Finding my identity as a Christian woman (part two)

Friday, 14 August 2009

This is probably going to be a long one. Sorry.

2007 was the year I got married. It was also the year I hit an all-time low in terms of my identity as a Christian woman. Having struggled for several years with other personal issues I had finally left them behind and was eager to get more involved in church now that I had a permanent base nearby and had 'settled down'. Going back full-time to the church that we'd only attended occasionally for three years was an 'interesting' experience. At the time there were only two young, married, childless couples in the church and although we tried hard, we found it hard to fit in with the older couples who were the same age as our parents and grandparents, or the couples a decade older than us who had young children. Aside from the friendship aspect of church, I was again becoming increasingly uneasy with male-only leadership and its implications for women who felt called to lead or preach. By late 2007 our attendance was again sporadic and unenthusiastic. In early 2008 our church network's magazine published an interview with Mark Driscoll and it made me so angry I couldn't stop thinking about it for days. Why? I won't go into much detail here but if you search for info on him you'll probably find out. Just as a taster, here he is explaining why stay-at-home dads are an issue worthy of church discipline (it's hard to 'respect' them as men, apparently) and this Facebook group gloriously details his most misogynist quotes. At the time I had just been a steward at the very first Million Women Rise march and it disgusted me to find out more about his views.

Since I was 18 I'd been attending various festivals and conferences put on by Soul Survivor, an organisation whicvh runs events for young Christians of all backgrounds and denominations. Something I'd always loved about Soul Survivor and its '18-30' incarnation, Momentum, is that you'd come into contact with so many different church groups, styles of teaching and messages over the course of a week. Women preach on the main stage there. They lead mixed-gender seminars. Looking back on personal journal entries from this time I can see I was incredibly worried that the meek, passive, docile, unopinionated stereotype of (complementarian) 'Biblical Womanhood' was just not me and that, not being able to change this, I would be forever on the outside when it came to serving God. It was at Momentum that I attended some seminars hosted by two incredibly inspirational women who changed my outlook on my identity.

Social justice is one of my passions and on arriving at Momentum I immediately decided I was going to attend a seminar called 'Global Women', hosted by Elaine Storkey. Thinking that I might be on to a good thing with Elaine Storkey, I decided to go to one of her other talks - 'Faith in a Pluralist Society'. I took away so much from these sessions. In her talk on faith and society, Elaine stressed the importance of people of different faiths working together for the common good and why state-imposed religion is a bad thing. In the other session she discussed women and poverty, gendered violence, maternal mortality, selective abortion/infanticide of female children and the environment. It was fascinating and I came away so happy to have heard such an inspiring and passionate woman speak. On returning home I looked into more of Elaine's writings online and found a great extract from one of her books which spoke to me so much. I could really relate to much of what it said about women being marginalised, given 'low status' jobs within the church and made the target of subtly sexist jokes from the pulpit (link at the end of the post).

The second inspiring encounter I had that week was with Jo Saxton. We'd heard Jo preach on the main stage that week and when I saw that she was hosting a seminar entitled 'Equipping Female Leaders' I knew I had to go. The seminar room was packed. Jo started off by explaining that the session was aimed at young women involved in/hoping to be involved in all aspects of leadership, whether that was in the church, the workplace, university or the home. She then asked us if we'd ever had a bad experience due to being a female who was gifted in leadership. Hands went up around the room. One young woman talked of how an elder at her church had told her she had a 'Jezebel spirit' because she'd told him she felt called to lead. Another told us that other women at her church had said she'd 'never find a man with an attitude like that'. The room was full of young women who had been hurt by words like this spoken over them to put them down.

Jo trains emerging female leaders - she'd heard a lot of this before. Over the next hour she talked about problematic theology and interpretations of the Bible which are often used to deny women rights within the church. The very first point she made was on the word 'helper'. That word which had worried me for so long. The word which is translated from the Hebrew 'EZER', used in the line The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18, NIV). In Jo's blog post on the subject, she talks about how this often makes women feel:
For some, the heartbreak just deepens with the feeling that women were set on earth soley to compliment, help, make a man look better. They feel as though it meant they had no contribution of their own to bring. At times suitable has been exchanged for lifesaver, one who brings out the best in their partner. Which doesn’t sound bad at all really. Unless you are single. Then what’s your purpose? Are you a nobody because you didn’t get married?
Jo explained how the word 'ezer' is used many times in the Bible, often to refer to God as He helps people. At other points it can be translated as 'protector', 'defender' and 'strength'. Moving on to the word for 'suitable' - 'KENEGDO', she talked about how it translates as 'facing' or 'standing alongside' - as an equal. As I've seen it described somewhere else, a power corresponding to a man.

