This morning while I was having my coffee and trying to summon enough energy to face the day, I watched the BBC2 programme Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes with Kirsty Wark which aired last night. It made for some pretty disturbing viewing.

I don’t hear sexism and misogyny being spoken about much by the church. Yes, of course we have our own internal debates about women’s roles in the church: We have female priests. Women are deans and provosts, slowly climbing the church hierarchy, one painful rung of the ladder at a time. It’s canonically possible for a woman to be bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church, though we have yet to elect one. So that’s it, right? The battle is fought and won. Hurray for equality! So say many of my — admittedly well-meaning — brothers (and often sisters too).

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But what about the sexist, misogynistic attitudes that pervade society? What about the daily verbal and physical harassment many women experience? Anyone who follows @EverydaySexism on Twitter will have their feed inundated with situations in which women have been the object of unwanted attention, jokes, touching and worse. Much of it is stomach-churning. Much of it is, to me and many of my friends, all too familiar. And yet I don’t hear many voices from within the church speaking out about it.

Now, I’ve already said that I don’t like the language of battle so often used when this issue is raised. Countering images and language of violence with further militant metaphors only fuels the flames; this is not a war to be waged, women against men, feminists against misogynists. And I appreciated that there was little of this embittered, embattled talk on Blurred Lines. Wark simply let her examples speak for themselves.

One of the things I found so disturbing about the programme is that sexist comments, rape jokes and images of violence against women are so common that many women feel they’re hardly worth remarking upon anymore. Women are subjected to an onslaught of derogatory language and objectification on a daily basis, and when a schoolgirl was asked how she thought her mum would respond if she told her some of the comments she overheard during a day at school, she replied, ‘Why would I tell my mum? It happens all the time.’ A female computer gamer confessed to restricting the times she would play online so as not to encounter negative attention from men. ‘That’s not really freedom,’ Wark observed. The young woman shook her head.

We have somehow moved well beyond the double standard which has existed for so long. No longer does the school or office banter stop at calling a woman a bitch if she’s assertive, a slag if she’s flirty, or frigid if she rejects the unwanted advances of men. Now it seems it’s become all too common for sexual and physical violence to be threatened when a woman ‘steps out of line’. We live in a blame culture where it has become the woman’s fault when men behave badly, and slut-shaming and victim-blaming are all too prevalent.

How did we come to this? Is this another example of media and social media bringing to our attention a trend which was growing anyway? Do they merely reflect or actually magnify the ills of our society?

Sexism and misogyny have always been present in the church, only they have been couched in language of theology, in the careful selection and interpretation of particular passages of scripture, and in the preservation of patriarchal models of ministry and family life. Today we are still nowhere near reaching a point of equality.

I had though kind of hoped — naively I suppose — that we had at least reached a point where how clergywomen dress would no longer be considered worthy of news and debate. I suppose I had forgotten about the press’s vilification of the Rev Sally Hitchner a couple of years ago.

I have written in the past about the challenges of dressing as a clergywoman, so I won’t repeat it here except to state again that I have no desire to look beautiful or sexy in my clericals. But I do want to look feminine and professional. I love the conversations I have with others about clothing and fashion, and I think it’s wonderful that a pastoral visit with someone can transition seamlessly from a deep and moving conversation about a recent bereavement to a casual question about where I get my eyebrows done. That is one of the great joys of being a woman in ministry.

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But this past week, a photo featuring the work of a fashion designer who makes women’s clerical clothes has hit the news. And the feedback has been fascinating. Female clergy I know on both sides of the Atlantic have been clamouring to order the dresses, celebrating that at last someone is designing clerical clothing which is professional, feminine and relatively affordable. But other comments, from both men and women, have been less kind. Some said that it would be far too ‘distracting’ if a clergywoman dressed like that. Some felt the dresses are too tight or too short. One thought the women’s breasts are too big (so either only women with flat chests shall be allowed through the selection process or we’ll start requiring breast reduction as part of training??) And, oh dear, cue the tasteless jokes about confessionals, penance and punishment.

All this because the women in the photos had the audacity not only to (*gasp follow by horrified whisper*) have curves, but actually wore clothes which didn’t attempt to hide them. The implication here is that it’s ok for women to be clergy, but they sure as hell better not actually look like women while doing the Lord’s work.

This frightening level of conservatism not only holds priests to a higher standard of sexual morality (whether or not this is fair or appropriate is a discussion for another time), it actually expects women to become asexual beings when they enter ministry. And yet again, women are held responsible for the thoughts and behaviour of men. Perhaps some of the comments were made in good humour, but placed within the wider context of the routine objectification of women, they quickly cease to be funny.

Is this the norm? I sincerely hope not. Are crude remarks a common everyday occurrence for women in ministry? For women in general? Again, I hope not, though I fear that for a lot of women it is. But neither are they entirely isolated incidents, at least not judging by my own experience and that of my female colleagues. And what the recent comments have shown is that it doesn’t take much, just a simple image, to uncover these attitudes, to release the disrespect, the hostility which lie hidden just below the surface.

This worries me. This worries me because I sense — and Wark’s programme explored this as well — that beneath the sexism and misogyny both in the church and in wider society lie anger, fear and confusion. And those are easy to feed but much, much harder to heal.

I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps just now it’s naming it in the way Wark has done, in the way the thousands of contributors to the Everyday Sexism Project continue to do. Naming the discrimination, naming the blame, naming the cruelty that is eating away at the dignity of both men and women. Whatever it is, however, silence is not the answer.

2 thoughts on “what not to wear

  1. Thanks for writing this; I saw a (nearly 100% male) conversation on women wearing something other than black shirt/white collar on Facebook today and was dismayed by the ignorantly sexist comments being made about looking ‘professional’ and calls for women to stop worshipping their ‘egos’.

    I’m a man, married to a very fashionable woman in the ministry, and have seen firsthand how frustrating, depressing, and absolutely hard it is for her to put on a shellacked uniform and march in line. She manages, but it takes a lot of time & effort, which her male colleagues don’t have to perform.

    They don’t get that for them the default is acceptable and attractive, but looks frumpy and incredibly male on most women. They don’t care that women just don’t want to dress like they do; they see it as somehow ruining the ministry and making it all about the individual.

    I shared your articles (this and collared) on the FB conversation I saw. Hopefully, some of them will read this and start to understand that women want to remain women, especially in a male-dominated field like ministry.

    1. Thank you for this, Streever. And welcome to you and whomever visits because of the links you posted.

      I think it’s a shame that 20 years after women were first ordained (in the Anglican and Episcopal churches in the UK, longer in other countries and denominations), we are still dealing with this issue.

      Blessings on your wife in her ministry, and on you in your support of her. (And let her know if she has any style tips for a relatively new priest, I’m always on the lookout for creative suggestions on how to dress when I’m in my clericals!)

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