Christian Feminist Q & A – Ali Wilkin

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 46, I was born in London and was raised in Essex, and I lived in Hull and Sheffield before returning to my home town after my marriage broke down. I’ve been a single parent (and single) for 16 years, and I’m the proud mum to two amazing young men. I’m passionate about the things I care about, read like a demon, try to listen more than I talk, and talk the hind legs off a donkey.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

My parents are agnostic, although my family on my Mother’s side are C of E; my great-grandmother had very close ties with her local Quaker and Pentecostal churches too and I was always very influenced by her openness to worshipping as she felt led by the Spirit. I am an Anglican, and have been since coming to faith 12 years ago – the Eucharist is the place where my head faith and heart faith first truly came together, and I love liturgy.

Since becoming part of a fresh expression of church 6 years ago and one of the lay leaders of that, Monday night has been church night: that is either in the form of a shared meal, a social evening at a local pub, or coming together for a simple shared supper, worship, prayer and study in our local community centre. There are plenty of challenges in being part of ‘corporate’ lay leadership* of such a community, but I am blessed to be part of a group of people who are so generous, committed and gifted.

*There isn’t a single leader: each one of the lay leaders has different gifts and responsibilities, and decisions are made as a group together. 

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I identified as a feminist as a young child and right through to my early twenties initially: it was as natural to me as breathing. I used to doodle feminist things on my school note books (things like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”/”whatever we say, whatever we do, yes means yes and no means no”) along with feminist and CND symbols.

It was a very simplistic feminism, but as I got older I began to have a lot of questions and issues, which the feminism I was being presented with could not easily address. It treated all girls as being essentially the same, and as a result it increasingly didn’t speak to me or to some of the girls and women around me – in terms of class, race and sexuality particularly, the concerns of the feminism available to me were entirely unrelated to the lives and struggles of working class women, black women and women of colour, LBT women (and the intersections of those), and in my early twenties I began distancing myself from feminism increasingly.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I had distanced myself from feminism before I came to faith and from the start my own experience of faith felt deeply at odds with the patriarchal nature of the Church, with its gendered language and performance of faith as worship before a masculine God. Eventually I began to feel very strongly a particular call on my faith, and I believe God is raising up a generation of women (particularly LBT, black women and women of colour) to speak out against oppression: the feminism I was re-discovering through that has grown a faith and feminism entwined around each other.

In the early days of my faith I struggled with what I thought of as the tension between the two, but I had a wonderful example in my late great-grandmother whose own instinctive faith was such an amazing example – she had always encouraged me to learn to trust my own instincts, and this helped me to see past the human patriarchal constructs which men have spent 2,000 years building around God, Jesus and faith. I had a minister who encouraged me to use feminine language for God, and I am often the only person in my church singing to Mother (rather than Father) God!

One of the great blessings of the internet is how it helps me connect with and hear other feminists and queer people of faith and their stories, and having the opportunity to lift those up. The real tension is not between faith and feminism – the real tension is between people, and between those who see the patriarchy as something man made (one of the ‘traditions of men’), and those who think of it as something God ordained.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

To me, activism isn’t something which is separate from life: for many cis and trans women, simply surviving from day to day is activism, in defiance of the systems of power which silence or dismiss their existence. There have been campaigns which I have been involved in online by re-tweeting, doing something to lift up the voices of those who society wants to hear from the least. As someone who does not seek a media platform, my contribution to that is small but it matters that we all do what we can.  

Locally I am working to grow and raise awareness in my own community: talking to people, raising the issues, and recently I organised a prayer service for victims of abuse. That required working with my vicar, talking through reasons and issues, understandings of power and boundaries and so on. It’s small scale stuff but change happens from the ground up, not the other way round: like the mustard seed, it’s a tiny amount in the scheme of things, but big things come from that tiny seed. I am currently working on a new blog that will focus entirely on forgiveness – the theology of forgiveness is so riddled with victim blaming and its something I have been thinking, praying and meditating on a lot for the last several months.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Violence against women, rape and abuse, the inclusion of LBT women, racism, poverty, and disability and the intersections of those. These are where the patriarchy’s abuses of its corrupted power are most evident. As a survivor of domestic and psychological abuse and rape, as someone who is bisexual and who has struggled with mental health issues for most of my life, raising my voices with others to challenge the prevalence of rape culture (outside and inside the church) matters very much.

There is always a tension between the church and those whose sexuality does not conform to the patriarchal norm and even within the LGBTQ community, those of us who are bi experience a lot of erasure, and for my trans and non binary sisters the situation is often much worse – especially when whiteness so is completely centred in everything.  Secular feminism struggles with queer theory and theology easily as much as Christian feminism does so it matters to me very much that this is better understood. Feminists (both secular and of faith) are often uncomfortable around queer theology and theory, and this impacts the trans and non binary community particularly. I know there is much argument around this, but sooner or later we are all going to have to grasp that that working for all women (including trans and non binary women) does not prevent my (or any other cisgender woman’s) liberation. Quite the opposite.  

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

My feminism has evolved very much and one of the great joys of Twitter and social media is how it’s given me the opportunity to hear and learn from a multiplicity of voices. But I have also learned to be comfortable and welcoming of being unwelcomed even within feminist circles: I was never popular with the other feminists when I was younger, because I questioned why we were so white, so awful to trans women, so focused on getting the same jobs and power as the patriarchy, so willing to throw single mothers under a bus and so critical of women who wanted to stay at home to raise their children – in short, so eager to replicate the very patriarchy we were supposedly wanting to dismantle (I was 40 years old before another feminist called me sister!).

Being an outsider is something that has both deepened my faith – I think of how unpopular Christ was in His day – and offers a certain kind of freedom, as I am an introvert by inclination anyway.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

In scripture, I love Esther and Mary Magdalene, and Mary (Jesus’ mother) – in their own ways they were all outsiders, not popular, willing to take risks for what they believed in and always always full of faith.  In life the women in my family each inspire in their own way: I am blessed that the generations before me have each been sources of strength and inspiration in different ways. And in my life (online and offline) there are so many women, each with their own gifts and stories to tell.  

