Cast Aside No More

The Church has often denied to the outcast and to the despised the compassion which she owes them ….. She has stood by while violence and wrong were being committed under the cover of the name of Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945

I had thought that I wouldn’t blog during Lent, well that was my intention.  I have been spiritually refreshed by Ruth’s images of Lent and have been taking some time to find stillness.  So you may wonder why have I broken my Lenten blog fast today, well the day is a hint.  Today is International Women’s Day.


A big part of me hates that we have such a thing.  A bigger part hates that such a thing is even needed.  Over on Facebook yesterday I said this:‘I hate labels (that includes name badges), always have, they are counter productive and dangerous. I have never been a feminist, although I have often been called one – I am someone who has always held equality and justice as primary ideals.’  Having a day which is for women, goes against those ideals, yet I find myself in a catch’22.  So today I am embracing International Women’s Day.

I am horrified, yes horrified, that gender equality seems to be getting further away.  I had thought it was maybe just within the Church or maybe just within the diocese I am in – which doesn’t make it any more acceptable – however I discovered that it is a far bigger problem.

In 2014, the World Economic Forum predicted that it would be 80 years before gender parity could be achieved, that means not only my daughter but also any grand-daughter I might have will live without gender equality in their lives.  This timing comes from analyzing economic, educational, health-based and political indicators. That was in 2014, yet by 2015, that forecast changed to 117 years.  In one year gender equality has slipped back 30 years.  Upon reading that, frankly depressing prediction, I remembered something in my own life from that time.

Before I had my children I worked in accounts, for despite a calling from God since a young child the SEC wasn’t yet ready to accept a woman in their midst.  Therefore around 30 years ago I worked in the accounts department for a national firm in the building sector.  My desk was in a large office along with 10 other women, there were men in the department as well, but they all had their own offices along the side of the main office, even though two of those men were junior to one of the women who was in the main office with us.  When one of the men left I assumed that the senior woman would go into the vacated office, I even said as much and was laughed at.  Sure enough when the new start began she wasn’t a man and so joined us in the main office however that individual office remained empty.  A man replaced me when I left the company about 18 months later, he got the office.

That might have been 30 years ago and surely such things wouldn’t happen today.  So what does the face of gender inequality look like today?  Well it may surprise you to know that I am going even further back to tell you of the inequality that was so brazen over this past weekend.

One of the things that triggered this post was a presentation at our Diocesan Synod.  During it the synod was shown, as an example of the men that laboured in conditions that were far from those which today’s workforce would find acceptable, a portion of Sir Stanley Spencer’s fabulous work ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’.  Now I know for many people art is but pretty pictures, however art has at least two stories, the story of the piece itself and the story of the conception behind it.  This work was conceived during Spencer’s time at Lithgow’s Shipyard for the War Artists Advisory Committee, however, it is well recorded that Spencer’s original idea was not what became the final work.  His proposed 64 panels were reduced to 11, while James Lithgow himself become uncomfortable about how the shipyard was being portrayed in the works so Henry Rushbury was commissioned to provide a more traditional viewpoint, but there is more.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer, Burners detail

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer, Burners detail

This is the picture which, sometimes wrongly is called the welders but is actually burners, was used on Saturday. Welding and burning were two of the jobs that women increasingly did, they required less physical strength than some of the other shipbuilding jobs.  Spencer drew many studies of women welding at the Shipyard yet they weren’t included in any of the final panels.  Unfortunately I discovered that the Imperial War Museum does not give internet access to those studies of women, so if you wish to see them you will have to go in person.  Spencer wanted to include those women in his work, but it wasn’t to be and so 70 years later his work could be used to express the point that men had it tough and demonstrate that men needed the church to offer men an inclusively male event.  I wonder if the ground moved in Cookham on Saturday.

In his book War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945, Brian Foss underlines this anti-woman stance which prevailed at the time.

Among the dozens of figures populating Spencer’s eight completed canvases, six are plainly identifiable as women …

This small number recalled the resistance, especially during the first two years of the war, to reversing the pre-1939 virtual absence of women from shipyard work, and in particular from skilled work.

For generations women have been an invisible part of history and it continues to be perpetuated.  Women were part of Clyde Shipbuilding, during the war they were a massive part, they did more than keep the home fires burning they also kept the welding flames and burners, burning.  Yes in the big scheme of things the vast numbers which were employed by the yards were men.  Even the most generous estimates suggest that outside war years there were no more than 5% women but I am not going to let them be written out of history.

Although Stanley, for whatever reason, didn’t include women among his welders and burners were the greatest number of women worked another part of ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’ shows that women were indeed there.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer, Riggers detail

Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Sir Stanley Spencer, Riggers detail

Here among the rigging, men and women work side by side, however it does look more genteel and cleaner despite the reality of it being heavy and physical work.  Softer colours are used and there is more light, women end up being shown but only beside sewing machines.  There is one other woman in the work holding a baby which is perhaps the most telling woman included – for she bridges the gap between the shipyards and the world outside.  She is inside the yard not part of the many pictures Spencer also painted of Port Glasgow beyond the yard gates.  Her stance echos that of the male workers however, rather than holding tools she holds a child.  Is she Spencer’s way of getting an example of the women who worked in the yards into his work?  We may never know for certain.  (Like the women welder sketches, she is not available on line for you to view, which I find somewhat annoying.)

If we claim to care about those men who laboured in the shipyards, we should also care about those women who laboured along side them.  If we think the men should be cherished and valued, then so should their female companions.  If we think the men should be given four course lunches with copious amounts of wine on a monthly basis, why would we think the womens place in that is in the kitchen cooking.  What about those women who worked then, as now, in shipbuilding and the merchant navy.

Let me make this clear, for there are those who I know will twist what I have written, I have already been criticised for expressing my dismay at this issue.  I do not believe that women should be treated better than men, but neither do I believe that men should receive better treatment than women.  The later is the current case, the former I do not wish and would speak up against.  What I want to see is that man or woman a person should be treated with the same respect and should be cherished to the same degree, for both are made in the image of God.


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