An Embarrassing Story and a Point about American Culture

I have a somewhat embarrassing story to tell about myself.  Many of you may be a bit intrigued by this prospect because you have a sort of morbid fascination in the embarrassment of others.  But I should point out that you may not grasp the full weight of my embarrassment unless you are an academic.  You see, this is a story about graduate school, which is not the stuff from which exciting stories are often made.  I apologize if I have now dampened your anticipation.

A little context.  Most Ph.D. programs have two stages.  A grad student spends a couple of years doing coursework before advancing to the second stage, which is doing the research that results in the dissertation.  When one finishes the first stage, at least in the discipline of history, one then presents a research proposal to four scholars and asks if they would serve on a committee that would evaluate and give final approval to the dissertation.

The dissertation committee, then, is quite important.  The Ph.D. degree depends upon it.  One should choose scholars who will have high standards, but one also hopes that these academics, who sometimes come equipped with eccentric, cantankerous or quarrelsome personalities, will not throw up unnecessary obstacles in the process.

I had decided to write a dissertation on American evangelical missionaries.  I was a bit worried about how some scholars might receive that topic, given that many academics believe that missionaries are inherently oppressive, imperialistic busybodies who have created great problems, if not outright injustices in the world.  As a former missionary, I did not exactly share this scholarly perspective.

I secured the approval of three historians — two who studied evangelicalism and were evangelicals themselves.  The third was a historian of American history who was quite affable.  For the fourth position, I thought I ought to get someone who could bring a different perspective than mine, because I was told that this is often helpful as one tries to get a full perspective on things.  After all, one should want to know if one has missed a gaping hole in one’s research, sticking out right there in chapter three, causing all the world to avert their eyes and blush slightly.

So I gave my proposal to a historian whom I thought fit the bill.  She was not an evangelical or a Christian — she came from a Jewish background and I gathered that she was probably an agnostic.  She taught women’s history at Notre Dame and I knew she had written a piece for the Radical History Review.  She certainly would have a different perspective.  But she also was a respected scholar who studied cultural issues in nineteenth century America, which was important for my research.  And from what I knew of her, she seemed like a person of goodwill who encouraged grad students while still asking challenging questions.

Still, I was a little nervous about her reaction.

After reading my proposal she sent me back a rather long response, in which she wrote many gracious and helpful things.  But she also raised a serious concern.  I had written that I wanted to look at variations among evangelical missionaries by examining them from a range of angles, including denomination, race, region, and educational attainment.  If I really wanted to examine evangelical missionaries from many different angles, she asked rather pointedly, why did I not even mention gender in my proposal?  After all, she pointed out, nearly sixty percent of all evangelical missionaries by 1900 were women.

Oh.  Yeah.

She was, of course, correct.  If I really wanted to get a good handle on evangelical missionaries, I really needed to give careful consideration to women missionaries and issues of gender.

But here is the part that caused me to slap my forehead with the palm of my hand.  (I’m almost sure I literally did that when I read her response.)  I had been worried that she might find flaws and holes in my research proposal and it never occurred to me that THE WOMEN’S HISTORY PROFESSOR JUST MIGHT WANT ME TO CONSIDER WOMEN IN MY RESEARCH!  What in the name of Susan B. Anthony did I think she would say when she read my proposal?

That was the embarrassing part.

There are some deeper questions here.  Why, for instance, did I miss this?  After all, I considered myself to be a somewhat intelligent person.  I got pretty good GRE scores. I had earned a Masters degree and passed my comprehensive exams.  I could say “I am a birthday cake” in five different languages.

And yet I could also be stupid.  Maybe “dense” is a better word.

Was this thick-headedness just a problem with me?

Let me venture to suggest here that there was more at work than my own dim-witted personality (though one would not want to discount or minimize that very real factor).  The other reality is that I had a blind spot when it came to gender.   Many things fed that blind spot, including the reality that, even though I had met several females in my life and had even talked to some of them (like my wife, for instance), I had not been compelled very often to think about many aspects of the world from a female perspective.  You see, there are still many ways in which being a male in our culture means you can view the world through a male lens without having a female question or challenge your thinking.  Even if your wife is often quite helpful in this regard.  In other words, thick-headedness is also a cultural problem.


