Being a proper woman is my life goal and thus I turn – as do many females working from home, taking care of children or not otherwise engaged – to ITV’s This Morning where lessons in excelling in femininity flow daily. Award winning and with an audience of millions (them not me), I’m in good hands.
I can expect my outfits to be analysed and graded by an all-knowing panel of reality stars and a jaunty Irish man, expert in culotte length and the ways of the box pleat. I am told nude heels will add a classy touch to any outfit (assuming I’m nothing other than pale and white, obvs) though also that heels are out and sandals are in – a paradox I can digest more easily while utilising the information that white chocolate goes well with sparkling wine. I have learned copying Angelina’s eye make-up could change my life, losing weight before my wedding will make the day even more perfect, contouring make-up could make my face look slimmer and that asparagus season has arrived.
Many of the lessons This Morning transmits are subtle (I’ll exclude the recent appearance of a very earnest doctor insisting he’d never advise anyone to amputate their own limbs. Caught that one just in time…) and yet there’s a pervasive attitude, an unspoken code, about what makes a proper woman. Be quirky, ambitious, politically aware, focused on things other than appearance, weight loss, relationships, astrology, TV talent shows and food and This Morning may not be your friend. Be unfortunate enough to transgress the agreed code by being older than your partner (taboo breaking and possibly lethal apparently) or born into a difficult part of town and subject to abuses and you become a potential danger to us all. Focus on the domestic, personal improvement and ignore the wider world, and our collective safety and comfort should be assured.
So… Here’s when I ramp up the controversy a tad and ask if the same goes for the CRE. Not the cougar warning or advice on amputation (unless things have radically departed from the previous focus on highly original soft rock worship albums and exciting new trends in cassocks) but on what makes a Good Woman. There are many fantastic women involved, talking with authority about what they know and inspiring visitors, but they are hidden away. A glance through the programme shows a predominantly male line-up and a curious lack of visible women. They’re not keynote speakers – refined gentlemen of a certain age all round, including the author of ‘Leadership is male’ – but some can be located in the obligatory separate event for the laydeez and the seminar programme. Here I can hear about family life, parenting, parenting teenagers, storytelling, storytelling in primary schools, body image and how to do paperwork competently. The safe topics, it seems, for being a Good Woman Christian-style. No contributions to the topics of website building, science, substance misuse, technical expertise, study, volunteering, confrontation, travel, climate change or ‘standing firm’. These are left to the boys.
I know some world-changing women. They start organisations, projects, charities and campaigns. They juggle responsibilities to make a difference at local, national and international levels. They work in diverse industries and communities. Many are competent, engaging speakers. People – men and women – could learn a lot from them and yet how often are they – any women – asked to talk at Christian events about non-gendered topics? I’m sure it’s subconscious. At least I hope so. We can label without realisation or intent or we can do so because we believe it’s where women belong and I don’t think I’m the only one to find the consequences disappointing. Even an apparently gender neutral session on the Bible, delivered one assumes by a hilarious chap, is advertised with this witty quip: “Chilling, challenging, complete, confusing, compelling… a recent encounter with your mother-in-law or your relationship with the Bible?” The potential exists to have diverse, challenging, informed, educated and experienced female voices in every event that (in theory) doesn’t have an ethos of limited participation of women. It’s not just the CRE. Of course it’s not; examples spring up with depressing regularity. But can we do better? Can we become conscious of our bias in what we think makes a Good Christian Woman and create space for many more voices to be heard? It will take deliberate change to structures, habits, perceptions and expectations but I believe we can. What do you think?