The women of the world have every right to protest against the evils of patriarchy. Men’s brains are no bigger than women’s but their muscles are, and they’ve had little compunction about using them to impose their will on women in home, state and church. Men ruled kingdoms, men dominated their wives and men governed the church.
There’s no reason to think that in Highland culture male tyranny was particularly severe. There was no polygamy, no easy divorce and no female circumcision; and as a rule there were no closed doors behind which a man could secretly batter his wife and abuse his children (though this is certainly not to say it never happened).
But things were far from ideal. While the men went to sea and fought wars the women were left to cut seaweed, carry manure in creels on their backs, and dig the potato-patches; and while the men were at home, the women still did all of the above, and then made the dinner.
When the men were lost at sea or killed in battle, widowhood brought new horrors. In the case of war-widows, the fact that they had a pension bred its own suspicions and dried up, all too often, the milk of human kindness. If she had moved in with her in-laws when she married, she might find that on her husband’s death his brothers disputed her right to the croft. An older widow might find that her eldest son now claimed the right to evict her, and in more instances than I care to remember such women found themselves homeless.
The same could happen to a single woman who had given her life to caring for her parents. When they died, an elder brother might suddenly appear from Glasgow claiming the croft, the house and all its contents. The community might call him a trusdair and a troc (the emotional equivalents in English are unprintable), and the men of the village might ban him from the bothan (a kind of civil excommunication), but beyond that they could do nothing. An all-male parliament chosen by an all-male electorate legislated in favour of men, and whether it was succession to the Throne or succession to a croft, it ran in the male line.
It is little comfort to know that in other cultures things are even worse: that education is still denied to millions of Muslim women, that girls in Africa are still subjected to genital mutilation, and that until recently Hindu women were routinely burned on their husband’s funeral-pyre. Feminists have every right to cry, ‘Women of the world, unite!’ and every right to state, and even overstate, their grievances, in pursuit of justice for little girls, professional women, battered wives and underpaid care-workers.
Is the church part of the same patriarchal mix? The whole world seems to know (and care) that in the Free Church women aren’t allowed to be ministers, elders or deacons. This is true, of course, but before dismissing it as an extreme example of patriarchy and male hegemony, let’s remember two things: first, that the church herself is under authority, and the ban on women holding office reflects a sincere and honest attempt to submit to apostolic teaching; and, secondly, that the world’s largest denominations are equally guilty of discriminating against women. The Roman Catholic Church excludes women from the priesthood, and as yet there are no women bishops in the Church of England.
The starting-point for all of us, whether the Free Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England, must be that the Bible clearly proclaims the equality of men and women. In the creation story of Genesis, the woman no less than the man is made in the image of God and shares the same mandate to explore the earth and manage the environment. In the birth of Jesus, the male has no role, but a woman is chosen to be the bearer of the Son of God. On Easter morning, women are honoured to be the first witnesses to the empty tomb and first preachers of the risen Christ. Even the alleged misogynist, St. Paul, proclaims in no uncertain terms that in Christ there is neither male nor female.
And (just in case a theologian should happen to read this) let’s not try to escape its force by saying, ‘Ah, yes! Equal in nature, but subordinate in role!’ Why would God subordinate one to another if both are equal? Like the persons of the Eternal Trinity, man and woman are equal in power and glory.
There is more, then, to the Bible’s teaching on gender than the apparently unambiguous, ‘Let the woman keep silent.’ But if the sexes are equal, one thing that follows is that apart from their sexuality (and gendered upbringing) there is no difference between men and women. There isn’t ‘a man’s way of doing things’ and ‘a woman’s way of doing things’, or ‘a typical man’s subject’ and ‘a typical woman’s subject’. Even less can we say, ‘Women are intuitive, men are cerebral.’ A woman theologian (provided she doesn’t fall into the trap of devoting her life to Feminist Theology) will produce work indistinguishable from that of a male colleague; and the same will apply to a woman engineer.
This makes it difficult to argue that we can change the face of politics simply by having more women MPs; reinvigorate industry by having more women in the boardroom; or revitalise the church by having more woman deacons.
But now there is a new kid on the block, the Evangelical Alpha-male: men of great height, huge congregations, sporting prowess, business acumen and boundless confidence.
I can understand where this is coming from: ‘Church isn’t just for women and little girls. It’s for real men.’ And so it is! But what is a real man? A patriarch who demands that his wife be content with ‘supporting his ministry’, insists on being master in ‘his own’ church, and sweeps aside all who stand in his way?
It’s all very odd. I find I have no difficulty being contemporary. It’s the way I was born. And I have no difficulty being a man. In fact, I can’t help it. But being masculine? That’s something else.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 21 February 2014