Hmm. You won’t find any “news fit to print” on Catholicism, Buddhism, Pentecostalism, world Christianity, Islam, theology, or spirituality in the September 6, 2014 online edition of the New York Times, but there is this life-changing article on meals you can get in Portland, Oregon for $8 or under!

Now before you accuse me of promoting anti-male, anti-white political correctness, let me say that the blind spot problem is a problem for everyone, including liberals, academics, and those who drive Volvos.  The New York Times, for instance, which is read by a lot of vegans and pointy-headed intellectuals, has a huge blind spot when it comes to religion.  The Times, which has long proclaimed that it gives us “all the news that is fit to print,” has regular sections of the paper devoted to politics (U.S. and world), business, technology, science, health, sports, arts, fashion & style (fashion & style, I say!), automobiles, home & garden, travel and movies.  It has no regular section on religion.  Is there any better empirical evidence of a cultural blind spot about religion than that?

The blind-spot problem is not one of politics.  It is not one of intelligence. It is a problem of human nature.  As such, it is aggravated by cultural forces.  I would venture to say, in fact, that American culture has a blind spot about blind spots.

There are two particularly strong cultural forces that have aggravated the problem for us for at least half a century:  our beliefs about science and our beliefs about individual autonomy. There are reasons why we, especially if we are Christians, should think about this problem.  And so, I plan to discuss this more in my next post.

The Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 and the Contentious Idea of “Privilege”

And now, a couple of more difficult and complicated questions about the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 (see my earlier post for all the violent details.)

Was I guilty?  Was I neutral?

I’m not talking about my angry ripping down of Sharon Osowski’s sign.  That’s easy.  Yes, I was guilty of several crimes and sins there.

No, I mean before that impulse swept over me.  At the moment when I walked back into the classroom in a state of Dodgeball Bliss, when I first saw those girls chanting about how it was all unfair.  At that moment, was I guilty of anything?  Was I neutral?

Yes.  No. Yes.

In one sense, I was not guilty of causing the Dodgeball Injustice to Girls.  I was only doing what Mr. Bacon told me to do.  I was following the rules.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I would not have minded if the girls came down and played dodgeball with us.  I mean, come on, it was dodgeball.

But I snapped when Sharon Osowski marched toward my table because it seemed that she was saying I was somehow at fault and I was just doing what Mr. Bacon told us to do.

In that way, I was not guilty.  But here is the problem that I now understand:  I wasn’t neutral.  I got to play dodgeball and Sharon Osowski did not.  It wasn’t from any fault, action or decision of my own — and it wasn’t through any fault, action or decision of the girls — but the fact remains that we boys got to play dodgeball and the girls did not.

What do we say, when one group of people, through no fault, action or decision of their own, benefits from the way society is arranged and another group, through no fault, action or decision of their own, does not benefit?  “That’s life?” “That’s discrimination?”  “Life isn’t fair?”  “That’s injustice?”

For a number of years now, some pointy-headed intellectual types have been using a term in their writings and in higher education to describe this situation.  They call it “privilege.”


Ammunition or Illumination? You decide!

And a few weeks ago, this concept flew around the airwaves and internet more widely after Bill O’Reilly came out with a segment on Fox News in which he criticized the idea — at least in terms of how it was used in a Harvard first-year orientation program.  Of course, in this context, it quickly became quite political. And it gets tougher to think clearly about it when people are turning to ammunition rather than illumination.

(You can see the clip here.  I could not find the original segment on the Fox News website, so this link is attached to some snarky political commentary).

So I’m going to try to search for some illumination here.  I’ll say at the outset that I think Bill O’Reilly is incorrect about many things on this issue.  But I should also say he might have a point in another way.

First, I think I understand Bill O’Reilly’s emotional reaction, though I think it is incorrect.  Bill O’Reilly declared that he was going to have to “exempt himself under the white privilege banner” because he worked hard at lower-level jobs when he was younger.  It seems to me he is reacting in much the same way I did to Sharon Osowski.  How was I at fault for the girls’ dodgeball situation?  When it comes to race, a lot of whites feel like others are trying to make them feel guilty for things that they did not cause. Persons who work hard, face obstacles, overcome difficulties, and generally try to treat others decently don’t like to be told they are privileged.

