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