For the rest of the seminar Jo talked about issues within other books of the Bible. Another thing I took from this was her explanation of the Greek for 'submit' as it is used in the New Testament to refer to wives, which translates as 'behave responsibly, show courtesy, be united, have respect'. I came away from the seminar feeling as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. For so long I had felt genuinely upset at the connotations of such words. To me they siginifed inferiority, silence, being restricted and belittled. I'd seen them mentioned in blog posts urging wives not to expect husbands to help with housework and childrearing 'because that's not his role', or articles denouncing the women's rights movement as 'contrary to God'. To see them from a different perspective made all the difference. In the summer of 2008 my husband (also an egalitarian) and I started attending a different church in our city. At first I was very unsure when it came to making new friends and connecting with people. I wondered if I would feel the same as I had before - like I didn't 'fit in'. Thankfully things are much different. Our church has women in leadership and management. Women preach on a Sunday to a mixed congregation. As I've got to know women in the church I see them being encouraged and raised up according to their strengths. As a couple and individually we've made a lot of friends with people of different age groups and I don't feel worried about speaking my mind, airing opinions or being myself.

I know it's not a requirement that your fellow Christians accept all your opinions but it puts me so much more ease to feel I can speak up about my politics, my convictions, my interests and my career and not be judged negatively. Over the past year the feelings I had in the past have virtually disappeared. I respect the fact that all Christian women have very different personalities but know that we may not always feel at home together - I don't think you can expect anything different. Unfortunately a lot of Christians have a certain view of feminist women - that they hate men, hate children and hate stay at home mothers/women who do not have jobs. This couldn't be further from the truth and it saddens me when I hear someone denouncing feminism in this way. I'm still outraged when I read certain blogs or websites or hear certain views being aired but my personal journal is no longer full of concern about how these could impact me. God gifts women in many different ways and I feel this should be acknowledged. In the Bible, there are many examples of strong women who lead, preach and are important figures. Whatever I may feel called to do in the future, it makes me happy to know this.

Further reading:
Elaine Storkey on women and the church
An article on Evangelical Feminism
The Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a complementarian organisation which represents the opposite views on gender and Christianity to my own.

Finding my identity as a Christian woman (part one)

Thursday, 13 August 2009

I want to do two posts on this subject. Finding my identity and becoming proud to be a Christian AND a feminist was something which took a long time for me. It caused a lot of pain and made me really struggle with accepting myself. I've never been able to find too much on this subject in the blogosphere so thought I would tell my story here. It's pretty personal but I feel it may be helpful to some people and provide insight.

Gender issues and the church were never something I thought about very much when younger. In fact there are only three incidents which stand out, the first being my mum's reaction when it was decided that women could be ordained in the Church of England: 'It's about time!'. The second was a bit of a fuss at church one week because one (female) member of the congregation refused to take communion from a woman and the third was hearing that a (male) teacher at my school had become a Catholic due to his disagreement with the ordination of women. I wasn't the sort of teenager (and I don't expect there are many teenagers like this anyway) to delve deeply into scripture and theological issues; when I started attending a different church at the age of 18 the fact that there were no women in leadership positions there was not something I noticed. I was part of the youth group and so was never in the main meeting to hear the sermon so if they had ever dealt with gender issues, I wouldn't really have known.

All this changed when I went to university and joined the Christian Union, again something I hadn't really researched into and naïvely assumed was a group for all denominations and types of Christians. As it turned out, the CU was part of the UCCF and composed solely of evangelical students. Knowing what I do now I would not want to be involved with the UCCF if I was to go back to uni, but i digress. As you can imagine there was a lot of emphasis on relationships - often, I felt, to the point of obsession. But then that's not uncommon in an organisation made up primarily of 18-21 year olds. At a seminar on relationships I heard, for the first time, the concept of the woman as 'helper', in submission to men and also the 'equal but different' mantra which always has and always will unfortunately remind me of Separate But Equal.

