I hate being told what to do. So when I was lent a book with the words “You’ve got to read this” I resisted. Strongly. For weeks. But the lender is pretty persistent too, and kept asking me when I was planning to read it. I finally gave up. “After Easter” I promised.
But there was more to my resistance than sheer bloody mindedness. The book was about the experiences of women priests in the Church of England. It was written in 2001. I didn’t want to be lectured by a group of women who’ve had it so much worse than me in church life. I have done being the only woman in a man’s world. I know what it is like. I lived it as a young woman for two years, and then copped out. Two years of the same jokes, same less funny jokes, same comments, same nasty comments, same nasty scary comments, same physical stuff. Two years of acting like I didn’t give a toss when everything cut me. Two years of always having an answer, of always fighting back. Fighting and fighting. Two years of being worn down until I gave up and found a different job in a more mixed environment.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may be a cliche, but like all good cliches, it contains an element of truth. Moving to an environment where I didn’t have to fight all the time meant when I did need to fight, I could, and I did it rather well. I became one of the women who no-one messed with. I expect people to listen to me, and take me seriously, because of those two years. Later in my career, I did jobs where the experience of both the work and the attitudes was invaluable. I didn’t ever really stop being an engineer in my head. I didn’t want to read the book. I didn’t want to relive those two years. I read the book. It’s called “Jobs for the Boys” by Liz and Andrew Barr.
Well, it was inspirational. I found real women, funny women, strong women, women who made me feel humble. One of them commented that the new generation of us have it easy, don’t have to fight like they did. The rest was affirmation from start to end. The range of backgrounds, and the depth of experience was just amazing. It makes my own calling even more unlikely. (I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere, if ever I lose my sense of surprise at being a priest, I need to be put out to pasture.) It filled me with confidence. So I went on to read another book I’ve been resisting, for not dissimilar reasons – “Like the wideness of the sea” by Maggi Dawn. Well, it was interesting. She and I agree on many points, particularly to do with the difficulty of a church holding two mutually exclusive views, and I follow her logic for resolution. I found her account of her own vocation interesting, and her reasons for leaving the immediate environment of the Church of England made sense too – after all, I did exactly the same with engineering.
And I read a review of her book in the Church Times, by Bridget Nichols, Lay Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely. I can’t link to it, sorry. Other reviews, blogged and published, have been rather glowing. And they have spoken of how difficult it is to read of the appalling treatment that she endured. Wake up, people. Where have you been? Someone spat at her, once. Yes, it isn’t nice. It certainly isn’t behaviour one expects in a vestry. But there are hundreds and hundreds of women up and down the country who have endured worse, when they have become part of a male dominated environment. However, I haven’t lived in the academic world, which I am told can be vitriolic. I haven’t had to cope with female jealousy and destruction. I didn’t particularly live with assaults aimed especially at my intelligence – the stuff I lived with was far less sophisticated.
But although many of my friends are hugely angered at Bridget Nichols’s review, I think she makes a fair point. She claims Dawn fails to provide “the clarity needed that accepting an invitation to Yale was sacrificial as well as providential”. I am inclined to agree that it is non obvious to me that getting a job of that kind is sacrificial. I am less convinced that Maggi Dawn has any need to prove it was sacrificial. But then, when I couldn’t stand the heat, I got out of the kitchen too.