Scattered thoughts about women, work, bodies and voices

I haven’t managed to make these add up to anything. They’ve been on my mind since a panel discussion of gender, sex and systematic theology at a conference I attend regularly.

A made-up story

Broadside Electric – lead vocals by my friend Melissa Demian – adapted a traditional song to create “When I Was a Fair Maid”. (I’ve since heard at least one other version, same basic story with a different uniform, performed by Serious Sam Barrett and entitled “The Female Drummer”).

It’s a fun song, about which I’m being far too serious here. In the version I know, it’s the story of a young woman (“about seventeen”) who gets bored at home and runs away to join the Navy.

I ‘listed in the Navy, a sailor lad to stand, For to hear the cannons rattling and the music so grand…

It turns out that our heroine not only can pass for a man without difficulty, but can also make a notable success of naval life. She fits in well with the crew of the ship – in fact you get the sense that what she relishes most of all is the cameraderie. But she’s also very good at her job; she can beat at least some of her new comrades at (what’s supposed to be) their own game. And she even enjoys, not only the work, but also being a ‘woman in a man’s world’. She doesn’t feel threatened – this is romantic comedy, after all. She doesn’t worry about being (secretly) different; it adds an extra level of excitement to what she’s doing, she likes knowing something nobody else knows. She’s entirely in her element, even though she’s not supposed to be here. She knows that this theoretically impossible life is the life for her, and the fact that it’s supposedly impossible only makes her love it more.

My waist being tall and slender, my fingers long and thin, Oh the very soon they learned me, I soon exceeded them…

And taking off my blue coat, it oft times made me smile, For to think I was a sailor and a maiden all the while…

And then, inevitably, somebody notices that she’s a woman. Not because of anything that happens on the ship. It’s about the sexual scripts she’s expected to follow. Or it’s about the way that ‘personal’ lives, love and sex and reproduction and marriage and family, only stay irrelevant to the life of the ship if they conform to a clear pattern that she, as a woman, simply can’t follow. Perhaps she realised on some level that sooner or later this was bound to happen, even while she was planning to be a sailor for the rest of her life.

A lady fell in love with me – I told her I was a maid; And she went unto the captain and my secret she betrayed…

At that point, of course, her life becomes actually, as well as theoretically, impossible. Her continued presence on the ship will cause an intolerable failure of the system. Her body just doesn’t belong here. It’s nothing personal. The captain would like to keep her on board – though even he can’t help seeing her as a woman, now that somebody’s pointed it out.

It’s a pity we should lose you, such a sailor lad you made; It’s a pity we should lose you, such a handsome young maid….

But I always love the way that the song (as this band perform it) ends not with regret but with a dance, a mischievous carnival-style celebration of things that aren’t supposed to happen but somehow do. The sailor-woman holds confidently to what she learned about herself; this wasn’t a sham or a self-betrayal, this was real. What she promises herself – and her beloved captain and comrades – at the end of the song is almost unthinkable and certainly as things stand un-reasonable (even the words make that clear). But her own experiences and desires won’t let her concede that it’s impossible – and even though the system can’t be argued with or evaded, she’s got at least some people on her side. There’s a moment to dream about how things might be different if she could put herself back together, be the whole person she is and do the work she does. Even though that’s not about to happen.

But if ever the Navy needs a man – a sailor I’ll remain; I’ll put off my cap and feathers and I’ll run the rigging again…

A piece of a story

I remember the phone conversations I had with my paternal grandmother in the last few years of her life. Her dementia meant that she lived in different periods of her past life, and it sometimes got a bit hard to keep track. When I talked to her, she was very often in the few years she spent working in a research lab in the 1930s. She enjoyed it, you could tell that it energised her; she particularly liked having colleagues, people to solve problems with, people to share the task with. She and I swapped workplace stories, in this strange time-space in which both of us were young women. In the real timeline, she fell in love with a man who worked in the same labs, married him, and immediately lost her job. She did some more lab work during the war, but mostly from then on she looked after her family. She was a cheerful, strong, intellectually alive woman throughout her life. But when she could go anywhere, in those final years, she often dropped in to the lab.

An old story, with some theology in it

Elizabeth Bathurst died in 1685 (or thereabouts) in her early thirties. She was best known for her systematic presentation and defence of Quakerism: “Truth’s Vindication: or a gentle stroke to wipe off the foul aspersions, false accusations and misrepresentations cast upon the people of God called Quakers”. Despite a lifelong disabling illness (“she was four years of age before she could go alone”, writes her father) she also during her short life undertook a preaching tour to the south-west, spent some time imprisoned in the Marshalsea after disrupting worship at a Presbyterian meeting house, and acquired a national reputation among Quakers as a preacher and writer.

No offence to Robert Barclay, but I’d read Bathurst rather than him any day. It’s about the voice. In “Truth’s Vindication” she speaks in a voice that’s personal and confessional, and simultaneously the voice of someone who’s passionate about hard thinking and good arguments. She tells you what it felt like trying to persuade herself to believe in double predestination, and then explains carefully why it’s a problematic doctrine. She piles up a rich contradictory collection of biblical metaphors to show you how hard theological speech is, and then tells you – I have found it to be this… She holds to her experience and keeps a deep commitment to thinking things out. And as far as I can see, she never or hardly ever, despite the personal tone, draws attention to the fact that she’s a woman – nor, for that matter, to her youth or her ill health. Theologically, for her, it’s irrelevant; she’s worried about writing the book and doubts her ability to do it well because the task is so great and the subject-matter so important, but never because women can’t write. (She’d already written a long defence of women’s ministry – with a vision of the equality of men and women lost in the fall and restored through redemption).

Quakers were accustomed enough to women preaching and teaching. But people did notice that the author of “Truth’s Vindication” was a woman; some of them seem to have had trouble noticing anything else. Her book was reissued after her death with a collection of “testimonies”. One or two, though noticeably not the ones from her immediate family, draw attention to the apparent conflict between her body and her writing. George Whitehead, who admired her greatly, knows that because of the “meanness or weakness” of Elizabeth’s person,  it’s widely doubted that she wrote the book herself – but he can prove that she did, because he conducted her viva: “she showed it me in her own handwriting, and gave sufficient demonstration of her understanding in those subjects she writ upon”. He calls her a “virtuous and pious Maid”, refers repeatedly to the prophesying “Daughters” in Joel. Charles Marshall, whom I don’t like so much, makes her a “Hand-maid of the Lord” and one of the “wise virgins”, and finally one of the “king’s daughters, who are glorious within”, an example of piety for other unmarried young women to follow. His astonishment at her preaching and teaching ability comes through on every page (even though he says much more about her prayer life and her religious seriousness, and nothing at all about her studies – unlike her father, whose short and moving testimony notes that she was “much devoted” to reading from an early age).

It’s pretty clear to me that Elizabeth didn’t think she was being an exemplary “pious virgin”. She thought she was vindicating the Truth. And the theological writing was hard but it was what she was meant to be doing.  Some of the time at least, you can tell she’s enjoying it. She loves the words of the Bible, hearing the poetry that bursts out of them, then trying to set down what it means. She has found a distinctive, careful, passionate voice without really looking for it. She’s not doing this to prove anything. She’s doing this because it’s her work, and also because it’s more than hers. She writes at the end of the exercise “I have not been mine own”. It’s a not-impossible space.

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