Theological conferences and inclusivity: a conversation

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Earlier this week I received a comment on a post written four years ago - part of a conversation that sparked a huge debate and, I believe, was a catalyst for a strengthening of women's voices in the Christian blogosphere. At the time I wrote Female Christian bloggers: a rare breed? it was frequently assumed that any Christian blogger worth reading was a man. Men wrote about serious and meaty topics; women's blogs didn't really count as Christian blogs when the rankings of 'top bloggers' got published because they tended to write more about daily life and stay away from heated theological debates.

In 2011 I argued that the voices of Christian women were not absent online, but marginalised. Regarded as less serious than their male counterparts, often lacking in confidence about their knowledge and gifts, and - thanks to online abuse towards women and the unpleasant atmosphere below the line - less willing to engage in debate, Christian women were certainly writing, but were overlooked.

Looking back, I'm proud that the conversations sparked by my post and by Lesley's contributed to many more women beginning to make their voices heard and particularly to speak out against misogyny in the church. Just this week I saw Rachel Held Evans referred to as the 'leader' of progressive Christians online. While I don't really know what I think of that statement, it's evident that four years on from my observation that just 19 out of 122 blogs on a particular Christian blog aggregator were written by women, things have changed - and that's a good thing.

Make no mistake, however - the digital world may be somewhat more inclusive than in 2011, but the church has a long way to go. This week, Christian leaders and teachers have gathered in Bedford for the THINK conference, an opportunity to work through 1 Corinthians in depth in the company of like-minded individuals. I'd seen the conference advertised earlier in the year and while it looked interesting, I had assumed that as someone not in formal church leadership, it was not 'for me'. It was a shame, I thought, because there are so very few conferences that do that sort of work.

On seeing a picture of the first day of the conference posted on Twitter, and what appeared to be a room full of white male delegates, I asked whether anyone I knew was attending, and if so, were any women present? Over the last two years I've been involved in an initiative raising awareness of the way Christian conferences exclude women both as speakers and as delegates. Project 3:28 has led to some helpful and productive conversations with event organisers who are open to understanding how conferences exclude women and who want to set a positive example. I did not believe that the THINK conference would explicitly be off limits to women, but as a conference out of the NewFrontiers stable, I was interested to see if women were involved.

Another friend of mine confirmed that she had attended THINK in 2014 and that she was the only woman there.
To many, this could seem strange. If a person is treated in a kind and friendly way when attending an event even as an outsider, what's the problem? The problem is the insecurity that comes with being a woman in an all-male space, coupled with (generally) differing ways of engagement, which is often down to socialisation. Women tend to learn from a young age that they're expected to be quiet and take a back seat while men dominate in group settings. It's the reason why women only space is so valuable, and it's one of the key things men can work on in terms of being more inclusive.

We've had a number of years now to observe, in the digital realm, the combative way that men often engage with theology and their opinions about the church. In an atmosphere that is frequently not a safe space for women thanks to theological and/or cultural beliefs that mark us out as somehow inferior, and considering the struggles with impostor syndrome and lack of confidence that women often face, it's no wonder that somewhere like the THINK conference could make a woman feel uncomfortable. Particularly - as Hannah pointed out - when the conference is hosted by a group of churches known for making complementarianism a distinctive.

The challenge for the organisers of events such as THINK is to make them inclusive. I was intrigued to learn that as a small group leader, as someone who works for a Christian organisation, the conference would not have been off limits to me. Hannah and I agreed that it would be encouraging to go to such an event knowing that other women would be there - knowing, as a result, that the organisers saw it as more than a boys' get-together, a meeting of an inner circle. As part of Project 3:28 I have discussed the practical ways organisers can make conferences accessible to women - inviting women who they feel would benefit from an event, being understanding about childcare arrangements and facilities, and making clear that when 'leaders' are mentioned that this means women too.

David Capener, who has only recently become an acquaintance of mine on Twitter, was quite right to point out that the photo we'd seen of the event gave the impression everyone in attendance was white. It's all too easy for church leadership to remain homogeneous as people of influence  - unintentionally or otherwise - seek out and raise up others who are just like them. Together with Phil Whittall we agreed that diversity must be aimed for, but David suggested that he believed things are unlikely to change within the next decade.

David, Phil and I have agreed to continue a blog conversation about this, and I'm excited and thankful that they've been open to engagement on how conferences like THINK can be more accessible and open to those who may genuinely benefit, even though they don't fit the 'mold' of a traditional elder.

Searching for Sunday: motherhood, guilt and disillusionment

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

via Wikimedia Commons
I spent my teenage years dedicated to the music department at my Fenland comprehensive school. Choir, orchestra, string quartet, vocal ensemble, recorder group. Local music festivals, county-wide choir days, youth orchestra every Saturday and umpteen church fêtes. We were a partner school of Cambridge University, and so it happened that every December, we'd pile into a minibus and he'd drive us to Cambridge, the Head of Music leading a gaggle of girls over the Backs and to King's College chapel, where we'd sit, awestruck, alongside fellow music geeks of Cambridgeshire, and listen to a special performance of Carols from King's; without the TV cameras, without the crowds of people queuing from breakfast time to try to get a seat. Just 20 or so teenage girls high on sugar from vending machine sweets, on the lookout for nice male undergraduates in the choir, with a slightly harassed middle-aged man known as 'Mr C'.

