You know you went to an all-girls’ school when…

So, someone at the Huffington Post has done one of those lists masquerading as journalism, chronicling the ’19 signs you went to an all girls school’. I was intrigued, being the alumnus of not one but two such establishments, but sadly I could only recognise half of them – probably because the author then went to a US college and as a result, the list is rather Americanised.

But, the joys of girls’ school life came back to me in our Monday morning lecture this week, on the subject of gender. On the one hand, there’s not an awful lot a girl educated in a school where ‘Herstory’ was a thing (as opposed to History, obviously) needs to learn about the history of the feminist movement. On the other hand, it became clear that my fellow feminists (we were sat in a line along the back row) looked on with disdain as younger men in the lecture giggled over words like ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’. Hilarious. These men need to get themselves in a room with the fabulous God Loves Women, who’s usually capable of using these words within minutes of a meeting beginning. [My favourite meeting of 2013 was one such gathering, where I was sat next to one of only two men in the room. There was definite squirming and an awful lot of feminine hilarity.]

Anyway, I want to put the record straight about graduates of female-only establishments. Obviously, based on my experiences only – that of a central London CofE comprehensive & a grammar in Gloucester, just for variation:

1. Yes, you will have perfected the art of putting on tights. (Huffington Post is correct in this regard.)
However, you will have got to the end of your school days loathing them with a passion; having a belief that wearing them underneath your jogging bottoms during PE would give you thrush; knowing that wooden school chairs live to snag black opaque tights; and, as an adult, will have realised that it really is worth spending good money on good tights (M&S for preference).

2. You will not be comfortable around female nudity.
If this has occurred at all, it will have been in your late 20’s when you realised that no one in the gym cares what you look like while changing – unlike most of year 10 before and after PE.

3. You will have been taught that the glass ceiling exists so that well-educated young ladies can smash it to pieces.
References to the ‘glass ceiling’ were seemingly compulsory in my grammar school’s speech days. In my CofE school, this also came out in reference to the Church. On the day General Synod voted in favour of ordaining women as priests, a girl was sent to pass on the news to each class. They would be very proud of my current adventures.

4. You still consider wearing a black bra under a pale shirt an act of rebellion.
Now, this may be peculiar to my alma-mater, but on important occasions (concerts, cathedral services, speech days…) we were always reminded that wearing a black bra under our yellow (gorgeous) blouses was NOT acceptable. One of my best friends consistently wore one deliberately, what a rebel.

5. You don’t ‘secretly’ suspect that girls are smarter than boys – you know we are.
That’s what seven years of single-sex education gives you. Be told it enough and you’ll believe it! You’ll have a high level of respect for intelligence, and believe that men who don’t value it as a character trait aren’t worth bothering with.

6. You still wish achievements were marked with some form of enamelled badge worn on your jumper.
You may not have received sporting colours (but led a campaign for musical achievements to be marked in the same way – which never succeeded), but you did have merit badges and proudly bore the label of ‘Library Assistant’. [Just me?!?] You made up for your lack of colours in 6th form with a prefect badge, worn proudly right at the V of your regulation jumper.

7. Bodily fluids are not an issue.
Yes, you may still re-tell the story of the girl who fainted off a lab stool during a smear test video in Biology, but conversations about periods, Mooncups, pregnancy and birth will not throw you. You will often forget this when in the company of men. Male friends who know you well will learn to deal with this.

8. You will find it odd when men giggle at things unnecessarily.
See above point about this week’s gender lecture. When you’ve done sex ed without idiotic boys in the room, it comes as a shock to discover that some guys still can’t talk about body parts without some level of immaturity.

9. Male friends did not exist until university.
At school, the lack of boys meant the only friends of the opposite sex were likely not to be actual friends, but more the siblings of your own, female friends or, occasionally, the boyfriends of friends who’d managed to acquire one. At university, men were a curious, somewhat unknown breed, around which one was unbearably awkward. The effects of this absence of the opposite sex will still affect your relationships over a decade later. (Miranda Hart spoke of this in her recent Desert Island Discs – it’s a genuine thing.)

