by Susan Harris Howell
“Sure, men and women are equal, but men are supposed to lead.”
“Of course, men and women are equal, but women are supposed to be submissive.”
“All people are equal, but when couples reach an impasse, husbands should make the final decision.”
I have heard these “equal, but” statements for years. I’ve heard them in the church. I have heard them among friends, and I have heard them from my students. And, yes, I will admit it. In years past, I have even uttered these “equal, but” phrases myself. Yet, if used to explain differences and roles among other demographic groups, they would almost immediately identified as the contradictory statements that they truly are.
Here are a few examples,
“Sure, all people are equal, but people living in the Midwest are supposed to lead those in other regions of the US.”
“Of course people of all ages are equal, but those in midlife should be submissive to those older and younger.”
“All people are equal, but when a group reaches an impasse, those with the most money should make the final decision.”
Is it possible to truly believe statements that promise equality, but offer limitations and qualifications to that statement? Of course not. And as a woman, I don’t buy this “equal but” statement, either.
When I am offered this kind of reasoning, I know that my opinion is taken less seriously than those of my male counterparts. I assume that I will only be asked to make a decision when that decision is confined to less important areas, and can be implemented without far-reaching consequences. I understand that my voice will only be exercised and valued when the men of my church already agree with me, or, in essence, when my voice does not matter a great deal anyway. I know that men see me as less than, an inferior, and most certainly not equal.
So, saying we are “equal, but…” is to say we are not equal. Period.
Therefore, I have a suggestion. Sometimes when our words and behavior are out of sync, when they just don’t match up, we face the challenge of those who are brave enough to remind us to not be hypocrites, to walk the walk, to make up our minds—because we can’t have it both ways. People who watch and listen to us notice when what we say (that we are equal) and what we do (how we live that out) are contradictory. They recognize that something needs to change. And if we are honest with ourselves, we recognize it too. If we truly strive for integrity, we make that change.
That’s what I want—a change.
Ideally, I would like for those who make such qualification statements to recognize and correct their inconsistencies by acknowledging women’s equality and discarding the “but” portion of their statements. A modification along the following lines would be wonderful:
“Sure, men and women are equal; they should lead based on their knowledge of the issue at hand.”
“Of course, women and men are equal; and each should submit out of love to the other.”
“All people are all equal. When there is an impasse, couples should pray, talk, and learn more before making a decision together.”
Without the contradictions plaguing the earlier versions, these statements can truly champion equality of the genders. They are free of caveats, and confusion is averted. Integrity is maintained.
But for those who truly believe that men should lead and have the final say, these rephrases cannot be expressed in good conscience. I get that. I know that sincere, well-intentioned people disagree on this issue.
Therefore, in the interest of honesty, I would suggest that they acknowledge that they indeed do not believe that women are equal to men. While such a belief offends me, I would respect their truthfulness and see it as a mark of integrity.
At least we would then be in a position to begin an honest discussion.