Connection: Lighting the fire

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit. – Albert Schweitzer

Before Christmas, I listened to a Sounds True podcast in which feminist Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister talked about lighting the fire and it is such a lovely phrase it has stayed with me ever since.

Sister Joan says that by choosing the right people to watch, the people who have distilled their life experiences into a wisdom which helps them to live a good and serene life, we can learn to do the same and light the fire for ourselves and in turn, for other people.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a why life happens as it does, but we do need a how. Sometimes life events can be so truly devastating that we forget how to tend our fire and it goes out. Sometimes, if we are lucky, as Albert Schweitzer says above, thankfully other people light us up and get us going again. They give us the how and eventually we figure out the why ourselves.

In her beautiful book Tending the heart fire, yoga leader Shiva Rea says that the human body is a miniature version of the universe, which began in a fiery explosion and has the sun at the centre on which all life depends. Our bodies are formed from the same materials as our world, and our hearts, known in tantric yoga as the fire altar of our temples (bodies) are like the sun. This is a mystical way of reflecting on our place in the universe which thrills and delights me, not least of all because it is true.

Consequently, when our bodies honour the rhythm of the natural world, for instance, going inward in the winter months, keeping warm and getting the rest we need, we are more likely to enjoy peace, harmony and creativity, and we keep our fire lit as we live the serene, good life Sister Joan was talking about.

Moreover, Shiva Rea says we can, with practice, embody fuel, fire, and firekeeper to realise the extraordinary creative force that burns within us. For, it is this creativity and desire to expand which keeps us vital and evolving. I have said before, I think this is why we are culturally obsessed with youth. Our young constantly evolve and expand, and seem full of potential and promise, in a way older members of the population can forget. But we can all learn to keep our inner fire burning to centre our energy and maintain our passion – our love for life.

Scientists have found that when the rhythm of our hearts synchronise with our brainwaves that is when we are in our optimal flow. The ancient practices of yoga and meditation bring our biological rhythms back in sync, and make us feel balanced, and just a couple of breaths or any of our own rituals can do the same. I am a big fan of ritual to sooth myself or to make a moment resonate.

Tending our inner fire is a connection to ourselves, to the world around us and to others. Scientifically, the electric magnetic fields of our hearts go beyond our own bodies, so when we sync with others we can sense when someone is in flow or not and by breathing and creating space, we can put ourselves in an open-hearted synchronised state. I know this from personal experience.

Last year, I was on a two day meditation retreat with the extraordinary davidji, and during one session there was a woman sitting next to me who kept moaning and I felt like my space was invaded, which was extra irritating because not only did I judge her for moaning, I then judged myself harshly for not being more kind, meditative and tolerant. I thought that it was going to be a long session of me feeling irritated, judgemental and not feeling the love, and then we were asked to get into twos to do an exercise. Naturally, I ended up with this woman, rolling my eyes. However, keeping the faith, we got together and followed the instructions. We put our hands on each other hearts, looked into each others eyes, breathed in and our a few times and then shared our intention for the rest of the year. Hers was about something which touched me, and I am thinking it was a private moment so I don’t need to share her intention with everyone. I don’t remember mine because I tend to lose myself in other people (I know I need to get that sorted). Finally, we finished by saying to each other: You are beautiful, you are doing a great job, I love you very much.

The rush of love which I felt for this woman in that moment, wiped out all other thoughts, even with my natural talent/flaw to dive deep into someone else, I felt truly loving and loved in what was now a special moment of connection and intimacy. I loved her dearly and still feel a rush of affection for her as I write this now, and I hope she achieved her intention.

It was an extraordinary experience which showed me that connection is an energy that can happen at anytime with anyone because of the way we are biologically made. We are not born irritated or disliking people. We are born from love, and we love intrinsically. It also means all the woo-woo talk is true: When we are at one with all things, we respond and interact. When we are separate, we tend to react and contract.

As Shiva Rea says:

To tend the heart fire is to create a sacred expression of our life.