10. Male teachers were prime for crushes.
Or, at least the ones that weren’t considered ancient. You’ll have had a least one crush on a newly qualified teacher who had the misfortune of ending up at a girls’ school prior to losing their looks. You might even have tried to get sent home early from a field trip solely because anyone who did so would have had to travel with the ‘hot’ teacher. [This was not me, promise. We only wrote a parody A-level exam paper about our favourite male teacher. ‘Only’…]

11. Your knowledge of women’s role in history will be excellent.
You will have submitted extra-credit reports on Emily Davison (or again, was that just me?); looked up to Elizabeth I; frequently used women’s suffrage as an illustration of why voting at every election is important; had a lot of sympathy for the women tried as witches; and generally held the opinion that if women had been more involved, men wouldn’t have made such a mess of the world.

12. Singing tenor isn’t a problem, because you had to do it at school.
The downside of all-girls’ schools is that music becomes a little limited in the absence of male voices. One of my schools came up with the solution of teaching year 7 soprano parts; year 8 alto; and year 9 tenor. Be a low enough alto higher up the school and tenor parts would wing their way to you. (It’s just stuck me that one of my friends may have only demonstrated her skill at this so she could sit with boys at rare joint school choral events. Sly thing!) You might have got lucky and been in a joint school musical – or, you might have been banned from such a production while in 6th form because of the impact it might have had on your studies and may still be bitter about this years later because it was your only chance at ever being in a musical and you’d have been perfect as Rizzo. (Ok, yes, that may just be me.)

Year 11 RibstonObligatory poor quality photo of my school days. This would be the last day of year 11 in 1997. If you can spot me I’ll be quite impressed. Note the excellent 1990’s perms – a lot of hairspray and mousse went into those… 

Not an exhaustive or accurate list by any means – but I’d like to think that the schools I went to genuinely did a lot to build up the confidence of its girls [always pronounced ‘gals’, obviously] and set them on the road to being feminists, even if not all of them made it. Despite some of the negatives, I’m still quite a fan of single-sex secondary education – although if ever I have the need to educate daughters, I’ll be ensuring that their social activities extends beyonds the similarly gender specific Guides. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today (good and bad) without it.


Baking – with added vitriol

Last night was not a great night for our student group to be doing the second week of an all-church Bible study that has to be done at the same time as everyone else. Several guys arrived at my flat wanting to know if we could have the Arsenal match on ‘in the background’ (everyone knows there is no such thing as ‘in the background’ when it comes to football); I, on the other hand, was in a state of frenzy at the fact that while I was leading a meditation on Genesis 37, anyone not watching football was watching three women bake cakes and pies.

This year’s GBBO final is the most watched of all the series – 8.4 million people watched last night (that’s more than X Factor apparently). It’s also been fiercely debated in the media and on social media. I had at least two fierce debates with people on Facebook yesterday about who should win – nothing terribly unusual about that, in competitive arenas people are always going to have their favourites. Just as the guys were desperate to see an Arsenal victory last night, I had strong views about who should win a national amateur cake baking competition.

I’d had strong views last year too – I’d loved the work of John & James and therefore I wanted ‘anyone but Brendan’ to win. I wasn’t out to destroy Brendan, I just liked the other two more. That’s how life works. [I’ve been re-watching that series recently and it is a classic. James and Sue need their own baking show!]

GBBOFinalists2013Ruby, Kimberley & Frances.

This year, I wasn’t overly keen on either Kimberley or Ruby – if pushed, I’d take Kimberley on her consistent technical skills – but I loved Frances’ creativity. One friend argued that she wanted Ruby to win ‘because she was so vulnerable and pocket-sized’, but last time I checked, vulnerability wasn’t a way of avoiding a soggy bottom. I wanted her to gain some confidence in her skills – to apologise a couple of times for what you think are terrible bakes (but it emerges aren’t) is fine; to do it consistently is not. Friends debated whether Kimberley appeared smug thanks to editing – but is simply saying that “I’ve baked this before” during a technical challenge really a sign of smugness? Surely it’s just stating fact?

Opinions are fine – but not when they cross the line. What got interesting about this year’s competition is that so much of the criticism was in relation to the finalists’ gender and size. Last year, I don’t recall sexuality being used in such a way, even though 2 of the 3 finalists were openly gay. Why should female bakers still attract such ridiculous interest?

