Message 57, “Life Lessons from Women in History”, 5-15-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Last week, after my message on motherhood, women and gender roles, and considering my message topics this month would focus on women and what we can learn from them, I was anxious to discuss these issues with my two daughters Amy and Sara.  It fascinated me when these two young women – who enjoy the fruits of female equality – adamantly stated that if women truly led the world and its many governments and corporations, it would be a much better place.  No war, reduced poverty, less materialism, and more compassion would all result.  They are feminists who also enjoy being wooed and admired by understanding boyfriends.  Nevertheless, for them, the ills of our world are directly attributable to men.  I could not and did not argue with them.  In many respects, they are right.

Kofi Anan, the former UN Secretary General, once said “For countless generations women have served as peace educators both in their families and in their societies.  They have been instrumental in building bridges rather than walls.” One critic remarked, in response, that if women have acted as natural peacemakers and bridge builders, why have they not used their influence to abolish war?  There is a naysayer in every crowd.

Human society, my friends, is currently competitive, aggressive, and driven.  We are encouraged to achieve, acquire, and compete.  War and conflict are seen as inevitable events.  We are often self-focused, individualistic, violent in speech and conduct, and driven to succeed to acquire material things to live a supposedly better life.  Our global culture lives according to a male ethos.

And, to put it bluntly, women have not been permitted to express their voice – their more natural inclinations to value community, compassion and peace.  Despite the fact that women now comprise over half of the world’s population, they perform two-thirds of its labor.  Women earn one-tenth of global income and own one-hundredth of world property.  Is it any wonder why, in a world dominated by men, women have been unable to end war?

The Bible tells us that, for Jesus, there exist neither male nor female.  People are simply people – not defined by gender, race, nationality, sexuality or religion.  Gloria Steinem, in a contemporary update of that Bible passage, said, We are talking about building a society in which there will be no specific gender roles other than those chosen or those earned.   We are really talking about humanism.”

But that is a world yet to be built – a culture of humanity where the best qualities of women and men work together.  That culture will embrace peaceful competition, communal interest over selfish interest, and creative innovation through collaboration and cooperation.

I believe such a world is at the threshold of existence.  As women are finding their voice, men are increasingly listening.  In a book entitled Women and Economics, it is asserted that we are on the cusp of profound social and cultural evolutionary change in terms of gender influence.  No longer will male oriented impulses like aggression and competition dominate. A new era of gender neutral qualities will be at hand.  This author, Charlotte Gilman, believes that the competing gender impulses of men have held back greater growth in world economies – including our own.  Males, with their individualistic and competitive natures have indeed helped produce economic growth throughout the world.  But such growth has had its costs.  Warfare, environmental destruction, religious competition and unrestrained nationalism have reached a point where social and economic progress is hurt rather than advanced.  Male attitudes, operating alone, are increasingly recognized as no longer sustainable.  Men are increasingly recognizing that building community, working for social justice, caring for the environment and finding ways to reconcile differences are key to human survival.  Ultimately, they are heeding life lessons women have long advocated.  This, according to Gilman, is revolutionary in scope.  We are no longer talking about gender equality but an entirely new way of understanding and thinking – combining the best qualities of all people.

Without resorting to hard and fast gender stereotypes, men build things through their assertive, competitive and acquisitive natures.  Women, on the other hand, often seek to conserve resources and look out for communal interests – since biologically they must give birth and then feed the first expression of communal life – that of mother and child.   Human society is evolving to a point where gender differences are no longer competitive – with one gender assuming a dominant role.   As Jesus and Steinem noted in the quotes I cited earlier, there will be neither male interests nor female interests but, instead, one common interest.

I believe, as I said last week, that we must avoid biological determinism regarding our behavior.  Yet, science and observation has shown that men are generally by nature inclined to be aggressive, independent, non-verbal, and unemotional.  In studies of infants, girls recognize faces more easily and they tend to acquire verbal skills at an earlier age.  Boy infants tend to be more physically active, spatially aware, easily distracted and visually stimulated.  The cues and impulses which follow us through life are apparent in the crib long before culture has had its influence.