The sacred is available to us in any given moment. All we have to do is open our hearts, offer up our life force and fan the flames of our inner fire (or scientifically speaking: Breathe to get our brains and hearts in sync so that our bodies produce oxytocin, and feel a connection). So on the days when we feel sad and lonely, and disconnected from others, just remember to breathe in and out and create a space in which we allow air, or people in, to rekindle our fire – that spark of love, and passion for life.

My top blogs 2017: Stories, statistics, and social media

Post-its patterns of my blogposts

I was talking to a Bikram friend today, who said that the first 20 minutes of the Bikram yoga sequence is us getting back in touch with ourselves and she has wondered for a while how to take that off the mat and into her life.

I love it when someone articulates clearly something that I have been pondering but didn’t know where to start. I know that connection to others is necessary, not least of all, because we learn about ourselves. But, in order to connect to others in a meaningful way, we first of all need to be able to connect to ourselves.

Each December, I like to reflect on what I have been blogging about all year. I did so in 2015 and 2016 and in this way I connect with myself, and my words, which makes it easier to connect to others and their words, especially with WordPress Reader.

And then, the stats themselves can tell a story. As I said in Top Blog No 3 (below), we are living in an age when we have lots of data and very little narrative, or insight, which is why everyone is nuts about big data as they think it will give them insight. But, to get the insight, you need to see patterns, and then make them into a story.

So, let’s take a look. My top 10 blogs of 2017 are:

  1. Katie Hopkins’s #fatstory one year on
  2. Fifty shades of my grey hair
  3. Storytelling: Narrative, Databases, and Big Data
  4. Maslow’s hierarchy of social media
  5. Aggression: The social animal on social media (6)
  6. Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)
  7. User motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  8. Designing story (3): Archetypes and aesthetics
  9. Game theory in social media marketing (2): Customers and Competitors
  10. Alone together: Is social media changing us?

In all honesty, given the nature of 3.6 billion people online and how Google gets people to come to this site, the only real common thread in these blogs is that I wrote all of them. That said, I could make all manner of patterns out of these 10 posts because if there is one thing statisticians know: if you torture the data long enough it will tell you anything. But, what I really see in these top posts is that I have been blogging away about social media and storytelling for a few years now, and I have come full circle.

I started off with no. 10, actually my first social media blog was: Emerging Technologies: What’s the story? back in 2013, but when I wrote Alone together: Is social media changing us? I wasn’t sure about us learning about ourselves online, but now 60+ blogs later I think: Absolutely yes, it is true, we do come online to learn about ourselves, in the same way we learn about ourselves in conversation with others.

I found this out during the series The Social Animal on Social Media, and how stories matter. We interpret signs and symbols and make stories semiotically to make sense of the world and ourselves. We then tell them to others which creates an intimacy, and an energy which yes, causes a connection.

The constant theme running through all the blogs is connection and also understanding how to connect (which is why 4 and 9 have made it on, we like to make sense of our connections, 1, 5 and 6 are about making sense of bad behaviour or when connection goes sour). Now I only have two blogs left to write (one on social computing, and one on connection) and then I will have said everything and much more than I intended to, when I set out to talk about social media.

I am a year behind schedule as 2017 has been painful with some difficult life events, some heartbreak, and a lot of soul-searching, so to have felt a connection to others, more often than not online, throughout 2017, has been truly lovely. We do connect and have proper conversations on social media, contrary to what some sociologists might think.

I love blogging here. I make sense of the world and of myself, and as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it, I satisfy that innate yearning for intimacy and aliveness.

So for that, and for the conversations, the connections, and for the laughter, especially the laughter, I am so very, very grateful, and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Women and girls on social media: Society, Storytelling, Technology (8)

© Kim Kardashian Instagram

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 8 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At the public defence of my doctorate (ma soutenance de thèse publique), I had one of those cameras with film in which needed developing. It is hard to imagine in these days of digital immediacy, taking the film to the chemist, to get it developed and be surprised by what pictures had been taken.

I was surprised alright as some of my fellow (male) students took a few snaps of themselves naked for me to remember them by. I am just glad I wasn’t the one who had gone into Boots to pick up the photos. Being scientists, they were, of course, ahead of their time, dick pics are really all the rage online nowadays, even if us women have no idea why. Had my mates dressed theirs up a bit like this guy, I might have found it funnier and whilst googling about I did laugh a lot at this instagram page of responses to dick pics and other invitations.

