Faith and feminism: comrades or conflict? Part 1

There was an interesting article in the Guardian last month showing that women that identified themselves as feminists were much less likely than women in general to identify themselves as belonging to a particular faith.  They were statistically more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic, and to be interested in female-centric paganism, or in alternative spirituality.


But the challenge put to me by feminist friends was how is it possible to be both feminist and Christian?  Or, as feminist writer Cath Elliott put it:

“Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.”

So an attempt at answering that challenge.  There’s so much to say on this issue there may need to be more than one post…

1) Do we have a common understanding of what feminism is?
It is fairly clear that Cath Elliott believes that third wave feminists should have no truck with religion.  This is an old argument, and there’s pages of resources which gives an idea of how long the place of women in Christianity has been under debate.

But feminism is not itself a faith system with a common set of beliefs.  Wikipedia defines feminism as:

“a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Its concepts overlap with those of women’s rights. Much of feminism deals specifically with the problems women face in overcoming social barriers, but some feminists argue that gender equality implies a necessary liberation of both men and women from traditional cultural roles, and look at the problems men face as well”.

So far so good, right?  So let’s look at the definition of Christian feminism.
Christian feminism does not mean being Sarah Palin.  I promise.  It is one of the feminist movements covered in the definition above and looks at the position of men and women from a slightly different starting point, not just as individual units but as beings that find happiness in their relations with others, inherently equal but undeniably different, and that understanding this equality before God is essential to understanding our place in the world.

Essentially, as Helen LaKelly Hunt puts it, faith and feminism are “really different expressions of the same impulse to make life more whole“.
I don’t see these two approaches as being in conflict either, I don’t think Christian Feminism is an oxymoron, and I’ll attempt to explain why below.

2) “All religions oppress women”
This is the first challenge.  I can’t pretend to answer for all faiths – I’m a committed Christian and while I’ve looked at the other faiths because I’m interested in knowing more about what others believe, I can only answer as to why I don’t feel oppressed.

In many ways, the Christian faith as led by the church defines patriarchy. Indeed, the orthodox churches refer to their leaders as patriarchs!  But I’d argue that this was a reflection of the political period in which those structures developed rather than something naturally inherent in the message of Jesus Christ.

The slight cop-out answer, for me, comes from the fact of me being a protestant.  For me, the key is that Christianity is a relationship with God and not a religion.
The ceremonies, the churches’ structures, the stuff that is effectively man-made attempts to impose order – that’s religion.  I can see why you could criticise that.
We have women in leadership roles in my church, and I made the case for female bishops in a previous post and so I respect, but disagree with, the thoughtful considerations of other Christians that conclude that they do not believe there is a bible-based case for women in church leadership.  The message throughout the bible is that God created a perfect world, but that we humans use the free will he gave us and screw it up while he sends prophets and eventually his own son to try to help us get back on track.  I’d suggest that just possibly exclusion of women from positions of leadership in the church may be an element of that?

3) “The Christian message and the Feminist message are fundamentally incompatible”
The Christian message is simply this: we all try to be good.
But we do bad things.  Christians call it sin.
We reason with ourselves that probably most of them are not so bad, but these things separate us from God, who is all good and who cannot tolerate sin.
The price of this sin? Death – eternal separation from all goodness.
But it’s ok – God loves us and wants us to be happy with him.
So Jesus bridges the gap – he died when he didn’t deserve to and paid the price for all of us.  Accept that offer of Jesus, and be happy with God as he intended us to be, living in his kingdom.

Nowhere in that is there an exhortation to treat women as lesser beings.  Nowhere does it say that this is a message for men not women, that women are not equally called upon to be forgiven their sins and help make the world a better place.
So where’s the incompatibility?

