My wife and I just finished reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. (In the spirit of the book, I wash the dishes while my wife reads to me.) Although Collins does not dwell on the religious motivations in “traditional” women’s roles, I couldn’t help pondering how religions, rather than encouraging equal rights, have often acquiesced to the unfair treatment of women as a matter of principle. That principle is often abstract and theological. More often than not it is also mythical. As society changed to allow a greater measure of equality in social roles for the sexes, religious leaders held back, concerned more about doctrine than people. This is perhaps the most disheartening aspect of religious belief—as a human phenomenon it too easily loses sight of humanity.
Historically, of course, the roles of the sexes were tied to reproductive necessities. Women with nursing children (and startling low mortality rates) could not do the heavy work required in the agricultural societies of antiquity. I am aware that this is over-simplifying—it seems clear, however, from the materials left to us from the earliest literate cultures that a basic biological divide determined appropriate roles. Not only were women victims of high mortality rates due to difficult childbirth, but infant mortality was also high. In such circumstances it was important to guard those who survived from the potentially dangerous work of protecting flocks and tilling fields. And this was the time when the ancestors of our religions emerged. Technology improved survival rates and quality of life, but religious dogma is very slow to evolve. Some dogmas still don’t even accept the idea of evolution.
Back to When Everything Changed. Yes, bottles and birth control gave a new freedom to women. Day-care and daddy involvement also helped. And yet, not everything changed. Seeing the progress, religions tended to cry “foul!” and insist that, for women anyway, nothing had really changed. No doubt Collins is correct about a large swath of life in the secular sector. Most jobs are open to both sexes, and issues of fairness, although still lagging, are starting to be addressed. Many major religious bodies, however, still hold women in a subordinate role. Basing their reasoning on theologies long outdated, they insist than nothing has really changed at all. If only the wisdom of women and their experience were taken seriously many religions would have changed for the better as well. Only when that happens will we be able to consider that, in Collins’ hopeful words, everything will have changed.