Independence and equality

Yesterday, I walked into an ordinary hospital to make an ordinary pastoral visit. The very first woman to greet everyone at the door looked at me suspiciously, and critically.

“I didn’t think women were allowed to wear the collars,” she said, in the tone of a teacher unimpressed with the antics of a pre-teen try-it-on tearaway.

I began to explain who I was, and why I was there wearing such a get-up, but she stopped me.

“I know what you are. But the women were never allowed to wear the collars before. They aren’t supposed to look the same as the men.”

I continued to smile and shrug and wear my collar anyway (what else to do?), and as I finished signing in and turned to make my visit, she conceded,

“After all, we’re all doing the same work, I guess.”

I was a little irritated, I admit. I was also intrigued. This was a new one on me: I’m used to people who are surprised that I could be ordained, a few who are shocked and outraged that I am, some who are confused to find a woman in a collar. But to know what I was, and to object simply to the sartorial expression of my vocation – that was new, and different.

One the one hand, no, I am not altogether the same as a male priest. Some of the differences are pretty obvious :). Others are a little more nuanced. Either way, I have never considered that I might need to wear a different uniform, to differentiate myself deliberately or physically, in order not to confuse the public at large, or whatever the concern might have been at the beginning of this exchange. I am different; to be asked to differentiate myself further or more hints at another agenda, one of discrimination.

Am I being too sensitive? In England, the Church is currently tying itself in knots trying to work out how to make women bishops without making them quite the same animal as bishops who are men. Women bishops will not be male bishops, so the efforts to differentiate are clearly not about making sure that they’re not, but about something different, something which many of us strongly suspect is related to discrimination, prejudice, sexism.

It’s not just us religious types that are having this problem. Women in the US typically or on average earn 77.4% of a man’s wages – 67% for African-American women (2010 statistics reported in 2012 by http://www.pay-equity.org). Women are not treated the same as male employees; they are different, and not equal.

What does this have to do with independence? To be equally as “independent” as men (and no, none of us is truly independent – no man or woman is an island; but to be on the same scale of independence as men), women need to have the same opportunities, respect and remuneration as them. I have heard a woman unhappy in her marriage told by her husband, “You could never afford to live without me.” To be equally respected, women need to be equally acknowledged and compensated for their gifts (and their weaknesses), for their callings and vocations, for their work and their worth. They need to be guaranteed equal dignity, and equal pay.

The same applies in many other situations and to many other people. Women do not and have never cornered the market on discrimination. I am simply commenting on my own experience – a harmless, passing one at that; I am fortunate in this as in so many other respects, that I suffer little thanks to the struggles of women who came before me – I am commenting in order to raise the question:

What does equality mean to or for you? Are you “independently” equal? If not, what would it take to get you there? And how can I help?

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