I think this slightly depends on what you think the feminist message is.  For me, equality is at the heart of feminism: political, social and economic.  If, for you, the main thread is about sexual freedom, then you will see incompatibility.
But equality is also there in Christianity: equal access to all spiritual blessings through Jesus.
Throughout the bible it is the people that treat women as inferiors, not God.
God’s angels address women directly just as they do men, and when women are in a position to make a difference, while some are consorts like Esther, you also find queens in their own right like Deborah.
Jesus’s attitude to women was truly counter-cultural – we have forgotten just how shocking even talking to a woman publicly was.
And God used the women at the heart of Jesus’s group of followers for one of the most important roles at Easter – it was the women that found that Jesus was gone from and who came to tell the others, this critical role played by women at a time when in the temple courts a woman’s testimony counted for nothing (“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a)).
So equality before God?  Yes, it’s spelt out in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And yet there is a conflict.  Jesus’s model for changing the world was that of serving others, serving God.
We can talk about rights, demand respect, argue about fairness, protest about a lack of political and business representation, but ultimately in a perfect world everyone, male and female, would seek the best way to serve each other rather than put each other down and get one over each other.  That’s real equality.
For me, feminism is a stepping stone in this imperfect society to build something a little closer to this, to help us to do the right thing.

Next time: sex, and women in society…

Has Pepperberry boobed?

I own a LOT of Bravissimo clothing.  I’ve been a massive Bravissimo fan over the years… at last, a company that understood that customers like me – hourglass curvy with bigger boobs – are fashion conscious, like stylish, good quality clothes and, most importantly, go in at the middle.  Yep, even though I’ve put on some weight since I started shopping with them, Bravissimo ensured that I could look good and not have to dress in a tent-like top or look matronly to accommodate my bust.
This year, Bravissimo launched Pepperberry, separating their lingerie/ nightwear and clothing brands.  Hooray, I thought, a bigger range of clothes to fit me!
But it seems Pepperberry may not really be looking for people like me to be customers.

The first thing that has changed is that the models have gone super-skinny.
One of the nice things about shopping for Bravissimo clothes was that looking at the models in the catalogue/ online gave at reasonable impression of what the clothes might actually look like on me.  Now, thanks to the models’ skinniness and the online images of the outfits without anyone in them, I’m back to the guesswork I have to apply when looking at any other clothing company.

The next thing to have changed is, it seems, the quality.  Everything seems thin, sheer, and stitching seems to come undone at the seems (my new blue fifties style wrap dress is suffering from this).
It seems I’m not the only person to have notice this – the Pepperberry Facebook page is filled with a mix of fans excited at having received new clothes they love, and those experiencing disappointment.  More of that later, but importantly, many commenters were leaving messages to this effect.
It’s probably worth noting that this issue is not unique to Pepperberry – many high street names seem to be using suppliers that are less bothered about high quality than in the past – perhaps this is connected to the recession?  But given the price point of Pepperberry clothes, this is really not a good thing.

The next thing to have changed is sizing: when you are a company that differentiates itself by producing a range of clothes tailored to customers who have an issue with standard high street sizing it is fairly fundamental to get this right…
Essentially, Bravissimo clothes came in three bust sizes: curvy, really curvy and super curvy, relating to cup size. Clear instructions told you to ignore your standard high street size and measure so that you could get a correct fit.  I never found this a problem.

I ordered my usual Bravissimo size from Pepperberry’s new website in my first order from them.  To my surprise and disappointment, the 16SC was tight on the bust, and the length of the ditsy floral dress would’ve been fabulous if I was 16 but not suited to me at present where it is far too short.  I kept the denim skirt, but will only really be able to wear it with tights underneath for fear of being arrested for indecency. A quick skim through dress lengths in Pepperberry’s current collection showed that I’m too tall for much of it – and yes I’m a little above UK average height, but this was never a problem with Bravissimo clothes!  As for hip sizes, I knew that for shift-style dresses I needed to go up a dress size from my high street standard, and flared skirts no problem at all.