But the issue of “privilege,” as it is explained by its clearest advocates, isn’t about what a person has done or not done.  And this is the important point:  this kind of “privilege” really exists and it matters.  Some groups in society, through no fault, action or decision of their own, reap benefits because of race, class, gender, or any other number of factors.

This is not necessarily the same thing as being born into a wealthy, powerful family and having everything handed to you, as O’Reilly seems to think it is.  Obviously, Paris Hilton grew up with privileges that you and I did not grow up with, which is why she is famous for….well, just what is it she is famous for, again?  But that’s not really what “privilege” in this sense, means.

Here is why:  yes, I am sure O’Reilly worked hard and didn’t have everything handed to him.   He didn’t grow up in the Hamptons.  He explained in the segment that he grew up in Levittown, New York, meaning his parents did not have a lot of money.

But he doesn’t get it.  (It’s possible he gets it, but he’s more concerned about ammunition…but I’ll assume that he is sincere.)

For instance, Bill O’Reilly has benefited from white privilege in at least one very clear way: in the 1950s and 60s (when he was growing up) Levittown was a suburb that had contracts prohibiting blacks from buying houses in his suburb.  In fact, most suburbs in America at that time had official or unofficial policies that kept blacks out.

A 1950s Levittown version of "Where's Waldo?" goes like this:  where's the person of color?  (You won't win this game).

A 1950s Levittown version of “Where’s Waldo?” goes like this: where’s the person of color? (Hint: Give up. You won’t win this game).

What did that mean?  It meant that many working-class whites — especially whites whose parents, grand-parents and great-grandparents came from Catholic or Jewish immigrant communities that faced discrimination in the United States — were taking advantage of economic and educational opportunities available to them.  In the 1950s many working class whites who lived in poor neighborhoods in the city could buy “entry-level” suburban houses in places like Levittown.  As I explained in an earlier post, property and land-ownership has been a crucial way for Americans to move up the socio-economic ladder in American history — and it is a feature that historically made the United States different (and more prosperous) than, for instance, Latin American countries.

But in the 1950s, a black family could not move out of the city and buy a house in Levittown, like O’Reilly’s parents did.  When it comes to homes in upwardly-mobile neighborhoods, the United States did not widely extend this opportunity to blacks until….when?  1975?  1990?  2005?  Do blacks have it, fully, today?

Obviously, middle-class blacks who have the financial resources can buy homes in many middle-class neighborhoods.  Legally, they can now buy homes anywhere they want.

So does that mean we have moved beyond this issue?

Well, I know that if I were black, there are still some towns, suburbs and neighborhoods that I would not want to move into because of how I would be treated — at least by some of the people.  (I know of some of these places in my own county).  And I know for sure that I would be hesitant to move if I had kids and had to send them to the public schools in these towns, suburbs or neighborhoods.

However, I am a white person, so I don’t have to worry about those issues.  Neither does Bill O’Reilly.  Socially, the two of us have a certain privilege because of the color of our skin — through no fault, action, or decision of ours.  That has economic ramifications.  The United States is interesting in that historically, it has offered both opportunities and privileges to poorer whites but denied them to blacks and people of color.  We haven’t fully resolved that issue yet.

Another problem:  this kind of privilege is largely invisible to the person who holds it — unless they have had some combination of experience and willingness to consider how it might be so.  It had not occurred to me at all that Mr. Bacon was privileging boys over girls in that dodgeball situation.  Then Sharon Osowski organized her protest.  Before that, I didn’t see any problem.

For those of us who are white, do we know how often clerks ignore blacks who shop in the stores in our town?  How often do banks in our town give better terms on loans to whites, compared to blacks who have the same financial status?

How often do blacks in our town have advantages over whites in the above examples?

Reality:  I don’t know how often these things happen in my town.  You don’t either.  It’s impossible to know the specifics.  But there is plenty of sociological data to show it is still a problem in our society.