Ruby puts it brilliantly in a column for the Guardian:

Raymond Blanc waded in on the commentary to so helpfully deride the “female tears” on the show. (What are “female tears”, anyway? Are they more fragile and delicate than male tears? Do they wear pink?) Kimberley’s self-assurance – a character trait so lauded in men– has been rebranded as smugness, cockiness and even malice.

It’s a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses. Food has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens.

I saw one male friend complain that the presence of 7 women to 1 man in the semi-final (that’s 1 male judge, 1 female judge, 2 presenters & 4 female contestants) was indicative of the assumption that baking was a female activity. Has he not seen the prevalence of male finalists in previous years? That the series is gender balanced to begin with and baking is judged on talent alone? That seeing women outnumber men on a prime time TV show is still a flipping rarity in Britain??

Another friend posted a link to Ruby’s column this morning, with the comment “now to face up to this in the church too”. I couldn’t agree more. If the world of food has become gendered, how much more is the church? Are “female tears” derided? Is self-assurance seen as smugness or malice? Is there still the assumption that if there’s food to be cooked, women will do it? I’m sure you can come up with your own answers…

Great-British-Bake-Off-2165415Farewell, class of 2013! (Incidentally, did anyone else notice Deborah’s brilliant new hairstyle in the final?) 

Back to the Bake Off. I have a suggestion for the BBC (well two, see above idea of the James & Sue Baking Show). The Bake Off moves to BBC1 next year, now that it’s considered to be mainstream enough. So, how about we make a bit more of the final? This year, there was a rumour that the winner had been leaked – so avoiding a repeat of this would be ideal. A good way to do this would be to make the final a live one.

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but actually perfectly doable. Have the same tents in Somerset, broadcast the day’s baking (perhaps just the showstopper) via the BBC’s red button so you can dip in and out whenever you want to. A friend even suggested multiple ‘oven cams’ so you could choose which cake you wanted to watch rising. Then at the end of the day, BBC1 could broadcast the judge’s decision live. Fabulous. What do you think, BBC?

Oh, and for those who don’t know, my favourite won. Frances made a gorgeous wedding cake and looked stunned when she received her celebratory cake stand. There were audible whoops of joy from my living room. Until next year, Paul & Mary…

Intentionality – a follow up

Tuesday’s post about the representation of women amongst speakers at Christian conferences and within church leadership as a whole has garnered a lot of comments – on the post, on Twitter and on Facebook. On the one hand, it’s great to have a discussion about this issue, but on the other hand, it’s shown me that I need to clarify my views on a couple of things and respond to a few of the comments.

So, before you carry on reading this post, it’s probably going to make sense to read the earlier one – including the comments. If you’re my Facebook friend, you might want to read the thread there (or not), or take a look at some of the tweets. [It’s at this point that I wish, for the sake of tidiness, that everyone responded in the same location!]

Clergy Wives
I wonder if the inclusion of the tweet from the person at New Wine caused people to misunderstand my thoughts on clergy wives who speak at conferences. I’m not anti-wives – in fact there are many that I have (and would) pay to hear speak. One such wife, who does speak at these festivals, is a real encouragement to me during this whole ordination process and I have a huge amount of respect for her. I do not consider these women to be under-qualified because they’re not ordained, like any other person, I simply expect for them to have been chosen to speak on their own merit!

But, I do feel that to ask a woman to speak on the basis of who she is married to, rather than her gifts, talents and areas of expertise, is wrong – it seems akin to the tokenism mentioned in the previous post. At Focus – the conference on which I was reflecting – the one female main stage speaker was not a clergy wife (it was Beth Redman – a worship leader’s wife) and several of the wives of church planters spoke during the Wednesday morning session I referred to. There are issues surrounding clergy wives, which I’ve highlighted before, but just want to list here:

