Being a woman has distinct disadvantages. We’re all familiar with them; there is no real need to detail. As a feminist I feel I am more aware of them than if I were not, and as a Christian feminist, more so. An ancient Jewish daily morning prayer begins with “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman.” Who’d wanna be one, eh? Bleeding, crying yokes that we are. Not to mention our damned vulnerability.
And yet women (including me) persistently enjoy being women. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in and from these bothersome bodies of ours, and a lot of intensely enriching relationships to be had between us, and then there’s the whole possibility of growing babies; no labs or white coats required. Then there are our feminine rituals – the ones that haven’t destroyed us, that is – and the freedom to be camp without anyone noticing. It can be nice, in this place (the western world) and in this time, to be female. Our privilege makes it so.
But what I am reflecting on today goes a little further than that.
When I first began to think vaguely about working as a prison chaplain a number of years ago, I always imagined that it would be with women. I never in a thousand years thought that I would work with exclusively male drug dealers, rapists, paedophiles, thieves and murderers. It seemed too unrealistic. What would we have in common? How would we speak to one another? What if they made lewd comments or shouted at me as I walked around? What if they hurt me? Wouldn’t me and my presence be utterly irrelevant to them? And as I train as a chaplain in a male-only prison, and I work this role out, and work my way into it, I find myself not only falling in love with a group of broken, violent people but finding in the midst of that experience a profound gift in my very femaleness. This Easter morning I worshipped in an all-male prison chapel and knew communion with those men.
There is something in each of us that flourishes under the care of both sexes. Men give something unique to women, and to men, that women cannot give to women or men. And mirroring that, women give something to men, and to women, that men cannot give to women or men. I cannot quantify these qualities. What I do know is that bruised and broken people of either gender require the care of people of both genders in order to fully heal. Perhaps that is what is truly meant by complementarity of the sexes.
From a purely sociological perspective, in prisons, men behave better around women. There is an irony inherent in that statement as I know full well that being a woman has been a deep and painful disadvantage to all victims of some of the men to whom I now minister. Gender matters where crime is concerned. And yet in the group context, it remains true. I have realised that I, a raging sandstorm of a person, am a calming presence to those men, and I find myself in distinctively female roles with them – being mother or sister. That is not to suggest a co-dependent bond or inappropriate relationship, but broken men, particularly violent ones, find healing in a woman being willing to sit with them, worship with them and even share in their deepest realities, in a room with the door closed. I am cognizant of risk but I do not feel fear, and they know this.
There is something about my femaleness that compels the men to behave in a way that they would not in my absence. They are subject to fits of gallantry and leap out of seats for me. They compete to open doors. They call me “Miss” respectfully, if they do not know my name. They take me aside and offer assurances of protection, should anybody bother me or speak to me inappropriately (I keep waiting for this to happen but so far, it has not). I am offered cup after cup of tea or coffee, made with their own very limited supplies in their cells. I am given cards, notes, jokes, miraculous medals and presents. They wait in line outside my office to show me a new photograph that has come in the post of a loved one. It is utterly surprising. It is also a treatment, rightly or wrongly, that I would not receive if I were male. It is a privilege that makes me feel that my enjoyment of it is something akin to greed. I sincerely wished my husband was with me in that chapel this morning, just so he could share in it.
It is a great mystery of humanity that men and women would have all the same longings and hopes and ambitions and preferences and potentialities and still, there is something that sets them apart from each other – something beyond the physical, I mean. I don’t know what it is and I don’t care particularly to define it, as defining it could really only serve bigotry and sexism. But there is something real in it, and at this moment in my life, I embrace my femaleness and all that it enables as I try to love those we have decided are unloveable.