I'd sit and listen to those performances absolutely rapt. The hush, the stillness and sense of anticipation in the chapel always contrasting with the grey murkiness of the December day as we stepped back outside shrieking once more and looking about, furtively, for attractive men (think of my choir, circa 1999, a bit like Alan Warner's Sopranos - minus the nuns and delinquency, instead intensely bothered about their GCSE results). Something got to me every time and it's something that's always happened with old churches and chapels, something I ceased to think about very much as I moved into adulthood, attending church in a school hall, a football stadium, a tent, a conference centre and finding that God could show up in any of them, as well as in seminars on Celtic mysticism, in halls of residence at one in the morning, in fields at dusk and on a mountain in a hailstorm.

I recently finished reading Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans' new book about 'loving, leaving and finding the church'. As I read the final chapters, highlighting paragraphs and having laughed, cried and nodded along with Evans' experiences as a member of a most difficult generation, - a generation that's the subject of research and anguish and umpteen thinkpieces - I felt as if I'd reached a turning point and was ready to do something I haven't been able to do for three years. I say I haven't been able to do it - I've alluded to it and vaguely explored it - but have intentionally refrained from writing because the reality has been something I've been wrestling with, and all along I've felt as if this isn't something I could write about in the midst of so much turmoil.

And so instead, I've emailed people. I've engaged in lengthy Twitter conversations and poured my heart out to friends. I've been angry and I've felt full of shame and I've felt relief and happiness when people have said 'Me too'. Because for three years I've been searching for Sunday, and I've come to the conclusion that right now it's probably not what I should be doing, nor is it what's most helpful.

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I'd left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn't zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you're insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn't mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it. 

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I've had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert's brain doesn't do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I've longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I've been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I've felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I'd stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn't the right thing to do. But I've still expected something - and when I've failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I've felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I'm not 'on board' and don't even want to be, apprehensive because I've been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman. The fear of raising issues with church is real. The fear of raising issues with church as a woman takes things up a level because you know that somewhere, someone will listen to you pour your heart out and then put you in a box marked 'women's issues', 'over-emotional', 'Jezebel spirit'.

via cassidy @ Flickr
On Christmas Eve last year the three of us went to the afternoon service of lessons and carols at the cathedral. Arriving with half an hour to spare, the building was already packed and we ended up sitting off to one side, behind a pillar. A hush fell over the congregation as the lone voice began to sing, the long wait of Advent reaching its end. After the first carol, the choir sang This Is The Truth Sent From Above, something I hadn't heard for years. For a moment I remembered a bleak day and King's College Chapel, and as I sat and watched I felt, for the first time in a long time, what it is like to worship. At the close of the service, as we sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing, I wanted to raise my hands rather than sit down and sigh, disengaged again.

Traditional forms of church aren't new to me; I grew up in the Church of England. Rachel Held Evans and others have written of a 'trend' that's being observed, of millennials rejecting new churches and falling in love with liturgy. Some people are regarding this with a bit of cynicism: is it truly a trend, or the confirmation bias of a few bloggers with book deals in their sights? Maybe, and yet when Evans writes "All I wanted from church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be," I get it. Last summer, I felt as if I was about to become a 'done', but I wasn't sure. My faith hasn't gone anywhere, and deep down, I knew that become a 'done' wasn't the answer.

A couple of weeks ago when I was discussing all this with friends on Twitter, I said I was finally ready to write about it - this internal battle that's hindered my writing about faith for at least two years now. I wanted to write about it because I know that at the start of all this, I felt so alone. I felt as if I knew what would happen if I ever broached the subject. In early 2014 I wrote an impassioned response to a pastor who had blogged about what he thought were 'five really bad reasons to leave a church'. "Put away the shopping cart and pick up a shovel," he admonished Christians, accusing those who have struggles with the church of being lazy consumerists. That post came out of my fear of raising those same issues and getting those same, dismissive answers - or as Rachel Held Evans described in Searching for Sunday, a desire to find a quick fix and restore everything to the joyful, smiling norm:

"...what they find is when they bring their pain or their doubt or their uncomfortable truth to church, someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try to fix it, to try and make it go away. Bible verses are quoted. Assurances are given. Plans with ten steps and measurable results are made. With good intentions tinged with fear, Christians scour their inventory for a cure.

But there is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another's pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome."

And so, over the past couple of years, I've been thankful for those who have come not with an answer but who have said "I know" or "My wife felt exactly the same" or "Me too" and made me realise I wasn't alone. I don't think we talk about it enough; we keep quiet because it rocks the boat and upsets people and makes us seem selfish and complaining.

What do I think churches can do? You can support mothers of young children but not just mothers of young children, really - the disillusioned and the anxious and the people who have big plans that don't fit with your vision. Look out for the people who are just standing there on a Sunday, zoned out, looking uncomfortable, not looking joyful like I know you want them to. You can remember that we don't have the time and the headspace to give you more and more and buy into your latest strategy, but also that we still exist and that we want opportunities and role models - and that we are still striving to grow in our faith. You can provide pastoral support that makes people feel they can be open, not apprehensive about speaking up. You can refrain from publishing blog posts that call people who have issues with the church selfish consumer Christians.

And what if you're reading this and thinking "This is me"? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you're at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn't mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

Click here for my Storify of a conversation on Twitter mentioned in this post

The nagging wife: symptom or cause?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The 'nagging wife' is a centuries-old stereotype that refuses to die. She's the subject of eye-rolling banter between men, the warning from the pulpit and the marriage guidance book, the defence of countless men who have committed murder. In recent weeks, she has resurfaced as a truly 21st century reminder to women that there's something else they're probably not doing well enough at - in the form of a piece entitled 'I wasn't treating my husband fairly, and it wasn't fair'.