  • If the only female speakers seen are married to clergy, it gives the impression that churches or conferences are of the opinion that women may only speak if they are doing so in the context of being married to someone who is in leadership. (We recently saw an example of this with the furore over Bristol University’s CU rules for women speakers.) If conferences believe that this is the only acceptable context in which women may speak, then they should be open about it. If they do not, then they need to demonstrate this, by including women speakers who are not married to church leaders. 
  • Again, if the only visible women in leadership are there because they are married to church leaders, it gives the impression that the role of leadership belongs to the man and the woman he is married to. For women, this suggests that church leadership cannot be attained without a husband. For men, it suggests that leadership in church is rightfully within the male domain. In such contexts, church leaders again need to explicit in their teaching that this is not the only model of leadership that works or is Biblical. [I’m still exceedingly grateful that in a previous church I attended, the vicar described himself as a ‘male feminist’ and regularly taught on women in the church – it’s that kind of direct message, to both genders, that needs to be present in churches.]
  • If wives are teaching/leading to the exclusion of ordained women (and other lay female speakers), there is a problem. As I said above, any speaker needs to have something to offer those listening – there ought to be no room for tokenism or special favours to those with ‘big name’ surnames. But I wonder if that’s always the case. How do other women get their first chances?

Ultimately, it does the cause of equality and representation no good if women are battling factions! If in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female…then surely there should be no division between lay, ordained or married? Yes, in an ideal world, but we’re not there yet. In the mean time, it’s important that these conversations happen sensitively, without denigrating those who genuinely feel called to take on these roles.

The strength of patriarchy
This is an interesting one. Several responses to my post were along the lines of “men get to speak because they are men – it’s their privilege and the women speakers are token” and I find that a difficult argument to believe. Call me naive or even stupid, but I refuse to believe that patriarchal thinking is so widespread. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a church background where if it did exist, it was minimal, that I give many the benefit of the doubt. That’s why I think it’s about intentionality – those organising festivals and making decisions about church leadership need to intentionally think about who they’re inviting and the message that they’re sending. If they want to look patriarchal, then fine – tell people that that’s what they’re doing and people will vote with their feet either way.

Some comments referred directly to the HTB world and that’s a difficult one for me to comment upon as I’ve only been a part of it for two years. I do find that I regularly have to challenge people’s assumptions regarding HTB and women. For example, the idea that the majority of St Mellitus’ female population are less likely to be evangelical – no, amongst the full-time students, the majority of women are evangelical. I speak for myself, but I certainly found St Mellitus to be more egalitarian than other ‘evangelical’ labelled theological colleges I visited. There was a bit of a stir on Twitter a while back regarding women in leadership at HTB (and I appreciate Heather’s comment on this on the original post) – there are women, both ordained (as curates) and in the leadership of different ministries. Clearly things have come a long way in recent years, but there is still more to be done. But, it is not the bastion of misogyny that some people seem to believe it is. Far from it.

Rosie-The-Riveter-Button-(0276)Speaking out
My thoughts in the post on Tuesday were just that – my thoughts. They were the things that I had pondered, as a woman less than a year away from ordination, in a denomination that still forbids my gender to hold senior leadership. They were not the definitive ‘this is how things are for women in the leadership of evangelical churches’, nor were they an attack on anyone – simply a request for some more thinking to be done, resulting in actual action, with regard to women. I was nervous posting it and when receiving comments, I read each with trepidation. This is a subject incredibly close to my heart and in many ways it would be easier to stay silent. But I made a decision a while ago that this was an issue I was so passionate about that I would continue to speak out – with respect and with dignity, but I would speak about it. It may damage my job prospects within the church. It might make me unpopular with certain parts of the church, but I will not be silenced – and nor should any other women in the church.

Intentional or token?

Christian festival season usually means that the issue of gender representation rears its head again. Someone, somewhere will analyse festival programmes, working out what proportion of the speakers are female and whether that proportion seems appropriate. For Focus, that person was me, while in the green room for a BBC recording.

Focus was analysed thus:
Main stage speakers: 1 woman out of 9.
Seminar speakers: 8 women out of 27. (Though 2 of the seminars I went to had women speakers who had not been listed on the programme.)

Focus wasn’t alone. The Keswick Conference had none (people on Twitter were not surprised by this), and someone at New Wine LSE tweeted this comment during the week:

Ah yes, the lay wives of clergy thing… Yes, couples where one is ordained are both called by God, but the issue really isn’t about the woman concerned, but the prevalence at many of these conferences of wives of church leaders speaking from the front while ordained women sit listening. Why aren’t the ordained women speaking??

