In a fortnight that has sadly seen the passing of Simone Veil, legendary women's right campaigner and Holocaust survivor, and the announcement of free abortions for women from Northern Ireland, women's rights and feminism are back on the agenda.
In the last decade or so, the UK has seen an exciting feminist resurgence that has freshly inspired women to fight for equality. Countless groups and networks have been formed, marches and protests have taken place. The development of online media has led to the creation of news outlets and blogs that are proudly feminist and many high-profile celebrities have spoken out in support of women's rights, and got behind significant campaigns such as Grrrl Power and No More Page Three, attracting endorsements from organisations from Girlguiding UK to the Royal College of Midwives.
Women's media outlets now routinely publish articles on domestic abuse, workplace discrimination and the societal pressures surrounding motherhood. On January 17, 2017, five million people took part in the Women's March, to stand up for women's rights. Hand in hand with this resurgence in feminist activism has been an explosion in the way feminism is discussed within the Church. Online communities created through blogs and social media have become the catalyst for discussions about the role of women in the Church. These have led to books, seminars at conferences and activist networks, aiming to change the sometimes one-dimensional way Christian culture talks about women.
This hasn't been without controversy. For some Christians the idea of gender equality contradicts their deeply held beliefs about the roles of men and women in the Church, in family life and in society. For others, the negative stereotypes the Church – and society in general – sometimes associates with feminism are off-putting.
Not dependent on gender
Yet Christian feminists as well as egalitarians – those who believe in the equality of men and women in the Church and family – have always existed. Their voices have tended to become more prominent at key points such as the debate over women bishops, but feminists have always been active in the Church in different ways.
The difference in the last decade, perhaps, has been the accessibility for many of the internet, bringing Christian feminism out of more academic spheres and niche interest groups, to a wider audience. A recent Twitter discussion, 'Things Only Christian Women Hear', enticed hundreds of women to discuss ways in which they have experienced sexism and inequality in church ranging from feeling patronised and left out because they are single or have no children; not permitted to take positions of influence or leadership; judged on their appearance and even counselled not to take action against domestic abuse.
Christian women have a key role to play in challenging such attitudes and effecting change in churches. Equality, dignity and humanity of all is not dependent on gender and as Christians we should be ready to challenge injustice – yet of course, it's not just injustice within the Church that we should be concerned with. Women of faith are under-represented in feminism, but our voices are important.
Women under pressure
The discussions about our roles in church leadership and marriage are vital, but they're certainly not the only issues that Christian women face. As well as making our voices heard outside the Church, we have plenty of work to do mobilising within the Church to encourage Christians to act on key issues. Campaigns such as Mumsnet's Let Girls Be Girls campaign and the Mothers' Union's Bye Bye Childhood, highlighted concerns about sexualised culture affecting the lives of children. Retailers were challenged to review their policies to protect children. Other organisations are looking at how girls and young women feel under pressure about their looks, weight, relationships and academic achievement, seeking to counter these harmful messages. The Church can be instrumental in supporting girls in this way.
Make an impact
The heartbreaking reality of gender inequality is the fact that one in four women will be affected by domestic abuse in their lifetime. It is tempting for Christians to think that this is something less likely to happen within the Church, but we must not be complacent. It's vital that churches are well-equipped to support women who have experienced domestic violence or other forms of abuse from a partner. Unfortunately, some women do not feel that the Church is a safe and sympathetic place to discuss what is happening to them – yet this should never be the case. Church staff should be trained to respond effectively to the issue and recognise the warning signs and take appropriate action. We must understand that Christianity and feminism are not incompatible – and as women of faith, we have much to offer not only to the movement, but also to improving women's lives.
Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. This article first appeared in Families First, the magazine of the Mothers' Union. Click here to read more.