Monday, December 2, 2013

Public occasions and gender matters

It might surprise a few people but I really don't mean to be controversial. I'm writing this off the back of a Facebook status that gathered much more attention than I expected. Giving a fair response to those who commented on this status was going to take much more than I could reasonably squeeze onto Facebook, so I've chosen this space to capture my thoughts instead. In order to preserve the context, here's the status that I originally put up:

"Of all the weirdness that is Commissioning, tonight's highlight is sending the women of each married couple across the stage to pick up their kids before receiving their appointments. How very 1950's!"

Before I get into why I feel the need to give an extended response to some of the comments, I have a few initial comments to set the scene:

1. I don't want to take anything away from the signficance of Commissioning for those who were involved. They were my students, are now my fellow officers and deserve to be congratulated, not simply for making it through Training College, but for their commitment to ministry within The Salvation Army. Thanks to one person's comment, I now understand that the decision about who went to receive their children was made by each couple, so the predominance of women taking on this role was perhaps simply coincidental.

2. I acknowledge that men and women are different in some ways. Whilst the details of what, how and why are highly debated, that's got nothing to do with my original point. I'm also pretty sure that the parenting roles in each of the families that were represented are more evenly shared at home than how they appeared on stage. I'm only making a point about the latter and why it matters. So, why does this matter at all?

Firstly, let me explain why I described what happens at Commissioning as 'weirdness'. It's perhaps important to say that I don't even mean this as a derogatory term. I enjoy almost all of what happens at Commissioning and have been a regular attender since I first became part of The Salvation Army. I was even commissioned once myself. However, I'm keenly aware that it's an event for insiders. Much of the language, concepts and symbols are tailored to Salvationists - and perhaps even more significantly, an older generation of Salvationists. Put yourselves in the shoes of an 'outsider' for a moment and imagine their confusion when someone shouts 'Fire a volley!' or people start clapping all over the place during singing (which may include songs that you're just meant to know because the words may not be on the screen). I could go on but hopefully you get the point. It is about pageantry and sometimes even in-jokes, and it makes those of us who are insiders feel good about being in a very special club. There's absolutely a place for such events and Commissioning is probably one of them - but that doesn't mean that it's not weird at times.

I think that symbols matter. That's why the flag is important, as is the shield, the crest, our uniforms (yes, I was there sweating it out in full navy). However, symbols also include what we do and who does it. This gathers even more importance at an event like Commissioning, which I suspect is the best attended Salvation Army event annually across the Territory. This is the place and time when we gather together to affirm our identity as a movement and specifically acknowledge the new breed of officers who are starting their journey as the both the representatives of a glorious tradition and the vanguard of what we will be tomorrow. Everything about Commissioning says something to someone about who we are and who we want to be. This includes who's on the platform, what they wear, how they behave (I'm sure many officers remember learning how to sit correctly on the platform for Commissioning) and what they say. It's expected for the Staff Band to be there - even though only a minority of Corps have brass bands anymore. Same goes for the Staff Songsters. There's a very good chance we'll sing Boundless Salvation and finish the night Storming the Forts of Darkness. It's all very intentionally arranged and nothing happens by accident.

Throughout the comments on my Facebook status, it became evident that some people had noticed the same thing that I did and others either didn't notice or didn't care. I guess that's only to be expected but the reason that I care is that I think what we notice and what we don't is very important (and as I say this, I have to confess that there's a lot that I don't pick up on!). The things we take for granted are usually the things we should think most about. They are often the signs of power in our society - power that goes unnoticed, and therefore unquestioned, is the most pervasive of all. It's this kind of power that is behind both explicit and subtle forms of oppression. One of the most challenging aspects to this is that it's much harder to see the dimensions of these power dynamics if you are one of its benefactors. I'm a perfect example - as a white, straight, middle-class, tertiary educated, Australian-born male in this country, I'm on the 'winning side'. Those who are the victims of power struggles can see what's happening far more clearly than I can. I need to train myself to become attuned to all of the subtle but pervasive ways in which the power that I benefit from is effected around me. I am still learning to do this when it comes to gender differences, despite some training in feminist perspectives and some great examples around me. Because of this, I'm better than I was at picking up the multitude of ways in which women are treated differently in our wider society and in The Salvation Army.

As a husband, brother, son and father of two daughters, I've got a vested interest in some of the women who have been and will be impacted by different pay scales, glass ceilings in the workplace, loss of sick days due to childcare and reduced superannuation, in addition to generally carrying the greater burden of household tasks. Despite the way we celebrate an early commitment to equality in ministry for women in The Salvation Army, it's pretty clear that there are different rules and opportunities for women and men in our own organisation as well. This is why something apparently small matters. Because in both our society and The Salvation Army, women experience disadvantages and a reduction in opportunities just because of their gender. There's a long and powerful history of patriarchy that won't be broken down overnight but small symbols such as a father being the first to pick up their young child in a public event - or even both parents going together - can be an important step in the right direction. This is true for those who didn't notice what happened last night and for those who did. The dynamics of power are such that even unintentional acts can reinforce the domination systems that we exist within and that, unchallenged, continue to shape our lives.

Well, that's a long rave for a Monday morning. I want to finish by saying that none of this is to cast blame on those involved. The madness of the Commissioning weekend is such that I'm sure a range of decisions get made without the opportunity for deep reflection. Perhaps this itself illustrates the significance of our default positions, the paths of least resistance. Let me be clear, I'm not saying that what happened shouldn't have occurred. I support the right of each family to make the kind of decision they did. I just think that it is worth thinking about and sometimes what seems to be little things have a greater significance than initially realised.


Unknown said...

The more powerful symbol maybe was of a woman preaching at the Sunday afternoon meeting

JDK said...

I think that speaks to my point, John. You'd think by now that we'd take for granted that a woman would be preaching at the Sunday afternoon meeting - after all don't we have nearly 150 years history affirming equal roles for women in ministry? Yet, I heard quite a few people mention this as if it were unexpected. I think we're a bit quick sometimes to pat ourselves on the back about our position on equality without examining our practice a little more carefully.

Gamortie said... think I remember you as a long-haired guitarist with the band from Preston.... ;-)

I'm glad my wife has helped me challenge some of my preconceptions, especially around the roles & expectations of officer kids, and the vicissitudes they have to deal with as a result of something they often had no say in, even after they are old enough to understand what's going on. I know some officers have involved their children in the decisions that were made re. signing up for officership, and subsequent appointments, but it's seemed, all too often, that the kids were just expected to follow along as their parents were dragged hither and yon by a seemingly impersonal and disinterested bureaucracy.

These are an outsider's view looking in - I know I don't really know what goes on with officers; I can only base it on nearly 40 years of observation, and some very interesting conversations with officers and their kids. Once again, it often comes back to perception and transparency - we can only perceive what we choose, or are often allowed, to see. Also, our perceptions can be coloured by our own experiences, and it takes a fairly rigorous discipline to check your thoughts from as many directions as possible before broadcasting, to validate that it is as unbiased as you can feasibly make it.

Beth Roberts said...

I was challenged by another way of looking at the inequality of gender in TSA. It was to recognise that married men experience a position of privilege simply because that is their status, i.e. The organisation almost unconsciously 'favours' them. Many neither realise this nor question it. As married men consider what effect their position of privilege has and how they personally could challenge this natural tendency of TSA then we progress becomes easier..

Kathie Chiu said...

A very well written article! Thank you for speaking up about this. To think we are still having to fight this battle is sad. It's 2013 for goodness sake! We need to be challenged in this area as an organization, and as individuals.