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

Honestly, I am more likely to be dismissed for being trans inclusive than for being a Christian feminist. My experience overall has been incredibly positive.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Sometimes I think people in the church treat it like a hobby, and there’s a huge misunderstanding from a lot of people that I put feminism before my faith. In some ways this is easier to cope with though than the rather patronising one, that I call  the ‘there there’ attitude: when someone responds as though they are patting you on the head like you are a cute, but slightly silly, child. In many ways I’m lucky that the leadership in my parish is open: generally my vicar is brilliant and even if he doesn’t understand the thing I’m banging on about he is always willing to listen and learn. I just wish this wasn’t the exception that proved the rule though!

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

There is a lot to be celebrated, and feminism is at its best when it is celebratory: but there is much that feminism still needs to do, particularly concerning race and our trans sisters. There are strong voices within feminism generally and Christian feminism that actively call for the de-centring of white, heteronormative voices and yet the media (Christian and secular) still give prevalence to those voices over women of colour and trans women.  It would be great if a black woman said something about racism and we listed to her instead of waiting for the white person to say before taking it on board. 

Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church-based feminist or equality-minded groups, projects or organisations?

I stay plugged in to various groups via newsletters, Twitter and so forth and much of my activism happens via social media – I think the reason some people don’t understand or value online activism is that they don’t understand that for many people, it’s something they can actually access because financial/physical/mental health/safety issues might otherwise prevent more conventional involvement.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The Church has to get to grips with its failure to deal with abuse, and its failure to properly address the needs of victims, and the C of E would do well to look to how the Methodist church have modelled submitting themselves to an independent enquiry in a spirit of humble penitence. I also think that the language we use about God, liturgically and theologically, has to change. Not to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘father’ but to learn to use ‘her’ and ‘mother’ and ‘they’ just as frequently.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

My personal experience has been really positive – some people look askance at the whole ‘Christian feminist’ thing of course, and there are those who instantly dismiss me because of my faith. If I were honest, I would say that secular feminism is more welcoming than the Church.

Ali Wilkin lives in Colchester. She blogs at incarnationalrelational.wordpress.com and tweets as @AliWilkin.

Christian Feminist Q & A -Hannah Barr

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics. I was once described as ‘if Tina Fey did moral theology…’ which I’m taking as a compliment!  When I’m not in a library, I work part-time for an organisation which seeks to equip Christian postgrads to integrate their faith and their studies.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up in a Church of England-Baptist church plant which was a bit of an ecumenical headache, but somehow it worked. At 12, I had an encounter with the Holy Spirit which brought home to be the full realness of Jesus and what it meant to be in relationship with him. Since leaving home for university, I’ve stayed in the Church of England, first in a conservative evangelical church and now in a charismatic evangelical church. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but there’s something so special about the Church of England, for me at least.

Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I went to a church which didn’t have women in any leadership roles that weren’t for leading other women or children whilst doing my undergrad and the reality of encountering people stopping me and other women from doing things just because we were women seemed ludicrous. The attitude of a couple of dominant churches in the city had pervaded the Christian Union so women weren’t allowed to speak there or be in roles on the committee such as President and that made no sense either. Plus, I found myself in lectures where women outnumbered men considerably but men dominated all the conversations, and then I was introduced to feminist theology.

On the whole, I have several theological issues with the dominant thinkers and strands within feminist theology, but there was a perfect storm in what I felt as oppressive in my church and CU and lectures, and then what I saw these women theologians had stood for. It was like a lightbulb when on and I realised the effect my church, CU, and some people on my course was having on me – the crushing effect they were having on me – and I realised it was time to find my voice amongst all that.

It took a while to identify explicitly as a feminist because I certainly fell prey to the negative stereotypes around the word, but it’s the word which sums up best what I stand for when it comes to gender equality.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

For me, the two have always come together. I read the Bible and I study theology and I’m struck by a God who thinks women are great – and great sinners who’ve thought women aren’t so great. But whose opinion ultimately matters more: God’s or the guy who said that women are the devil’s gateway? (Yes, Tertullian, I am throwing shade at you!)

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve been involved in setting up an equality and diversity forum, and I’m in talks at the moment about setting up a group which will help support Christian women in academia, which I’m excited about.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

I am really passionate at the moment about sexual consent because the sheer amount of violence against women is utterly intolerable. So often, the issue seems pushed under the carpet, but violence against women is not confined to a class or a culture, it has permeated the whole world and we still seem to lack concrete solutions for ending it. I think if we actually think about and interrogate what sexual consent should be like, it would go a long way to helping tackling the issue of violence against women.

On a more micro level, I think it would be great to see more feminist engagement in pedagogy at all levels, not just in higher education where the most number of studies seem to have been done. We need to socialise girls out of tentativeness in the classroom or lecture theatre.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

It definitely has changed, I think for the better! When I was younger, if I didn’t see satisfactory answers within Christianity for certain issues, I held to a singularly feminist view on them. Possibly as I’ve developed as a theologian, I now don’t feel the need to do that. As a Christian, my commitment will always be to God first, and because of that, I will be committed to the church over secular feminism, and I do think that theology can be of real value to secular feminism. I think my feminist views contain much more nuance and I’m able to see where its methods and ideologies are flawed. Above all, I hope my feminism has changed in a way which makes me much more charitable.

As a young feminist which coincided with being an idealistic undergraduate, I was great at being passionate and headstrong, but was often too quick to respond to being hurt by being angry, and if there is one thing I have learnt as a theologian, it’s that theology done from anger is not the best theology a person can do. And in terms of being a Christian feminist, my emphasis has shifted from being quite selfish and focusing on women in church leadership, whereas now, I hope I follow much better the call to love my neighbour and am far more evangelical about the issues which transcend the church such as violence against women and poor maternal health.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I grew up going to Soul Survivor which has always had a plethora of great, fearless, and honest women speaking and leading, so they’ve always been an inspiration. I do love women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer for their boldness in their work and how unapologetic they are about being feminists, as well as how honest they are about being imperfect people. I was also so fortunate in my undergrad institution that the female academics in my department were awesome! I learnt so much from them, not just academically, but in how to be an adult woman, a good colleague, and how to combat the voices which tell you to be silent when there’s no need for you to be.

