Women Aboard by George Merrill

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The following list was circulated this year in a British Government report. It appeared in a periodical I received as an alumnus of Yale Divinity School. I think it’s accurate to say that Yale Divinity School is liberal in both its theology and its politics. The list was comprised from a survey of businesses that were requested to offer reasons why male executives did not offer women seats on prestigious boards. The businesses surveyed included CEO’s and other leaders of Britain’s Financial Times Stock Exchange.

The list has earned the reputation at Yale, in Britain, and far beyond as “a survey list of the worst reasons given for not appointing women to their boards

Here’s the list:

1) The good women have already been snapped up.
2) We have one already.
3) There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board – the issues covered are extremely complex.
4) Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board.
5) Shareholders just aren’t interested in the make-up of the board, so why should we.
6) My other colleagues wouldn’t want to appoint a woman on our board.
7) All the ‘good women’ woman already on the board, so we are done – it’s someone else’s turn.
8) There aren’t any vacancies at the moment – if there were I’d think about appointing a woman.
9) We need to build a pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector.
10) I just can’t appoint a woman because I want to.

Over the years, the eventual ordination of women in the Episcopal and Anglican churches followed a similar trajectory of resistance that seating women on businesses did. Those opposed to the ordination of women, first as priests and then as bishops, argued something like this.

1)  Jesus’ disciples were all men so it wouldn’t be right to ordain women
2) Ordained ministry in the church has not changed for 2000 years.
3) Such a big change should not be undertaken except for the consent of the entire church.
4) It’s not fair on those who have given their whole lives to the church to find the church moving away from them.
5) We are working hard to grow closer to other churches. Such a change would upset them.
6) Bible uses male imagery of Father and Son. It gives males a distinctive leadership role.
7) The father is the head of the family. Male priests and bishops are the fathers of the church.
8) We made the change twenty years ago and women haven’t done any good.
9) If we change things we can’t be sure of innovation.
10) Male and female are complimentary. It is important to not confuse distinctions.

These arguments for exclusion of women in todays’ institutions seem arcane if not blatantly sexist. In the spirit of full disclosure, I once entertained similar concerns about the ordination of women. As a young priest the idea of ordaining female priests was in its seminal stage (no pun intended) and I have to confess that in the male dominated church of history in which I grew up, the idea of ordained women didn’t seem right to me. Why? I didn’t catch on to this right away but it was because as a young man, I was finding the affirmation I needed for my male identity in this organization consisting of exclusively male leadership. It imputed authority and status to me. I wish I could say my sensibilities were more noble and informed, or that I was moved by the Holy Spirt but in this matter. I was not. It was just one more variation in the way male egos can cling to their prerogatives, resisting a world that changes the rules we once have lived, navigated and finally institutionalized.

I’ve been thinking about these arguments against the inclusion of women in both secular and religious institutions. I’ve concluded that the case against their inclusion is thin, a stretch, even a plea. Trying to marshal arguments to support exclusion never really makes the case since in both instances we are not talking about the skill and the vision any women might bring or not bring to the board or the church: we see instead an attempt to legitimize and dignify what is basically male anxiety; I’d suggest it’s the kind of anxiety older brothers feel when facing the reality that a new baby sister has become a part of my household. Before she was born big brother had the whole place to himself. He had been the whole enchilada, now, with her arrival, only half. My guess is that the anxiety was for me and other men, more about losing status than having colleagues whom God didn’t trust or weren’t up the job.

An earthy side addendum to this matter. When I was a young parish priest, almost all clergy were male. Preceding services clergy met in the sacristy to vest. I those days, the clergy I worked with were smokers. There was a distinctive smell in the sacristy. Many of us sweated during services and so the slight odor of male perspiration pervaded the sacristy along with the residue of cigarette smoke.

Today men and women clergy vest together before services. The locker room ambience I once associated with my high calling to lead services is a thing of the past. Smoking is not universal as the way it was then. There is in today’s sacristies instead, the more delicate scent of women who are also called to do the Lord’s work.

What can I say? Ordained leadership is just not a guy thing anymore.

We’re all the better for it. Church sacristies smell nicer, too.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Jane E Hukill says:

    Thank you for such a thoughtful essay. As an Episcopal woman, I could not agree more with your thoughts. Also, I was a baby sister to two brothers!

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