Equals: An interview with Jenny Baker

cropped-jen-at-serpentineOne of the benefits of working with and around brilliant people who think big thoughts and have both the gifts and the calling to share them with the world is that you occasionally get sent advance copies of really interesting books.

Jenny Baker is one of those people: she has an MSc in gender studies, she works for Church Urban Fund supporting Christians who are tackling poverty in England, she is a host of the Gathering of Women Leaders in London, and she sits on Tearfund’s board. She and her husband are members of Grace, an alternative worship community at St Mary’s in Ealing and they have two adult sons. She is a marathon runner and a keen cyclist. And somehow in the last eighteen months, she has written a book called Equals: Enjoying gender equality in all areas of life – which explores what it really means for men and women to live and work together in partnership and in harmony.

I’ve been fortunate enough to read a preview of Equals (which is out on Thursday), which I think is a handbook for different relationships between men and women based on equality, mutuality and love rather than hierarchy, power and control. It is a breathtaking read, moving from understanding the roots of inequality, through an inspiring vision of how life can be different, and ending up with practical advice for how to work out marriage on the basis of equality. It’s born out of deep reflection on her experiences, and is mixed with grace and a hope that equality is a very real and achievable goal.

I asked Jenny if I could send her some questions about Equals, to go further into how she came to write the book and into some the things in it that really struck me.

Was there something that made you think, ‘I must write this book now?’

There are moments in our lives that are so significant that we will always remember where we were and how we felt when they happened. The decision that the Church of England took in November 2012 to refuse women bishops is one of those moments for me. I was on the tube on my way home, following what was happening on Twitter, fully expecting it to be good news when the first message came through: ‘it’s a no.’ I couldn’t quite believe it but then my timeline filled up with confirmations. I was really surprised at my reaction. I have no ambition to be a female priest, let alone a bishop, but this decision cut to the heart of who I am, and it felt like a very personal rejection. This church that I belonged to didn’t want me. I’d already started talking to SPCK about writing the book because of the persistent inequalities that there are between women and men in politics, business, education, health, sport and the church, but that absolutely confirmed to me that the timing was right.

Obviously gender and Christianity is a pretty big issue – how did you decide on the focus on the question of equality?

I think equality is fundamental to healthy relationships between men and women, but it’s easily misunderstood. I often hear Christians say ‘I believe that men and women are equal but…’ and they go on to qualify that equality in some way. So there’s a need to unpack what equality is and what it isn’t. Equality is the belief that all people have the same value, regardless of any other defining characteristics. Particularly when we’re talking about women and men, it’s about being free to choose the direction your life takes and having the encouragement and opportunities to enact that choice, rather than being constrained by stereotypes or cultural convention. It’s about everyone being able to flourish. It’s not about uniformity – wanting everyone to be exactly the same, but it’s about celebrating and making space for the diversity of women and of men.

You have a specific chapter on marriage, with some really interesting thoughts in it, but what about single people – how could they work out their relationships with people of the opposite gender? How important do you think it is that single women have male friends (beyond possible boyfriends), and vice versa?

I think beliefs about equality are more obvious in marriage and relationships because there are choices or assumptions to be made about who does what in terms of organizing life around employment, domestic life and caring for children if you have them. Single people just get on and do it all – which challenges the myth that some roles or responsibilities should be restricted to just one sex. But equality is absolutely relevant to single people. It’s about being happy in your own skin, without looking for someone of the opposite sex to complete you in some way, having respect for your own dreams, talents and skills and exploring how to serve God with them. It’s about treating others with respect, offering and expecting equality in relationships with others and challenging the contexts where that isn’t expressed. If you do want a partner, it’s about not diminishing yourself in any way in an attempt to make yourself more acceptable, but being true to who you are.

Single men and women really need healthy relationships with people of the opposite sex, because that’s how we learn how to relate to each other and where we’re reminded that we share a common humanity. Single-sex gatherings can be good for a specific reason and for a limited time, but they are not good if they keep men and women separate and make us feel awkward around each other because we’re not used to being together.

What has been most challenging for you to work out in practice?

My husband, Jonny, and I made a decision early on in our marriage that we wanted to share opportunities and responsibilities in life between us equally. When our boys were small, we job-shared so that we could both enjoy hands-on parenting and both use our skills in the workplace. The most challenging thing for me, personally, has been having the confidence to think I have something to contribute. I have really struggled with Imposter Syndrome – that feeling that any minute someone will realize that I’m ill-equipped for the position I’m in and I’ll be found out. So in my head I can agree that women can be called and gifted for any area of life, but in my heart I doubt whether I’m one of those women. I think some of that is down to the accumulation of all the prejudice, sexism and discrimination that’s in the air that we breathe, and some is down to my own savage inner critic, but it takes constant vigilance to keep on top of it.

Do you think the challenges are changing over time? For example, do you think the challenges your sons face in working out their identity as men and their relationships with women are the same that you and Jonny have faced?