There is more. Even with what I have argued, I think the proponents of privilege can have a problem or two in how they argue their point.  Bill O’Reilly might, implicitly, have a point in the midst of this.  That’s in my next post.

The Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972 and Title IX

Mr. Bacon successfully quashed the Great Dodgeball Uprising of early 1972. (See my previous post for details).  But this proved to be no more than a tactical loss for the revolution.


At that time, the number of girls who played high school sports in the United States numbered about 300,000.  Today it is around 3 million.  Sports used to be largely a male domain.  The small percentage of females who played sports usually were not taken very seriously — though female cheerleaders for boys’ sports usually were.

Today, however, girls’ athletics enjoys a much higher status.  A girl who plays high school sports can still be considered quite “cool” by her peers.  That “cool” status does not come in spite her athletic prowess, but often because of it.  (Do young people still say “cool?”  I’m 52 years-old.  It is so hard to know these things, anymore).

The revolution of females and sports swept the nation and the world, for that matter.

Who, in 1972, saw this coming?  Mr. Bacon didn't.  Hmm.  Neither did I, come to think of it.

Who, in 1972, saw this coming? Mr. Bacon didn’t. Hmm. Neither did I, come to think of it.

But why the revolution?  A common explanation, exemplified by a Sports Illustrated article from a couple of years ago, states that this came about because Congress passed Title IX in 1972.  The key part of that law stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Gosh, that sounds like Sharon Osowski had read the text, doesn’t it?  Actually, the legislators weren’t thinking about athletics (it wasn’t even mentioned in the law), they were thinking about other areas of education.  But the most notable impact seems to have been in the area of sports.  And maybe recess.

There are a number of interesting questions that have been discussed here, such as the extent to which the playing field (pun intended) between females and males is or is not level today, and whether Title IX has hurt certain male sports in high school and college.

But I’m more interested in the historical question of whether or not we can really say that Title IX caused all of this.

Why?  Here is what I find interesting:  Title IX was passed in June of 1972, several months after the Great Dodgeball Uprising of Mary L. Daly Elementary School. How could Sharon Osowski, a 4th grade girl from Elkhart, Indiana, show more foresight than Congress?  (Insert joke about Congress here).

Other things were in the works besides politics, of course.  If 4th-grade girls in Elkhart, Indiana were challenging existing gender norms in 1972, then something was afoot in the wider culture.  When I tell this story to my American history class, I ask my students to imagine how it would have played out differently if Mr. Bacon’s dilemma had occurred in 1952 instead of 1972.  My students usually point out that girls in 1952 probably would have accepted Mr. Bacon’s original plan.  It is quite likely they would not have organized a protest, though they might have said something.  Some students observe that in 1952 the girls might not have even really cared about playing dodgeball.

We then dig into the possible reasons for why Sharon Osowski would have thought to lead a protest march in 1972.  I point out that it is quite unlikely that her parents had sat her down in kindergarten and explained to her that if she were ever treated unjustly in school, she must organize her group, assemble protest signs, create pithy slogans, and then march around in front of the authorities.  However, it is quite possible her parents raised her in a way to be aware of these issues.

"You've Come a Long Way Babeeee..."

The logic makes no sense: cigarettes for women = women’s rights.  But we accepted it anyway, along with the other message that roles for women were changing.

The other main factor here, though is media.  I’m guessing that none of the girls in my class knew who Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan were, but I’m pretty sure that they all, like me, had seen independent women on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Mod Squad” or Virginia Slims commercials.  Furthermore, weren’t similar attitudes towards girls and sports changing in Britain, Canada, Belgium and other nations outside the jurisdiction of Title IX?

So which had a greater causal effect:  Title IX or the thousands, maybe millions, of ways throughout the late 1960s and 1970s that ordinary women (and girls!) were acting differently than they had two decades before?   If Title IX had not passed, would anything have changed?  Probably, but how much?  If Title IX had passed in 1952, would it have caused the same amount of change?

I don’t know.  Obviously the changes came about because of a combination of complex factors.  But it is a reminder that changes in society take place every day, through the cumulative effect of the actions of ordinary people like Sharon Osowski who, as we stop to think about it, was on the cutting edge of a revolution in gender and sports.  (My 4th grade self hesitates to call her “ordinary” — because she might be doing remarkable things today.  I don’t know.)