It has been said that Kim Kardashian invented the naked selfie and she says that she finds it empowering and I understand what she is saying. She has control over her image and she is deciding how to represent herself, albeit it seems, she is choosing to do so as a sex object.

Men are rarely perceived as sex objects though this article in Marie Claire has tried to readdress the balance by listing full frontal male nudity in films. What is interesting about the article is what the male actors say about why and how they showed their genitalia. In contrast, gratuitous full frontal female nudity is very common.

Film theorist Professor Laura Mulvey says, female bodies are positioned as to-be-looked-at, and these bodies are viewed from a masculinised subject position/gaze. The viewer’s gaze is always assumed to be male in any given narrative and as I mentioned in Women’s bodies, it was the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who first celebrated the naked feminine form. So since 330BC, we’ve been trained to look at women from a male point of view, which is probably why when you ask a man if they find another man sexy, they will say that they have no idea. Ask a woman if she find another woman sexy and they will say yes or no.

Online: Heterosexy or shameless ?

Given that we are bombarded everyday by messages from the media, marketing and culture about our gender and our roles, which have with them prescribed appropriate behaviour, as a woman online you can currently only go two ways:

  1. You can do the Kim Kardashian and conform to a sex object stereotype which Sociologist Amy Shields Dobson , in her excellent book Postfeminist Digital Cultures, calls heterosexy; or
  2. you can do the performative shameless approach, aka the ladette approach, as made popular in the 90s offline by Zoe Ball et al.

The ambiguity with Kim Kardashian is that she has pushed the hetrosexy boundary. Is it empowering? Or, is it porn? Sharon Osbourne called her a ‘ho saying: She has had half of Hollywood which is a perfect example of the slut-shaming which occurs when a woman goes beyond the feminine stereotype of:

A self who appears visually complicit with current standards of active, up-for it, girl-powered femininity, without overtly evidencing sexual desires or sexual activity that might render her vulnerable to slut-shaming… (Renold and Ringrose, 2011).

This quote is from a paper about teenage girls and sexualisation. But ask any woman of any age and she will recognise it. I know I do. Since about the ’60s’ I would say women have been encouraged to conform to this ridiculous idea. Girls today have to also do it online where they are bombarded by media messages and by boys.

The pressure of sexting

A male acquaintance of mine last year told me about his teenage son receiving sexually explicit pictures of girls. He seemed to be shocked. But, research performed in the UK and quoted by Shields Dobson says:

  • Girls are asked for sexts more than boys are, while boys are more likely to ask for sexts.
  • Girls receive many more sexual messages online and are asked for sexts much more than boys .
  • Girls’ sexts are shown or sent beyond the intended recipient whilst more boys than girls say they will send on a sexually explicit image of someone else (without the person’s knowledge).
  • More boys are shown or sent explicit images not meant for them.

This academic research is very different to the media reporting on Generation Sex. It is recognisably genderised, patriarchal and same old same old.

I bet it never occurred to my male pal that a) he shouldn’t have been looking at this intimate pic because he is breaking the law, and b) his son might have put considerable pressure on the girl in question to get it.

Marketing and the media captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and molds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality

This same acquaintance said that he had caught his son sneaking to his girlfriend’s room in the middle of the night and told him off, though he felt secretly proud. I asked how would he feel if that was his daughter, he said he would be outraged. He was sufficiently self-aware to recognise his hypocrisy.

However, it is marketing and the media which captures the slowly developing sexuality of children and moulds it into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality, forms which my male pal embodies and propagates in his role as a father.

Neoliberal or stereotype

This same old might not seem too bad but it is the relentlessness of it 24/7 which is new, for the Internet compresses time and space, so that people feel hounded, which can lead to desperate acts such as the suicide of Amanda Todd. Todd was repeatedly bullied and slut-shamed by her peers because she was pressured into sharing naked pictures of herself. The slut-shaming and bullying I guess would have been in a similar vein to Sharon Osbourne on Kim Kardashian, given that teenagers emulate what they see around them. The difference is Kim Kardashian has an entourage as she goes about her daily life so she is protected and removed from daily life and she also has enough fans to make noise to encourage her critics like Sharon Osbourne to retract her statement.

