Christian Courier column, Oct. 22, 2012

Indebted, yes, but not financially.

Coffee and Canada AM are my morning staple. There was a ripple in the Force recently when Canada AM became the first show in Canadian broadcasting to feature two women, Beverly Thomson and Marci Ien, as anchoring co-hosts. A sudden vision of Angela and me as their counterparts in a parallel Christian Courier universe made me chuckle.

But, humorous self-aggrandizement aside, I owe a debt – a debt of gratitude to all the women who’ve gone before, women who had the stamina to achieve their goals despite bias and hostility, who made a difference for those who came after. I’m paying my debt in respect, a respect comprised of three distinct components. The first component is attention, remembering “what was.” I’m not ever taking for granted the educational and career opportunities I’ve been afforded. Once upon a time they did not exist.

Recently I watched Marci Ien interview Sandra Martin, the Globe and Mail’s obituary columnist. Martin identifies the life of Bertha Wilson as one of fifty that ‘changed Canada.’ Married to Rev. John Wilson, Bertha emigrated here from Scotland. Against considerable objection because of her gender, Bertha pursued a law degree. Eventually she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada by Prime Minister Trudeau, the first woman to attain that rank. She ruled on dozens of foundational cases, including the infamous Morgentaler case, but also making legal inroads on behalf of battered women, prisoners and immigrants.

Gail Collins, in her New York Times Notable Book posits that the 1960s represents the tiny sliver of history When Everything Changed for women as the title suggests. She tells the story of Lois Rabinowitz who achieved notoriety in 1960, ejected from a New York City traffic court by a judge incensed at her flagrant disregard for femininity. Rabinowitz was wearing pants. And there were, as Collins notes, many other boundaries: women could not attend medical school or become dentists (because they weren’t strong enough to pull teeth), and stewardesses could be fired for getting married.

Collins credits the black civil rights movement for liberating women. Women were far too numerous to be recognized as a “minority group” and far too intertwined with their husbands and sons to ever mobilize effectively on their own behalf, she says, but the civil rights movement birthed a new sensitivity to systemic inequality and created a social momentum in favour of fairness. When the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission was established by President John F. Kennedy, stewardesses were among the first to register their grievances.

Today, as evidenced by Thomson and Ien, there are still firsts for women. I’m thankful for each step forward. I was one of those girls not allowed to wear pants to school in the 60s, except on the bitterest winter days and then only underneath my dress. I was one of the girls who thought being smart meant boys wouldn’t like me so I dumbed it down. I was one of those girls who struggled to believe in my own worth and trust my own calling. In my church women were not allowed to vote in congregational meetings until 1969 and are still not included in ordained leadership. Nonetheless, today, here I stand, finally and irrevocably convinced that women are stamped with the image of their Creator, equally tasked to fill the earth and subdue it and rule over it.

With regards
So here’s the second component: paying it forward. I’d taught my students about Bertha Wilson many years ago and continue to take whatever opportunities come my way to inform anyone who will listen about what women have accomplished. I encourage women who might need a companionable and understanding nudge – like my friend Christine, a grandmother who’s just been accepted at Osgoode Hall and is studying for her law degree. I’m resolved to resist temptations to dumb it down, placate, or give in to prejudice. With a radical gentleness that I hope carries the fragrance of Christ, I muster up the courage to name illegitimate stereotyping when I see it. I’m committed to serving the Lord beyond the fences for the sake of those who come after.

The third component is saying thank you. Thank you, May, for showing me “in real time” that a woman can be both a professional educator and a Christian wife and mother. Thank you, Diane, for serving at age 70 as the first woman elder in your church. Thank you, Dad, for modelling equality in an unequal time, thanking Mom out loud in our presence – for the clean bathroom, for hearty meals with two different kinds of vegetables and applesauce, for darned socks, patched jeans and clothes washed on Mondays in a wringer washing machine. For liberation starts at home, and it’s not just about women.


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