And finally, to commemorate the Great Dodgeball Uprising of 1972, here is a link to the only thing that, in my 4th grade world, would have been greater than a game of dodgeball:  a game of dodgeball played against Major League baseball players!  Epic.

Great Moments in American History:  Dodgeball and Gender at Mary L. Daly Elementary School in early 1972

One of the very important things I learned in the 4th grade was that you don’t mess with Sharon Osowski.

That lesson was learned one day in early 1972 at my elementary school in Elkhart, Indiana.  On that particular afternoon, the weather was quite nasty and our class could not go outside for afternoon recess.  But there was a problem.  Our teacher, Mr. Bacon, had been counting on making an important phone call while we were out on the playground.   What to do?

Mr. Bacon improvised.  He told the girls that they were going stay in the room and the boys were going to go down to the gym to play dodgeball.  I am pretty sure he reasoned, quite logically, that the girls were mature enough not to foment a revolution while unsupervised.  And I am pretty sure he reasoned, quite logically, that the boys were immature enough that if they occupied themselves with a mindless game of running and throwing and catching and dodging, they would not figure out how to foment a revolution.

Ah, the criss-cross texture, the bright red color, the little black rubber air hole, the slight smell of rubber:  this is the stuff of 4th Grade Bliss!

Ah, yes: the checkered texture, the bright red color, the little black rubber air hole, the faint smell of rubber: this is the stuff of 4th Grade Joy!

My reasoning was that the day had suddenly turned into something of a holiday.  There was no greater gift that God could bestow upon us at school than that absolutely wonderful game of dodgeball.  The joy was that much greater when the gift arrived unexpectedly.  And so, we boys went down to the gym and had a great time.

After a while, Mr. Bacon came into the gym and directed us back to the classroom, ahead of him.  We returned in a state of 4th-grade boyish bliss.  But as we walked into the classroom we were puzzled by the general state of things.  We found the room quiet and empty, completely devoid of girls.  This was strange.

Then, as we walked to our tables to sit down, the door to the girls’ bathroom suddenly swung open.  (Each classroom in this school had a boy’s and a girl’s bathroom connected to it.)  Sharon Osowski came marching out, leading the entire class of girls.   In a truly remarkable display of group discipline, the girls popped out from that small bathroom in single-file formation — there came Amy Peterson, Jodi Romberger, Karen Osowksi (Sharon’s twin sister), Mary Lovejoy, Cynthia Vaughn, and more — the whole female lot of them.  They each had written slogans on notebook paper that rang with cries of injustice.  Things like “Girls Can Play Dodgeball, too!” and “Boys shouldn’t have all the fun!”  They had taped these to their rulers, which they held aloft, protest-style.  And as they marched around the room, they chanted something like “Unfair to Girls!  Unfair to Girls!”

It was a sight to behold.

Indeed, I was a bit amused at first. But as I took my seat at my table and watched the girls snake around the room, I became annoyed.  It seemed to me like the girls were blaming the boys for this whole dodgeball situation.  But what had I done?  I only went down to the gym because Mr. Bacon told us to.  It wasn’t my fault that the girls didn’t get to play dodgeball.   To my way of reasoning, their protest seemed a bit unfair to us boys and, quite frankly, unduly confrontational.  And as that protest line, led by Sharon Osowski, marched closer to my seat, something in me just snapped.  I suddenly reached up and ripped the paper off of Sharon’s ruler.

This was a mistake.

It was a mistake for a number of reasons.  1) You don’t mess with Sharon Osowski.  2)  I was sitting and she was standing, so she had the height advantage.   3) She held a dangerous weapon in her hand.  4) Mr. Bacon had just walked through the door, the instant before I snapped.  He saw the entire violent episode, brief as it was.

Several things happened very quickly at that moment.  Sharon Osowski, who knows how to use a ruler, immediately abandoned whatever principles of peaceful protest she had picked up from Martin Luther King, Jr.  She swiftly turned her plowshare into a sword and brought it down on my head.  For maximum effect, no doubt, she made sure that she did not lead with the flat side of the ruler, but with the edge with the metal strip.  I am here to testify that it hurt.