Kim Kardashian seemingly also doesn’t give a stuff what Sharon Osbourne thinks, which is how we like our girls to be online. We want the girls who are behaving shamelessly to not apologise. We want them to take pride in themselves or the neoliberals amongst us do, those of us who follow stereotypes like my male pal, fall into the Sharon Osbourne camp. Shields Dobson says that being unapologetic is a way of protection. It shuts down a discussion which, of course, would be about how girls shouldn’t behave like that and there must be something wrong with them. Funny how we never have that conversation about boys.

In contrast, the girls who use social media to seek attention, external validation, and support from others are viewed as being in crisis, because we only ever hear the terrible stories of girls who end up trusting the wrong people with their intimate pictures. In reality, we just don’t like vulnerability, we perceive it as weakness and less than and so we bully the victims and once one person starts another will follow – we are socialised to conform.

#mencallmethings and #metoo

A great demonstration of this is in this paper Real men don’t hate women: Twitter rape threats and group identity by Claire Hardaker and Mark McGlashana, who analysed in depth, how journalist Caroline Criado-Perez was subjected to ongoing misogynistic abuse on Twitter, including threats of rape and death when all she wanted was to have one woman on a banknote. It started off with a small group of mainly male abusers which then quickly escalated – these people didn’t even know each other and weren’t a group at all – but other trolls saw people abusing Criado-Perez and just joined in.

And it is by trolling or by hijacking these important discussions, in which women talk about how they are treated in society, are shut down. Jessica Megarry in her paper : #mencallmethings (2014) says each time men police the ways in which women are able to conceptualise their own harassment, it appears that men actively perpetuate male social dominance online. But as the Real men don’t hate paper shows, women who don’t want to change the status quo do it too.

I am hopeful change is occurring. The #metoo hashtag has encouraged an open discussion about the harassment of women which has the potential to lead to change. Megarry says that the #mencallmethings hashtag discussion five years ago was depoliticised by shifting the conversation from an explicit focus on men’s harassment of women online to a more general conversation about online cruelty. With the #metoo I didn’t see that happen much, but to be honest I was only looking for women’s stories.

We need to create an online environment where people can speak without judgement which is hard to do because we don’t have it offline particularly. Why is that? And why do we particularly want our girls to be small and quiet? It is a patriarchal stereotype. In contrast, Shields Dobson says that girls online have much to tell us about how they navigate complex and contradictory pressures placed on them by society and it is too early to say whether it is good or bad and whether we should or shouldn’t intervene with what girls put online.

And why are girls doing this in the first place? They are encouraged by the fashion and beauty industries to do all sorts to themselves to meet narrow cultural standards of beauty – you cannot be too big in body or personality, or too thin, or too old, or too anything – to feel that they have worth in this patriarchal society where worth is measured by a girl’s sexual appeal to men. It is exhausting and ridiculous.

As mother to girls I am eager for change, but English Professor Lauren Berlant says that many people’s interests are:

…less in changing the world than in not being defeated by it, and meanwhile finding satisfaction in minor pleasures and major fantasies.

I get that I really do. But sorry Kim Kardashian, I want my girls to have access to bigger better fantasies than the heterosexy ones in which they are female objects designed for men’s gazes, especially online. The thought of the Internet being the same as the real world, well no, just no, as a female computer scientist that is a world which I defy, for it would defeat me every time.

[9) Conclusions]

Women in Tech: Society, Storytelling, Technology (7)

Ada Lovelace and her laptop

The world’s first programmer, Ada Lovelace. Source: Mashable

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 7 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

A couple of years ago, one of the dads at my girls’ school, following an initiative at his workplace, wanted help setting up an after school coding club to teach kids to program. He asked me if I would come along and help because there was a bit about Ada Lovelace and the guidelines would preferably have a woman giving that presentation.  I said I would be pleased to be a role model to guide young girls into IT. I said I would bring my girls and yep, sign me up, show me the materials.

