April 2013

Move over fight and flight

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

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.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. 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.

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