Before I even had a chance to consider whether or not I wanted to tangle further with Sharon Osowski, Mr. Bacon took control of the room.  Sensing that, despite his best efforts, the revolution had been fomented after all, he immediately ordered the girls to take their seats and, in no uncertain terms, told everyone to be quiet.

Don't let the peaceful exterior fool you.  Inside the walls of Mary L. Daly Elementary School, social conflicts of global proportions played out.

Don’t let the peaceful exterior fool you. Inside the walls of Mary L. Daly Elementary School, desperate 4th graders have struggled amidst a veritable maelstrom of social conflict.

He then turned his wrath upon the person most responsible for the social unrest he had witnessed. To my surprise, shock, and utter humiliation, that person was me.  Now, I hated to get in trouble and I especially hated it when my getting-in-trouble happened publicly.  But here, in front of the entire class, Mr. Bacon charged me with a whole list of crimes, which seemed to my fourth-grade mind to include assault & battery, vandalism, libel, and treason.  He may have mentioned the First Amendment.

With the rebellion quashed, the room returned to its normal elementary school productiveness, which probably meant mathematics or spelling or geography.  All I know is that my head hurt and I had been publicly humiliated.  I was trying hard not to cry in front of the five other classmates at my table, because boys were not supposed to cry.  As fate would have it, Sharon Osowski sat at my table.  But in addition to being an impressive community organizer, Sharon Osowski was a mature fourth grade girl.  And so, after a few minutes of listening to my sniffles, she apologized.  “I’m sorry I hit you, Jay,” she whispered.  “But you shouldn’t have ripped off my paper.”

In addition to being a disrupter of peaceful protests, I was an immature fourth grade boy.  So I did not apologize, or say anything in return.

It was, actually, a significant moment in American history.  I’m serious about this.  I’ll explain why in my next post.

(Historian’s note: The above account is how I remember the event. I need to point out that historians are very aware that people commonly mis-remember some facts about events that took place long ago, so some of my details may not be fully accurate.  However, I am quite sure that my joy for dodgeball, Mr. Bacon’s dilemma, Sharon Osowski’s sense of injustice, and my hurting head speak to the truth of what transpired on that fateful day).


Is Protestantism or Secularism (or something else) the Best Path to Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women around the World?

You should care about this question if you are a Protestant.  Or if you are in human resources in a business.  Or if you teach 10th graders.  Or if you are from the Honduras.  Or if you are a woman.  Or if you are a man.

You can stop reading if you don’t fall into any of those categories.

WEFEvery year the World Economic Forum, a non-profit and non-partisan foundation based in Switzerland. issues what it calls the Global Gender Gap Report.   The study ranks 136 nations by the disparities between women and men in economics, politics, education and health.

Some nations don’t make it because there is not enough data for them.  My guess is that the nations that don’t make the list, like North Korea, would probably be towards the bottom.  (Of course, maybe North Korea is secretly promoting women throughout its society to ranks of equality.  Maybe Kim Jong-un executed his uncle this week in order to put his aunt into a top position of power……Hmm. Yeah, we should go with the first hypothesis).

The World Economic Forum mainly reports the data. It doesn’t attempt to explain the deep-seated forces that explain why some nations are ranked high and others are low.  It does not even mention religion anywhere in the report, as far as I can see.  But that doesn’t prevent me from bringing religion in to attempt to explain matters.  My thought:  Protestantism matters.

Curious?  Here are nations that have done the best at closing the gender gap, (though no nation has achieved full gender equality):

  1. Iceland
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden     (ah, those Scandinavians)
  5. Philippines  (what?)
  6. Ireland
  7. New Zealand
  8. Denmark
  9. Switzerland
  10. Nicaragua  (what?)

And the bottom ten:

  • 127.  Saudi Arabia    (you are not surprised)
  • 128.  Mali
  • 129.  Morocco
  • 130.  Iran
  • 131.  Ivory Coast
  • 132.  Mauritania
  • 133.  Syria
  • 134.  Chad
  • 135.  Pakistan
  • 136.  Yemen

In case you are curious, the United States come in at # 23, just behind Burundi.  (What?)