One of my girls at the time was one year too young for the club (following his guidelines) but I said that it would be fine, she’s smart with a love of mathematics, she should come, Indeed she had to come as I look after her, but this man was insistent that she couldn’t come. He didn’t want me childminding – not that I would have been, I would have been teaching – and doing a job. His own wife who had worked in IT stayed at home and looked after his children whilst he ran the code club.

So there you have it. If there hadn’t been a mention in his materials about needing a woman to talk about their job in IT, I doubt he would have even asked me, male group think is prevalent in IT, as well as lots of parts of society. He certainly never felt the need to explain his reasons for not updating me on his plans, and he ran the club regardless with other dads and never mentioned it to me again nor did he ever show me any of the materials. The worst bit of all in this troubling tale is that this man is an IT manager.  A manager!!!

This anecdote, for me, sums up many experiences I have had in the world of IT: A socially awkward male cannot imagine what it is like to be a woman nor can he bend a tiny rule for something bigger than himself.

I am so used to this sort of nonsense in society, I just let it slide.  His individual lack of initiative and imagination can be found everywhere. There are a million stories of women being treated as unimportant in the computing industry and other domains as I discussed in the blog on Women’s Work and that is before we mention the purposeful aggression and sexism and appalling behaviour which happens towards women too.

The picture above is a mashup of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, who worked with Charles Babbage on his computing machine so officially she is the first computer programmer.  A lot of computing pioneers were women. According to National Program Radio, who looked at the statistics for women in computing, the number of women studying computer science grew faster than the number of men until 1984, when the home computer was invented and marketed to boys, inventing the nerd stereotype and overwriting all the true stories of women in IT.

I was a final year undergraduate the first time I heard about Ada Lovelace and the only reason I learnt about her was because the programming language ADA is named after her. Sitting in a lecture hall full of men, the story of a woman was so invigorating, I taught myself ADA and wrote my final year project in ADA. It only took a few facts of her life to make me feel excited, included, inspired. What other things might I have decided to do had I known about NASA programmer Margaret Hamilton whose code put men on the moon,  she brought her daughter with her to the lab too, and Grace Hopper and her machine independent language ideas which led to COBOL? I learnt COBOL in my second year but no one ever thought she was worth a mention. I tell you COBOL and I might have gotten along much better had I known about Grace.

Female computer scientists were not mentioned during my many years of formal education. Rather like the early 19th century women scientists Caroline Herschel, Jane Marcet, and Mary Somerville, who in their lifetimes were recognised as being at the forefront of European science, but were no longer spoken about by the end of the 19th century because all women had been barred from graduating from university. Written out of history, and not given the legitimacy of belonging like men. What message does that send a woman?

Our culture sends messages whether we like or not and mass culture likes to give us what we already like because it is based on economics. So the moment the male computing geek stereotype was invented, that narrative excluded women, it overwrote those great female stories. Like sells like, and fiscal reasoning doesn’t care about telling new stories especially when it comes to women. Progress is a myth where technology is concerned. We think that any progress is an advancement but it is not. Semiotically speaking, we look for a how not a what, and we choose and reject stories based on how true they feel, which is based on familiarity i.e. the stories we know. So, if a constant narrative is that girls don’t do computing and boys do then this must be true.

It encourages a cultural devaluation of women across society and in particular in technology. Take Stuff Magazine, a magazine for men who are interested in technology. It made me so cross objectifying women that I had to write a whole blog slagging it off and I only slag things off when I am angry. A Menkind shop has just opened up near me which is a gadget shop. Why is it called Menkind? When I passed it, it had a Harry Potter cutout in the window.  Harry Potter eh? We all know that J K Rowling chose her pen name so that she would appeal to young boys. Heaven forbid that society encourages little boys to take women seriously and to listen to whatever story they might have to tell. The bottom line is like sells like, and the bottom line is hard cold cash. Progress is a myth and women’s stories are unimportant.

New Scientist news editor @PennySarchet  wrote in a tweet how she was advised during her PhD to explain everything really simply as if you were talking to a child or your mother. The original tweet she quotes and which has been deleted says grandmother. The cultural devaluation of women starts at home with the mother.