In many ways it will be easier for our sons’ generation because there are so many more women in positions of leadership and responsibility in different areas of life. They have grown up with women as priests, sports commentators, and head teachers, with Angela Merkel leading a country and JK Rowling as a best-selling author. My sons have an assumption, perhaps because of the example we gave them, that they will share things like cooking, earning, entertaining, and organizing life. But in contrast, their generation also has to negotiate some quite toxic representations of masculinity and femininity found in student culture, lags mags, and the ubiquity of pornography. When Natasha Walter wrote The New Feminism in 1998, she was optimistic that equality for women and men was not far off and that old-fashioned sexism would wither and die. She argued that legislating for equality would provide a good foundation and that enough ground had been gained in the struggle for equal rights – there was no looking back. A decade on when she wrote Living Dolls she admitted that she was wrong because many young women were using the empowerment, liberation and choice their grandmothers fought for to pursue an air-brushed, highly sexualised and narrow vision of femininity.

You talk about making decisions in a marriage where there is no ‘decision-maker’ – in the past, I’ve found that some people can feel threatened by that. How would you reassure people that it doesn’t lead to chaos?

I find it intriguing that people think a hierarchy is essential for good decision-making and that without it there will be chaos! Isn’t it unfair to burden one person with the constant need to be right about everything? I think it’s far better to both take responsibility and to keep talking until you can reach agreement. If you know that ultimately one of you can play the decision-making trump card, then any conversation is unbalanced from the start. Why would you do the hard work of communication, of really listening, questioning and talking, if that can be over-ruled in an instant?

In practice, people find different ways of reaching decisions depending on the issue being discussed. It might be appropriate to let the person with the most knowledge make the decision; sometimes it needs to be the person who will be most affected; at other times the one who is less bothered might give way to the one who cares deeply. Sometimes one person might choose to let go of their preference and submit to their partner, knowing that at another time it could go the other way. If there’s a complete impasse, then perhaps it’s a sign of something unhealthy in the relationship that needs to be addressed. Letting one partner automatically make the decision in that situation won’t allow that work to happen.

What cultural assumptions about gender in the UK do you think are really damaging, or make you most angry?

There are several. One is the stubborn persistence of the beauty myth that puts such an emphasis on women’s appearance and that criticizes anyone who doesn’t conform to the very narrow definition of what’s considered beautiful in our culture – which is anyone who isn’t a thin sixteen year old girl basically. I’m also frustrated by the increasingly gendered way in which products are marketed to small children so that girls are cocooned in pink fluffiness and boys are encouraged to be adventurous and strong from a very young age. This perpetuates and entrenches damaging stereotypes instead of allowing our children the freedom of exploring a whole range of interests and areas of life.

I despair that the issue of violence against women is invariably portrayed as a women’s problem when it’s men who are the perpetrators and it’s men who are largely silent and need to get engaged with addressing the issue, alongside the women who are active in this area. I hope that doesn’t make me seem bitter – I think it just shows how far there is to go! I would also add that I’ve seen the liberating impact of women and men who value equality and are proactive about dismantling the barriers that stand in its way – the churches that take time to nurture all the gifts that both men and women have to offer; the parents who make it a priority to share work and the care of children so that both can pursue their calling; the households where everyone does their fair share of the domestic work; the workplaces that root out sexism and aim to open up opportunities to everyone. So I’m also encouraged by what people are doing and by the huge potential there is to organise life in different ways

I was at a talk a couple of weeks ago where a speaker said that to really make change happen, we need to change the narrative – which I think connects with your discussion of gender differences as a myth we tell ourselves to understand who we are. What is one way you think we could change the narrative on gender?

Society gets fixated on the differences between men and women, on identifying what they are and in preserving them at all costs. I think that focus on difference blinds us to our common humanity and to the diversity among men and among women. There can be more difference between two women who have had very different life experiences than there might be between a woman and a man who have been brought up in similar ways. There’s a huge disconnect between the popular narrative in society – that we’re so different that we might as well have come from different planets and that we struggle to understand each other – and the evidence from research that shows that we’re not really that different after all. So I’d like us to resist the separation of men and women into two separate and discrete categories, to celebrate our common humanity and to encourage the diversity that we find among men and among women.

You talk about the importance of knowing where you want to get to, without being explicit about where you want to get to – which is understandable – but where do you want to see us getting to?

I’d like to get to the point where gender is much less visible, where we don’t notice, for example, about how many people around a boardroom table, or speakers at a conference or contributors to a TV show or people at a work meeting are male or female because generally we know that it works out about equal over time and we know that people have equal opportunities to participate and are picked for their skills and experience and not because of who they know. A couple of weeks ago, around International Women’s Day, I was reading so many articles by women advocating for equality in politics, campaigning against FGM, speaking out about violence against women, talking about how to get more parity in our boardrooms, and so on. It just made me think that if we had genuine equality and no longer had to fight those same battles we would have so much more energy to put into other important issues such as fighting poverty, working for peace, and advocating for the elderly to name a few. I feel like women still need to make the case that we should be allowed to contribute to the whole of life, which restricts us making as effective a contribution as we could.

If people are interested in reading more or pursuing this further, who should they read / listen to / follow on twitter

This is a very small selection.

Books:

  • on theology: The Gender Agenda by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry
  • on the difference debate: The Myth of Mars and Venus by Deborah Cameron
  • on prejudice in the church: Women in Waiting by Julia Ogilvy

Blogs:

Listen to:

Equals is published on Thursday 20 March and is available from SPCK and all good booksellers. 

You can read more from Jenny at her blog – I am currently loving the ongoing series of guest posts about equality.