Thursday, 5 September 2013

Being Male, being Female - asking Big Questions!

Since I've been back from my travels it has been straight into the work but it hasn't felt like much of a chore. My major project at the moment is my dissertation which is taking me to far flung corners of the Bodleian Library and into parts of Oxford I've never seen before. It really is such a beautiful city and none more so that when you are studying in it. For me there is still no thrill quite like the one I get as I step into a library packed floor to ceiling with books. All those words, all those thoughts. It makes me buzz!

Yesterday I found myself in the Social Sciences Library amid what must have amounted to a least a hundred books on the subject of gender. I found myself a spot and poured over introductions to the research of the last fifty years. The questions are huge and stretch your mind to the limits. We are, after all, social creatures who have grown up in a particular culture. It is so hard to disentangle yourself from that and see things objectively. That was why it was so exciting to see books about what it means to be male or female in countries all over the world. It was the anthropologists who studied people in different cultures who first started to indicate that 'how we do it' is not the only way but rather is something we have constructed in our particular time and circumstances. Things can and do change.

For me this project is a bitter sweet thing. Sweet to have the time to read works of great women and to read about the history of feminism in my own country and culture. It is enriching to understand more about where we have come from and it raises so many fundamental questions. Why do we understand that to be a man is this and women that? What even is gender? Social research point to so much of our conceptions of maleness and femaleness being constructions of our culture and environment. As Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote 'One is not born, one becomes a woman'. But of course biology and society are interacting constantly. We adapt to our environment, our biology, like our culture, is fluid not static. For me it has blown open the categories I have in my head. The pieces of my understanding are floating about somewhere in the air and are waiting to resettle again!

The other side of my research is looking at the theological understandings of gender, particularly in the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. The perception of women and femininity both shackled and liberated women over the last 150 years. Digging down to the base beliefs about men and women is fascinating and at times bitter. More than anything it makes me want to push on to seeing mutual respect and understanding between the sexes and opportunity based on ability and calling, not gender.

Today a former tutor from my college was made a Bishop in New Zealand. Times are changing. We really need to ask ourselves these big and deep questions and allow ourselves to be surprised by the answers. As for me, I'm having the time of my life and so thankful for the opportunities I am being given right now. Even more so in the light of what I am reading, knowing how privileged I am given how women have lived throughout most of history. It is a privilege and it is a great responsibility. Back to the books!

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