After much chuntering from fans on the Pepperberry Facebook page, Pepperberry – which does actually engage with its customers this way, and full credit it to them for it – put out the following statement:

As many of you will have experienced, there has been a lack of consistency in the sizing of Bravissimo clothes in the past. Last year we reviewed our measurements following customer feedback and some additional research into high street sizing in preparation for the launch of Pepperberry.
In terms of our curvy sizes, much of the feedback that we received from our customers was that our styles were too full over the boobs. Previously we designed our garments to fit a range of bust measurements in each size, and we discovered that over time we had generally been increasing the amount of bust room in each curvy size so that instead of being a perfect fit for someone measuring in the middle of a curvy size (and being correspondingly a little more snug on someone at the top end and a little looser on someone at the bottom end) we were often creating a perfect fit for someone at the very top of the curvy size range instead.  So over time our curvy sizes generally got bigger, although the amount they grew varied depending on the actual size and the type of style – but it meant that many customers were finding they had to buy a curvy size smaller than they measured. The result of this was that customers who measured ‘Curvy’ ended up too small for any of our clothes, even though they found fitted high street clothes too tight on the bust – and we received lots and lots of feedback to this affect.
Following extensive fittings in store and analysis of customer feedback, we adjusted our measurements to provide a consistent fit over the curviness sizing using set measurements from within the original measurement ranges. To further improve the fit we also reduced the amount of gathers we added over and around the boob area in some garments, as this had exacerbated the problem further. As a result of these changes some of you may notice that the curvy sizes in many styles are smaller than they have been previously but you should now find the sizing to be consistent. These changes have mainly affected the Curvy and Really Curvy sizes across the range, with smaller changes being made to our Super Curvy sizes. However, although the changes to Super Curvy garments have not been so great, we know the changes mean some people who used to find a Super Curvy fitted them in some styles are now finding it difficult to fit into our clothes at all. If this applies to you please let us know – we are currently trialling development of a ‘Super Duper Curvy’ size and as well as assessing how well this works and whether people like the garments in these sizes, we need to assess demand to ensure development would be viable.
We have also reviewed our waist and hip measurements following lots of customer comments to say that our clothes were coming up roughly one size bigger than standard UK dress sizes. We have recently adjusted the grading to bring our dress sizes in line with the high street and to ensure consistency across the range so you should now find that if you are generally a UK size 12 you fit into Pepperberry size 12.
I hope this makes sense and clears up some of the problems you have been experiencing. Please do continue to let us have your feedback on the sizing, we hope that you will find consistency across the range now and rely on you to let us know if this isn’t the case. Our aim is to provide fashionable clothes that offer a fit solution for women with bigger boobs who are between dress sizes 8 to 18.

Now, I don’t know, but I have to wonder…  there is presumably a reason why high street shops opt to sell clothes in the sizes they do.  I’d imagine it has something to do with maximising the potential number of customers.  If you ask a widespread number of women what they want, they will presumably come up with something like the high street norm. The problem will be for the outliers – too small or too large in part or in whole to find a good fit at that average.

So what that basically means is because the focus will be on those that are a bit smaller than what had been average Bravissimo sizing, I now need to buy the largest Pepperberry size – 18SC – in everything, and if that’s too small, thank you and good night.  But if a Super Duper Curvy is introduced, that might help a bit.  I might only need to say goodbye to the shift-style dresses.

Bravissimo clothing had a niche market, women who are not enormous blobs (they only go up to an 18), but have big boobs and want more space in their clothes at the bust.
With high street retailers like Monsoon cutting the room in the busts of their clothes, more of us had come to depend on Bravissimo for fashionable, 20- and 30- something appropriate well-fitting clothes.
I will keep buying Pepperberry’s slightly longer clothes in the ego-shattering larger size and hoping that it will fit.  But  I don’t really have anywhere else to go.