And I will always adore the women in the Bible who sing: Hannah and Mary. They got on with things quietly and faithfully and with far more obedience to God than I have ever or will ever manage. I should also mention Phoebe as she gets pulled up in so many debates on women in church leadership without people (on either side) really stopping to contemplate just how extraordinary she was.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

In the things I’ve been involved in, I don’t feel like I’m wanted as a Christian feminist, and certainly online have encountered abuse for being a Christian and had my feminism summarily dismissed. I can understand secular feminism’s wariness of religious institutions because it’s wary of powerful institutions in general, but no-one and especially no women benefit, if we try to shut people out just because of another identity they may have.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

A mixed bag! Feminism is as misunderstood as Christianity can be. And Christians do love getting their knickers in a twist about things and blocking out ‘dissenting’ voices. Most of the criticism I’ve encountered from within the church has usually been based on negative stereotypes of feminism. Just last week, someone at college actually asked me why I was a feminist and what it meant to me and he was (pleasantly) surprised by my answer, so if only we could just have more conversations where we actually listen to each other. In church, we love our binaries, and the ‘complementarian versus egalitarian’ debate is emblematic of that. We just need a call for calm, nuance, and actually listening to one another.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think my generation has tried to re-brand feminism in a way which has been disrespectful to the earlier feminists who really rocked the boat. And then there’s fashionable feminism. Bluntly, you can wear as many ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ shirts as you like, but if you’re not including sanitary towels in your foodbank donation, or if you’re ignoring homeless people on the streets, or if your first response to a girl who’s been sexually assaulted is ‘what were you wearing?’, or if you think that the ‘home’ in ‘charity begins at home’ doesn’t mean the world, then you may look like a feminist, but you don’t act like one. I’m not a feminist because it’s fashionable; I’m not a feminist because a media-darling celebrity has made it palatable; I’m a feminist because Jesus knew and demonstrated that the inferior treatment of women was unacceptable.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The church needs to be more realistic about the extent of suffering which women face on a quotidian basis from the parish to the world. Personally, I’d also love it if the church could cease with the extrapolation that just because God is King, that makes all girls and women princesses. There are so many extraordinary things God calls us and names us, and yet we think Disney-fied theology is the way forward! I’d also love the church to quit with the terms ‘women vicar’ or ‘women bishop’ unless we’re going to start calling the others ‘man vicar’ and ‘man bishop.’

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Remember the aim: women and men are equal. It’s seeing others as inferior which led to this mess in the first place. The othering and dehumanisation of others is insidious – women as weak, refugees as cockroaches – as soon as you start to think of someone as less than all you’ve done is perpetuated the cycle of human beings being terrible beings.

Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

I’m only starting to appreciate now just how important my church leaders were growing up. The fact that a vicar took a chance on a teenage me and let me preach meant the world, so that when I was later told by others I had no right to speak or lead, I had that confirmation from another person (who I assume was listening to Jesus) to hold onto.

If churches really want to do their bit for gender equality, regardless of where you stand on the complementarian-egalitarian spectrum, look at the young women in your church and invest in them. Because for the ones who are a bit bossy, are a bit feisty, are a bit fed up with the injustices they see in the world, the encouragement you give them as teenagers may just be what gets them through their early twenties.

IMG_0422Hannah Barr is a postgraduate student in Theology at Oxford University, specialising in Christian Ethics.

Twitter: @HannahE27

Christian Feminist Q & A – Dianna Anderson

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Dianna Anderson and I’m in the process of finishing up my Master’s in Women’s Studies at Oxford University. I’m originally from South Dakota in the United States, but have lived in the UK for a year now and have lived here previously.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I “accepted Jesus” at 5 years old, which is really common in evangelical households in the US. I went to youth ministry at a Baptist church and went to Baptist universities for both undergraduate and my first graduate degree. My focus in academic study has circled around Protestant theology, and it’s always been the background radiation of what I do.

Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I began actively using the label back in 2009, when I was in graduate school in Texas. Prior to then, I had many feminist values (combined with a weird relationship to conservative Christianity, which made me stand up for myself in academic aspects but reject feminism in relationships). But I was 23 before I began to use the label comfortably.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I don’t particularly struggle with it, but I struggle a lot with people outside of either Christianity or feminism who tell me I cannot be both. I’m rejected from feminist circles because of my Christianity and rejected from Christian ones because of feminism. It’s a lose-lose situation in a lot of ways, but I believe my positioning as a Christian feminist is a vital perspective for both worlds.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I’ve worked specifically with online campaigns about purity culture and protests of sexual abuse by church leaders. I’ve also been involved in Black and Native Lives Matter protests in my hometown in the US. Here in the UK, I’ve been involved in the It Happens Here movements and discussions, and with the Rhodes Must Fall student movement (on the periphery).

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

A major focus for me is the acceptance and protection of minority sexualities and genders. As a bisexual woman, it’s deeply important to me that LGBTQ+ people are protected and cared for. Our community has a lot of issues to combat with besides marriage equality, and I’m afraid that a lot of white middle class gays have just sat back on their laurels following the victories both in the UK and the US on marriage equality. Don’t get me wrong: marriage equality is great, but it’s a starting point, not an endpoint.

I’m also really passionate about reproductive rights, which is something that people view as being in conflict with my religious beliefs more than any other aspect of my feminism. For me, part of the liberation of Christ is in having fully autonomous control over our bodies, to be fully capable of making decisions for ourselves. There’s a lot of infantilization that’s wrapped up in the battle for reproductive rights, and a lot of that extends from particularly bad religious justification.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

Absolutely. When I started out, I was total ‘White Feminist‘, thinking that progress is sort of a trickle down economics model—once I get my rights, other people’s will fall in line. I’ve come to see just how wrong that is and to believe that if I’m not fighting for justice for all, I’m not doing feminism right. Feminism isn’t the selfish cause a lot of its critics paint it as. It’s fundamentally about caring for your neighbor and their experiences of oppression and working to alleviate their pain, regardless of whether or not it makes your life easier.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I’ve been reading A LOT of Patricia Hill Collins and Delores Williams for my dissertation, and so those two immediately come to mind. I’m also a huge fan of Warsan Shire (whose work was recently featured in Beyoncé’s LEMONADE). Biblically, Rahab is pretty fantastic—lying to troops like that takes a will of steel.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

Amanda Marcotte once told me I can’t be a feminist because I’m also a person of faith. So on occasion, it does cause hiccups and problems. But I’ve found in a lot of ways, it’s beneficial too—when there’s a feminist issue that comes up that’s related to Christian theology, my knowledge and love of both has made it easier to nuance the conversation, to explain where certain views are coming from, and to refute them from a position as an insider, rather than an atheist telling Christians to drop everything. I’m the last person to say I’m a bridge-builder, but I think my position helps me to cross those party lines a lot more easily.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Do you have a week? It’s been one hell of a battle. Let me put it this way: before I left to come to Oxford for my degree, I visited some very conservative family and they were really excited that I’d been accepted to Oxford until they found out that I was coming here to do Women’s Studies. I practically got whiplash from how quickly they changed the subject.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

There’s a lot of … thoughts that I have about how the feminist movement has become this ‘Approved-By-Celebrities’ strain of thought and the ways it’s been branded and commercialized and slapped on a lunchbox. These thoughts are going to form part of a larger project I’ll be working on soon so you’ll be hearing much more from me on this in the future!