The post, which appears to have gone viral in the grand tradition of 'pseudo-meaningful revelations about my relationship that easily translate into clickbait' (247,000 shares on Facebook), details a wife's realisation that her controlling and obsessive attitude to household matters was belittling her husband and buying into another hard-to-stamp-out stereotype - that of the 'useless' husband who can't be trusted to do a thing around the house.

Thousands upon thousands of women have apparently recognised themselves in this tale and I don't think she's entirely wrong. I've heard her tale in conversations in the office or on nights out with friends. 'Wife always knows best' - 'happy wife, happy life' - I've heard people say it and I've most definitely seen them post it on Facebook (there is a theme here. Facebook has a lot to answer for). And I don't buy into it because, really, what does it say when the only words that come out of your mouth regarding your partner, your husband, the father of your children - are about how 'useless' he is and how you won't 'let' him do things?

This works both ways. It's clear that men and women are called to respect and honour each other and sickly relationship-themed clickbait is, for all its faults, reasonably good at pointing this out. However what's often noticeable is the way this point is made differently, depending on whether the post in question is primarily about, or written by, a man or a woman. A key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from men (particularly of the loosely Christian variety): 'You'll be bawling your eyes out when you read about the amazing thing this guy did for his wife'. Conversely, a key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from women: 'The one thing I realised I needed to do more of/less of as a wife and mother'. As ever, identifying our inadequacies and how we must 'do better' defines us as women.

In writing about her tendency to take control and insist that things are done 'her way' - the purchasing of meat, the sorting of laundry - one woman has identified a key way that power struggles between couples often play out. She mentions that she doesn't believe men act in the same way towards women, referencing the fact her husband is 'just not as concerned with some of the minutiae as I am'. But what she doesn't identify is what is so often the reason for this, and the reason for the way women frequently feel compelled to assert power.

I don't know many women who are comfortable with simply doing nothing. Relaxing, chilling out, whatever you prefer to call it. I'm one of them. I've had countless conversations with friends where we've discussed our discomfort with sitting still. There are, quite simply, always things that must be done, whether that means housework or running errands or getting through our 'to read' list or writing another blog post. Not for nothing do we talk about the 'second shift' or the 'double burden' - the fact that women's increased entry into the workplace has not resulted, in the majority of cases, in an egalitarian set-up when it comes to housework, childcare, and the general organisation of family life. 

Even women who do enjoy a more equal partnership struggle to allow themselves downtime, knowing at the same time that their partners have no such qualms about relaxing - and for many it's learned from childhood in the way they've seen the household roles their parents have played.

The curse of modern womanhood, as we all know too well, is that whatever you do and however you do it, feelings of guilt and inadequacy will snap at your heels like an angry terrier. The majority of society, from politicians to journalists, to people on parenting forums and your own relatives have a wealth of opinions on what constitutes acceptable womanhood and unfortunately, most of us socialised to care a whole lot about what others think about us and out lifestyle choices.

This, of course, happens in different ways. I enjoy a pretty egalitarian marriage and couldn't care less if I haven't dusted my mantelpieces in living memory, but I've certainly considered myself a bit of a let-down for sitting on the sofa watching television when emails have languished in my inbox and projects haven't moved forward as quickly as I would have liked (and those are personal emails and personal projects, not even work-related ones).

Even today, especially today, the running of the home and of family life inevitably falls on the shoulders of women. Even if it doesn't, in theory - for those in equal partnerships for example - we still consider it our responsibility, berating ourselves internally when they let something slip. The minutiae of daily life all too easily becomes a source of anxiety - I know I've had to remind myself that I am, in fact, allowed to relax and that this is not the same thing as laziness. And for many women, the efficiency and performance of the minutiae of daily life is one of the few areas in which they can exert power and control.

Guarding against a hunger for power and control is something all humans must do. A toxic force within relationships and families, it often manifests in differing ways because of the ways men and women are brought up to behave and to gain power, and the ways society considers it acceptable for them to do so. Discouraged from speaking our minds and pursuing confrontation or appearing to 'dominate' a relationship, women are encouraged instead to resort to manipulation and only ever to demonstrate indirectly that they might 'know best', or indeed have feelings about anything at all. It's even a tactic that's encouraged by numerous Christian books on marriage: upholding traditional gender roles means subtly manipulating and influencing your husband rather than asking him or telling him. That would, of course, be 'nagging', or assuming a dominant role.

'Nagging', and the range of emotions and issues it encompasses - the wrong meat purchased, the blue sock accidentally included in the white wash, the fact that somehow, people do things differently to you and that's just not right - must therefore be looked at as part of the wider picture of how women are permitted to exercise control over their own lives and the lives of others. 

The key sphere in which women are permitted by society to exercise authority is the home. In a world of judgement, anxiety and the feeling that whatever you do will somehow be not good enough and that there are countless factors in your life that you can't control, household tasks are one of things that you can. Whereas men are allowed to assert authority in the public sphere and as the 'head of the household', women remain largely responsible for all that lies beneath, and even today, they know that their worth as women is often judged by it.

Men have - usually - not been brought up to notice the minutiae of the home and family life. They haven't had to, because, historically, it's always been women's work. It's something that's been done for them and they've often never really had to think about it - yet many (not all) expect it to somehow get done anyway. Even in relationships where both partners truly don't care about crumbs on the floor and the correct brand of mayonnaise being purchased, women feel compelled to set standards lest they be judged by society, their friends, their mother-in-law - and found wanting in a way that men never will. 

In a world where this burden still inevitably falls to women, in a world where humans want control and power, the woman whose anxiety and anger over things not being done 'her way' can be seen as a symptom, not just a cause, of gender relations that need restoration. Perhaps a more balanced and egalitarian approach to home life - where tasks and responsibilities are not gendered - might alleviate the need to control and 'take charge' over simple household tasks.

