Watching the conversation at the Democratic National Convention last week, I was struck by the comments regarding women. Lilly Ledbetter spoke about women’s desire for ‘equal pay for equal work’ and the legislation passed in her name toward that effect. Sandra Fluke spoke to feeling castigated and demonized for having the audacity to want a say in deciding matters of birth control and options regarding an unwanted pregnancy. Also, a few weeks prior, Missouri representative, Todd Akin, put forward the term, ‘legitimate rape,’ introducing the unimaginable possibility that something so heinous could be judged by others who’ve never experienced such life-changing trauma and determined, “illegitimate.”
I’ve watched politicians for years assume and play with the power to determine the fate of significant issues that greatly affect my wife, sisters, mother and many female mentors. Seeing their anguish and feelings of disbelief and powerlessness has prompted me many times to speak about women’s rights.
I remember a few years ago when, as a minister of a mid-sized church, I decided to preach on a woman’s fight for fairness and legitimacy. After so many conversations with very strong minded women, I decided to call my sermon, “What Women Really Want.” I discovered that the title generated a hot-bed of controversy and many a slack-jawed expression of disbelief that I would actually have the wherewithal to assume to know. In the days leading up to the sermon, some women even approached me with a mirthful smirk. And without putting into words, they all seemed to be saying the same thing:
“I dare you.”
I got reactions from men too. But their expressions were slack-jawed in a slightly different way. Their take was more a wide-eyed cross between sympathy and fear. The kind of look reserved for condemned prisoners walking by, or anyone else too ignorant to see their own demise rushing toward them. Most men shared very little advice. But they did share their regrets, saying they would be unable to hear the sermon because they had to wash their hair. One person was more blunt saying he’d rather not be caught in any of the expected ‘collateral damage’.
My favorite comment was from a woman who told me that today’s sermon was, for her, the most anticipated in my brief career at that church. She also warned that it carried the potential to make my career briefer than any one anticipated. In short, her raised eyebrow and everyone else’s collective apprehension was saying the same thing:
I dare you.
But it felt clear to me then as it does now. As a man, I don’t broach the subject about what women really want because I lost a bet. Or because I lost my mind. But because I fear losing momentum. And potential. And power. Let me explain.
Early on in my ministry one crucial realization became abundantly clear to me: I serve a fairly involved, progressive, liberal church. And it occurred to me, that for me to be successful as a minister, the communities I served must be successful. Which meant, by and large, the people who make up and serve those communities must be successful. And although I saw both men and women coming to church, seeking hope and meaning in their lives, it was my personal observation that more women than men struggling for even more the most needs: finding adequate childcare; finding jobs that pay a competitive salary; finding ways to rise above the trauma of early physical or sexual abuse. In short, I began to see a bigger helping of the harder issues being encountered by women more than men. Or maybe it just seemed that way since, on a daily basis in my job, I encountered far more women than men.
This a observation was startling at first. But it has been true in every church I have served for the last twenty years. Every institution showed roughly the same demographics. Consistently, upon examining the rolls and counting along gender lines, almost 75% of people who are enrolled, show up and get involved are women. In addition, without exception, the majority of paid staff were always women.
I quickly began to realize that my motivation wasn’t about being politically correct. It was about self preservation. Women are not getting enough help. And men, by and large, are not getting how much it’s costing us.
We all know the gap between women and men is an issue. We’re familiar with the countless articles and books trying to address the myriad of misunderstandings between men and women. ‘Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus’ brought in millions, demonstrating both a need and an interest in exploring the issue. But the problem is that even after all the books, the calendars, the bumper-stickers and the slogans, none of the theory or pop wisdom has improved the fate of women. Or men. Or the relationships we share. Despite fascinating identification of gender trends, society’s unequal distribution of power and systemic patriarchy still continues. No one could deny that author John Grey turned a tidy profit from this work, but I don’t think anyone could claim he has turned the tides.
At best, Grey’s work points out that what women really want is to be understood. Yet I think at least some men were drawn to this work like they’re drawn to a male mirage: as a step toward continuing to get what they want.
What do women really want? That’s for each woman to decide. But my guess is it would begin with more honesty and fewer excuses from the men who install glass ceilings and then write instructions for how to maintain them.
It would be easy to look at the history of inequity and oppression which have led to today’s glass ceilings. But, to explore what women really want, it might be more illuminating to look instead at the times where women began to take matters into their own hands. And the systemic resistance such women encountered.
Times like the 1830’s and 40’s in a small town in upper New York. At that time women did not vote, speak in public, hold office, attend college, or earn a living other than as a teacher, seamstress, domestic or mill worker. Further, a woman could not make contracts, sue in court, divorce an abusive husband, gain custody of her own children, or own property – not even the clothes she wore. That is, until a small group of women called together “a convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women.”
Among them was 32 year old Unitarian, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who helped bring attention to inequities in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family law, and suffrage.
She was also very active in the temperance movement. Temperance is sometimes remembered as an early puritanical effort to restrict the sale of alcohol. It is unclear how it becomes a women’s issue until we understand the context in which women lived at that time. In the days of temperance, only men could own property. And nothing prevented a man from spending his entire paycheck on drink, neglecting to pay the rent. At a time when a woman could not represent herself in court there was no recourse for her when her husband came home drunk and violent. She had no rights to claim custody of her children, and no rights in cases of paternal child abuse. Temperance was a woman’s crusade for more than a moral argument against alcohol. It was a crusade for her own – and her family’s – safety and well being.
