The notion that every human being has equal worth seems to express this point more accurately than the frequently used phrases ‘equal rights’ or ‘equal opportunities’.
The equality I am talking about here is not only equality in relation to the law of the land, but equal rights and responsibilities in human terms. Everyone is entitled to expect the same fair and equitable treatment, respect, consideration, dignity, education and access to information; to work and to share in every aspect of human life. All human beings are entitled to aspire to freedom, love, happiness and peace; to obey their own consciences and to lead their own spiritual lives; to follow their own personal aims and aspirations. Every human being has the right to every one of these things, because they are a prerequisite of social equality and an expression of the concept that all people are equally valuable and precious, simply because they are human.
Of course individual rights may vary according to a person’s function within a group. For example, in a group such as a residents’ association or a music society, each committee member has specific rights with respect to achieving the goals of the group, defined by his or her function. For example, the chairperson has the right to decide who speaks next, and the treasurer will speak first when it comes to decisions on financial matters.
These individual rights that relate to the different functions of group or family members, however, are not as significant as basic human rights, and it is vital that they are not assigned different values, as in the past, particularly when issues of gender, race or class are involved. Marriage is a partnership in which two individuals of opposite sexes but equal worth as human beings choose to live together as equals. This statement may seem self-evident. It is not, however, the traditional view of marriage. How many adults can look back on their own parents’ marriage as an equal partnership? Examples of such true equality in the marriages of previous generations are few and far between.
Because we may not have personal experience of equality in marriage, it falls to the lot of most couples to work things out in their own way. Is it surprising, then, that so many couples fail and give up the struggle? The relative novelty of the concept of equal partnership, and the difficulties that couples experience in trying to achieve it, are prime causes of the rising divorce rate and the general lack of confidence in marriage as a way of life. The proof of this is clearly seen in the fact that two generations ago, it was usually the man who initiated divorce proceedings. Today more women want to leave their husbands than the other way around.
Until very recently, society was entirely on the side of men and their time-honoured privileges, and women seemed meekly to accept the inferior role assigned to them. Today society has recognized the necessity for and justice of equal rights for women. Conscious of both their equality and their new legal rights, women are refusing to accept a subordinate role and are opting for individual freedom. As often happens, social custom is lagging behind legislation.
That is why so many marriages are in trouble today: the law says the partners are equal, but society still expects the wife to take time off work to look after a sick child or wait for the plumber to fix the washing machine, and women frequently shoulder the double burden of housework and a job. Women are less and less likely to accept this unequal treatment, and the rise in divorce rates is, in part, a result of their dissatisfaction.
Of course there are undeniable differences between men and women. Few women can compete with men in physical strength, and no man has ever suckled a child. These differences in certain abilities and functions do not, however, imply a difference in worth as human beings. Thus it is that both partners have equal rights to express their opinions, which neither partner has any right to overrule from some preconceived notion of superiority. Above all, it is important to bear in mind that when consulting or making decisions together as a couple, there can be no simple majority to ensure fairness. Couples must therefore take pains to ensure that each partner has an equal say in the affairs of the family. Again, one partner may deserve special consideration by virtue of particular skills or additional knowledge, but this consideration does not affect anyone’s overall worth as an individual, and neither should habitually overrule the other.
We live today in a stage of transition, when the traditional roles of men and women in society are changing, and these changes are having a profound impact on marriage. As women juggle full-time work outside the home with their traditional responsibilities of child-rearing and house- work within it, stresses will be felt, and stereotypical divisions of labour will have to be adjusted between husband and wife. Every couple today must negotiate these new challenges, and find its own way of living together as two equals in a harmonious and sustainable relationship.
The promotion of women to a position of equality is not, therefore, a mere matter of fair play within the law. It goes far beyond that. It entails the establishment of a completely revised set of relationships between human beings; relationships based not on tradition or physical strength but on mutual rights, responsibilities and friend- ship. Only in this way can we function fully as human beings and enjoy a rich and rewarding life within marriage, with husband and wife walking side by side, and neither partner lagging behind.