'You can't be what you can't see' - or why gender parity at conferences matters

Monday, 12 January 2015

In 2011, Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary Miss Representation captured the imagination of those who are passionate about seeing girls and women reach their full potential. Despite the advances made in recent decades, women are still subject to messages from society that tell them their worth lies in how they look, assigning them a narrow set of priorities and limiting their horizons. That year, the motto "You can't be what you can't see" was everywhere. As I wrote at the time:

"Even if you haven't watched the trailer yet, with its footage of bikini-clad women in music videos interspersed with derogatory newspaper headlines about women politicians, you can probably reel off a list of the ways the media and popular culture makes it abundantly clear what us women are good for. We're the eye candy, the gender whose worth is bound up in how sexy we are. We're the bitches and the backstabbers and the lovers of catfights. The yummy mummies and the slummy mummies. The bosses from hell and the boardroom ballbusters. When we go into politics, the newspapers run stories on our dress sense and cleavage rather than our achievements. Men turn up at our public appearances holding banners saying 'Iron my shirt'. 

"How is this making the women of the future feel and what's it doing to their ambitions Miss Representation reveals all. It reveals how such toxic imagery is making girls and women feel devalued and ignored - as one teenager says, it's as if no-one cares about their brains, only their looks. It reveals how girls' dreams and ambitions change over time, as they find themselves trapped in stereotypes of what a woman should be and treated accordingly by boys, trapped by the perception that 'feminine' or 'like a girl' means 'inferior'." 

In recent months I've had cause to look back at my diaries from years gone by, and what has struck me more than anything else is the sense of alienation that I felt from the church as a young woman who didn't feel like she conformed to the popular stereotype of 'Biblical womanhood'. When I finally found women 'like me', particularly women who I could see doing the things that I felt I was gifted to do, I knew that they were my people. They were mentors and cheerleaders and role models for women like me, and they gave me hope that contrary to the impression I'd been given, there was a place for me in the church.

At the end of 2013, I was involved in the initial conversations that grew into what is now known as Project 3:28. These conversations were inspired by the discussions about that year's The Nines conference, which began with a tweet from Rachel Held Evans: "More than 100 speakers and four of them are women. This is not what the church looks like." We wanted to take a look at the UK Christian conference scene and see if we'd fared any better than The Nines. In our first year of analysing conference line-ups, we found that although it's claimed 66% of churchgoers in the UK are women, they make up just 34% of speakers at conferences.

Last week, we released the statistics from 2014's conferences, and it was encouraging to note that several organisations had been encouraged to think about gender parity in their line-ups that year. The report, once again, prompted plenty of conversations. There has been news coverage, and there have been blog posts. Some people think that the report is a terrible waste of money (hint: it didn't really cost anything at all), and others have argued that it's obvious that women are underrepresented - why should we need a report to tell us that? I would argue that a report was needed because it has spurred people into action. It has recognised the efforts of organisations trying to be inclusive, and in giving people the figures, it underlines the extent of the issue. The vaguely negative accusations levelled at those of us involved in the project have been interesting and frustrating, not least because they're no different from the stock responses that those passionate about gender and the church have to deal with every time they stick their heads over the parapet.

Nobody's saying that we should prioritise a 50:50 ratio of speakers over gifting, knowledge, and experience. 

What we're simply saying is that the gifting, knowledge and experience of the body of Christ is often not reflected in who gets to speak, who gets to lead, and who gets to be considered an authority.

Yes, women sometimes have different styles of leadership to men. And they often make different life choices due to lack of confidence. 

But as Miss Representation told us, you can't be what you can't see. I speak from personal experience when I say that many of us who are underrepresented in leadership benefit from having people like us to model it for us before we can believe it's something we can do, something that would be possible. That doesn't just go for women and the church - we're talking about all minorities here, in all areas of life. If women aren't stepping up to speak at conferences right now, that's not to say things can't change if they start to see a better way modelled.

Women are mothers. And?

Some of the women who have been the greatest influence on me in recent years are mothers. And they're doing what they're doing despite being mothers. It's my firm belief that mothers who are called to lead can do so with the right support, whether that's more equally shared parenting or conferences and organisations being considerate of their needs and helping out with childcare, or enabling them to bring along another adult to watch the children while the preach happens. It is simply not true that the secular feminist movement, the Christian feminist and egalitarian movements and conferences with a commitment to gender parity have little interest in promoting a more equal approach to parenting. It's one of the keys to women realising their full potential, And we must continue to advocate for it.

If women feel that their children take priority over ministry and career, so be it. That's their prerogative. But it's not the whole story. To say this is the case for the majority of women is incorrect - and it casts a disapproving eye on women who feel otherwise: women like me, and so many other women I know, who don't feel that a few hours of evening preparation and a day spent at an event means our children are worth less than profile and accolades.

Lack of gender equality isn't the problem. Conferences and high profile speakers are the problem, apparently. 

All that scoffing at Christian events and 'well known speakers' and snide little 'ughs' at the very idea of desiring to hold a leadership position or stand on a platform or teach people looks a little bit suspect when it's coming from people who are the leaders and the speakers and the high profile names, by which I mean white men - sorry, but that's exactly who I mean. It's all right for you, isn't it? You can scoff, and talk about how Christian culture needs to change, but come conference season everyone on the line-ups will look a bit like you, sound a bit like you - and they'll probably include some of your friends as well.

