serves is great, and Jesus modelled exemplary servant leadership. However, there is a world of difference in having personal power and using this to serve and empower others, from being powerless. The former leads to shalom, the latter so often leads to exploitation.

Ideas that take away power from others have consequences, and the consequences of teaching something that ultimately disempowers women has some truly awful ones. The United Nations report on violence against women states blankly: “The roots of violence against women lie in historically unequal power relations between men and women.” The whole report is a sobering read, noting (amongst other things) that “on average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in the course of her lifetime” “Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria.”

The disempowering of women also contributes to horrendous rates of abortion of female foetuses and female infanticide. According to Mara Hvistendahl, author of “The War Against Girls”, there have been so many sex-selective abortions in the past three decades that 163 million girls, who by biological averages should have been born, are missing from the world. When women are denied education, they lack the capacity to earn adequate income, and then they become viewed as a liability. Disempowerment can and does end up deadly.

The disempowering of women leads to their disproportionate experience of poverty. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, earn only 10 percent of the world’s income, own less than 1 percent of the world’s property, and make up make up two-thirds of the world’s population who are illiterate.

Gender inequality also has huge consequences for the environment:

Those who promote the idea that men should lead and women should submit are generally (though not universally) well-intentioned. It is important however to note that ideas that disempower women are not benign: they have some dreadful consequences that should appal anyone of good will. As such, they are ideas that deserve serious scrutiny and critical analysis.


Janet Woodlock said…
I've just realised this post is the same name as the CBe conference... no wonder it was in my head. For those interested, it's on next weekend... see
espanola said…
Very interesting stats you've collected there, Janet - a horrifyingly skewed picture. I appreciate TEAR and Opportunity International and other NFPs that empower women through micro finance. As you will know, it's easier to fund women, they pay back the loans so others can be assisted, and they work hard to use the money wisely in collaborative community groups.
Janet Woodlock said…
I think there is now strong awareness among NGO aid and development organisations that empowering women is the most strategic way to lift a community out of poverty, and to benefit the children of that community.

Changing attitudes is critical, but it's not always easily done.

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