Move over fight and flight

Patty Fawkner SGS

Patty Fawkner SGS

Don’t we all miss out when women’s experience is ignored, asks Patty Fawkner SGS.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

For 50 years we’ve known that “fight or flight” is the classic human response to danger and stress. But is it?

In a recent article, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, a writer as prolific as she is prophetic, referred to a study which found that the participants in five decades of research into “fight or flight” theory were primarily men. When the University of California researchers, led by Professor Shelley E. Taylor, used women rather than men in their research, they found that “fight or flight” was not women’s primary or normal response. Under stress women “tend and befriend”.

Trusty Google told me more. When stressed, both sexes have the capacity for fight or flight and tending and befriending. It’s just that men are more likely to become aggressive and confront a stressor, or flee, either literally or by emotional withdrawal and engagement in substance abuse.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to respond to stressful situations by protecting themselves and their children through nurturing behaviours and forming alliances with a larger social group. Under stress, women take care of their children and take care of one another.

Fight and flight is not the full story because for years researchers did not take into account the full gamut of human experience. Women’s experience was rarely included.

One is reminded of Daniel Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning and development, which I embraced non-critically as a trainee teacher. It wasn’t until the 1980s when Carol Gilligan queried why women were seen to be less morally developed than men in Kohlberg’s schema, that the male-centred focus of Kohlberg’s stages was exposed. Kohlberg, too, had used predominantly boys and men as the subjects of his study.

Gilligan, the first moral philosopher to listen to women’s moral voices, found that where men’s moral reasoning is dominated by concerns for justice and individual rights, women’s moral reasoning is dominated by a care perspective, interpreting issues in terms of human relationships. They develop morally, reason and talk about their moral decisions “In a Different Voice”, the evocative title of Gilligan’s study.

I discovered only recently that faith development guru, James Fowler, had the same blind spot. Women scored less highly on faith development interviews than men and proceeded to the more “advanced” stages of faith development when older. Yet again, Fowler used mainly males in his research. When females were the focus of study, researchers discovered that faith develops not only by cognition, an approach favoured by men, but is also shaped by emotion, imagination and relationship, women’s favoured approaches.

Research results are skewed when half the population do not participate in the study. Academics such as Taylor and Gilligan are not suggesting that women’s different voice is ‘better than’. They are not opting for an unhelpful ‘men-from-Mars-and-women-from-Venus’ polarity. Instead, they are suggesting that female and male sexes tend to favour particular behaviours and that there is a broader range of ways for human beings to deal with stress, to grow morally and to deepen faith.

Kohlberg, Fowler and company acted in good faith but were ‘deaf’ and ‘blind’ to women’s voices and women’s experience. They reinforced a “masculine universalism” by mistakenly presuming a gender neutrality in their research. Don’t we all miss out when women’s experience is ignored? And isn’t this the case in the Church where masculine universalism is endemic. In language, in liturgy, in symbol, in office, women are absent or present in embarrassingly token ways. But no one seems to notice.

Many women in the Roman Catholic Church have an ‘Alice-through-the-looking-glass-experience’. “I don’t think they can hear me, and I’m nearly sure they can’t see me. I feel somehow as if I were invisible,” cries Alice.

Maybe there’s a sliver of hope with our new Pope. But poor Pope Francis! I join the throng of hope-starved Catholics longing for Church renewal. My hopes are many and specific. I hope Pope Francis continues his refreshing inclusive symbolic gestures. I hope he expands his belief that women have a “special and fundamental role” in the Church. I hope he augments this with real structural reform. I hope he breaks, or at least weakens, the implacable nexus that currently exists between ordination and decision-making in the Church.

Finally, I hope that Pope Francis listens to his fellow Argentine, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri who, prior to the papal conclave, said that the new pontificate needed to be more open to women contributing to all aspects of Church life.

Specifically, he called for women to be appointed to key positions within the Vatican administration. The sprawling Vatican bureaucracy has numerous departments. Women can only reach the position of under-secretary and are accountable to the department president and secretary, both clerics. Currently there are but two female under-secretaries.

Cardinal Sandri added further encouraging words. Women, he said, “must also be co-participants in the dialogue and the analysis of the life of the Church… even in the formation of priests, where they can play a very, very important role”.

Many women have engaged in their own fight with and flight from the Church. Others, like myself, ‘hang in’ wanting to tend and befriend all those involved in the Church’s life and mission.

During these complex times, do those governing the Church wish to tend and befriend women by honouring their insight and their experience? Pope Francis’ endorsement of the Vatican’s report into the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) is cause for pause. Yet, one still wonders and one still hopes.

* Good Samaritan Sister, Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.

You can follow Patty on Twitter at

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The Good Oil, April 16, 2013. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

26 Responses to “Move over fight and flight”

  1. Thanks for the encouragement to tend and befriend. Marie

  2. Peter Collins says:

    So where do I fit my friends/possible grandchildren etc who are gay into this sample.
    Some have declared their sexuality as not “matching ” their gender so they wish to make no distinction about male or female ?