Writing in the contemporary magazine, “The Network Journal” which speaks to the interests of those in the professional world, James Libert identifies from his studies several distinct female characteristics – most of which are not surprising.  Female workers are more collaborative, nurturing, communicative and community centered.  They typically have more emotional connections with co-workers and they tend to display more social and emotional skills like sharing, putting others first and empathy.  The end result, he says, is that women often foster a better work environment that enables economic success.  Men, he says, must “woman up” in the workplace and in life to avoid the pitfalls of their own aggression and competitive natures.  Importantly, he cautions men not to give up their better qualities of confidence, drive and assertiveness.  The goal is to combine – not give up – the best of male qualities with those of women.

Despite all of these facts about gender roles, we are not captives of biology.  Women can become physically capable – the fastest and strongest women are far beyond the abilities of the average male.  And men can acquire social and verbal skills that make them more empathetic and sensitive.  In other words, biology has its influence but it is not absolute.  We can learn and change our behaviors.

If we look to important women in history, we will find examples of the female voice – one that has often cried out in the wilderness for peace and social welfare.  Women have natural instincts that can instruct us – and I do not say this to be patronizing.  I was and am fascinated by what many women in my life have to say about how to act – my daughters, my friends, my mother, my sister, many of you.  I do not demean men for their often macho attitudes as much as I believe the male species yearns to understand and feel the emotional connection many women feel for others, the altruistic concern and love for family and total stranger, the ability to talk and listen one’s way through a problem, the distaste for physical combat.  Men do not wish to relinquish their masculinity as much as they want permission to incorporate gentleness, nurture and empathy into their demeanor.    Too often men are like actors on a stage – they are expected to behave according to a role defined for them by our culture.  But they know it is an act and they know they wear a mask.  The exclusively macho persona is a role many men would like to give up.

Great women from history have already taught us much about how to live life in a manner that expresses Jesus’ Golden Rule – to treat others as we wish to be treated.  When we consider historic peace movements, it is remarkable that they have been significantly led by women.  I do not believe this is coincidence.  Women, in general, are peacemakers.  And this is not the kind of peace that is negotiated after a war in which one side loses and one wins.  Too often that is a temporary and vindictive peace that leads to another war.

Women like Julia Ward Howe who issued the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870 – which we read earlier as our responsive reading – were peace advocates who asked for an end to all wars.  Since most women were mothers, this was an issue of great concern to them.  Their sons were continually being slaughtered.  For many women who feel that innate emotion and connection from giving birth, any taking of life is hideous.

While I admittedly generalize here, men simply plant the seed in reproduction.  There is little investment.  Women, on the other hand, must incubate, sustain, nurture and feed the offspring – usually over several years.  The investment of time, emotion, blood, sweat and tears is so much greater.  If men might understand and empathize with this perspective, the wanton killing of human life will be seen as costly and horribly tragic.  For many men, war is full of honor and glory in that ultimate form of competition – life against life.  For many women, there is no honor in the death of a son or daughter in whom so much time and love has been invested.  Whether or not they are mothers, women know and feel this emotion.

And that is why I believe so many women have been and are peacemakers.  Women like Bertha von Suttner have been leaders of peace movements.  She pushed for the creation of the Nobel Peace Prize and is universally recognized as its creator.  Eventually winning the Prize herself at the dawn of the twentieth century, she was President of the International Peace Society and wrote the influential disarmament book Lay Down Your Arms.  She saw, with increasing horror, the race to acquire more and more weapons of death by patriarchal world powers like Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm, and England, under King George.  Such male dominant cultures competed with each other to colonize vast areas of the world.   This empire building and competition led directly to World War One.

Von Suttner, however, envisioned a different way.  She was a follower of Charles Darwin who also taught social evolution – that all species move toward a communal and cooperative ethic as the attitude most likely to produce long-term survival.  She advocated dialogue, disarmament and reconciliation between nations as pathways to prevent war.

