This post isn’t perfect, it’s undoubtedly clumsy and both my argument and views poorly articulated, but I hope you’ll be understanding – I was juggling clearing up multiple piles of sick provided by my poorly son with doing several loads of washing, ferrying my daughter between school and music lessons, picking up my wife from her job and trying to study as part of my Ordination Training. My excuse: I’m just not very good at multi-tasking.
On 9th December 2019, @manwhohasitall posted a question on Twitter:
In the blur between what is fake and what is real on social media and in the news it isn’t immediately apparent that @Manwhohasitall is a parody account (see this article in The Independent from 2016). The account, and many of the responses to it’s tweets, point towards the sexism directed towards women by highlighting attitudes that are all too real. The responses below show it well by rephrasing the questions posed to women as questions to pose to men.
The sexism and double standards the responses pointed towards are wrong, but was there anything wrong in the question that was asked?
As I type, I cannot think of a job that can only be done by a particular gender. There are female and male doctors, nurses and midwives. There are female and male soldiers and firefighters. There are female and male administrators, teachers and priests. There are female and male Prime Ministers. And the only reason a woman hasn’t made it successfully as a Formula One driver (my favourite sport) has nothing to do with their ability to drive a car. There are no physical or biological reasons why a woman cannot do these jobs. And though some claim a theological and scriptural reason why a woman cannot be a priest it is not one that I subscribe to – sadly others do, as some of the responses to the tweeted question demonstrated.
This is not a blog post defending men or justifying sexism. It is not a blog post claiming that men are hard-done-by. But it is a blog post on wondering how can we seriously and helpfully debate questions of gender from the male perspective.
My thoughts and questions come out of both conviction and experience. The manner of my upbringing was to install in me both independent thought and a desire for justice and equality. When I managed to get to university to study environmentalism and humanitarianism I studied Gender & Disease Development to better understand how gender and financial inequality decimated families, communities and nations. The privileged position I have as a White-caucasian Heterosexual Male was clear then and has only become clearer as my awareness of racial, sexual and gender discrimination has grown.
But it was perhaps when I began training to become a Primary School Teacher that my desire to see an open and objective debate about the challenges of being a man in certain situations began in earnest. I was ‘a man’ entering a mainly female profession, a parallel of sorts to that faced by women becoming priests. I was asked to participate in an ongoing research programme led by a female member of the academic staff looking at attitudes towards men working in stereotypically female roles. Though less prevalent than the discrimination towards women, there was nevertheless discrimination against men on account of their gender – the worse indirectly and directly accusing men working with young children of being paedophiles and forcing them out of their profession. Today such views surfaced in response to the tweeted question about interviewing a male priest – ‘Chow’ tweeted:
I never faced such discrimination but I did find it frustrating people tried to discuss it were shouted down and silenced because it was no where near as prevalent as the everyday discrimination of women. It was akin to saying we cannot talk about domestic violence towards men because the domestic violence face by women is so much more prevalent – both are wrong, both need to stop.
Ironically my time as a Primary School Teacher came to an end because of my strong sense of security in my gender. When it came to balancing work life with parenting I gave up my career so my wife could maintain hers. The decision wasn’t easy, not because we both wanted to pursue our careers but because we both wanted to care for our children as much as was possible. What was at issue was not gender, both of us had the skills and empathy to bring up our children; what was at stake was the relative importance and income of our careers – mine was lower in both respects so my wife went back to work after her maternity leave ended. Both of us made sacrifices – she gave up being the primary carer, I gave up my career. At no time did I feel that my masculinity or gender identity was threatened, being a stay-at-home father made my sense of identity even stronger.
It was as the stay-at-home father that I experienced some of the everyday sexism experienced by women and the suspicion I heard of through the research programme. At toddler groups I was usually the only man and was ostracised by the rest of the group. When I was out with my children people would switch between patronising me with praise for helping their mother, or ask if I was coping and needed help. Subtle signs that caring for a baby was not a man’s job came from the lack of baby changing facilities in men’s toilets – I never left home without a mat to lay down on the ground so I could change my children’s nappies. None of this is me fishing for sympathy – I thank God for the chance to spend that time with my children, something I know my wife longed to be able to do.
Why did I share these experiences? What relevance do they have to my frustration about common responses to what it is like to me a man in a certain role? Because it helps to demonstrate that the tweeted question was simplistic – what is a man? A man may be an alpha-male fuelled by testosterone and a competitive nature, but a man may be lots of things. A man can fulfil what has traditionally been a woman’s role and vice versa. And if we want more of that to happen we need to talk about it, we need to take seriously questions such as what is it like to be a ‘man and a priest’.
What my experiences taught me was that there were few avenues to discuss what it was like to be a man in certain situations, and not just in ones normally the domain of women. It was similar when attending Men’s Groups or going to the gym: those who conformed to occupational and physical competitiveness of the Alpha Males were fine, those who did not were to be despised and laughed at – I over-generalise of course. But there is some serious reality here: society’s view of what it means to be a man, coupled with the fact we don’t make it easy for men to get over their fear of talking about their identity, is a dangerous mix: “Middle-aged men are one of the most high-risk groups for suicide – they remain three times more likely to take their own lives than women” (from a report and website by Samaritans on Men and Suicide). We need to talk about what it means to be a man because too many male stereotypes are toxic, damaging men’s mental health as they fail to live up to perceived or actual expectations of what it means to ‘be a man’ (I’m not suggesting this issue is unique to men, it clearly isn’t).
None of my experiences, direct or indirect, are included to excuse or demean the sexism directed towards women. It is understandable that people struggle to take questions such as “what is it like to be a man and a priest” seriously. They have been used to throw shadows on the sexism women face every day, and they have been used by misogynistic people with insecurity chips on their shoulders. But deflecting discussing issues from a male perspective not only limits our ability to reduce sexism and increase equality. We need to find a way of talking about male perspectives and experiences without either being dismissive of, or dismissed by, the unequal burdens faced by women.
Asking a how it feels to be a male parent or a priest is not in itself a sexist or trivial, they are important questions. Not all men think, act or are the same, just as not all women are the same, just as not all parents or priests are the same. But questions of what others like you experience are helpful to raise and answer – they create a frame of reference for you to assess your own feelings, thoughts and experiences. I, for example, know how it is to be a husband and a father and juggle the needs of my family with the needs arising out of my training. But I do not yet fully know what it is like to be that person and be a priest – and it is something I have struggled with throughout my journey towards ordination (take a look back through my blog and you’ll see).
The closer a person’s identity is to my identity the more relatable the insights will be. I can learn what it is like to be a priest from lots of people but another priest, whether they are male, female, married or single, will give me particularly relatable insights. But there are some things that I can only learn from a priest who is a man. Asking what it is like to be a man and a priest is not a wasted question or an automatic sign of misogyny.
If you want to know what it is like to be man and be a priest, ask the question. If you want to know what it is like to be a woman and be a priest, ask the question. If you want to know what it is like to be single or married, a mother or a father, white, black, Asian, or any other identity you can think of and be a priest, then go ahead and ask the question.
And if people ask the question, answer it, with the respect it deserves.
I find this a really interesting post, what do others think? are some of us women too focussed on our own discrimination we can’t see it for others and particularly men?
(be gracious in your answers!) https://t.co/EpmZ0nLpTK
— Jules Middleton (@redjules) December 11, 2019