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

Transgender education and understanding of gender identity and gender as separate from biology. I’ve joked before that I wish I could make Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble mandatory reading, but jokes aside, I think there’s a severe lack of understanding of the basic of how current gender theorists understand and discuss gender (which is part of why I pursued a women’s studies degree).

But I also know that education isn’t enough, because you can explain the current theories until you turn blue, but they won’t be effective if people choose not to believe it or if they write it off as academic fluff (which is what happens a lot of the time with the discussion about trans identity in the church in the US). You have to somehow imbue them with empathy for these minority identities, which is very hard to teach. Ultimately, I wish we could have a more Christ-like attitude toward our queer family of faith, and there are lots of great folks working on this and it’s a hard climb, but we’ll get there.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Oh it absolutely could. I think the main thing is that a lot of atheist/secularist feminists, many of whom have a completely understandable reason for being angry at religion, need to develop a respectful attitude toward people who choose to remain part of the church. There’s this lack of recognition that the individual is not the institution itself, and choosing to believe in God doesn’t make me complicit in the bullshit. Indeed, I’m still here because I believe I have a role in calling out the bullshit, and accusing me of perpetuating it simply because I believe doesn’t really help.

93W_dXCZDianna E. Anderson hails from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After teaching English in Japan and working as a radio producer in Chicago, she is finishing her second Master’s – Women’s Studies – at Oxford University.

Her first book, Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity, is out now. The book examines the Christian purity movement from the basis of historical and biblical analysis and offers an alternative, shame-free ethic of healthy sexual behavior and sexuality.

Blog: http://diannaeanderson.net/blog/

Twitter: @diannaeanderson

 

Christian Feminist Q & A – Rachel Edge

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name’s Rachel, I’m English, in my late twenties, a Christian and a feminist.

I love anything linguistic (I’m currently studying Norwegian for fun) and I write a bit of poetry, so basically you could say I love words! I live in South London, I work as a project manager in a publishing company; I’m single and I probably spend too much time on Twitter.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I grew up going to church regularly with churchgoing, Christian parents who have always been involved in serving the church, often in things like running the Fairtrade stall or collecting for Christian Aid week. The Church has always felt like my ‘real’ extended family, and I would find it very difficult to imagine my life without it.

I definitely remember being agnostic as a child, but felt called to follow Christ and get baptised when I was 11. Both of my godparents were female leaders!

I’ve never officially renounced that decision but I have definitely had times of doubt, re-evaluation and struggling with faith. I was involved in the fairly evangelical Christian Union at university (naively thinking it was actually a union of all/most Christians and not just evangelicals – but that’s another story!) but I wouldn’t describe myself as evangelical anymore.

I still attend church, though I definitely had a few years of not being that regular following university when I was really struggling to feel at home in church. I still do struggle to some extent, but am slowly getting more involved again, in ways I feel comfortable with.

I’ve attended a range of churches throughout my life, from evangelical to more liberal, but mainly Church of England and Baptist in denomination. I am currently part of to a large, fairly Evangelical-dominated C of E church with a lot of twenty- and thirtysomethings in it, but I enjoy attending more traditional places when I can.

Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I am quite a ‘baby feminist’, but I also think I have always been somewhat feminist-inclined, though I definitely didn’t realise it or have a name to put to it.

In terms of my upbringing, I have been very fortunate to have supportive parents (and grandparents to an extent) who in their quiet way have always supported me in whatever I wanted to do and never impose gendered expectations on me such as finding a husband or focusing on my looks. My parents were the first generation in their respective families to go to university – my mother gained a Master’s degree, in fact – and they have always encouraged me in my love of learning and in pursuing a career, never hassling me about my love life or having children. I know not everyone is that lucky!

I remember hearing a great talk by Rt Rev Graham Cray at the Momentum summer festival in about 2010, which cemented my views on the role of women in church and in leadership. I heard the talk in person in an absolutely packed seminar room, and then later downloaded the recording and re-listened to it, absorbing all of the arguments and examinations of relevant Biblical passages, being relieved that I had this to back up a lot of things I’d sort of felt (or hoped) were right about women in the Church. That is the first time I remember identifying as egalitarian.

I then joined Twitter in 2011 and ended up following, among others, a range of Christians, either via real-life friends or people with similar interests, who identify as feminist. I also discovered Rachel Held Evans’ blog around the same time, which has been a significant influence.

Twitter has been and continues to be a major source of information and interaction for me in learning about feminism – so many articles and links are circulated, so many discussions had on there. Frankly it’s difficult to overstate its influence on my faith AND my feminism. 

Around the same time, Caitlin Moran was becoming quite popular, and I think it was listening the audiobook of her now-infamous How to be a Woman that made me call myself a feminist – not least because she tell her readers to stand on a chair and declare themselves feminist. I didn’t stand on a chair – I was walking down a busy road in Oxford at the time – but I was indeed converted!

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

I have always known and am increasingly more aware that Jesus loved and paid attention to women in his encounters with them in the gospels, so in a sense, no, never.

However, perhaps because of my upbringing, as a girl I was pretty ignorant of feminism and its wider connotations and applications.

I think I was dimly aware growing up that sometimes women in the church did not always obtain official leadership positions, and knew that some people didn’t believe that women ever should, but I don’t remember it being made that overt and I wasn’t feeling called to be a leader so it felt like a secondary issue, on which people could quite happily disagree, to me back then.

For me it has been a case of thinking about and getting to know the character and behaviour of Jesus, believing in God who is love, and finding that it just sounded so like Jesus to be pro-women, even if some parts of the Bible could suggest otherwise about Christianity or the Church.

I mean, on the one hand it’s understandable that people read those famously tricky verses about head coverings, keeping silent in church and not permitting women to teach – and come away with a very traditional, patriarchal view of how women should be at least in church.