  3. Many thanks Patty for a well thought through article. I also remember Kohlberg and Fowler and their cohorts from my teacher training days.
    Your contribution on this topic is so necessary. It seems to me that the integration of our gender gifts and strengths is a secret to our development as a species/as spiritual beings. Both male and female capacities beautifully emanate from our brainstems, yet the tragic consequences of not exploring further the riches of learning from each other are all around us (and within us).
    I am growing in my conviction that part of the secrets to understanding the person of Jesus, is not to allocate roles along gender lines but to grapple with gender giftedness.
    Again, many thanks for your stimulating contribution.

  4. margaret wiseman says:

    Thanks for the article Patty. Keep hanging in there.I trust that

  5. Pat O'G says:

    Patty, as asomeone who is also ‘hanging in’ I greatly appreciate your thoughtful and thought provoking reflections. Until we can be more open to looking at meaningful participation of women (and men) in all aspects of church life we will need to keep tending and befriending. Hope to see you at Jamberoo SIP.

  6. Kathleen says:

    I do not mean to offend, but am feeling uncomfortable with this divisive, destructive anti clericalism discussion. It is unfair to young Catholics to continue these discussions. Truely, what type of world are we leaving them? Does it really matter male or female. We are here to share the Gospel, our faith. Also, please keep in mind those who just may be discerning a vowed religious vocation or the priesthood. There is no better time, 2013 in Australia to work together. All the best.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Kathleen, thanks for engaging with this article. My aim in writing is to integrate, not divide. Like you, I too wish to share our faith and the Gospel. I am not anti-clerical. Some of my best friends are priests. But I am anti-clericalism, that insidious movement that promotes the ambition, status and power of the ordained, far-removed from Jesus’ example of servant leadership. I believe I’m in good company with Pope Francis who has spoken strongly against a “hypocritical clericalism” and the “temptations of clericalism”:

  7. Bernie Sontrop says:

    Thanks, Patty for your insights so well put into words on an issue with which many of us struggle and continue to do so. I share strongly your reply to Frank’s comments, the statement that clericalism will have to be dismantled before women’s ordination can even be considered. I too live in hope of change in the future.

  8. Kym Harris says:

    Thanks for a great article, Patty. I’m sending it on to my friends.

  9. Theresa O'Keefe says:

    Patty, fine work. Glad to see you clearly naming the cause for the place of women in leadership and influence in the church. Amazing how slow it all is but it moves, God willing, it moves.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Oh Theresa I was thinking of you there in Boston, remembering the route of the Marathon near our house in Comm Avenue. You’re right “it moves” and you’re a person that helps it move! Pax.

  10. Minh says:

    Thanks Patty, your reflections are always enjoyable to read.

  11. Frank S says:

    Hi Patty, keep up the good fight. If no-one says anything, we can’t expect change. “In language, in liturgy, in symbol, in office, women are absent or present in embarrassingly token ways. But no one seems to notice.” I notice, and was very conscious of, in the late 80s when I rejoined the church, such things as the assertion that women cannot be priests on the basis of the most tenuous and easily refuted arguments. That is why I strongly support Catholics for Renewal.

    I also like: “When females were the focus of study, researchers discovered that faith develops not only by cognition, an approach favoured by men, but is also shaped by emotion, imagination and relationship, women’s favoured approaches.” I have to say that as a man, my faith developed through emotion, imagination and relationship. I cannot relate to the heavy logicality of male theologians. I remember reading that at the end of his life, Aquinas said something like he felt everything he had written was like straw. That made sense to me. Even St Paul said that now we see in a mirror but dimly ; then we will see face to face. I rely on intuitions, inspirations, prayer and faith, not on a straw man built on questionable dogma.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Thanks, Frank, for your thought-provoking comments. You prove my case, as I’m not saying that all men respond one way and all women respond another. Human life is more nuanced and complex than that. I agree that the arguments against women’s ordination are tenuous BUT I have to say that I’m not in favour of women’s ordination. Clericalism would have to be dismantled first.

  12. Carmel Lawry says:

    Great piece of writing Patty however good luck with “hanging in” especially with the following:
    Archbishop of Sydney George Pell has been appointed by Pope Francis to a permanent advisory group to help him run the Catholic Church and study a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Thanks, Carm. Glad you’re reading The Good Oil. Cardinal Pell is an able and proven administrator. We will wait and see if his involvement in reform of the Vatican bureaucracy will mean a greater role for women. As I said, one wonders and hopes.

  13. Edwina says:

    Loved this Patty, both the ideas put forward and the way they have been expressed. A very enjoyable read.

  14. Nerina Zanardo says:

    Another fine insightful reflection! Please keep writing Patty…wondering and hoping are mutual!

  15. Marie Milne says:

    Thanks Patty, for articulating so clearly, the frustrations, hopes and dreams of so many of us as we keep on hanging in.

  16. Beth Riolo says:

    Patty, you so often hit the ‘nail on the head’ and you’ve done it again!
    I really enjoyed your reflection and found it very insightful. Very glad that you ‘hang in and tend’ rather than flee. Makes it easier for me to hang in there too.

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