Luncheon Lecture in celebration of International Women's Day by Dame Pearlette Louisy
Luncheon Lecture in celebration of International Women's Day
March 8, 2002
"Women and Men In Partnership : Taking Responsibility"
Her Excellency the Governor General
Dame Pearlette Louisy
With the possible exception of religion and politics, there is perhaps no other single issue that can stir up so much passion and polemic than the gender issue. And so true to form, no sooner had the publicity surrounding this year’s observance of International Women’s Day taken to the nation’s airways, than the inflammatory rhetoric and accusatory finger-pointing began gaining momentum. And so perhaps I should not have been too surprised when I heard a male talk-show host questioning the relevance and usefulness of today’s exercise. What was the relevance, he asked, of a Luncheon Lecture, in the context of International Women’s Day, which brought together a few women achievers – the big honchos, he called us -, while the many dispossessed and disenfranchised were sidelined and ignored? The fact that he had the support of female callers to the programme made me pause and wonder whether indeed we had the right approach, whether indeed we were striking the right chord. Even more widespread, though less publicly expressed, is the irritation, sometimes bordering on anger, felt by a large segment of the male population over the idea of special attention being given to the needs of women. What more do women want, they ask, when they already have it all? Not so, the women counter, for the apparent openness is but an illusion – nothing but a glass ceiling.
What these positions reflect, to my mind, is the lack of a sense of balance; a polarisation of the issues; an extremism which fuels and feeds the controversy, and only serves to reinforce entrenched positions. But there is room, I argue, both for a Lecture of this nature for women achievers and leaders, and for the type of programme which will empower the current dispossessed and disenfranchised. It need not be one or the other. The fact that some women have been successful and have reached the top echelons of their professions does not invalidate the need to pay special attention to the circumstances of the vast majority of others who have not been so empowered. And even if it were true that St. Lucian or Caribbean women had it made, there would still be the need to look at the larger picture and to join in the world-wide effort to improve the quality of life of other women whose economic and social circumstances preclude their participation at that level. There is therefore need for a new perspective on the gender issue, the need to bring some balance to the discussions and the debate and to the actions being taken to address the concerns of all involved.
The theme chosen for this year’s observance reflects that change of perspective and builds on initiatives introduced a few years ago which acknowledge the complementarity of the sexes: “Women and Men in Partnership: taking responsibility”. The journey may yet be a long one though, if the response from some quarters is anything to go by. For some view this current approach with suspicion and cynicism. They believe that women have come to the realisation that their aggressive exclusionary position has backfired, and they are simply attempting to salvage something from the impossible situation they have created. This talk of “partnership” some men now regard as women’s “olive branch”, calling for a cessation of hostilities. They are willing to consider the offer , but they are unwilling to make any more concessions. It is therefore a complex issue which will not be resolved by making light of the claims and complaints of either party, nor by sporadic, fragmented, band-aid implementation of programmes and projects, but by a concerted, integrated, long-term inclusive approach. We must be prepared to be in it for the long haul.
WOMEN AND MEN…..
This is why I suggest that we revisit the gender issue and arrive at some sort of balance. All of us, both women and men need to take a cold, hard look at the issues, strip our statements and affirmations of unnecessary rhetoric and bombast, soften our intransigence and inflexibility where these exist, and agree on some common rules of engagement. If we are going to be working as partners, taking and sharing responsibility, we need to have a common frame of reference, a common agreed-upon set of principles and guidelines which govern the relationship. It is these principles that I refer to as the rules of engagement.
Firstly, both men and women need to accept that there is not going to be a wholesale mass return to the pre-feminist era. Men, in particular, may wish for a return to “the way we were”, but pragmatism will prevail. There will be individual decisions by women to return to, or remain in, the hearth and home, while their men concentrate on the hunt and on the breadwinning, but it is generally accepted that there will be persons on both sides of the gender divide who will cross the traditional professional or social boundaries.