However, on the other hand, that is a very literal reading which doesn’t take into account context and culture, which as a linguist I know are important with translated texts particularly. Besides, we as Christians (should) read the Bible to get to know more about God, not so as to ‘learn the rules’ as if it were a textbook. It seems clear to me that there are plenty of accounts of women’s encounters with God that demonstrate that feminism is entirely consistent with the character and heart of God. Jesus came to proclaim freedom to the captives, after all!

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I have definitely signed online petitions, donated to women’s refuges and I regularly share posts about feminist issues and egalitarianism, but I do sometimes wonder if ‘living out’ my feminism can be too easily confined to my online life and whether I should be doing something more ‘in person’ (not that online isn’t real, but that’s another discussion).

Admittedly I am still quite a baby feminist though, and I am currently evaluating what I get involved in in my spare time, so watch this space I guess?

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Although feminism may in many ways be very fashionable and/or have a lot of mainstream attention at the moment, this isn’t necessarily the case within the church. In my experience there isn’t as much crossover between the two as you might think there should be.

For instance, in my church small group we have been studying the book of Esther, and as a result of this I lent Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood to a younger woman in my group who had essentially said she was unsure about egalitarianism. She, like me, is exposed to a lot about mainstream feminism in the media these days, but you really don’t hear about it in church, and I’ve realised that there aren’t enough people passionate about educating the Church about feminism and feminist issues. Maybe that’s what my focus would be.

I’d also like to see more discussions within feminism, maybe particularly Christian feminism, about the challenges facing single and childless women today.

I went to a Women In Leadership network discussion at work and the conversation was entirely about the pressures of coming back to work after childbirth and work-life balance for mothers or parents. This is of course very important, but it wasn’t relatable for me and my colleagues on my team who I’d come with, because we all happen not to have children at the moment. Why not also talk about Impostor Syndrome or something equally universal?

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

I am quite new to it, and it is constantly growing and developing, but I’m not sure that there have been major shifts beyond my initial embracing of the term.

I guess the one thing I would say is that initially I didn’t grasp how widely held patriarchal attitudes were, or how many implications they have. You can start off thinking ‘Okay, so feminism is about how women are equal to men and should be treated as such but aren’t; that’s quite simple’ and in a way it is, but the issues caused by us NOT being equal are far from simple or confined.

It’s not just about votes, parental leave or even big societal changes like that (though they are obviously crucial and central to it). What I didn’t realise then was that feminism affects how I see myself on a day-to-day basis too; what I experience in attitudes of people at work, how I feel about makeup and clothing and food and advertising, how I interact with men and women and the aspirations I have for myself. I think about feminism just as much when I sign a petition or go to vote as when I work in my office and as I help with Sunday school and talk to the children there.

I said before that I have had a fortunate upbringing in that my parents didn’t impose too many gender norms on me and that’s true, but I’ve still internalised a lot of patriarchal ideas that have kept me silent and doubting myself and my abilities and my worth for far too long. I haven’t been a victim of gender-based violence but I have frequently been ignored, belittled, patronised and objectified by men, often without realising it. As a Christian, I see oppression of women and girls as just another way in which the world is fallen/broken, so this makes sense. But I guess I’m still learning how all-encompassing feminism is.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

I’ve been influenced by Caitlin Moran initially (though I don’t particularly follow her now) from the mainstream, non-faith based side, and Rachel Held Evans from the Christian side. Also, honestly, many women I follow and have interacted with on Twitter for years now – Hannah Mudge and Mrs GLW particularly, who I’ve learnt so much from about being women (and mothers) with faith and feminist convictions.

Recently I’ve been really inspired by Esther in the Bible – her bravery in an impossibly oppressive and dangerous situation, her carefulness and wisdom in planning how best to take on the task that fell to her of representing her whole people group. Let’s face it, she was subject to male objectification and state-sanctioned forced marriage – you can’t get much more patriarchal! Reading her book again is fascinating from a feminist perspective. And it’s even greater that it was someone else in my small group who suggested studying it!

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I haven’t had much involvement thus far apart from petitions and donations, so it’s difficult to say really. I get the impression that not all secular feminists would expect a Christian to be ‘able’ to reconcile Christian and feminist views without a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance though! I know that my secular friends’ views of the Church and gender politics are informed by things like the Church of England’s slowness to accept women in the priesthood and episcopacy, too.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Put it this way – I have one male friend who is probably typical of many people from Evangelical circles.

He knows I am a feminist, due mainly to me posting on social media about it, and has teased me about it sometimes, but seems reluctant to discuss it much with me, probably because he doesn’t want to risk upsetting me.

I think he would like to be egalitarian, but I think he also feels that traditional gender roles are most ‘Biblical’, that man should be head of a household, and can’t bring himself to be unfaithful to what he sees as what the Bible clearly says about women. For instance, I think he struggles with the fact that one of the ordained ministers at his church is female, though he freely admits that he sees that she and other Christian women he knows are clearly gifted in leadership. I find that sad, but I think he probably represents many people in that.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

Well, as someone who’s only come to the movement through that, I am obviously indebted to popular feminism of the early 21st century in many ways! It’s so important for older feminists to recognise that many of us wouldn’t be here standing with them without that.

I understand that there is a lot of discontent with the marketisation of the feminist label, and I too get angry that it so often now seems to be cynically and bandwagon-jumpingly adopted by advertisers to try to sell products or services, who can misunderstand, misrepresent and distract from the radical heart of the movement. I appreciate that feminism has a longer history than is often portrayed, and that should be duly acknowledged and learnt from. However, being popular isn’t in itself necessarily bad – it has meant successes like getting sexist advertising removed, thanks to widely-publicised petitions.

I also know that things like Twitter have hugely revolutionised the movement, and brought problems as well as enlightenment. I’m quite pragmatic about it; being a member of another movement, Christianity, allows me to see it in a certain light, i.e. knowing that there will always be internal squabbles and those who seek to exclude, gain power for themselves, persecute or police each other etc.. Feminism should not think itself immune or above it! People are people and people can suck at times. But they don’t always, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t hope or good stuff going on. (Come to think of it, there’s a lot that the feminist movement could learn from the history of Christianity in many ways, really!)

Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church-based feminist or equality-minded groups, projects or organisations?

