Nearly 30 years ago a very dear friend gave me a copy of the book The Courage to Be by (I now know) the world-renowned twentieth century philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich. Born just before the turn of the twentieth century, Tillich’s life experiences saw him witness at first hand the brutality of the First World War where he was chaplain in the Imperial German Army, and later led him to speak out publicly against the rise of the Nazi movement. Whilst an agnostic at best (depending on which world view you’re coming from!), I was curious about Tillich’s liberal, non-literal, existentialist theology. Whilst Tillich’s Christianity saw him finding courage via the ‘ground of one’s being’ (something that didn’t speak to me directly), I was intrigued by the notion of finding ‘courage to be’, courage as engagement with the world ‘in spite of’ all that is uncertain and challenging.
Thirty years on this book came to mind after I received a note from a very wonderful woman following my post from last week. Acknowledging the sense of bombardment that the process of change can give rise to, she reminded me of the need to see all change, however seemingly unwanted, as opportunity. However much we can feel out of control with the change that is happening to us, we can, ultimately, control how we choose to respond. And that takes courage: courage to believe in ourselves; courage to do the right thing; courage not to act in one’s own self-interest; courage not to put our head in the sand; courage to speak truth to power. If we look at those in positions of power now, do we see evidence of this courage? (And I mean courage in the sense of inner strength and commitment to a greater good, not the language of ‘bully boy’ posturing.)
Which leads me on to celebrating the incredible courage showed by all those extraordinary Suffragettes. As we mark the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act in the UK that added 8.4 million women to the electoral roll (and an additional 5.6 million more men) it is right to both take stock of all that has been achieved in the pursuit of gender equality (maternity leave rights, equal pay, domestic violence legislation) whilst also recognizing that there is still much to be done and courage required to do this.
My Christmas stocking this year contained the book Women and Power: A Manifesto by one of my heroes, Mary Beard (@wmarybeard), the Cambridge scholar and classicist. In it, whilst she recognizes that women in the West have a lot to celebrate, Beard also notes that there is still much to be done. As she writes in the book’s preface “I wanted to work out how I would explain to her (her mother) – as much as to myself, as well as to the millions of other women who still share some of the same frustrations – just how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them…from the centres of power.” And we only need to look around us now to know this is true – equality legislation does not equal empowerment.
Of course, as eloquently noted by Laura Harrison in her opinion piece A Few Good Men, women should stop thinking that they need courage to try a bit harder, work a bit longer, conform a bit more. Instead, women need the courage to be themselves, courage to trust in what they know to be right and courage to make the change they want to see, as our Suffragette sisters did over 100 years ago.