Secondly, we need to accept that men and women differ in all areas of their lives. Not only do they communicate differently, but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. As Dr. John Gray puts it in his book Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus , they almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment. We need to understand these differences to help us resolve much of the frustration in dealing with and trying to understand each other; to help us work as partners and share responsibility. But difference is not synonymous with inequality. A lot of the rancour which attends the initiatives aimed at the promotion of equal rights for women stem from that refusal or inability to make that distinction. Gender equity, equality of treatment, provision of equal employment opportunities are not premised on the assumption that men and women are the same, but on the belief enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in our own Constitution that “ all persons have been endowed equally by God with inalienable rights and dignity”. When women clamour for equal rights and for the safeguarding of their fundamental freedoms in the enactment of laws or the ratification of Conventions, this ought not to be construed as a call for sameness. An acceptance of the distinction between sameness and equality is therefore fundamental to the success of the type of partnership envisaged by this year’s theme. When women and men are able to respect and accept their differences, then partnership will have a chance to blossom.
To facilitate the type of environment in which this partnership must develop however, there will have to be a toning down of the female rhetoric which proclaims that men are useless, and that women can do without them. We need not be surprised at men’s reaction to such a dismissive attitude on the part of women, and to such belittling of their worth. Little wonder then have men begun to abdicate their roles in society and their traditional responsibilities! It is now fashionable to speak of men being at risk; to speak of the marginalisation of the male. But the gradual erosion of their worth may well be one of the root causes of their malaise and the irresponsible behaviour by which we now characterise the majority of our menfolk. It has been argued that men feel motivated and empowered when they are needed; that when a man does not feel needed in a relationship, whatever the nature of that relationship, he gradually becomes passive and less energised, so that with each passing day, he has less and less to give to the relationship. We would do well as women to recognise and be guided by that reality. For the effect on the male psyche is much more profound than we imagine. Some of the men who have dared bare their souls and spoken of their hurt, have described women’s attitude towards them as psychological assault and battery, which have left a lot of them psychologically scarred. Indeed we would be pleasantly surprised to learn that some men have attributed their successes and their greatest achievements to their powerful drive to provide a secure and comfortable life for the women in their lives! To take that drive and motivation from them is to completely derail them.
Men, on the other hand, need to work on breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of their acceptance of change and of the new environment. They need to tone down as well on their “brute force” rhetoric: the one that argues that when women have usurped all the men’s territory and have backed them against the proverbial wall, they will lash out with the one weapon they can always depend on – brute force. Of course, this may well be the very reason why women overcompensate, become compulsively responsible and start preparing for self-sufficiency. For women too, have their own very sad stories to tell of both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of men. It is clear that both sides have developed their own coping mechanisms for dealing with the issue of what they perceive as each other’s insensitivity and inflexibility. But I would like to hope that the differences are not irreconcilable, and that some way can be found to break the cycle of blame and counterblame. The success of the partnership being promoted depends on it.
I now turn to my final rule of engagement. Both women and men need to resist the tendency and the temptation to stereotype and to cast all in the same mould. The way should be left open to accommodate individual differences due to parental influence, for example, to education, birth order or cultural conditioning. There needs to be room for compromise and negotiation, for personal preferences and individual choice.
The concept of women and men in partnership is of course by no means a novel idea, for at the very heart of society has been the acceptance of the need to work together both for the private and the common good. Indeed, throughout the course of history and all around us today one can find examples of successful partnerships between men and women in various fields of endeavour. If the concept is being revisited today, it is perhaps an acknowledgement that the pendulum has swung either too far right or too far left, or that the idea has somehow been hijacked or derailed, or that there has been an infusion of new factors in the equation. There is no denying that the fortunes and circumstances of women have changed for the better over the years; and that some of these results have been achieved through the cooperation of the men themselves and through social engineering initiatives which heavily favoured women over the past two decades or so. The current thrust in women/men partnerships need therefore to take this new situation into consideration. It is important to recognise however, that the terms of the partnership, as in other areas of endeavour, will be determined by the circumstances and by the quality and level of the contribution of the parties.
All partnerships are not necessarily equal. What needs to be understood and accepted, at the outset, is the nature of the partnership, the obligations of the parties involved, and the conditions under which one’s status or benefits in the partnership can be negotiated and improved. There is always the expectation of some degree of sharing in any partnership arrangement into which one enters, and so it is for the women and the men involved to work these out. However there has been some quibbling about the use of the term “partnership” in this context, with questions being raised about the exact nature of the relationship envisaged. This reservation suggests the need for a more thorough examination of the concept being promoted. Without being too prescriptive however, I would suggest that what is being encouraged is a movement from a position of dependence to one in which both men and women in a particular joint endeavour – whether in the home, in the workplace, in public life – can initiate and influence the pace and course of events. It is only in the exercise of these differential leadership functions that one can truly speak of taking responsibility.