Not actively as yet, beside Twitter activism, but I intend to do so in future. If I had been older or more aware at the time I would have joined e.g. WATCH and supported the campaign to allow women to become priests and then bishops in the Church of England.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

The difficulty is that it can be so hard to get someone to consider gender equality if they are committed to certain hermeneutical approaches. Often this comes from fear of liberalism, of ‘not taking the Bible seriously enough/holding a high enough view of Scripture’. That’s difficult to tackle – not impossible though.

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

I’m sure there could always be more understanding. I know from my Sociology A-Level that many don’t realise that there are women within Islam who hold to feminist principles, for instance. I think religious literacy in general in this country isn’t what it could be, for sure.

Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

This has given me lots of cause to think through my beliefs, how they manifest themselves (or don’t!) and how feminism has changed me, for which I am very grateful!

It’s also caused me to praise God and thank God for all of the influences I’ve had in my faith and feminism journeys. I hope I can pay that forward somehow.

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Rachel Edge is based in South London and works as a project manager in publishing.

Twitter: @raquelita_e

Christian Feminist Q & A – Jendella Benson

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in London. A lot of my work is focused on telling stories that are under- or misrepresented, and I do a lot of things to do with race, faith, identity, and motherhood. I’m also a wife and new mother.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I’ve been brought up in the church, mainly in Pentecostal-type multicultural churches in the Midlands. I first became a serious Christian when I was about fourteen or fifteen. It’s been a rocky road, but I’m still here. Now I attend a church that I guess falls into the “reformed” bracket, affiliated with the Calvary Chapel group of churches.

I’ve actually had conversations with other feminists about this because I guess many reformed folk, and those associated with Calvary Chapel would consider themselves “complementarian” rather than “egalitarian”, and some wonder how I can reconcile going to a “complementarian” church as a feminist. But that is probably another conversation all together!

Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I was writing about the representation of Black women in British TV and film for my undergraduate dissertation. In my research I came across the work of bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Imani Perry. While I knew about feminism and felt some kind of agreement in theory, in practice I thought that it wasn’t for me. Feminism always seemed very white and middle class and preoccupied with things that I couldn’t directly relate to, or I felt secondary to other concerns. Discovering these black feminist academics introduced me to Black Feminism, or Womanism – and I immediately identified with it.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

As I was reading and researching I saw a natural alliance between the heart of Christianity and the aims of feminism. I even saw a direct connection in the ways that I feel both have been misrepresented or misunderstood. There has never been a conflict for me, only conflicts with other Christians who believe that I should be conflicted.

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I think most of, if not all of my work is a form of activism, because my convictions very much dictate what I do. I don’t think I’ve really pegged my name to one thing in particular other than my project, Young Motherhood, which addresses the myths and stereotypes to do with young mothers and their families in the UK. I think I just generally try to support whatever I can within whatever means I have.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

I guess right now I’m very preoccupied with motherhood and the way that mothers are perceived in society and the burdens placed on them. Even before I became a mum myself I was working on Young Motherhood, and now that I am a mum I’m obviously thinking about it all the time. My new column for Media Diversified is an off-shoot of that.

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

When I first began identifying as a feminist I wanted to help other people, particularly other Christians, understand and empathise and address some of the imbalances and aberrations present in Christianity and churches today. I started a video blog series talking through faith and feminism, I spent a lot of time in conversation with others on- and offline about it. As feminism began to grow in terms of its presence in popular culture I began to feel exhausted by the label. It felt like, and it still feels like to a certain degree, it has become this thing that everyone embraces for cultural brownie points but what they practically do is still very much in the same vein of consumerist, patriarchal, image-conscious, vacuous social norms but it’s still “feminism” because they say it is.

I admit I’m very much exhausted by a lot of the online discourse. I want to see and get in with the folk who do feminism as a practical tangible thing that is making concrete and lasting change. I feel the thing we do nowadays is talk and write think-pieces and argue on Twitter about it. I don’t want to do that anymore. Conversation is definitely important and I’m not disowning the label, I just want to direct my energy towards living out my convictions, rather than just making statements.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

Yes, so, so many. I’m gonna skip the famous headliners and thing on a more personal level: Samantha Asamadu (Media Diversified), Bim Adewunmi (BuzzFeed/The Guardian), Siana Bangura (author/journalist), Florence Adepoju (MDMflow), Obui Amaechi (creative director/powerhouse)…I’m just gonna end up listing all my friends because I see all the things that they face and the way they power through is a constant reminder of strength.

This sisterhood of real life women, not born into privilege or easy means, just living life, loving, supporting, and championing each other is amazing. That’s like grassroots feminism, none of the glossy magazine covers and charming interviews, just the blood sweat and tears of women fighting for their wholeness mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I have been more so previously than right now. I’m somewhat of a recluse at the moment. I think that in circles that I’m in it’s often met with curiosity, particularly because of the cultural variations of Christianity that many Black women have experienced when we start thinking about colonialism and imperialism on top on sexism and misogyny. People are generally quite open though, they can see that I’m an intelligent and thoughtful human being so they are often interested in how I reconcile feminism, Christianity and Blackness.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Oh gosh, I’ve had all sorts. From openness and interest through to thinly veiled insults and feeling ambushed at certain events or discussions. The more negative reactions come from people who don’t know me and that I’m not “in community” with, so while they may be immediately frustrating and upsetting, I soon forget about them.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

Any advancement is a win in terms of activism. I can’t really speak for the current “state of feminism” as I spend a lot of time trying to ignore it all, but I don’t like the cliquishness that seems to set in at times. As if one group of feminists have a monopoly on activism, or causes, or the right way to go about doing things. I also despair at the way that feminism and aspirational consumerism are tied together, as if empowerment comes from purchasing certain things, or projecting a certain lifestyle.

Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church-based feminist or equality-minded groups, projects or organisations?

Only the Christian Feminist Network, really.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

I think we need to think about gender issues in terms of practical needs that need addressing in our respective churches beyond big hypothetical conversations that often happen online. Not saying that these conversations are not needed at all, but I wonder if they’re translating in things that ministering to our communities, particularly the next generation.