Project 3:28 didn't spring up when a bunch of people in thrall to the idea of helping women to become 'big names' and 'Christian celebrities' decided to try to make it happen. We'd all agree that a culture of Christian celebrity and waiting for conference season for a yearly spiritual high at the expense of the local church, of building relationships and grassroots organisation is inadvisable and can be toxic. But at the same time, we know that events and conferences are important to many. People go to them in order to be fed, to be inspired, and to grow in their relationship with God. We all need a balance - and while we know that Christian culture can be problematic, there's no reason we should seek to model gender justice in this very visible sphere.

How is making women more like men the answer to inequality?

Let's get one thing straight: appealing to the 'why should we squeeze women into a male mould?' school of thought doesn't wash. If you think the 'masculine flavour' of church leadership and speaking is a problem, why seek to uphold the status quo and fob us off by pretending we're better off out of it? Let's challenge inequality together, not by keeping men and women in separate spheres. Change the 'flavour'. if women lead and speak in different ways, let them do it.

What about [insert issue here]? Isn't that far more important? 

Maybe it is. But gender justice is my thing and I'm going to stick to it, for all the women who have ever felt they can't be the person they want to be because they can't see anyone like them paving the way.

2014: A recap on those resolutions

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Happy New Year! At the beginning of 2014 I overhauled the look and feel of this blog, and resolved to be a bit 'better' at posting. Last year, I managed a whole 12 posts. I didn't write about nearly as many of the things I would have loved to write about, and I felt as if I missed the boat on many other things due to just having too much on. But I was proud of what I did manage to produce. However, I'd made some other resolutions for 2014 as well, and I wanted to chronicle how I got on with them.

Be hospitable (and a good friend)

If you're a Christian you get to hear a lot about being hospitable. Christians just love people who are good at hospitality. They are everyone's favourite. They are the people at church that everyone just adores. We're told that it's a special gift that some people have, but we're also told how hospitality has been a key aspect of the church since ancient times. So, you know, we've got to do it. When you're an introverted couple with a non-sleeping baby and living in a flat it's not all that easy. Plus I was convinced I hadn't been at the front of the queue when the gift of hospitality was bestowed on God's people.

Everyone knows a woman (or women - and it is always women), who's a pro at sorting out a buffet or doing the refreshments for everyone. She's good at bustling round a kitchen. And when there's some sort of party, several of these women will just get everything done. They just get on in there and bustle. Now there's a very important conversation to be had here about gender and why, exactly, it's women who are the ones that do this, but my point here is that I never got this gene. When everyone with ovaries starts doing that bustling around thing and being hospitality pros, I ask if there's anything I can do. And invariably, there isn't much I can do. So I get a drink, and feel slightly guilty.

In 2014, a few things changed. We became an introverted couple, with a toddler who finally slept at night, living in a decent-sized house. Having been really rubbish at socialising for well over a year, and having moved to the periphery of church (more on this later), I really wanted to get better at hospitality. And you know what? It's still hard, but it's been working. We like cooking, and people appreciate that. We're really trying to open up our home a bit more - subject to everyone else's busy lives as well as our own, so it doesn't happen all the time, but I hope we can build on this in 2015.

Sort out The Church Thing

On 2 January 2014 I gave myself a bit of a talking-to and decided I was going to attempt to move forward on my long-running struggle with church. The year, in this respect, was full of ups and downs. I read things like A Churchless Faith and read a lot of blog posts by post-evangelicals and disaffected people and people seeking authenticity. In the process I think I learnt a lot about myself. When we say we're seeking authenticity, are we merely seeking more people like us? And what happens when you're reminded that creating communities of people like us is, really, pretty exclusionary? If those who ask questions are currently the people of the moment, surely, at some point, some answers would be helpful? Or at least, some ways to move forward. And if we have issues that we need to discuss, it's always better to discuss them rather than simmer over them and expect people to understand why we're upset, when we haven't actually told them in the first place (what do you mean, people aren't mind-readers?).

Through the spring and summer, following the (extremely disheartening) disbanding of the midweek group we were attending, I was dipping in and out of visiting a couple of other churches. But when I thought about it, I just didn't feel led to make the move anywhere else. I was feeling as if I was going to become a 'done'. What ended up happening was that we discussed it and decided we needed a fresh challenge that would help us get more involved and enable us to build community again. This challenge came to us in the form of an opportunity to become the new leaders of a midweek group, and at the moment it's going really well. I still have a long way to go when it comes to Sundays, but at least one thing has changed and one thing has made a difference.

A new resolution for Twitter

I got really disillusioned with Twitter and internet activism in 2013 - more specifically, the way that a community I had once loved seemed to become primarily about performative 'call-outs' as activism, the monstering of women trying to make a difference because they haven't yet managed to focus on or solved all the world's problems, and the readiness of people to brand others  as 'vile' and 'disgusting' over things that may not have happened and may never have been said. In 2014 I pledged to do what I could to support people, signal-boost good things and be encouraging instead. I didn't entirely do away with having a bit of a rant on occasion, however (one friend I met for the first time in 2014 mentioned my 'controlled rants'!). This also meant getting rid of a lot of negative and unhelpful voices from my timeline - and in return a lot of people did away with me, often for something as simple as being seen talking to particular people or sharing their writing, which pretty much proves my point about the way things have gone.

I'll be carrying my 2014 Twitter resolution over into 2015 and keeping up with some of the wonderful people I've been talking to and getting to know over the past year. In 2014 I had the opportunity to meet some longtime Twitter friends for the first time (quite a few of these at Greenbelt).

