BY CARMEL PILCHER
Over past generations we in the west have experienced a heightened consciousness regarding the place of women in society.
As a teenager I could never have imagined that at the one time in the one place – last year in NSW – the prime minister, governor general, governor and state premier would all be women.
One could argue from this scenario that “we’ve made it!” We women can take leadership positions in our society with as much competence and professionalism as our male counterparts.
If only it were that simple. In one poignant scene in the film The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher stands alone – at the kitchen sink as it happens – as she tries to justify to her angry family her need to be involved in political life.
Closer to home I have a friend who is trying to juggle keeping house as a wife and mother of four while at the same time ministering as a pastoral associate and studying theology. Many reading this are probably in a similar situation.
I was once told by a Papal Nuncio that the “right” ministry for religious women was either in the classroom or hospital. I wondered at the time if this remark echoed the age old adage that “the woman’s place was in the home”.
One could be excused from thinking that acknowledging International Women’s Day yesterday was flavoured with frustration and struggle. And perhaps this is true.
On more than one occasion I’ve fallen into the temptation of wondering whether a remark I made or an attitude I expressed would be so summarily dismissed or questioned if I was a man. Or whether my teaching would be more authoritative if it was delivered by a man and preferably a priest!
At this point let me change direction and focus on the contribution that women make to our church and world, albeit often amidst struggle and challenge.
My ministry often takes me to remote and not so remote parishes and dioceses to teach. My “audience” is usually a group of women, more often than not older women.
These – as I have written at another time – would have been the “widows” and “deaconesses” of the early church. They are the faithful remnant who participate in daily Eucharist – when available – and tend the church building.
These women attend to the needs of their local church community, take communion to the sick, as catechists teach the good news to young children, support their priest, and are involved in their neighbourhood. They are also very often, the glue that holds their families together.
And then, on occasion, I visit my nieces. They are a young generation of women, some of whom spend much of their time nurturing young children, while others are engaged in various forms of work. These good young women are all Catholic, but most of them are not “connected” to the church for all sorts of reasons.
They live with great integrity the Christian message that was gifted to them in baptism and nurtured by their parents, although not without struggles and hardship. I marvel at their strength of character, especially when all of them have grown up in a world that seems harsher and less sheltered than the world of my teenage years.
And yet this is only a small slice of the story. Women of all faiths and no religious tradition are prominent in public life or nurture in less obvious ways, bringing about justice, harmony and peace in their part of the world. Many are at the forefront of finding ways to give dignity and care to the many women on every continent who struggle with the ravages of war, the helplessness of starvation and the indignity and degradation of abuse of many kinds.
Whether we receive public recognition, find ourselves at odds with authority, or simply go about our daily work quietly and seemingly unnoticed, as we mark International Women’s Day amidst all the struggles, our world has much to celebrate. We take our inspiration from great women like Mary MacKillop, Caroline Chisholm, Dorothy Day, or perhaps those only known to ourselves and a few others – our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. And we give thanks, even as we strive to make this world a place where all, women, men and children might feel equally at home.
Carmel Pilcher is a Sydney based Josephite who works as a liturgical consultant.
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