Female Heroes Are For Everyone
‘As a boy I only related to girl characters, but when you’re a boy people think that’s funny or weird,’ writes artist Damian Alexander in his comic ‘That’s For Girls’. He recalls getting an assignment at school to write about a favourite character—and quickly chose Matilda, from Roald Dahl’s classic novel. ‘The rest of the class laughed at me and the teacher tried to sway me in a different direction—suggesting Spiderman or Luke Skywalker,’ he says.
At the same time, the girls were able to choose male characters without question. Damian makes the point that in subtle ways like this, ‘boys grow up to learn that “girls” things are embarrassing and inferior’.
‘Boys are led to believe that girls are second best and only objects in their own narrative because [boys] are barred from stories that show women as lead,’ he concludes.
It’s easy for us in Aotearoa New Zealand to believe that gender equality is done and dusted, yet we continue to experience these subtle marginalisations all around us. A ‘tomboy’ who likes sports and wears hoodies is cool, but the only nicknames for a feminine boy are far too cruel to repeat. A woman may aspire to be a CEO, but how comfortable are we with a male EA?
At the extreme end of a system that elevates men over women is the ongoing horror of domestic violence. Last year in New Zealand, police investigated around 165,000 incidents of family violence. And ‘globally, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined,’ according to the Army’s Positional Statement on Sexism.
Yet, we also know that when women are lifted up, all of society benefits. According to UN research, ‘when women and men have equal opportunities and rights, economic growth accelerates and poverty rates drop more rapidly for everyone’.
We all benefit from female role models. That’s why our theme for International Women’s Day, held on 8 March, is ‘Female Heroes are For Everyone’.
‘We encourage all corps and centres to celebrate their female heroes,’ says Commissioner Julie Campbell, Territorial President for Women’s Ministries. ‘Women have so much to bring to society, so it’s a day to acknowledge and honour the incredible part that women play in all spheres of life.’
It was Salvation Army co-founder Catherine Booth who wrote that crossing gender norms only feels unnatural because we’re not used to it. In her pamphlet ‘Female Ministry’, Catherine wrote that the problem was in ‘confounding nature with custom. Use, or custom, makes things appear to us natural … [while] novelty and rarity make very natural things appear strange and contrary to nature.’
She went on to argue that ‘we cannot discover anything either unnatural or immodest’ about women taking the pulpit.
We are all blind to some aspects of the culture we’re immersed in, and we still have to grapple with the fact that less than 10 percent of our territorial leaders are women. Yet, we certainly have women capable of these roles.
Catherine based her arguments in Scripture, recalling the women who prophesied and prayed in the early church, and turning to Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
The 1895, Salvation Army Orders and Regulations made gender equality an official part of our mission, stating that ‘women must be treated as equal with men in all the intellectual and social relationships in life’.
Catherine’s legacy has echoed through the generations to the Bramwell-Booth sisters, our three female generals and thousands of women leaders, each creating a rich Salvation Army heritage for us all.
Yet, this also our conundrum. If we believe in gender equality, why have only three out of 21 generals been women? And why have they all been single? It seems to hint at this same marginalisation of women—if a woman is partnered with a man, it is far more likely that he will be elevated over her.
Yet, Salvation Army women are heroes for everyone.
Equity vs Equality: and why should I care?
Gender equality is our deeply embedded belief that men and women are equal in Christ, and each have the freedom to fully express the gifts God has given them. But gender equity is the acknowledgement that we haven’t always lived up to these beliefs.
‘Gender equity recognises that historically women have had less opportunity in leadership roles, so we need to work towards making them equal partners in God’s mission,’ explains Major Ian Gainsford, chairperson of the Moral and Social Issues Council (MASIC).
‘We are all blind to some aspects of the culture we’re immersed in, and we still have to grapple with the fact that less than 10 percent of our territorial leaders are women. Yet, we certainly have women capable of these roles,’ he adds.
But this doesn’t simply mean putting more women in the ‘top jobs’, it means grappling with a system that places more value on traditional masculine traits.
You couldn’t get a much more masculine metaphor than an ‘Army’, and Ian points to the ways our hierarchical structure has valued competitive leadership styles. ‘Women, who might have more relational or consensus-building forms of leadership, are sometimes excluded by the very systems we use,’ he says.
... the hope of equality is that we each have the freedom to be fully alive in Christ
On the other hand, at our corps and centres, there are often many more women than men in caregiving roles. In this case, gender equity would mean more men given implicit permission to occupy these spaces.
It would mean elevating the status of roles like teaching, caring for the elderly and the young, feeding people and providing emotional support. We need to ask ourselves why these vital roles are considered lower on the social hierarchy, and therefore paid less, than traditionally masculine roles.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that men and women can’t choose traditional gender roles. But the hope of equality is that we each have the freedom to be fully alive in Christ.
‘When we talk about gender equity it ensures that we don't lose sight of God's intention for us. We're all created in his image, and we all have a part to play in God's Kingdom. We’re more powerful when we're all using our gifts and abilities,’ concludes Julie.
But we’ll leave the final words to a hero for us all, the mighty Catherine Booth: ‘Afterall, what does God want through us? … He wants us to be like his Son, and then to do as his Son did, and when it comes to that, he will shake the world through us’.