At Focus, Wednesday morning was a highlight for me – not just because it was orchestral & choral worship morning, but because this was the first time I’ve heard an ordained woman speak at a main stage HTB network event. It was church plant morning, where those plants that were new, or changing, reported back and were prayed for. Again and again male clergy came up to the stage with their wives in tow. The men did most of the speaking. But then, the leader of a new plant in Hounslow was invited up – Libby Etherington, an ordained woman. I whooped vigorously! I cheered again when my belief that she was the first female HTB church planter was confirmed from the stage. [As an aside, in the commissioning of the newest church plant, I think HTB may have commissioned their first unmarried church planter. Another landmark.]

It’s progress, but much more work is needed…

Earlier in the week, I’d attended an excellent seminar on gender from Sean Doherty (my Ethics tutor at St Mellitus) & Tamsin Merchant (part of the brains behind the recent Young Women’s Vocations Day). The content was great, but it was the questions at the end that fascinated me:

  • How can women find mentors if they worship in churches where few women in leadership can be found?
  • What can we do to encourage women who feel called into leadership?
  • Do churches/conferences need to be more intentional about involving women, or is intentionality tokenism?

That last question was my own and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I want to see women speaking, but I want it to be because they have something worth listening to, not just because “we need to have a woman”. I hear great women speaking on a regular basis – I’ve had some great lectures from female theologians; I’ve been to women’s events where talented women have contributed; I’ve worked in a denomination where women have regularly held the top job and performed brilliantly; and I know that there are a lot of great women out there that I’ve never had the opportunity to hear.

Often, when I mention the lack of women at these festivals, people ask “well, who would you like to hear?”, which isn’t always a fair question. Do you know of every male speaker on the Christian circuit? No. Then why expect me to know which are the women who should be speaking? I do have some names I throw into the mix – especially if it’s a theological setting. But part of the problem is that at these big events, there are big-name speakers flown in from the US. Attitudes to gender within many of their churches are even more complicated than ours, and finding women who are in the same league as Louie Giglio (Focus’ top speaker, and an excellent one), Bill Johnson, Rick Warren or Rob Bell is nigh on impossible.

But I know and understand that, so I don’t expect to find women – or that many at least – in that league. What I would like is for a conference to think to itself: “Well, we’ve got a big-name from the US who happens to be male, do we have a British woman who could contribute too?” And to actively pursue balancing out the main stage speakers so that there’s an even mix of men and women. Someone, this year, should have looked at the list of speakers at the Focus Big Top and asked why there was only one woman…

It’s not all about the conferences though. In fact, for the conferences to get the idea, it needs to happen at grass roots level. There needs to be an inherent intentionality to include both men and women in all forms of leadership and speaking – then perhaps it won’t be too much effort. When I asked my question, Tamsin replied that intentionality was not tokenism, it was a change in mindset that was needed. She used an example of a lunch I’d been at just an hour earlier where everyone who had spoken had been male, but hadn’t needed to be – that’s when intentionality comes into play. Sean added that it’s only tokenism (in his opinion) if someone asks a woman to contribute by saying it’s “because you’re a woman”.

The Wednesday morning where we heard from the first female church planter was also the morning when all the St Mellitus ordinands, graduates and staff are prayed for. I like to refer to this as ‘ritual humiliation of ordinands’ day, but it’s actually a real privilege. HTB has a strong relationship with St Mellitus and many of those training there are placed with HTB plants and go on to work within the network too, but as we stood on stage, I noticed something…

Nicky G. +Richard & St MellitusNicky Gumbel & The Bishop of London pray for St Mellitus. (Credit.)