I think the reason so many of us seem to be taking this corporate decision quite personally is because wearing well fitting, stylish clothes give us confidence.  To suddenly find your source of these is in doubt shakes the confidence.
Fans know this, and the Pepperberry Facebook page is providing a peer-customer-level support and campaign space.  Real women upload mobile phone photos of themselves wearing the clothes,  which while never as flattering as one might hope when ordering the clothes, they give a much better indication of the fit than the skinny models do.
It’s worth noting too that Bravissimo pieces get quite high “used” prices on Ebay which shows the level of fan love for the clothes.  Some people do actually advertise on the Pepperberry site when they are selling old clothes on Ebay (I’ve found this useful as an Ebay addict! 🙂 )
But it’s the mutual support – the “likes” on the photos, the comments and the horror against the resizing, the “don’t worry it’s me too” that make it a good page to read.  Of course I know that people that feel strongly for or against something are more likely to comment – I write a blog after all – and that they may not be representative of the average customer. Fine, but sometimes speaking up matters.

Pepperberry do actually comment too, thanking customers for positive comments, and now- after a bit of a shaky start – saying sorry to those that are disappointed, and offering their (lovely) customer service staff as the place to turn to.  In fact, they’ve got good social media customer engagement going on there. I’m impressed with that.
I really hope they note that it is not the same 5 disappointed customers commenting over and over again, but different names as different people receive their orders.
It would be great if they took note of the pleas from those of us at the super curvy end of the scale.
And while I don’t need it at present, if they would contemplate doing the size 20-24 clothes they could skim off some of the middle section of the Evans market… just a thought…

Over 1700 people “like” Pepperberry on Facebook, and a fair number seem to be emotionally invested too as I’ve tried to explain.
Reducing the clothing sizes might be good business sense.  Or they might have boobed.
But to us, it matters that we have something good to wear.
After all, as Mark Twain said “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society“.

Europe Day: really a referendum?

Or how I  stopped worrying and learned to love representative democracy…

Thumb up with EU flag
Thumb up with EU flag Photo: Swissmacky/Shutterstock Images

Today is Europe Day.  While as a good EU citizen the date is of course inscribed on my heart, the other reason for knowing is the press coverage because apparently the European flag will not be flying outside 10 Downing Street today.
But never mind that.  Symbolism matters less than reality.
Otherwise this photo and that oblique Mary Tudor/ Calais reference in the sentence just above are problematic…

A coordinated campaign called #No2EU is trending on Twitter.  The premise is “we defeated the progressives on voting reform, the referendum people didn’t want. We need a referendum to get us out of the EU NOW”.  This is nothing new.  UK anti-EU people at many points on the political spectrum have pushed the idea of a referendum on UK membership of the EU basically since 1973. When the antis lost the last one.  However, there has been a bit of a trend recently amongst pro-EU groups to say that no one should be worried about an in-or-out referendum, and that actually pro-EU people should call for one to get all the nonsenses and half truths out in the open and be able to sweep them away.  The Fabians had a conference on it, the Liberal Democrats championed it at the last general election, Fellow Euroblogger Joe Litobarski even argued the case in the Comment is Free section on the Guardian website.  I think there’s a long way to go between being EU positive now and being ready for a referendum.

Given we’ve just had a resounding “NO” vote in the voting reform referendum – the first full UK referendum in my life time – there are a few ideas that flow from this which it seems to me are worth thinking about in the EU context.  In the meantime, if you want a decent, short analysis of the AV referendum itself, check out this one:

1) Simple questions do not mean simple situation:
While AV is not that complicated, the vote was by:
i) being held on the same day as local elections which – no matter how important the local issues needing to be decided – are nevertheless used as an opportunity for voters bash political parties on national level issues;
ii) being “the wrong question” – while the best question that could be secured in the coalition deal (“a miserable little” compromise), the Jenkins Report (the last Royal Commission on the voting system) suggested AV Plus as AV itself was insufficiently proportional.  Supporters of proportional representation thus found themselves having to support AV on the grounds that it was a step towards what they actually wanted, a position which the NO campaign was able to present both as a reason to vote no to AV itself and as duplicitous;
iii) packaging – any change being linked to boundary changes to constituencies that put off people who might otherwise have vote for change;
iv) being run on the basis of celebrity and with a centre-left focus instead of seeking widespread support. Jon Worth critiqued the arguments as far back as December, and the incoherency of the YES campaign here.