Get fit again

I used to run half marathons, remember? The guilt of my paid-for and unused gym membership motivated me to get back to working out last year. For a time. It was all going so well - and then a particularly busy period at work happened, and my lunchtime trips to the sports centre tailed off (although I've continued to do plenty of walking). Like nearly everyone else this month, however, I'm hoping to get back into exercise for the new year.

Be kind

I didn't always manage it, particularly in the first few months of the year, but in 2014 I've been working on being a lot kinder to myself. This has involved a few different things:

- Identifying some avoidable causes of feeling anxious and/or miserable, and trying to avoid thought patterns that exacerbate these. This has had mixed success but is really getting better
- Trying to ignore impostor syndrome whenever it rears its ugly head
- Acknowledging that I do need - and deserve - downtime - and not beating myself up for failing to achieve things 24/7
- Do the little things: use the nice skincare every day rather than sporadically!

I've also been working on extending the kindness through reaching out to support friends and family. 2014 was a tough year for my extended family as both my maternal grandparents passed away (in September 2013 and January 2014), so we've been particularly trying to spend quality time with my mum.

Say yes

At the beginning of 2014 I started to become involved in more talks and get-togethers about the gender imbalance of speaker line-ups at Christian conferences, following this bit of research by my good friend and partner in crime Natalie, and the many discussions it prompted. One of the main barriers to women being more visible as speakers, as 'experts', is that we're much more likely than men to say 'no' to opportunities put our way. Sometimes that's down to a lack of confidence or impostor syndrome; sometimes it's due to responsibilities like caring for children. I was so encouraged that some organisations were really willing to talk about all this and discuss how they could make changes, and I'm really excited that out of all these discussions, Project 3:28 - a new initiative for 2015 - was born.

I knew that in 2014 I had to get better at saying 'yes' to opportunities too. And so I did some exciting things:

- I did another talk at Greenbelt (and helped organise a Christian Feminist Network worship session; and exhibited for my day job there too)
- I wrote a feature on Christianity and feminist activism for Christianity magazine
- I wrote for the New Statesman's series on second wave feminism, discussing Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time and the lessons the movement today can learn from it (particularly pertinent to my 'new resolution for Twitter above). The series generated a lot of controversy, but was also well-received by a lot of people
- I presented on 'Hashtag activism' at the Christian New Media Conference
- And I also got approached about writing a book. This was incredibly exciting, and I did a lot of thinking, praying and planning as a result. Over the summer, however, I had to concede that while writing a book would be amazing, it's not something I can commit to right now - my life is really busy already and I just don't have the spare time needed

However, the past year has really underlined for me the importance of keeping the right perspective as I 'say yes' to things, not becoming too invested in profile and self-promotion at the expense of authenticity and relationships. Unfortunately I've seen this happen to people, and I know how much hurt and disillusionment it can cause.

For 2015, I've decided to carry over all of these resolutions and build on last year's efforts, with one new addition: read more. I have a stack of new books following Christmas, and lots of things I want to learn about too.

Before I go, some mentions for the blogs I kept on reading in 2014 despite a distinct lack of free time: GlosswatchA Room of Our Own; Sarah Ditum; C. Jane Kendrick; Dianna E. Anderson; Messy Nessy Chic; Littlee and Bean; Lulastic and the Hippyshake; Sian and Crooked Rib; Mummy Says...

The basic bitch: a lifelong struggle with relating to Generic Womanhood

Friday, 14 November 2014


In 1999, I smugly recorded in my diary that on non-uniform day at school, I'd been one of only two girls in my form not to wear head to toe sports brands. Aged 14, my favourite outfit consisted of cord flares (Gap; too big as I'd misread the label and looked at the US sizing), a bottle green velvet jacket (Camden Market) and cherry red Dr Marten boots (£30 in the sale. £30). The girls who tended to wear head to toe sports brands and mock my cord flares, were 'trendies': the basics of the late 90s. In 1999, trendies wore Kickers or Fila sweatshirts with bootcut jeans and listened to boy bands and UK garage. I inked Kula Shaker lyrics onto my homework diary in metallic gel pen; they did the same with the lyrics to Sweet Like Chocolate. 

In 2004, I was a student. The trendy, transported into the campus environment, had evolved, and my best friend and I, angsty and awkward, were by now referring to them as 'generics'. Generics wore Miss Sixty jeans and sometimes their boyfriend's sports stash. They had super-straight hair and made a lot of noise in the dining hall. They were your rag reps and your Christmas ball committee and they sniggered behind their hands whenever the Christian Union rep made an announcement about something. They didn't write angry letters to the student magazine when the Union bar ran a Playboy-themed night. They chatted loudly in the corridor about how they were definitely cutting back on carbs. I only had two small potatoes with dinner this evening. Do you think that's ok?

It's 2014 and the trendy who became the generic has now evolved into the 'basic', or the 'basic bitch'. Despite the origins of the term, it's come to to define a particular sort of young white woman. The basic likes Uggs and seasonal beverages and posting dubiously-attributed Marilyn Monroe quotes on Facebook, while watching Sex and the City and scrolling through her 'wedding inspiration' board on Pinterest. Should you wish to find out, Buzzfeed et al can give you examples of what a basic posts on Instagram, the sort of texts she sends, how she treats her boyfriend and what she gets up to on a girls' night out.

The US-centric stereotype doesn't always translate, but the idea of the basic is universal. And as Noreen Malone wrote in this piece for The Cut last month, it's taken off because it 'feels restrained, somehow'.

