We have recently, on Thursday 8 March, celebrated International Women’s Day. This event apparently has been celebrated since 1909. Many countries have public holidays in recognition of their women folk.
Some of you might occasionally suspect that I am a misogynist, sexist, chauvinist. But even I can find substantive reasons to celebrate the accomplishments and the endearing characteristics of our womenfolk.
They have done it tough for centuries!
In our major religions, certainly for Christianity and Islam, women have been treated as less than human. They have been subjugated by the dominant male ethos which has often relegated them as objects.
Whilst we rail against the edicts of fundamentalist Islam that puts inordinate restrictions on women, it is easy to forget that even in Western society women’s rights have only been recognised in the last one hundred years. Law and social convention were stacked against women. Men conspired to keep women in a servile and second-class status.
This is evidenced in the fact until recent times those entering into a marriage contract were not treated equally. Up until recent times, a woman had to take a vow of obedience to her husband at the time of marriage. This is still an expectation in many Muslim marriages.
Bishop John Shelby Spong reminds us that “in biblical days women were defined as property, which enabled men to justify polygamy – for surely it was a man’s right to ‘own’ as many women as his wealth would allow.”
(You might have also seen the debate in the newspapers recently about whether it should be allowable for Muslims to be able to follow the dictates of Sharia law which provides that daughters should only be allowed half the entitlements to the inheritance of a deceased parents that sons are.)
The arrogance of men was such, that before 1724, when Western science discovered that women have an egg cell and are therefore the equal co-creators of new life, men believed that women’s only role was the secondary role of nurturing the male seed into maturity!
It is enigmatic that the equality of women in the twentieth century in Western democracies was cruelly advanced by the loss of men in wars. Women, by necessity had to carry out the roles previously the exclusive territory of men. In Australia, the socialist author and commentator Tom O’Lincoln documents the gradual integration of women into the workforce in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The historian, Beverley Kingston, described the role of women in middle and upper class households as follows:
“The complex business of maintaining caste, status and hierarchy in society, of ensuring that marriages that were suitable or advantageous to the family, the business or the property, of celebrating the birth of heirs, entertaining the right people, or keeping the close knit circles of family and friends functioning, was, in the hands of a capable woman, as important and impressive as her husband’s political, diplomatic or entrepreneurial activity.”
For lower class women there were few opportunities for employment except for domestic duties where they were often abused and exploited.
But gradually the employment opportunities improved. Teaching and nursing became sought after roles for women. Some interesting niches began opening up. For example many country post offices were run by women. The advent of factories in Australia enabled women to flee in their droves from domestic employment to working on the factory floor where the pay was better, hours shorter and there was more social camaraderie among their fellow workers.
Finally women started to trickle into universities where they distinguished themselves well.
“It was the Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University, Edward Stirling, who first introduced a motion on women’s suffrage in the South Australian parliament. Stirling pointed to the success of his female students as evidence they were men’s intellectual equals.”
In 1896, in advance of most democracies, women in South Australia were granted the right to vote. In 1902 women’s suffrage was granted at the Federal level.
In the succeeding hundred years women have been justifiably granted rights equivalent to men in virtually every sphere.
It is gratifying to see that we have now a female Prime Minister, a female Premier and a female Governor General. It is difficult to argue that people are being held out of significant positions because of their gender.
(It must be said that I would have been happier if our first female prime minister had made a greater positive impact in office. But unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case!)
But all of this movement to enable women to take their rightful place in, business, government and governance, overlooks the huge contribution that women make outside of paid employment.
The innate capability of women as nurturers and carers, to my mind, provides a greater boon to our society than all their efforts as executives, professionals and holders of high office.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, this work is vastly under-recognised and much unappreciated but is a major contributor to the social cohesion of our society. It is pleasing to me that our womenfolk now have greater choices and are not unduly inhibited in becoming lawyers, pilots, miners, Prime Ministers, doctors or whatever. But it is a concern to me that those who choose to be primarily mothers, housewives, carers, or whatever, are consistently undervalued in their contribution to our society.
It is our women who accept the unfair burden of being the principal carers and nurturers of our young, disabled and elderly. This inarguably provides a much greater contribution to the welfare of our society than we generally appreciate.
Having coached many women executives and professionals, I know how they often struggle between their roles as wives, mothers and carers and their paid careers. It is often an uneasy choice they have to make and that choice is made more difficult by the fact that society at large seems to grossly undervalue their unpaid work which as I have argued so greatly enhances our society.
So let me say, whilst we should be pleased to see so many professional and occupational choices opening up for women let us also appreciate, acknowledge and celebrate their huge contribution to our society outside paid employment. Let us by all means salute our female professionals, politicians, and those who have made inroads into the vocations that were once the major prerogative of men. But let us never forget the huge debt we have to women as carers, nurturers and mothers.