And yet there is hope. There is always hope. Recently, I read  Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo which in the link there to the Guardian has the female reviewer saying her daughter was disappointed not to find J K Rowling and the reviewer herself was disappointed to find Margaret Thatcher. J K Rowling writes books, yes successfully, whereas Thatcher was the first UK female Prime Minister, so the book has made the right choice. You can’t edit Thatcher out of history just because you don’t want to hear her story. She is, historically speaking, an incredibly important figure. Rowling, we can’t say yet, time will tell. But we can say this, she wasn’t the first woman writer in UK history. She is just one that the female reviewer’s daughter has heard of because she hasn’t heard many women’s stories. Why? Because many women have been written out of history.  Am I repeating myself?

I read the book with my daughter who was really interested in the coders and physicists because of me. She kept showing me them and having a chat about it because she is looking for stories which make sense about her world, (even though she was excluded from code club, miaow), a world in which luckily for her, her mother loves computing, and takes up space in that field. But what about those girls whose mothers don’t and only the dads do computing in after school code club?

Lillian Robinson says in Wonder Women: Feminism in stories is about the politics of stories. Each time a story about a woman doing something in a domain that society has traditionally defined as a man’s world is told, that narrative becomes part of the information we women and our girls coming after us use to process our experiences, which leads to that man’s world becoming less male and more populated by women. Hopefully an equal world of equal opportunity. And, the opposite is true, if all the sources of narrative tell the same story about women then nothing will ever change. Like sells like remember.

Let us know as truth that the narratives behind the field of computer science need to be rewritten, let’s stop dealing in stereotypes and lazy journalism, and the misogyny of female prime ministers (which is a whole other blog in itself). Let us look at the big picture, the bright one which stops telling us only men do IT.  In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed says:

Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.

Don’t make our girls wrong about computing.

[8) Online]

Women and religion: Society, Storytelling, Technology (6)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 6 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

I grew up in the Church of England and went to church every Sunday, often twice when I was a chorister: Sung Eucharist in the morning and back for Evensong later on that day. I have always loved high-church ritual: incense, candles, and drama, especially on Good Friday, when the vicar would prostrate himself in front of the altar.

Like many teenage girls with a religious mindset, I wanted to feel a divine transcendence, and watched The Song of Bernadette many times. My brother called it my happy-clappy phase. A Muslim friend of mine said that when she was growing up it was commonly known as la phase mystique for which I was very grateful, as it was a mysterious longing and not happy-clappy at all. And recently I read White Hot Truth, and was like wow, yes, when Danielle La Porte said she too, was desperate, as a religious Roman Catholic, to experience God.

Meggan Watterson, in Reveal, says that before the 9th century, a theologian was someone who had direct experience of the Divine. Nowadays we think of theologians studying and interpreting religion in a cerebral manner. There has long been the idea that we need to transcend our embodiment, which results in organised religion assigning sexuality to the female body (materia – or matter, blood and procreation), and the higher attributes of soul and spirit to the male mind. Watterson, herself a theologian, goes on to say:

And this has always been the reason why, from the Talmud to the New Testament and the Koran, women have been asked to remain silent, […]why their experience is not considered of equal value to that of men.

We are second-class citizens and not worth bothering about. Consequently, it was a Father God who sent his son Jesus to save all mankind, the brotherhood of man, whereas Eve, the first woman in the Bible, is responsible for the downfall of all mankind. She is the temptress with the forbidden fruit and her pal the snake aka the devil incarnate.

In her book The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd says that prior to Christianity the snake was a symbol of feminine power, wisdom and regeneration, adding that no wonder a woman will feel lost in organised religion as she is cut off from her intuition, which is an evil thing, and which she understands from listening to her body, which is a dirty thing tempting men into sinning.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd discuss the irony of the Eucharist. This is body which is given for you… this is my blood which is shed for you. Women can give their bodies to breastfeed their kids, and they shed blood every month so that they are able to create new life, but in religious terms, this earthly way is unclean and unspiritual, which is why women were not, until fairly recently, allowed to handle the Eucharist or play a role in the service.

