In the past fortnight I’ve found my thoughts wandering a lot around my place in the world as a woman and the discrimination that women face just because they are born female. There was International Women’s Day, Mother’s Day and the massive outcry about violence against women raised by the murder of Sarah Everard. I also happen to be listening to a few different podcasts recently where gender inequality and women in leadership, particularly in faith settings, has been a hot topic.
To be truthful I’ve found some of what I am reading and listening to a little jarring and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think in part it’s because I feel that some of the rhetoric that is used to supposedly promote women’s issues actually place us so so firmly in the camp of victims that it actually, unintentionally even more disempowering.
There are a number of issues in relation to what I’m seeing and hearing about ‘gender inequality,’ that I’m mulling over in my mind. I feel I want to explore and write about them but for some reason I’m struggling to articulate those thoughts here in the written word. Written words can be flung into the world so easily now a days through social media and mediums such as this. However I believe that the written word can be so powerful for good and ill that if I’m going to write on such an emotive and for some painful subject I want my words to be useful and constructive and add value to the debate and that is not always an easy task. And so for the moment I’ll keep talking and asking questions and listening and mulling.
Having said all that one thing that has shone clearly in my mind these past few days is that although gender inequalities have played more of a role in my life than I had first thought I’ve also been privileged to live beyond those obstacles that could have held me back as a person of female gender.
I was raised by parents who were both church ministers in a denomination where women have been allowed to be ministers since its inception in 1865. My mum has been and continues to be a preacher and pastor and I grew up with that being normal. My dad died when I was just coming up 20 but I don’t remember him ever discouraging me not to do something because I was a girl – I clearly remember climbing up cliffs on holiday to find signs telling us we shouldn’t have been there and chatting about how the gospels came into being when I couldn’t have been much older than ten.
As a young teen I played Rugby with the boys at school and at a club. I played in the brass band at my local Salvation Army church and in the Yorkshire Divisional Youth Band. I studied Maths and Physics at A- Level. All of these things were male dominated and yes my friend Emma and I had to push to be allowed to play Rugby at school but in none of the other areas despite the gender imbalance of numbers was I given any impression that as a woman I was unwelcome or deficient.
At The University of Sheffield I studied for a BA in Biblical Studies under a number of male and female Drs and Professors whose interests and research was wide ranging. Some had strong faith and some were evangelical atheists. One of the modules I took was led by Professor Cheryl Exum on the topic of ‘The Bible and Gender’. As a nineteen year old christian woman it was a shocking and challenging course as I was presented with views on how the Bible portrays women that I had never considered. And maybe more importantly how the Bible has been interpreted and presented to portray women through history. To this day I still can’t agree with some of what I was being taught but it was an invaluable eye opener to a topic that has advanced much further in thinking over the past twenty years.
After Uni I worked for a few years in the civil service as a PA and was privileges during my time there to work for three ‘high flying’ women. They were all quite different in style and personality but each incredibly gifted. It was so educational to work closely with them, support them to do their jobs well and also be given regular opportunities to contribute my own thoughts to policy development and ministerial papers. And I’ve gone on to work in a number of different contexts with talented gifted people of both genders.
I studied for my Masters in Pastoral Theology at a Jesuit College which you might be forgiven for thinking was not a great place for a woman to be, but it was an amazing spiritual place to be. The course encouraged a conversation between reality of people’s life experiences, the Bible and the Churches wisdom of the ages; exploring what God has to say through all three into our current situations, a conversation so incredibly important as we reflect on the place of women in our churches, our communities, our workplaces, our families and our world.
As I write I’ve felt so burdened that I don’t want to come across naive about the realities of discrimination the women have and still face; or ignore the horrific violence and oppression experience by women in far too many counties that is considered the norm. Some of the statistic of sexual assault and domestic violence that have been appearing in the news this week for our own country are sobering.
I’m also aware that on a much lesser scale I’ve not been immune – reflecting back on my own life has highlighted more areas of discrimination than I was aware of. I’m currently wrestling with the reality that decent part time jobs that pay well and use my brain and experience and fit with childcare are hard to come by!!
But I also wanted to reflect and celebrate all the opportunities I’ve been given to live beyond those things that could have held me back as a woman and I thank God there have been many. I’m thankful that I have a husband who wants to support me to be the best that I can be and a church that not only has some amazing women in its leadership team but is also publicly speaking up and into issues of discrimination across the board.
As I continue to listen, reflect and explore these issues with others I pray that God will guide me as to where I need to repent, speak and act to show his universal unconditional love for all He has created.