Most men never realize or understand the notion that the need to guard themselves against violence is a constant consideration most women need to attend to almost every minute of their life. Did you know:
- Somewhere in America a woman is beaten every 15 seconds.
- Around the world, at least one woman in every three has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. And abuse is accompanied by betrayal since the abuser is most likely someone she has known well.
- The single most common occasion for a female homicide is following an argument with a man.
What do women really want? That is for each woman to decide. But I know if I were a woman I would want to live in a world where I didn‘t constantly fear for my safety or worry about my rights.
In our society safety is often a matter of opportunity. But equal opportunity is often dependent upon equal representation among the people who maintain the playing field. It is interesting to note that of the 106 Supreme Court justices, only two have been women. Currently, less than 15% of all federal legislature positions are held by women and no woman has occupied the executive branch. Four years ago in the 2008 election was the first time in the 236 years of this country’s existence we had a legitimate chance of changing that.
Progress has been no faster for women in the executive branches of business in this country. The percentage of women holding ‘clout titles,’ from executive vice president to CEOs, is still less than 8%. And 71 of the top Fortune 500 companies still have no female executives.
And although the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, (when women were paid only 59 cents to the dollar men were paid), we have only managed to increase it to 77 cents today. Over the course of a career, the average woman is shorted approximately a quarter of a million dollars due to this wage gap.
What does a woman really want? That is for each woman to decide. But I’d bet a lot of them really want that quarter of a million.
Much about women’s struggles can be revealed by looking at what our culture thinks – the advertisements in magazines and on TV. While researching women’s rights, I googled the phrase, ‘what women want.’ The first three, non x-rated sights, all showed tiny, overly-exposed women. One with the caption, ‘say goodbye to that cellulite.’ Another, was for a ‘reducing pill,’ saying, ‘look younger and feel radiant.’ And finally, a model with a tape measure around her waist saying, “drop 30 lbs in 30 days.” The message was the same: “get small.” The only marketing that clearly asked women to increase their stature were advertisements for breast enhancement.
And that message prompting women to ‘get small’ doesn’t stop with physical appearance. A study was conducted at Harvard undergraduate that looked at how much verbal participation students of each gender enjoyed during a typical class. It was suspected that men would probably talk more. But how much more? Of 50% more, 75% more or 100% more, how much more do you think men talked vs. women in a Harvard College class? Try 250% more. A similar study in law school showed men only talked 144% more. 
Why didn’t women students talk as much as men? One explanation is that women prove extremely vulnerable to interruption. Studies demonstrate that in mixed-gender conversations, women are interrupted far more frequently then men. Comments by women are often confined to ‘bursts’ lasting only a few seconds, while male students typically talk until they are finished. Moreover, once interrupted, women are likely to stay out of the discussion for the remainder of the class hour.
And the message to “stay small” enters the emotional arena as well. Dr. Harriet Lerner, in her book, ‘The Dance of Anger,’ cites many women spending lifetimes learning to re-claim their own emotions. Most men’s inability to deal with women’s anger or assertiveness leads to experiences where women who ‘stuff down’ their feelings for fear of disapproval and getting written off as shrews, ‘femi-nazis,’ ‘witches’ or the alternative term that rhymes with ‘witches.’
What do women really want? That’s for each woman to decide. But it’s reasonable desire for women to exercise a full range of emotions without being censored by the men who feel threatened by them expressing themselves. This goes for historical and cultural expressions of women as well as personal ones. A few more female role models in our culture and history books might help women – and men – realize how absurd it is that we live in a country that touts ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ for all but in our entire history a woman has never been president. A few more feminine metaphors and archetypes might help a woman’s imagining of what’s possible in her life. It might even help God feel less afraid of expressing HER 23rd chromosome.
It is true, that in this country we have done much to be proud of in the struggle for women’s rights. But last generation’s laurels will never help next generation’s women reach their potential. And institutions like government and churches will never discover all their power as long as we continue accept the constraints of gender roles and expectations espoused by our culture’s collective conscience.
I believe these constraints are hurting men at least as much as women. From day one a man’s sense of adequacy is rated on scales of power, mastery, dominance, acquisition which leads us into incredibly competitive lives where we suppress our needs to know others, know ourselves, have feelings we understand, have relationships we trust. And this leads us into lives of isolation and depression.
Many men, through education and experience, have begun to understand the consequences of gender inequality and have become sensitive to women’s struggles. Some men have begun to step back and not take up so much room in the conversation – and in the culture. But the next step is to step up. Men need to do more than be blameless. Men need to be allies. In the words of concentration camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, “… what hurts the oppressed most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”
For a long time in our culture the four magic words a woman wanted to hear from a man was ‘will you marry me?’ But I believe we are on the precipice of a day when men of power and standing might come upon a moment of true enlightenment and turn to the woman next to them and ask the four magic words of women in the next generation: “what do you think?”
We can make next generation this generation. But to do that we need to move beyond the cynicism and frustration years of systemic oppression has built up. What surprised me the most about exploring this issue was not discovering that women deserve better. I already knew that. But it was discovering that upon asking people “what women really want,” far more responded cynically (“I dare you”) than sincerely (“What can I do to help?” We, on both sides of the gender aisle, need to step off that path of cynicism and on to the high road of furthering our common humanity.
 ‘Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School’ Working Group on Student Experiences February 2004 Cambridge, MA Adam Neufeld, Director