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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator.

http://www.jendella.co.uk

http://www.twitter.com/JENDELLA

 

 

Christian Feminist Q & A – Margaret Pritchard Houston

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in the USA – my dad was a civil servant, and my mum was the Children’s Minister at our church. I moved to London in 2005 and was a primary school teacher and theatre workshop leader for a while. The whole time, I was trying to avoid turning into my mum (especially as my older sister is a vicar), but God kept calling me into children’s ministry, so I eventually said, “oh, all right, I guess thy will be done …!” For six years, I was the Children and Families Worker at St. George’s Church in Campden Hill, London, and since January of this year, I’ve been Children’s Mission Enabler for the Diocese of St Albans. I’m also a novelist and writer, and a keen amdram enthusiast. I have one son, Isaac, who died at birth in 2015.

I’m divorced, and planning to have another child through fertility treatment, as a single woman, in the next year or two.  Isaac was conceived via IVF.  I’m open about all of this in church.

Tell  us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I can’t remember not being a Christian. My own experience of faith as a child has been hugely influential on my work.  I grew up in a very politically progressive Episcopal Church, which also had traditional-yet-innovative worship, so those elements have always struck me as “normal.”  We also had infant communion.

Tell me about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

I went to a very feminism-oriented all-girls boarding school from the age of 14, where I actively resisted the “feminist” label, because in the blinkered Utopian world I experienced in the safe environment of that school, where feminism was taken for granted, I thought the fight was over. And at that time, I thought being a feminist meant that thinking women hadn’t achieved anything before 1960, because they had been so oppressed, and I knew that history was richer than that, and women had done amazing things, even within traditional roles.  I adopted the “feminist” label when I went to uni and found myself in a very laddish culture – and also developed a broader view of what feminism was.

Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

The two have always sat very naturally together for me, partly because of the faith community I grew up in. I remember hearing a sermon analysing the Fall and Eve’s curse specifically, which, with great Biblical and Scriptural understanding, argued that the writer of Genesis shows patriarchy – Eve’s curse – not as “ha ha, you got what you deserved!” but as a consequence of the Fall, which estranges us from God and from one another, and shows how Jesus’s relationships with women paint a radical alternative vision. I was about 13 when I heard this, and it was very formative.  Women were in leadership roles in many of the churches I went to, and, given that I was in the Episcopal Church USA, they had been for my whole life, and in the House of Bishops since I was 7

Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

Mostly, my activism is work-based – I wrote a cover article for Childrenswork magazine on gender issues in children’s ministry, and ran a holiday club on the theme of “Bible Heroines.”  I ensure women in Scripture, and female saints, are included in the curriculum, and now as Diocesan Advisor, I plan to continue this on a larger platform – several colleagues and I worked together on putting together a CMD programme for the Diocese that includes feminism in faith as a central issue.

Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

Globally, I’m concerned mostly with education and contraception – and all the associated issues, like forced marriage.  Ensuring that women are educated and have control over when they have children is in many ways a silver bullet for so many other issues. Domestically, I’m concerned with poverty and the austerity agenda, which disproportionately affects women.  I’m also extremely concerned about objectification, sexual bullying, and rape culture – I see this as an issue of great moral concern for Christians, as half of God’s children are being seen as objects, devoid of humanity, who exist for the use of others, not as people in their own right

Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

I’ve become much more aware of the intersection of gender and other factors like ethnicity, religion, class, and so on.

Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

Where do I start?  I know so many wonderful, down-to-earth, witty, Jesus-like women who are ministers in a church that keeps taking them for granted, and their commitment is inspiring.  (For example, the Reverend Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, who once reminded the world that “when someone starts lecturing you about Biblical womanhood, remind them that seducing your enemies and driving a tent spike through their head is a viable option.”)

There are also women from history who inspire me on a daily basis – Dorothy Day, Nellie Bly, Harriet Tubman, Emma Willard, Dorothy L. Sayers, and so many more. Women who did their thing.

In Scripture, I love Mary Magdalene. I feel an affinity with her. She was unapologetically emotional, possibly overshared a bit at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and Jesus didn’t dismiss her as “just another hysterical woman.”  In fact, he chose her to be the first one to be able to tell others about the Resurrection – a very priestly job to do, if you think about it!  He honoured her heart.

I’m also inspired by the traditional feminine imagery of the ancient church, when virtues like wisdom and mercy were embodied as women, as was the church. I think we need to bring that back.

If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I’m not involved at the moment with any specific organizations, but many of my secular feminist friends are very sceptical about the idea that faith can be liberating for women – it’s seen as innately oppressive.

What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

My experience is with the more Traditional wing of the church, not the Evangelical side. I’ve found that in general, people are receptive to many of the ideas, but are uncomfortable with the label of “feminism.” In my experience, the greatest resistance to my presence in leadership, and to the idea of female clergy, comes from the high-church Anglo-Catholic side of the church.

What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I think feminism is now at a crossroads – are we able to expand it beyond being something just for middle-class White women? That’s the big struggle now, and the long-term state of feminism, and of women, will depend on how well we do at that.

What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

I think the church can do better at honouring the importance of what’s traditionally been women’s work.  Work with children and young people is still often dismissed, un-funded, an afterthought, and the first thing to go when budget cuts hit.  This is partly because children are in a position of weakness, and can’t advocate for themselves very well, but I think it’s also because work with children has been seen as “women’s work,” and therefore not as important as the “real work” of being a vicar.

I vividly remember being told by a FEMALE member of the clergy that as a woman, she felt expected to “just do the flowers and the Sunday School,” and while I understand her frustration, her dismissal of Sunday School was telling.  Yes, it’s important to get women into formerly all-male spaces, but it’s also important to recognise the importance of what women have been doing for years.  At the moment, you need a certificate from the Bishop in order to carry and give out the wine at communion, but children’s work can be done with no recognition, no training, and no oversight.  Isn’t discipling children just as important as distributing communion?

Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Yeah, don’t loftily explain to us why our religions – which we know pretty well, actually – are really oppressive of us and we’ll only find freedom when we leave them.  We’re on your side.

13254354_10154892214883508_2929228269960458709_nMargaret Pritchard Houston is the Children’s Mission Enabler for the Diocese of St Albans and the author of There is a Season: Celebrating the Church Year With Children.

http://www.stalbanscme.com

@HoustonMargaret and @stalbanscme

 

Christian Feminist Q & A – Kathleen Jowitt

Today we’re featuring the first in a series of interviews with UK-based Christian feminists about their lives, activism and faith. Our first interviewee is Kathleen Jowitt.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a 30-year-old woman, born in Winchester, brought up in the Welsh borders and, later, the Isle of Wight, and now resident in Cambridge. I work as administrator for a large trade union and write fiction in my spare time. I enjoy walking ­- when I was 21 I walked 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela from Saint­ Palais in France, and I’m planning to do a more full-time­ job ­friendly version next year, starting from Ferrol in the north of Spain.

