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