It’s not necessarily clear from this photo, as it doesn’t show the whole stage and some of the people are obscured, but while standing up there I became aware of how few women were present. One of the things I love about St Mellitus is the fact that men and women are split pretty much 50/50 – there’s no noticeable imbalance. (If anything, given all the people in my year who did two years not three, our final year will be rather female dominated!) Yet in that group on the stage, there were only four female students – i.e. four women who are placed in churches that are part of the HTB network and go to Focus. There was (as far as I could tell) one woman who had trained at St Mellitus and now works within the network. There were an awful lot of men. All the women I’m training with will get (and have got) jobs at the end of it all, but it doesn’t look as though any of them are at an HTB network church. Is there an intentionality to have women leaders? I’m not sure. Curacies are often the luck of the draw, but at the moment it seems that the men are luckier. [Obviously, these churches can and do take curates from other colleges and many people I train with wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of the network, but there is a definite absence of women in leadership.]

We need a church that is intentional about sorting these imbalances out. In the mean time, I’m going to be intentionally asking the same questions and making the same points over and over again, until something changes. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.

What’s the collective noun for…

…a gathering of 70 young women interested in ordination?

I’ve no idea. A group of vicars is a ‘prudence’. A host of ladybirds is a ‘loveliness’. Quite frankly, it matters not a jot what the correct collective noun is, the fact that it happened in the first place is utterly awesome.

Did you know that women in their 20’s (and particularly of an evangelical inclination) are the least represented demographic amongst ordinands? There are many reasons why this is the case. Possibly, young women are more reticent about coming forward. Perhaps they lack role models to encourage them in their calling. Chances are, they’re worried about the role of being a woman in a church that doesn’t always welcome their gender. Maybe they’re terrified of the uniform. Whatever it is, it’s likely to be something that can be overcome with a little work.

This is where #ywv2013 came in. A day to encourage young women to explore what God might be calling them into.


I was there largely thanks to its location – my vicar school – and my enthusiastic response to the Dean’s suggestion that a few female ordinands go along to share their experiences. Of course, given the way the church works, it turned out I knew several people on the planning team and attending the day themselves, so it was a great opportunity to network and catch up too. (Fear not Dean, I did also emphasise what a jolly good time I’m having at college and plugged St Mellitus where appropriate.)

It was soon abundantly clear that this was going to be a very exciting day. 70 women from across the country felt that God was possibly calling them to ordination – people travelled from as far afield as Doncaster and Cardiff to be there. The team was excited at the response and the guests were excited to be with like-minded contemporaries. The future of the Church of England all of a sudden looked to be a much brighter place for women!

Young women gather at St Jude'sListening to Helen Fraser share her experiences of selection, training & curacy.

It wasn’t long before I wished that something similar had been held five years ago when I began exploring my calling. I was comparatively lucky, as I knew people who had been through the process and were just ahead of me in it. Most of these were women – and single women at that. Someone I chatted to on Saturday said I was the first single female ordinand she’d met! I also have parents who’ve been through it and have (literally) written a book on the process. I had plenty of people to talk to and never felt isolated. However, that is definitely the exception rather than the rule. The majority of those present on Saturday had come on their own, desperate to find people who they could learn from, confide in and ask questions of. It was an enormous privilege to be able to provide some form of solidarity with them!

There are all sorts of perceived barriers to ordination when you’re a young woman:

  • Is it biblical for a woman to lead a church?
  • I’ve never heard a woman preach – are there any good ones?
  • Clerical shirts look rubbish on women, especially if you’re blessed with a chest…
  • What will my husband do?/Who wants to marry a vicar?
  • Can I lead a church without a husband?

That last one really hit me yesterday, while at a conference for the network of churches that my church is a part of. There wasn’t a single female vicar present – every church was led by a married man, with a supportive wife. (More positively, there were at least five female ordinands in the room.) They accounted for the majority of evangelical churches in London. If you’re a member of one of those churches, where do you draw your inspiration from? Who are your role models? It’s something I find incredibly difficult every time I’m in one of those gatherings. (Although don’t get me wrong, the churches are doing great things, it’s just frustrating that women are noticeable in their absence – well, to me and the other female ordinands I chatted with. Should I mention I also got asked to join a panel of 4 curates/ordinands “as a woman”?? I digress…)

This is why we need these days. So that young women can see the amazing things that female clergy have already achieved. That even in a world without female bishops, good stuff is happening. That you can be married, and a mother, or single and still live out your calling. That there are lots of other women exploring the same call, and they’re not freaks. That life does not end once you become selected for ordination, it’s only just beginning…