2. Tell us a bit about your faith background. How long have you been a Christian? Do you attend church and if so, what denomination/church group/expression of church?

I’ve attended church all my life, gravitating most naturally to middle-of­-the­-road Anglican churches with a strong musical tradition, socially liberal values and intellectual preaching. As for when I became a Christian… somewhere between my baptism, a month old, and an abrupt awakening from depression in my first year at university. Over the last decade I’ve become increasingly aware that the Christian life feels, for me, like a constant process of growth in all directions, always discovering new dimensions, and so it feels apt that it all started with a tiny point so far back that I can’t even remember it.

3. Tell us about how you first came to identify as a feminist.

My mother has, since the early nineties, been very active in the normal childbirth movement, so the concepts of empowering women and restoring their bodily autonomy have always been an important theme in my life. Studying English Literature at university gave me an introduction to feminist theory and taught me how to question all sorts of assumptions ­ my own included.

4. Have you ever struggled with perceiving a conflict between your feminism and your faith? Or for you, have the two always naturally sat together? How did you come to reconcile the two?

They’ve always been part of the same thing for me. Recognising and celebrating the inherent and equal worth of all people seems to me to be a central part of the Gospel message, and correcting the imbalances of this world is implied in that. I’m just young enough for there to have been a female priest in every parish I’ve lived and worshipped in, and it always seemed ridiculous to question that when they were clearly doing such a good job.

5. Are you/have you been involved in feminist/gender equality activism or initiatives?

I work for a trade union whose membership is 70% women. I say quite often that a trade union is very much like a Church ­ a group of all­too­fallible human beings doing their best to work together to make the world a better place, and the gender balance looks quite familiar too. Unlike the Church, however, my employer has acknowledged the fact that this, in fact, a problem; has recognised the fact that numbers alone won’t make for equality and has put a strategy in place to ensure that women are represented. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s a start.

6. Which feminist issues would you say are a key focus for you and why?

For me, it all springs from recognising a woman’s autonomy, whether that’s in the physical, mental, social or spiritual sphere. So I care a lot about a woman’s right to dictate what’s done to her body, and by whom, in labour and in general. I care about a woman’s right to education, her right to earn a living. But it all comes back to the fact that a woman is a person in her own right.

7. Has your feminism changed over time? If so, how?

It’s become much less prescriptive. I used to have an idea of what a ‘good feminist’ looked like. Not any more. I’ve come to believe that ideas about what women ‘should’ do are as pernicious coming from a ‘feminist’ perspective as from a ‘conservative’ one. I believe in the rights of women to make their own choices, even where those choices are not those that I would make myself. My Christianity has changed, too: these days I would identify as ‘radical’ rather than ‘liberal’.

8. Are there any particular women (‘famous’ or not) who you consider an influence or inspiration? What about women in scripture?

Lots. Say what you like about the internet, sometimes it’s easier to picture the Kingdom of Heaven online, and I’ve met some amazing women there, some Christian, some not. In scripture and church history ­ Mary the mother of Jesus, and her revolutionary Magnificat. Deborah, the Judge. I’m intrigued by the women Paul mentions, almost in passing, in his letters; I’d love to know what context we’re missing there. The female mystics of the Middle Ages, pursuing their own relationships with God in the face of a bemused and occasionally hostile male establishment. Julian of Norwich is my favourite.

9. If you’re involved in the secular feminist movement, how do you think being a Christian feminist is viewed, in general? What experiences have you had?

I get the impression that there’s a default assumption that being Christian and being anything other than socially conservative are mutually exclusive. Non ­Christian friends and colleagues who have known me long enough to know that I’m Christian and a feminist seem to think of me as an exception to the rule. Which is depressing.

10. What attitudes towards feminism have you experienced from other Christians and the church?

Varied! Sometimes, it’s a given: it’s accepted that the Church has failed women, and continues to fail women, and that this is something that should be addressed. Sometimes, I meet bewilderment, misunderstanding, a polite refusal to believe it’s necessary! I was driven to incoherent rage the other day by an article about abortion that blithely began ‘here are some things we can all agree on’. I agreed with none of it.

11. What do you think about the current ‘state of feminism’? The last decade has seen the movement gain higher profile again and we’ve seen a lot of successful activism. What’s your take on it all?

I feel as if we’re heading in the right direction, though there’s definitely a backlash. I think that more voices are making themselves heard. We need to hear them, because the more success we have the more tempted we’ll be to think the job’s done. It won’t be ­ not in my lifetime, and maybe not this side of the Second Coming. Which is not an excuse to stop trying ­- quite the reverse.

12. Are you/have you previously been involved in any specific Christian/church­based feminist or equality-­minded groups, projects or organisations?

Yes – ­ largely groups working for greater LGBT acceptance. I’ve stepped back from many of those, though, having been frustrated by a) the continual bisexual erasure; b) the focus on ordination and marriage, to the exclusion of the lay experience and a more radical approach to sexuality. Sometimes it feels as if the so­-called LGBT Christian movement isn’t interested in you unless you’re a middle­-aged gay man who’s ordained, or wants to be. The conversations that I’m interested in having don’t seem to be happening, or, if they are, I haven’t found them yet.

13. What do you think the church could do better on in terms of gender issues? Are there any particular issues you would like to see more of a focus on?

At the moment, I’m immensely frustrated by the preoccupation with marriage and couplehood, both in the Church and in society. I’d like to see less of a focus on relationships and more acknowledgement of women as individuals. I’d like to see the Church admit to the damage that’s been done by its insistence on marriage as the only permissible sexual expression for women.

14. Could the secular feminist movement do more to be inclusive of women of faith? If yes, what do you think might help?

Yes, probably… but feminism is such a multiplicity of views that it’s a difficult question to answer. I think that all of us need to think harder, to move beyond the obvious narratives and see each other as fellow humans.

15. Please feel free to add anything else you’d like to say!

I’ll finish with a quotation from Helen Keller ­ an amazing woman, and so much more than an inspirational story.

‘Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.’

KJpicKathleen Jowitt is the author of Speak Its Name, a novel about student politics and reconciling religious and sexual identities. She lives in Cambridge.

www.kathleenjowitt.com

Twitter: @KathleenJowitt