Any or all of these things could happen to an in-or-out EU referendum: tie-up with non-referendum issues or policies deliberately by politicians or more generally by the electorate, a screw-up by one side of the wording of the actual question.
In particular, the personality politics was nightmarish – this vote should never have been portrayed as a choice between prime minister and deputy prime minister.
But the refusal of the YES campaign to stand united was ridiculous.  Where were the pro-AV Conservatives? Nigel Farage of UKIP was a strong advocate – couldn’t he and Miliband and Clegg have stood together to say this is not a left/ right thing but a fairness thing, enabling you to say what you think, but then to get someone you don’t mind rather than someone you really oppose?  We could only hope that the mainstream of politics would be able to get its act together for a pro-EU membership campaign, and that south east MPs in particular whose constituencies need the EU would champion the cause.
Consider this – no one really wanted AV: some were dead against, others lukewarm on that point but keen on a slightly different voting reform. Similarly, no one would really argue that the EU is perfect now, surely, but many would say that it could be really good with some changes.  The similarity is just too much in terms of how arguments would need to be presented.
No one in favour of EU membership should be encouraging a referendum without learning the lessons of why the AV Yes campaign failed.

2) Simplicity and the status quo:
This seems the simplest idea – that people voted to keep what is there already as they saw no good reason to change it.  Aha!  This would surely result in a NO to leaving the EU, after all being in is the status quo, right?  I’m unconvinced.
There’s a significant number of people who believe everything negative and nothing of the positive about the EU and who have seen their view reinforced by governments  of all complexions winning-in-the-EU-against-the-odds, and right across the press, for decades.  The only positive messages that seem to have caught the public imagination in recent times have been cheaper calls from mobiles abroad, pet passports and blue flags for clean beaches, but even then the negative aspects (e.g. possibly higher call costs overall, more British beaches failing tougher new standards) are also reported as if the EU has directly caused them.
And if you are looking to April Fool co-workers, the EU is a fertile area as so many people will believe just about anything 🙂
Being negative about Europe is second nature and lists like this are rare…  So I suspect that the status quo is actually this negativity and not a full understanding of the constitutional arrangements under which the UK is part of the EU.

Plus the EU is complicated.  Complexity is not appealing, and doesn’t fit  the news agenda easily.  There is some evidence that stressing the apparent complexity of AV (which could be summed up as number any candidates you don’t mind representing you, and ) and the comparisons with sports to stress simplicity for FPTP struck a cord.  People are busy, they don’t have time to worry about things of limited interest to them – and we know the EU is simply not of much interest.
So while Jo Swanson’s explanation that AV was like saying “if you’re going to the shop can you get me a Mars bar but if you can’t get that, I’ll have a Twix” was straight forward and clear, much of the other publicity wasn’t.  Of course, the best YES to AV poster I’ve seen online didn’t seem to be official…








3) The role of the media:
I know, I know, the media’s not to blame, if people don’t want to read something then they won’t buy those papers or will just turn to the sports section.
But it is amazing that, election after election, that the party that wins is the one that gets the majority press support and the most positive coverage.  In part this might be because media moguls do not want to be associated with losers, but the coverage over the periods between elections is also a crucial indicator of likely success.  It was hard to find any sustained positive messaging in the press on AV – while the Guardian, Independent and Mirror (all left-leaning) supported a YES as the least worse alternative, most of the rest of the press pushed hard for a NO.  I argued before that this might be because AV makes it hard to call elections in advance and that – as can be seen from the coverage of the current government – coalition politics is subtle, complex, indirectly adversarial and therefore impossible to report with anything close to the reality of how it works…
Now think about UK EU coverage.  If there’s no requirement on the media beyond the BBC to be impartial, and most of the press already takes this tone (e.g. every Treaty creates a superstate and treating campaign group press releases as if they are fact!), just imagine how much worse this would be during an in-or-out referendum. How on earth would the pro-EU membership side get its message any coverage at all?