It was clear to me that the 'woman as helper' idea was very important to the CU in the context of relationships and marriage. It wasn't long, however, before I started to feel completely disillusioned with what I was hearing. I had started going to a church in my university city - part of the same group of churches as my home church. One Sunday, a woman who was being welcomed into the church was giving her testimony and talked about the fact she had had to overcome her belief that women could preach or be in leadership and that she now knew this belief was incorrect. I was deeply confused. I didn't understand why it was incorrect or why the woman had to change her beliefs. At this stage in my life I was starting to become interested in feminism but my thoughts on the matter extended to little more than a rejection of 'raunch culture' and 'I think men and women should be equal in all things'.

So I went home and started looking into it all. I discovered that the church movement I had been part of for a year did not permit women to hold leadership positions on their own or preach to men. I read into the reasons for this and what various people thought about the matter. For the first time I found the terms 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' (I hadn't yet looked into Christian Feminism). I knew that I fell on the 'egalitarian' side of the debate but it began to worry me. Was I wrong to feel this way? Did it mean I was going against scripture? As it happened, I was dealing with other personal issues at the time and these worries ended up taking a back seat for a couple of years. I moved around a lot for university, college and work so my attendance at church was sporadic and I never really settled into one place. I had decided not to continue attending the church I had first found at university for a number of reasons. I often went to church with my fiancé when I went to visit him at university, but again I felt very unsettled there - almost as if I didn't fit in. I started to get the feeling that the church was not for women like me.

I must stress that this experience came from attending CU meetings and two churches while I was a student/young adult. When I use the term 'women like me', I mean that I felt my personality and interests were out of place somehow. The people I encountered in these years seemed to fit a certain mold which I did not. I met some lovely people but at the same time i frequently felt uncomfortable, as if I couldn't be myself. My faith was not affected - I knew I was a Christian and nothing would change that, but I began to feel increasingly ill-at-ease in church. It didn't help that in searching for enlightenment on the issue, I had come across many hardline complementarian websites and blogs which I found made me angry and upset. There was much talk of 'the poison of feminism'. Since feminism had recently impacted my life in a huge way (for the better, I might add), it did nothing to help me out. All this probably came to a head in 2007, when I was newly-married and definitely identified as a feminist.

What happened next will be detailed in Part Two.

Teaching children that domestic violence is bad is...bad?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Words can hardly express how much rage this piece in today's Daily Mail has caused me. Throughout today I've seen a number of disgusted Tweets from people who, like me, just can't believe what they're reading. I know it's too much to expect that the Mail (for some reason, the most popular newspaper with female readers) might one day believe in equality for all and I could write a post every day about the latest anti-woman tripe featured on its website but this is truly horrendous:
Pupils as young as five will be taught about the evils of 'wife beating' and the need to form healthy relationships.

The lessons are part of a controversial drive, unveiled today, to reduce violence against women and young girls.

They will include teaching boys that they must not beat their partners or any other female.
And this is a bad thing, HOW exactly? As if we couldn't have guessed what was going to come next, the Mail dishes out its usual dose of 'what about the poor menz?!':
... the new classes will not cover violence against men, who are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime

Despite the fact that 89 per cent of people who experience repeat incidents of domestic violence are women, despite the fact that two women are killed every week by a male partner or former partner, despite the fact that one in four women will experience domestic violence and that it accounts for between 16 per cent and one quarter of all recorded crime, the Mail reckons schools shouldn't teach children that it's wrong, clearly because it's part of an insidious feminist agenda which wants to see men removed from society altogether.

The story goes on to point out that 'young women are becoming more aggressive', a point which seems to have been picked up by several people commenting to say something along the lines of 'men are more likely to be attacked by women now anyway', as if this makes domestic violence perpetrated by a man somehow more acceptable or forgivable.

With classic DM vitriol, it continues:
In a document peppered with the language of Miss Harman's equalities-agenda, the Government says the first ever Violence Against Women and Girls strategy is in production by departments across Whitehall, and will be published this autumn.

