Jeff Short chats to renowned philosopher, sociologist and theologian, Elaine Storkey to explore the lives of courageous women from the Bible who stood up for what they believed even if it meant going against their culture or social expectations.
Jeff: Elaine Storkey has a book out which talks about Women in
a Patriarchal World. It's lovely to have you on the program. It's
about 35 years ago that I was reading a book called What's Right with
Feminism, plagiarising it for a dodgy 2,1 at Bristol University.
Elaine: Well done!
Jeff: I did actually give credit where credit was due. Looking back over that, is the landscape different 35 years on when you were talking about feminist issues then and 28 years on the synod of the Church of England. Have you seen change?
Elaine: Enormously. The things I was writing about in that book have either all come to pass or we're facing a completely different climate now. Then I was looking at feminism and the different types of feminism. I didn't get any where near where feminism is today, which is really kind of split. But the issues are different too. Women have moved into professional areas; they have moved into equal pay and a whole range of areas, although still held behind. Even when you look at the pay of women and men today in some professions they are not equal but there is certainly lots of catching up. What I didn't do in that book which I have had to do over and over again since then is look at the level of violence towards women in society as a whole and the kind of talking down and demeaning but also gender warfare. And transgender just didn't even feature 35 years ago. We weren't bothered about that and transgender issues effectively split the feminist movement and split LGBT movements. So the landscape is quite different. The public face is different; there are more people who think they know the issues than they did before, more people have fought for the issues. But actually women have also lost a lot in the meantime. Women wanted to be different, not be the same as men, not to be counted as men and classified as men but to be different, to be themselves but equal. I think we haven't got there yet.
Jeff: I'm so pleased you said that because as an interested bystander in many ways there are times when I've thought if there were more women at the top table that would become a nicer place to be. But I think sometimes just to get there they have to compete and take on the less attractive facets of maleness.
Elaine: Yes, and that's exactly what happened. It's happened in politics, it's happened across the board really. Women pioneers have got to be pretty gutsy people and some of them are quite hard. I think what we're finding now is that women who are coming into those professions there is more space for them to be themselves, to have their own voices, to decide actually I don't want to be like that; I don't want to facilitate an old-fashioned male norm that isn't good for men anyway.
Jeff: Domestic violence: do you get a sense, or pick up anecdotes or do you have evidence that the pandemic has accentuated that?
Elaine: It definitely has. We have evidence, we have statistics. Femicide, women being killed by their partner or former partner or sometimes their husband, has grown during the lockdown particularly. At the moment we have more than two women every week who are killed by a partner in the UK, which is a staggering statistic when you think about it. That's part of domestic violence; it's not all of it. There are lots of other forms of domestic abuse that don't get to femicide, that don't get to murder. But that figure is striking. Of course, we have to be absolutely fair and say domestic violence and domestic abuse operates on both sides. There are male victims of domestic abuse also. Sometimes it's violence sometimes it's vicious. It can be horrible for men and they often have no where to go whereas women do have shelters and women's aid and refuge, there are lots of organizations fighting for women, very few for men. We mustn't underestimate that but by and large, statistically the weight is the other way round. When it comes to deaths, women are usually killed by the men that were abusing them. When men are killed it is usually by the women they are abusing as a kind of last stand, trying to protect themselves. So again, even that is transfigured in different ways. But domestic violence is a scourge of our country; the level of abuse that goes on behind closed doors, that nobody knows about because everybody tries to pretend happy families until it's almost too late to carry on the pretence. The most dangerous part of domestic violence for a woman is when she tries to leave because then a very vindictive guy will do everything he can to punish her and that might end up in her death.
Jeff: Again, the misery that can be caused by financial abuse where a woman has to beg of a man just for feminine hygiene products, which I have come across. The abuse where somebody feels absolutely worthless, the verbal abuse so they can't lift their head and they think they deserve everything that's coming. It's got so many bitter fruits this tree, hasn't it?
Elaine: And with all of those, where does that leave a woman in the long term? A lot of people say to me well, women can leave. But when you've been run down for years, when you've been belittled and undermined; when you've been deprived of your own voice and money and so on you've got no self-confidence. Where would a woman like that go to? How would she go? She's even afraid of seeking help. Very often she's tried to get help, sometimes even, I have to say, from the church and she's been told to go back and be a better wife or forgive the man, or whatever. Really unhelpful advice. So women are left in a terrible situation where it's almost impossible for them to leave the abusive relationship until the crunch comes and they have to go.
Jeff: I worried when there were adverts on the television saying if you're a victim call this number or do this. My little silent prayer was please don't let there be some very angry man there who says don't you dare and raises a fist. You're trying to help but it doesn't always work.
Elaine: And guys can tap their phones so they know when they're making phone calls. I've invited someone into my house to make a phone call from my own phone in the past because there's no other way of doing it. The level of control for the perpetrator of domestic abuse can reach almost totality. It can be so intense that it's very difficult to escape from it.
