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Can women have it all?

by
30 April 2021

After lockdown stress, Michele Guinness reflects on the part played by women in the 21st century

jozef sedmak/Alamy

Neo-Gothic fresco in St Nicholas’s, Trnava, Slovakia, of the wedding of Ruth and Boaz (Leopold Bruckner, 1905-06)

Neo-Gothic fresco in St Nicholas’s, Trnava, Slovakia, of the wedding of Ruth and Boaz (Leopold Bruckner, 1905-06)

ONE of the first things I discovered about the Church was that, for a woman, quiet passivity was akin to godly femininity. The Jewish community in which I was raised was matriarchal. Women ran a business, the home, and — usually — their men. So my upfront, New York style of communication was a shock for many Christians in my new orbit.

Most Jewish men, voluntarily or under pressure, read Proverbs 31 to their wife on the sabbath. “No woman compares with you, my dear. You are of more worth than rubies.” I always feared my father might choke on his traditional gefilte fish cakes. It was a mercy that he understood little of the Hebrew that he was reading.

 

IN FACT, “a virtuous woman” is a poor translation of the Hebrew, Eshet Chayil. The adjective, chayil, is often used as a military term in the Old Testament, meaning “might” or “bravery”, standing firm like a soldier in battle, or strong and powerful like a merchant ship in full sail. It is used to describe Deborah, the leader and judge. But it is also ascribed to Ruth by Boaz. No fighting connotation here: Ruth is poor and widowed, with no means of support. Yet Boaz is still referring to her inner strength in refusing to be the passive victim of her circumstances and righting a moral wrong.

Chayil is a far cry from the middle-class model of domestically isolated housewives which became embedded in Western culture for several centuries, and that Christian establishments appropriated and promoted.

In Genesis, the woman is described as “ezer kenegdo”. “Ezer” in the psalms depicts God as a powerful helper, who rushes to our support and rescue. “Kenegdo”, a prepositional clause, means, “to stand boldly opposite” — face to face, eyeball to eyeball — if and when confrontation is necessary. No passivity here. No fragile dependence on the male. She stands side by side with the men in her sphere of influence; open, honest, gently but fearlessly assertive.

 

IF EVER woman was capable of multi-tasking, the Proverbial woman is. She is the woman who has and does it all: real-estate, farming, market gardening, fabric design, and fashion retail. Her skills in sales and marketing, her charity work, house management, and cuisine are second to none. Yet the highly pressured life does not make her a harridan in the home. There is always food in the fridge and clean underwear in the drawer. What sustains this paragon is that her work and faith are fully integrated.

It is a glorious ideal, a hard act to follow, given the demands that most of us face today. But when I look at the women of faith who have been my role-models — the founder of the Mildmay specialist HIV hospital, Helen Taylor-Thompson; the first female Commander of Police, Ruth Winterbottom; and the greatest prime minister we never had, Shirley Williams — they all attained their greatest achievements in later life.

But trail-blazers outspoken enough to right the world do not materialise overnight. They are trained in perseverance in the workplace of hard knocks. “I get down on my knees and I pray. Then I get up and work,” the wonderful Taylor-Thompson said. She encouraged me not to modify my forthright style to fit the Church if I wanted to make a difference to the world.

 

MY YOUNGEST child had not yet started school when I was offered my dream job as a television researcher, involving travel and the occasional overnight stay. Peter and I managed, largely because we could both juggle our diaries. Sometimes, his work took precedence, sometimes mine. But working out priorities wasn’t easy. At times, I felt consumed with guilt that my children were not growing up with the smell of fresh baking wafting through the house.

“We could accept your going out to work”, one parishioner said to me, “if you did something useful — like teaching, or nursing.” The stereotypes die hard. But, when you look, for example, at the proportion of male to female uptake on careers such as nursing and engineering, it does appear as if women may be wired towards the caring professions.

That does not explain why, when half of science students are now female, only four have become professors. But perhaps our very tendency to prioritise relationships over success means that we have not yet broken through all the glass ceilings.

My children were almost adult before I took on a senior management job in the NHS which almost swallowed me whole. Thankfully, there were no aged parents to care for. But, even then, life seemed exhausting. Would it have been easier if one of us had given up the day job? I doubt it. Pressures have a way of appropriating every free moment — especially when half of the partnership belongs to the Church.

The religious balance of a work-life sabbath in the form of a long, lazy Saturday saved our sanity. Crises happen, but the Church’s unawareness of our need for a day off was the greater obstacle. Then I learned a trick from Rabbi Julia Neuberger. When she chaired a health trust, every Friday lunchtime — even in a board meeting — she would announce, “I’m off now. Family time.” Her colleagues learned that being Jewish meant sabbath mattered, and that it started at sundown.

So, on Friday afternoons, we would say to our respective workplaces, “I’m off now — it’s my religion!” Neuberger told me it was the only way to confront a work-obsessed culture.

 

LOCKDOWN may have been immensely frustrating for men, but research shows that women were left with the lion’s share of the domestic chores — cleaning, ironing, shopping, cooking — on top of home schooling and trying to keep their paid job. For many, it was because they loved their outside work, and for some, because they had no financial choice. It is hardly surprising that women suffered from more stress-related depression, possibly by being forced, as ever, into passive, no-alternative compromises.

This, and recent shocking revelations of the difficulties that women still face, show that we still have some way to go before there is real appreciation of the Eshet Chayil, and a respect that guarantees our safety and our flourishing. Looking back, I have no regrets about the tensions of the many parts that I have felt called to play. There have been rich and unrivalled opportunities to live and speak about my faith, at the school gates and in the workplace. The Eshet Chayil’s lamp never went out.

Women have to be intensely practical — the salt of the earth — to achieve all that we do. Salt and light is our calling, side by side with the men, and that may mean a more assertive, morally courageous approach to our hopes, aspirations, and dreams.

 

Michele Guinness is a writer, speaker, broadcaster, and clergy spouse. Her book The Contemporary Woman: Can she really have it all? is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50); 978-1-52935831-5 .

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