4) Money, money, money:
One of the earliest posts I read from defeated YES campaigners on Left Foot Forward was that if only every registered political party member in favour of AV had given a tenner, the YES campaign could’ve outspent the NO, even given the massive donations from the Conservative Party’s large donors, use of staff and phone banks etc.
Does money make a difference?
It certainly is thought to in general elections, that’s why there are limits imposed by the Electoral Commission.  Officially, candidates in rural areas can spend up to £7,150 plus 7p per elector. Those standing in urban areas can spend £7,150 plus 5p per voter. Registered parties are restricted in their spending for the 365 days before the election. Parties can spend up to £30,000 for each seat they contest – which adds up to £19.5m if they fight every constituency.  But that’s only during the election period – it’s widely thought that the Ashcroft money that was spent for some time ahead of this made a large difference (although the fact that we have a coalition government shows it was not of itself enough to determine the outcome – Gordon Brown being unpopular and Nick Clegg being telegenic might also have played a part…).
Now bear in mind the sensitivity of an in-or-out EU referendum, the backers, the availability or otherwise of EU money, the fact that anything put out as information by the EU is regularly dismissed as propaganda and you can see that any pro-EU referendum campaign would have a bit of research and serious fundraising to do before launching.

5)  Getting down and dirty:
or, the importance of the message.  Don’t for any moment think that either side in a referendum campaign will feel the need to stay within realms of truth or reasonableness.
In the UK AV referendum campaign we were told by the official YES camp that MPs would work harder.  But they mainly work hard already, child-friendly hours apparently a thing of the past in parliament.  That should have been “harder to secure the support of a wider range of people in their constituency at election time and to keep that support for next time”.
We were told it would help stop corruption and greed, again something that would require a zealous anti-corruption campaign now rather than a change in the voting system.
Neither of these were the best reasons for voting YES to AV.  I set out 10 reasons why on this blog, and none of them came from the campaign literature.
On the NO side, we were told that the cost would be £250m (a number David Blunkett later admitted was plucked out the air) and on that basis, babies wouldn’t get maternity units, soldiers wouldn’t get bullet-proof vests (in which case a YES vote would’ve ensured that the £90m spent was not wasted), that the BNP would triumph (in reality they would’ve found it tougher under AV and opposed it), votes and voters would no longer be equal with extremists getting more say, that Nick Clegg would be a kingmaker forever, that kind of thing.
Coalition government itself requires a certain amount of political maturity to understand – the Lib Dems argued over and over that with under a fifth of the vote they could only really expect to enact a fifth of their own programme as part of an agreed government package.  That makes you look like a 4/5 sellout by the rules of the UK press, particularly if the fifth you get to pursue does not include some of your most popular pledges in the campaign…
And yet in other European countries it is possible for voters to distinguish between coalition partners and not just bash one side.  Are we – perhaps- just not European enough to cope with anything more than Punch and Judy two swords lengths apart?

6) So…
It’s hard to argue that FPTP can’t deliver what the public wants when there is currently a coalition – the public did not want to give any one party an overall majority and that’s exactly what the voting system we have delivered.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve never been in favour of referendums, for pretty much all of the reasons listed above, but hope to be proved wrong by one on voting reform.
But it looks like all of the fears I had have come to pass.
Looking at what happened during the campaign, you had an issue that was not the main priority of the YES campaign, less money available, voter disinterest, a complex argument versus what appeared to be a simple one, and distortion of the issue via personality politics, over-exaggeration and lying. And now that the referendum is lost, discussion of PR is off the agenda for the foreseeable.

If representative democracy, albeit via a non-proportional voting system, provides a better, depersonalised politics than the nastiness and misleading rubbish that failed to actually present the case for or against we witness in these past few weeks, them I’m quite happy to stay away from referendums for now, thanks.
#No2EU want to really shake things up with an in-or-out referendum but present it as the path of least difficulty.
But the YES side?  Too wobbly in terms of leadership and messaging at the moment.  Frankly I don’t think it’s ready for that jelly.

So Happy Europe Day.  May there be many more of them to celebrate in the UK.