Jeff: We could talk a long while on that, maybe we could get you back and we'll talk a bit more about it. But you've a wonderful book out about Women in a Patriarchal World, empowering stories from the Bible. There may be some ladies who think the church and faith is not the natural environment for them, that it's been a sort of patriarchal safari park for men.
Elaine: You can understand that. For centuries women have been the ones who have backed up the leadership in the church. They've done an awful lot of the work, let's face it, but they've had no authority and no clout. That's changed; there are women ministers, women bible teachers, women who are running theological seminaries and all kinds of things. Women do have a place in the authority structures of the church now and that's fantastic. But actually, in a very real sense, we need to go back further than the church. We do need to look at what the biblical text says and I was concerned, and this is the reason I wrote it really, that an awful lot of women, feminists and I would class myself as a feminist are very anti-Christian because they say it's all there in the biblical text. The text talks down to women, it pardons men who are doing horrible things to women and it has two rules: one for men and one for women. And I thought let's look at those stories and see if that's true. Of course the bible was written into patriarchal societies; the whole history of society is patriarchal, whichever society you're looking at, so you'd expect texts that had been written thousands of years ago to reflect that. But they are startlingly radical with regard to women and I found that over and over again when you're looking at the stories of specific women, both in the Hebrew scriptures in the Old Testament and of course especially in the New Testament. I wanted to share it with people because it is such a wonderful revelation when you've come across some of these spunky women who in very patriarchal times it's something different.
Jeff: You've picked out 25 and some of them are quite startling; very often they are overturning the norm. You also have people who are in places of honour, Deborah for instance.
Elaine: The other thing I found out, women often work together in cohorts to achieve a really great result. We think of the story of Moses in the bull-rushes but actually it was three women - Moses' mother Jochabed, his sister Miriam and Bithiah the princess who worked together and rescued Moses. Telling the story from each of their angles - what was it like for the mother, the sister, the princess and what aim did they have? It's because they were all women and women don't want to see little babies drowned in the Nile there's something deeply horrible about that. And they were able to allow their feelings, their emotions and their ethics and morality to overcome the situation and the ghastly Pharaoh and rescue at least one baby boy. They have no power against the Pharaoh, not even his daughter, but they could work together to make sure they got a good result.
Jeff: I'm tempted to say someone picking the book up would find someone themselves or someone like them in there.
Elaine: Thank you. Jeff. I think so too. And at the end of every chapter, I want to say and what does that say to us today? Are there parallels in our lives today? There's the story of Rahab who's a prostitute; she hides the spies coming to Israel because even though she is not an Israelite, she knows that God is doing something important in the land of Israel and they are pagans. Then you ask the question why is prostitution not condemned here? We need to ask questions today like what should our attitude be to women in prostitution. Why are they in prostitution? Very often they're in prostitution because they're trapped; they come from backgrounds where they end up having very little alternative in terms of skills. But also they often come from an abusive background, a background where they've been ground down. It changes your attitude towards people when you read these stories because of what the bible text is saying and it speaks into our own situation. Very often when you read these stories you think how would I have coped and what is going on in our society and our lives that is similar? How do I cope? I think these are good lessons for us to learn.
Jeff: When I think of Rahab I have to think if we had Jesus on Who Do You Think You Are and we trace his family tree and say your great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother was a prostitute. And the foreign woman Ruth features in the family tree of Jesus. You finish with two women who have fallen out at the end so it's not as though you totally glamourise it.
Elaine: We have to end on a note of reality; not everything goes right.
Jeff: If you could have been any one of the 24, I'll take Mary off the table....
Elaine: I think there were 30 women and 25 stories. If I could be any one of them, gosh! I think I would like to have been one of the Hebrew midwives who put two fingers up to Pharaoh and said shove off! We're going to deliver these babies no matter what you think.
Jeff: I'd encourage people to get your book, Women in a Patriarchal World because there is so much in it. It's so encouraging and shamefully I'm thinking who the heck was Huldah?
Elaine: Isn't that interesting? We don't know about Huldah. There isn't a book of the bible named after her but she's the prophet that the king goes to interpret the book of the law. She's got a horrible task because she's got to tell him they're all heading for destruction. It can't have been easy.
Jeff: But the position that she had they listen and take that as an authentic word. In the press release it says, 'Featured in the book rebellion, love, collaboration, faith, determination, the need for justice, wisdom, prophecy, risk-taking, prompt action, foresight, intelligence, trust, boldness, persistence, generosity, humility, hospitality and bravery in situations - bereavement, loss of a child, long term illness, widowhood, childlessness, persecution, threats of death' and you say these women were called by God to respond in the place where they belonged and it's the same for us facing our own challenges. You've put isolation which could be lockdown but apart from the lack of football in the stadium you've got everything there for today.
Elaine: I think you're very right, more perceptive than I was. Thank you, Jeff.
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