Women have been the leaders of peace movements in their own nations – like Betty Greene of Britain and Mairead Corrigan of Northern Ireland, both of whom reached across the sectarian and religious divide of that conflict to work for reconciliation.  Or Ang San Suu Kyi of Myanmar who advocates for an end to dictatorship and military oppression in that nation……..or Jodi Williams of the US who spoke against the manufacture and use of landmines by our own nation or ……….Wangari Maathi of Kenya who works for environmentalism and sustainability as necessary for ending resource competition that threatens world peace.  My own grandmother Jean Slagle, a lifelong Republican, was a local peace advocate who was called before Congress in the early 1950’s to testify in favor of ending the Draft.  For her and for many other mothers and women all over the world, war is a personal and spiritual affront.

Women have also acted as primary advocates of social justice movements over the last two hundred years.  Once again, women reveal qualities in themselves which often do not come naturally to men – like mercy, sharing, compassion and empathy.  I do not believe it is mere coincidence that women have frequently been at the vanguard of social movements like slavery abolition, immigrant and worker rights, civil rights and equality for gays and lesbians.  Like the desire to preserve and conserve life through peaceful discussion, many women share a concern for the marginalized of society – since historically they too have lived at the margins.  Women like Harriet Beecher Stowe comprised the bulk of the abolitionist movement against slavery.  Others, like Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks helped advance the civil rights cause.  At the turn of the century, women like Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day and Jane Addams advocated for the rights of workers, immigrants, women and children.

Jane Addams would herself win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.  As the founder of the world famous Hull House in Chicago, Addams was instrumental in developing juvenile court law, enacting child labor laws, establishing the eight hour work day, insuring work place safety and getting worker’s compensation funds established.  Above all, in Hull House she created one of the first social welfare centers in our nation.  It still exists today.

Other women like Addams have worked over the past century to end poverty, to promote equality, and to love the least of God’s creation.  Women like Mother Theresa, Emily Greene of the US, Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala and Shirin Ebadi of Iran have all won the Nobel Peace Prize for their social work advancing the rights of the poor, workers, women, children and native groups.  It is also notable that it was a woman who created the most well-known, popular and effective social program in our nation’s history.  Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a President’s cabinet, was the guiding force behind the creation of Social Security.  As Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt, her concern was for the working poor – those who try to realize the American dream through hard work but are often beaten down by low wages, unsafe working conditions and lack of healthcare.    Raised a Republican, her outlook was best stated when she said, “Poverty is preventable, destructive, wasteful and demoralizing. In the midst of our national plenty, it is morally unacceptable in a Christian and democratic society.”

I do not believe these women or others like them were radicals who encouraged the end of capitalism.  Far from it.  They sought to protect capitalism by insuring that its worst manifestations are held in check – thus allowing its best attributes like freedom and innovation to flourish.  Most of all, women like those I cite heed the example of Mother Theresa who once said – in one of my oft repeated quotes – when she bathed and fed a dying person in the slums of Calcutta…………….she gazed into the face of God.  Forgive me for stereotyping, but again I do not believe it is a coincidence that it took a woman to remind us all to be our better angels.

And that brings me full circle to the point which I hope we might all ponder.  It is neither accurate nor helpful to rigidly stereotype men or women into certain behaviors.  Indeed, the best qualities of the respective genders are useful in each of us.  Society needs the more common male impulses to build, create, and compete.  But the male attitude has often become destructively aggressive, greedy and dominating.   It has led away from ethics like understanding, cooperation, and reconciliation.  The common female impulses to protect and conserve community are needed to balance such negative forces but they too can become sins of indecision and inaction if allowed to dominate.

Moral imagination by men and women takes us ever closer to the ideal of a more just world.  In reaching that goal, it is not enough for women to simply be equal with men – such that they too can participate in wars, nationalism and destruction of the environment.  Women must continue to speak their unique truth as ones inclined toward peace and compassion.  As a man, I cannot identify with what it means to be a woman.  But I can listen.  I can learn.  I can adopt and practice her ways while not denying the best attributes of my masculinity.  Indeed, I do not favor a matriarchy – a world dominated by women. Common spirituality points us to one human family – not male, not female, but sharing and practicing the best of both.