It declares: 'Our vision is a society where women and girls feel safe and confident in their homes and communities so that they can develop fully, live freely, contribute to society, and prosper in their daily lives. We want to overcome women's and girls' fear of crime and the gender-based violence that they experience.'
I'm not sure why it's so outrageous that a politician should desire that half the population live freely and prosper; all we need now is a reference to 'feminism going too far'. Jill Kirby of the Centre For Policy Studies helpfully weighs in with:
'It is young men who are most likely to be the victims of violent crime. It is a distortion to suggest otherwise. It appears that everything must be viewed through the prism of 1960s feminism.'
Oh no! Not 1960s feminism! And so endeth yet another woman-hating story from the Mail (sadly they failed to tick all the usual boxes as I don't think 'bra-burning' was mentioned but I'm sure this was just an accidental omission). I haven't read through all the comments because the selection I read earlier this morning made me so angry that I couldn't carry on. More on Harriet Harman and what she's been up to this week this week here and here.

Noughtie Girls

Monday, 3 August 2009

I haven't read Ellie Levenson's The Noughtie Girl's Guide To Feminism, the recently-published tome which has caused so much debate across the blogosphere and the press. To be honest, reading about it before it was published put me off and having read through subsequent posts and discussions I don't feel any more inclined to. So what I'm about to say is informed entirely by reviews, interviews and articles. It's ok though, I've been following it all with great interest and am not going to make anything up. It's not so long since I posted about infighting in the feminist blogsphere and got quite cross about the fact that 'people are still arguing over what a 'feminist wedding' looks like or whether a woman who considers herself a feminist should wear makeup' when feminism should be focused on real change and helping women. I've seen so much written this year about the dilemma of being a feminist who wants to get married that I don't think I can take it any more (conclusion: it's ok to get married if you're a feminist, just make sure you make a point of telling everyone just how feminist your wedding was and just how feminist your marriage now is, using detailed examples. No really, I think some sort of points system for feminist weddings could be devised - this could be a whole new blog post). Anyway, it's a point I've seen echoed by others in their response to the book - over in the comments at Levenson's CiF piece, 'Barbie can be a feminist too':

'What's that you say? Women in Northern Ireland can't get abortions? Well I don't care honey, all I want is the right to buy Chanel suits and still call myself a feminist!'

And again at the Subtext blog:

'This obsession with the appearance of feminists - that is so endlessly touted by the mainstream media in their re-imagining of a feminist now deviating from their original construct of the hairy pitted, man-hater, to their fresh “noughties” construct of girls gone wild, fragrant and fashion friendly - is a distraction from the movement, and a distraction from the real point of being a feminist.

It disables feminist activists by reducing them once again to eye candy, to hot or not, for their worth to be counted on their looks in relation to their willingness to conform to social norms of beauty.

This in particular highlights the way certain values still manage to creep back into opinions on feminism - that if a woman is not considered conventionally attractive, her worth is automatically diminished. By trotting out all the old stereotypes about feminists being 'man haters' and 'bra burners', making feminism more about 'choice' than anything else and repeatedly bringing feminism back to discussions about high heels and shopping, it seems that the book is promoting 'feminism' to just a small percentage of women, those who have the privilege of being able to make their lives all about 'choice' because they have degrees and jobs and plenty of disposable income and far less oppression to face than the majority. And that's before you get to the outrageous statements on rape. It's ok girls, you can believe in women's rights AND conform to 21st century Western beauty standards at the same time! Who knew, right?!

Debate about the book has taken the form of some really interesting articles and reviews (in addition to those linked above):

Time for a good scrap about what our feminism really is
One of two reviews up at The F Word
The second F Word review

If anyone reading this has seen any other interesting discussions about this happening I would appreciate links! I know a lot of people who, while agreeing wholeheartedly with many of my opinions on women's issues, would never call themseleves feminist and when asked why, come up with reasons involving stereotypes about bra-burning and hairy legs. I wonder if the book would have any impact or be of interest, what impression it would make on someone who's new to feminism...

This brings me back to an (old but good) post over at I Blame The Patriarchy which has a lot to say about 'The New Feminism' we've heard so much about from the 'Lifestyle' sections of the papers in recent months. Read and enjoy.

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