An obvious observation:  Islam is not good for gender equality.

A somewhat surprising observation:  economic prosperity does not seem to be a deciding factor.  One finds the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, Lesotho (!), Burundi, and Ecuador all in the top 25.   Meanwhile, South Korea, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, all in the top third globally in terms of per capita income, are all in the bottom 25 in terms of the gender gap.   Wealthy Japan comes in at #105, right behind Cambodia and Burkina Faso.

So what is the biggest predictor of gender equality?

One could make a decent case for secularism.  The Scandinavian nations (which always seem to lead lists like this) are quite secular.  And you have that obvious Islamic problem at the bottom of the list.  Analysis that stopped here would support a claim that has been made quite regularly within western culture during the last two centuries:  public religion is a barrier to liberty.  The sooner we break free from religion, the way this thinking goes, the more free, equal and happy we will be.

But if you dig further, that argument does not work so well.  Based on this data, I would argue something quite different:  the long-term presence of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, is the biggest factor in promoting equality between men and women.  I’m thinking like a historian here, which means you have to take into account at least two centuries of development.  Profound cultural shifts, such as changes in attitudes, practices and structures related to gender, do not change with a decade or two of new political policies.  Over long periods of time, however, nothing closes the gender gap as well as Protestantism.  I don’t see a factor that is a better predictor.

Here is what the data says to me:  the equity between women and men in the Scandinavian nations is better explained by several centuries of Protestantism than by a few decades of secularism.

Why?  No Protestant nation ranked lower than #47 (Jamaica).  13 of the 15 nations that have been influenced by more than a century of Protestantism are in the top 23.

I was actually surprised to see the very modern nation of France ranked as low as it is (45), since France has led the way since 1789 in promoting liberty and equality.  It has also been an historic leader in secularism, attempting to break free from public religious influences.  However, it only ranks two places ahead of the lowest ranking nation deeply influenced by Protestantism, Jamaica (47).

Meanwhile, we have the following rather secular nations in the bottom half of the list:  China (69), Vietnam (73), Slovak Republic (74), Uruguay (77), Czech Republic (83), Japan (105), Albania (108), and South Korea (111).

Filipino Businesswomen:  We're #5

Filipino Businesswomen: We’re #5

We can also argue for the importance of Christianity, in general, upon gender equality if we compare nations by regions.  Christianity has been at work in the Philippines for several centuries.  It not only cracks the top 10, but far outpaces more modern and secular nations in East Asia, like China (69), Japan (105), and South Korea (111).  At #5, the Philippines also obliterates similar island nations of southeast Asia like Indonesia (95) and Malaysia (102).

In Latin America, the secular nation of Cuba ranks quite high at #15, (a good argument for secularism) behind only Nicaragua.  However, the very secular nation of Uruguay ranks at 77.

In post-communist eastern Europe, the quite religious nation of Poland (54) ranks well ahead of its secular cousins, the Slovak Republic (74), Czech Republic (83).   I was a bit surprised by this, since both the Czech and Slovak republics had liberal democratic traditions before they, like Poland, were taken over by communism after World War II.

Finally, 49 of top 68 nations were influenced by more than two centuries of Christianity.  Only 16 of the bottom 68 were deeply influenced by Christianity – and none of these were Protestant.

Because substantial growth of Christianity if Africa is quite recent, I do not include the sub-Saharan nations of Africa in my categories of Christian or secular nations – except for South Africa, which has had a significant Christian presence for two centuries.  But Africa seems to be the wild card in all of this.  It will be interesting to see what happens to both Christianity and gender equity in sub-Saharan Africa in the decades to come.

It is important to note that there are all sorts of factors that play into these rankings.  I’ve been generalizing quite a bit — cutting with a chain saw, if you will.  And one can raise some questions about the methodology of the World Economic Forum, though you’d have to propose an alternative.

At this point, though, if you were a woman who is interested in equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities for education, or a shot at parliament, or equal health care, I think you would do best to be born in a nation deeply influenced by Protestantism.