I return therefore to the theme and to the message being promoted – taking responsibility. It has been argued however, that responsibility cannot be independent of power and authority. And indeed there has been a lot said about empowerment, particularly of women, who today are still considered the more vulnerable of the sexes. But how successful have been our initiatives in this regard? And more to the point, what has been the response of those whom we have been seeking to empower? Recently, I came across a definition of “empowerment” articulated by the Commonwealth Secretariat for its Youth Programme. But I found it to have universal application, and I offer it to you for consideration and reflection. “Empowerment” is defined as having two dimensions:
1. People are empowered when they acknowledge that they have or can create choices in life, are aware of the implications of those choices, make an informed decision freely, take action based on that decision and accept responsibility for the consequences of that action.
2. Empowering people means creating and supporting the enabling conditions under which they can act on their own behalf, and on their own terms, rather than at the direction of others. These enabling conditions fall into four broad categories: a) an economic and social base; b) political will, adequate resource allocation and supportive legal and administrative frameworks; c) a stable environment of equality, peace and democracy; and d) access to knowledge, information and skills, and a positive value system.
Given these considerations, to what extent have we been able to create the enabling environment which would give the majority of women in this country, for example, a firm enough start from which to continue that process of self-empowerment? And what of the men, who, until lately were hardly considered to be in need of any more power? The empowerment of any sector of society is everybody’s business. It calls for the concerted efforts of Government, non-governmental organisations, educational and religious institutions, the media, the private sector, family, friends, community networks, peer groups, and above all, the persons themselves. Have we done enough? Have they done enough to help themselves? Do the majority of men and women in this country feel that they have the kind of power and control over their own lives that can make them capable of taking responsibility?
AND WHAT OF WOMEN?
More to the point, and in the context of today’s observance, are the women of this country able and ready to take on responsibility, alone or in partnership with other women or with men?
What, for example, is our attitude towards the responsibility that is ours to provide a safe , supportive environment in the home for the children brought into this world? Are we more concerned with ensuring our welfare, meeting our needs, whatever these are? Why should a mother or a guardian abandon a child, or at best, leave it to its own devices, because she has her own life to live?
Do we appreciate sufficiently our responsibility to ensure the moral and spiritual development of our children; our responsibility to inculcate in them positive moral values? Or do we leave that duty to others, provided always that these others remember that the children are ours? Or else?
How do we react to the notion that it is our responsibility to provide leadership and guidance to our children, our siblings, or for that matter, to other persons in the community?
Why do we refuse to acknowledge that we have the responsibility to set and maintain standards of decency, propriety and common courtesy in our private and public lives?
What has become of our sense of community, our sense of responsibility, our sense of duty? If we can no longer find these values in our women, to whom shall we turn?
Why do we tend to shy away from taking positions of leadership in public life, and why do we not feel that we have a responsibility to lend our support to those women who do?
And, not least of all, do we not have a responsibility to ourselves, to explore our potential and to develop it to the fullest, to achieve complete self-actualisation? When we sing with Olivia Newton-John “I Am Woman”, we assert our self-confidence; we acknowledge the power within us; we recognise our resilience; we believe we can be strong. But with these “gifts” comes the responsibility to use them wisely and for the common good. And that means continuing to hold out the olive branch of peace and compromise and solidifying the foundations for a new mutually satisfying partnership with men.
Yes, you are indeed a select audience – the big honchos. Your responsibility then is to provide leadership in the community. You need to go out and try to understand the real needs of the women and the men among us. Develop a sensitivity and a keen awareness to their concerns and the issues that affect them; assess the situation and be prepared to take action. The talk-show host to whom I referred earlier was convinced that this Lecture would be simply “all talk and more talk”. You can prove him wrong. You must prove him wrong. You will leave here this afternoon with this one commitment: to be in the vanguard of the efforts to make that change, to facilitate the coming together of the women and men of this country to take on the responsibility of developing our nation, our homeland. Remember that change will occur whether there is effective leadership or not. But without positive leadership, which you can provide, John Edmund Haggai contends, the change will tend to be that of destruction and deterioration rather than improvement. I therefore leave you with this one thought taken from Haggai’s book “Lead On”:
“God is calling leaders. Not power-holders….Not mutual congratulation experts. Not influence peddlers. Not crowd-manipulating …demagogues. God is calling leaders”.
So lead on gently, with sensitivity, understanding and compassion.
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