'You don’t quite have to stoop to calling someone a slut or a halfwit or anything truly cruel. It’s not as implicating as calling someone tacky — the basic woman is so evidently nonthreatening she doesn’t even deserve such a raised pulse. Basic-tagging is coolly lazy. It conveys a graduate seminar’s worth of semiotics in five letters. “So basic,” you think, scrolling through your Facebook feed. “She’s basic,” you offer to a friend, commenting on her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. It was a word we’d been looking for.'

Malone sums it up perfectly when she describes the basic as 'the woman who fails to surprise us'. She buys into what society and capitalism tells us it means to be a woman today. She's unoriginal, and she doesn't care. What's noticeable about the current usage of 'basic' is that it doesn't simply describe unoriginal patterns of consumption; it also describes patterns of thought and modes of expression. Feminists can be 'basic'. Mothers can be 'basic' (witness the rivalry between Mumsnet and Netmums and the stereotypes the former has of the latter). Fashion and lifestyle bloggers who don't necessarily buy in to generic consumerism but actually see themselves as pretty 'alternative' can also be 'basic'.


As if you couldn't have guessed it, from my tales of 1999 and 2004, I have to confess to a lifelong struggle with all that is basic. At the age of 14, major aspects of my personality and behaviour were little more than a construction to throw other girls off the scent and give them something to talk about. If they're mocking my clothes and my taste in music, at least they're not mocking the way I look or the fact I don't have a boyfriend. It was only in recent years that it became clear to me exactly what I'd been up to, diverting their mockery at the same time as inwardly marking myself out as better than them. If you grew up being given funny looks by all your popular, incredibly generic peers, if you ever felt like a tortured soul or called yourself 'indie' or wrote in your journal that you were pretty misunderstood, really, you've probably had a lifelong struggle with relating to all that is basic. Sooner than you know it you're 30 years old, and you're still avoiding basics and rolling your eyes when they pop up in your Facebook feed.

Those of us who can't deal with 'basicity' have a tendency to (inwardly) mark ourselves out as 'not like Those Women'; those generic ones over there. In a hangover from our school years, we categorise and separate out. We're more unique, more interesting, more special. Today the tables have turned, and the basic is no longer queen. She may subscribe to all that is on-trend and acceptable for women, but she's no longer cool. What I believe is an uncomfortable truth for many of us as feminists, however, is that decrying basic culture is kind of problematic. We know it, and we do it anyway. Noreen Malone started to explore this and hit the nail on the head when she concluded her piece saying:

'And so the woman who calls another woman basic ends up implicitly endorsing two things she probably wouldn’t sign up for if they were spelled out for her: a male hierarchy of culture, and the belief that the self is an essentially surface-level formation.'

When you're calling another woman basic, you probably haven't got to know her very well. And it's fairly reliant on your perception of what society sees as 'things for women' as inferior. Ouch. I'm not going to pretend I'm the first person to feel conflicted about the popularity of the word. In fact, the thinkpieces about it have been numerous. Anne Helen Petersen, for Buzzfeed, described women being dismissive of all things basic as little more than class anxiety, citing the term's origins as having class connotations and explaining its current usage in the same way:

'Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them. To consume and perform online in a basic way is thus to reflect a highly American, capitalist upbringing. Basic girls love the things they do because nearly every part of American commercial media has told them that they should.'

Petersen ends her piece by telling us that mockery of the basic woman is 'troubling' and 'regressive':

'To call someone “basic” is to look into the abyss of continually flattening capitalist dystopia and, instead of articulating and interrogating the fear, transform it into casual misogyny.'

Responding on Thought Catalog, Anna Dorn vehemently disagrees. Calling out basicity, as she sees it, is 'rooted in female empowerment'. She gets the argument that deriding other women as 'basic' for choices they have made in the vacuum of patriarchal society is misogyny, but she doesn't ascribe to it.

'...basic-bashing is not about punishment. It’s about women rising up. It’s about women saying – We can be real people with real thoughts and opinions. We can wear our natural hair. We can be loud and curse and be offensive. We can say fuck heels because they hurt. Basicity is about giving power to the fringes, because basics – the walking embodiment of male subordination – ultimately have all the power.'

She concludes that '...basic-bashers can’t be misogynistic because we don’t stand to benefit from patriarchy.'


Both Petersen and Dorn are partially correct. As women, defining ourselves as superior to basics is somewhat rooted in anxieties surrounding consumption and class - even when we write off feminists as 'basic' because their commitment to the cause goes about as far as reading Lena Dunham's autobiography and thinking that a women's magazine running a feature on feminism 'is everything'. But it's not the full story. It's about buying in to expectations that we'll always define ourselves in opposition to some other group of women. Not like those women, thinking this, supporting that and wearing those clothes. Writing off women as friends and sisters because our opinions are superior or because they haven't reached a certain level of consciousness yet, sealing ourselves off and sneering at the Other. Radfems vs libfems vs funfems vs whitefems.

When we differentiate ourselves from all that is basic, we're representing all that is real and diverse and exciting about being a woman on the fringe when it is, indeed, what is generic and safe that has the power. Every woman who's ever felt free to be the person she really is knows that. Generic and safe is the ideal, and when you don't fit the mold you're often made to feel bad about it. Being able to say 'That's not me and I don't care' is liberating. But defining 'basic-bashing' as feminist praxis? 21st century empowerment as declaring that we're not like other girls and effectively writing off those generic specimens of womanhood as people who matter? It's indisputably problematic.

It's here that disagreements over the nature of sisterhood are bound to come in. Feminism doesn't mean liking all other women, or even being able to relate to them, but sneering at other women and calling it empowered shouldn't even come into it. Call it what it is: an extension of the way women have always been socialised to relate to other women, judging them and eyeing them up as competition and fuelling our anxieties about being interesting and clever and real.