But then religion is a man-made power structure. We had the Holy Roman Empire, which wasn’t about God, or experiencing the divine, it was about man and power. And, the Church of England was created by randy King Henry VIII who wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry and have sex with Anne Boleyn, whom he then beheaded and called a witch. No divinity there then. As a woman in this faith, I was taught, from birth, to be validated by the masculine, with a male saviour, male vicars, male apostles, and male stories. It is so indoctrinated in me that until my girls took me to one side at St Paul’s Cathedral after attending a service, and asked me to point out the female apostles and the female saviour, I no longer noticed. And, therein lies a particularly painful irony, I took my girls to church, because I wanted them to know how to pray in order to find comfort. I wanted for them, in those worst moments which life can serve up, to know their way around a church in case they needed to transcend their earthly troubles and experience the divine. What on earth was I thinking?

A few years ago, after several traumatic life events, I took to weeping a lot in church. Just weeping. I would weep all the way through the service, as it was the only time I had to myself as my girls were in Sunday School being looked after, and I had a tiny slither of time in which I couldn’t do anything but weep.
One day the vicar came over and said:
I have noticed you have been weeping a lot during the service.
And I said:
Yes I am very sad.
And he said:
Don’t you think you should get some help for that? See a counsellor? A therapist? Go see someone.

Basically he didn’t want me in his church as a weeping woman in pain from my life experiences. He wanted me to stop it, to go away, to be silent. I was so upset that he didn’t want me there expressing myself, I told everyone, every woman I came across: female friends, random women in the street, anyone who looked at me. And all the women I talked to said that they too had wept in church and wasn’t that the point of church, to get comfort?

It has taken a while, but I am finally at the opinion that the Church is the last place a woman should look for comfort. Comfort comes from being free from constraint, being at ease, and from the familiar. In contrast, the Bible is full of constraints. All those Thou Shalt Nots… written in a time when women were classed as possessions, not people, don’t put anyone at ease. And, the subjugation of women means that there is no familiar femininity just a load of blokes standing about in dresses, saying things like: This is my body which I give to you. It is mind-boggling that the centre piece of Christianity is something women can do and are considered unclean when they do it, and men cannot do and have turned into a spiritual but cerebral act. Women are to be seen not heard. Do your crying elsewhere, woman.

I did try to stay in the Church. I asked the vicar and a few other ministers if they had anything for me to read on the feminine divine as the whole Jesus thing was no longer working for me. They looked at me like I was insane and made me feel wrong about who I am and how I feel. The results of my life have been experienced in, and written on, my body, a thing that I am supposed to deny, because it is not a divine thing.

Feminist theologian Nicola Slee captures the female role in religion perfectly in Seeking the Risen Christa, when she describes her first experiences of faith in the Methodist Church as an intensely personal quasi-erotic relationship with Jesus [..] which mirrored a white middle-class patriarchal upbringing. He was a trial run for that ultimate act of female self-fulfillment, oh yes the wedding day. Because of course what more does a woman need out of life? And, if this sounds far fetched, look at the Roman Catholic nuns who wore wedding rings because they were the brides of Christ (which always reminded me of the Bride of Frankenstein, who was created like Eve was for Adam, so that Frankenstein could have a bit of company and his laundry done and his tea made). The church is a power structure which reflects an old fashioned outdated patriarchal society in which women are not to be themselves.

And so when this is all the Church has to offer women, what are we to do? Watterson says we have to do what our heart desires and that we are worthy of love and recognition simply because we exist. Something the Church could never say because it wants everyone down on their knees kept inline. They don’t want people following their heart’s desires.

Both Watterson and Monk Kidd have left organised religion to form their own definition of the feminine divine, because she, Herself, can be found, if you know where to look. It is a lot of work, but seems to me to be the only way forward because, as Lucy H Pearce says in The Burning Woman: Feminine stands for all that we have been taught to reject as deeply flawed or inconsequential: our mothers, ourselves, other women, nature – in society, in religion, in work. And this is so wrong.

It’s time to reclaim the feminine, and indeed the feminine divine. It is time to teach our girls that they are whole, and worthy and loved, and that there is nothing wrong with them. It is time to stop making us women wrong about who we are and telling us that the message came from a weirdy-beardy bloke called God.

It is time to reinterpret the message and make it right.

[7) In Tech]