Why does everyone laugh when I say that I’m giving a talk at the Women’s Institute? Is it because the name still conjures up an image of grey haired ladies knitting scarves as middle aged women put cakes onto doilies in a village hall somewhere in middle England? Get real, my darlings – these women are you and me, they work and blog and tweet and travel and some of them do stupidly active things like fell-walking and kayaking and snorkelling, and some are historians and some are engineers. Meetings are in village halls but they’re also in pubs and restaurants and beaches and half way up bloody big mountains.
But yeah, alright, the talk will take place in a village hall, and there will be cake, and there will be grey haired ladies…. so? So what? These women have as much to offer and as much experience and wisdom as any similar group of men. I rarely give talks to the WI but that’s not because I don’t value them, it’s because there’s only so many times you can talk about your life without beginning to sound as if it’s all off by rote. Even if they’ve never heard you speak before, if you tell your story too often you come over as sing-song boring. And although I never talk to the WI in the same town or village more than once, WI members visit each other so there’s a good chance that if I do more than one talk a year, some of the same people will be there. So, less is more and all that. Moderation in all things. Don’t spread yourself too thinly.
And then, in Tesco, I met a woman who stopped me with an exclamation of joy – ‘You’re talking to our WI next week. I’m so looking forward to it. I heard you talking at at the Gwbert Hotel last year.’
Oh, bother. Does she realise that my life story is the same now as it was then? OK, there’s an extra year tagged onto the end, and God has taught me LOADS of new things in that year, but they aren’t about writing. And what the WI is expecting is a writer. They’re gonna get a Christian but I can’t cheat them and give them only a Christian, I have to give them a writer too. So, what’s happened in my writing year? Not a great deal. ‘Judas’, is my only production.
I do like giving a talk. I enjoy the questions afterwards and the chat and the mix of people, and usually I learn something – or realise something – about my life that I hadn’t recognised until then. I also find that if I’m there for a reason, if I have a job to do, I forget my social awkwardness and relax completely, feeling at home. It’s a bit like going to church – if I have a job to do, I can face everyone very happily. If it’s a children’s talk or reading the notices, then I have a reason to be there and I can relax.
The only thing I have against the WI is that it’s a Women’s organisation. I really dislike segregation of the sexes, the social apartheid that we still we tolerate – one meeting or organisation for men and another for women. In the past the men had the ‘intellectually vigorous’ societies and clubs while women examined gentler, more domestic subjects but surely, surely, that’s changed by now? So why do we still segregate?
It spills into our churches of course – you’re still more likely to have a male pastor than a female and some still cling to the idea that women should not teach men. This is bible backed – but where are these pedantic law-keepers when we read some other Biblical do’s and dont’s, like men having to wear beards, and growing their hair long, and not eating pork or shellfish? They mumble that these are ‘cultural’ strictures only. Culture? We really want to preserve a culture that silences over half of our population? Can the church afford to sideline and discount half its membership? I think that the obedience that keeps women silent in church, and keeps them from teaching, is far more about deadly tradition than it is about God and sharing the gospel. If a woman has the gift of preaching/teaching should we ignore that gift? Incidentally, I don’t have the gift of preaching or of teaching, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a woman at the front of my church for more than children’s stories, singing or reading out the notices. And my church is really forward looking, and loving – we have a female deacon, we have men as well as women teaching in the Children’s Church, a couple of our ministries are led by women… but globally it’s a slow process towards equality and its slowness doesn’t glorify God.
One of the talks I enjoyed most was to a thousand people, about bereavement, and although the audience was far too large for a Q&A session (the part I enjoy most), I had letters and emails for months afterwards – interesting, surprising, touching stories, from people of all ages, both sexes, all backgrounds. Giving a talk doesn’t just share my story with others, it enables them to share their stories with me. And you know, when I did Desert Island Discs, the BBC didn’t magically segregate the audience, so that male sensibilities would not be wounded. I listened to some old radio programmes yesterday, ‘On The Psychiatrist’s Couch’ with Dr Anthony Clare, and I (amazingly) listened to women as well as men. And they were just as interesting, just as creative and thought provoking as each other.
So, why am I talking to a women-only meeting? I don’t know. It’s bonkers. But hey, like I said, I love talking. That must be it. For all my highfalutin’ theorising and pontificating, I am doing something because I love doing it, and it’s an evening out and my life is pretty damn uneventful just now.
So, come on Women’s Institute, let’s be ‘avin’ ya! And thank you, yes, I’d love a slice of that delicious cake…..