Having always written off that which we now call basic, I've felt challenged in recent weeks not to buy into that any longer. Don't like particular women for particular reasons? Fine. Name them. But basic-bashing isn't about women rising up. It's upholding the status quo and shutting women out of potential opportunities to learn, grow, and identify with one another,

Feminist t-shirts, call-outs and commodification

Sunday, 2 November 2014

At the beginning of the year I made a resolution of sorts, to distance myself from the sort of feminism that only actually mentions a feminist campaign or organisation when it's tearing it down. There's nothing wrong with critique and highlighting issues within reason, but by the end of last year I'd become thoroughly bored with performative call-outs as a primary form of engagement. This has had its plus points: for one thing I haven't had to spend most of my precious little free time telling everyone how I'm not here for this sort of feminism and not here for her brand of feminism, thanks very much. And one debate I haven't had to wade into recently has been the one surrounding ELLE's next step on its mission to bring a reinvigorated feminism to the readers of glossy magazines. 

It is definitely a good few years since I first wrote about my discomfort with the commodified 'trendy feminism' campaigns that women's magazines have run, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, in the last five years or so. Here's one disclaimer: I do appreciate ELLE's commitment to focusing on women's issues in recent years; they've managed to do it better than other women's magazines (putting aside that whole thing with the 'rebrand' of feminism. But I get it. I know they can't exactly take a crap on consumerism; I'm just not going to say I'm comfortable with it). But I haven't been able to force myself to care all that much about the magazine's new partnership with Whistles and the Fawcett Society and, it seems, various attractive famous men (another disclaimer: I own an original Fawcett Society 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt, as I've supported its work for the last eight years). 

It's nothing we haven't been through before. Feminist merchandise at £45 a time (£85 if you want a sweatshirt), unavailable any bigger than a size 16. The publicity opportunities for politicians and celebrities and the 'outrage' that David Cameron wouldn't wear one. We know that there are some redeeming factors - well-known public figures at least claiming to support gender equality; exposure to people who might not otherwise think very much about feminism or think it's something they can be a part of. If it changes anyone's life and makes them a feminist or somewhere, somehow, improves a woman's life, then, I will concede, fair enough. In the spirit of the times, online news outlets have shown us image galleries of people wearing these t-shirts and proclaimed that Benedict Cumberbatch being our ally 'is everything'. So far, so predictable.

Things took an interesting turn on Saturday night, when Twitter got wind of the Mail on Sunday's front-page exposé of exploitative conditions in the factory where the t-shirts have been made. One worker is quoted as saying: ‘How can this T-shirt be a symbol of feminism? These politicians say that they support equality for all, but we are not equal.’ The Fawcett Society was absolutely on the ball with crisis management and quick to issue a statement saying it had been assured by Whistles that the factory producing the t-shirts complied with the highest ethical, sustainable and environmental standards possible. I don't doubt that this was a key consideration for Fawcett, and as we've seen, Whistles and ELLE have subsequently issued statements to the same effect. Ensuring standards are met isn't always easy and the garment industry is a minefield in this respect.

Much has been said about the credentials of all involved in the campaign and in the Mail on Sunday's exposé. Politicians taking part in publicity stunts - how much do they know about how their clothes are made? The investigative journalism tearing down a very public feminist campaign, published by a newspaper with absolutely no previous form for supporting gender equality or migrant workers. What I haven't been able to get behind, though, is the smug trashing of Fawcett, ELLE, and anyone who's supported their campaign and bought a t-shirt. It's a sad state of affairs when the first sign of interest in either ethical working conditions or marginalised women from the Mail comes at the expense of feminism, and the glee with which the whole thing has been reported needs nothing but contempt. What it doesn't need is to be held up, alongside the screengrabbed tweets of Fawcett supporters and well-known names, as 'everything that is wrong with feminism', a stick to beat the same old women about the same old things in the same tedious fashion. Nobody wins.

ELLE and Whistles have received a trashing, despite their best intentions. The Fawcett Society has, as far as I've seen, gained some support for its professional handling of the situation - yet has clearly still received a trashing. The Mail on Sunday has jumped at the opportunity to take part in the same tedious progressive/left/feminism-bashing they've been doing for years. And I'm betting it won't devote much time to covering exploitation of women and migrant workers overseas in the future, because clickbait misogyny and xenophobia will always be much higher on its agenda. Women working in factories in Mauritius are still working in the same conditions. The garment industry won't get an overhaul any time soon - and certainly not thanks to the sort of people on Twitter who, as ever, will keep on posting screenshots of Things Well-Known Feminist Campaigners Have Said and devoting hours at a time to sneering at them. Politicians will continue to display a dubious grasp of what 'improving women's lives' means. No-one will ever mistake David Cameron for a feminist.

So: no victories. Feminism got commodified, celebrities got column inches, activists got called out, and the majority of women in the UK remained completely untouched by whatever it was trying to achieve. Good job, everyone. I'm continuing to support the Fawcett Society because I believe it is a real force for good. I genuinely hope that this whole situation is resolved for the best and that all involved are able to make it clear that they did their utmost to ensure ethical production. But if awareness-raising initiatives can't make a break with consumerism and celebrity PR opportunities, then I can't help thinking that we'll see something similar happen again. The co-option of feminist activism into profits for t-shirt manufacturers has been much discussed in the wake of #YesAllWomen and more recently, FCKH8's 'Potty-mouthed princesses' video. Women in the movement can't prevent this sort of thing from happening, but campaigners can be smarter about how they hope to engage women with feminism.

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