Promoting female Theologians: When encouraging others is not tokenism

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The other day, I shared a list of female theologians and authors.  I don’t normally open up the comments section on Faithroots, not because I’m against free speech and discussion but because I don’t think those things are dependent on whether or not I open comments. People are free to debate and disagree to their hearts content on social media and their own blogs.  I’m just not here to spend my days moderating such content. Anyway, I opened up comments to specifically give people opportunity to add other suggestions to the list.

The first, and very speedy response was this comment.

I’m not nearly so interest in an author’s “identity” or gender as I am their thoughts and information. To focus on gender for genders sake is sexism. To focus on skin tone or ethnic background for skin tone and ethnic background’s sake is “Tokenism”… what uaed to be considered another form of racism. Don’t be sucked into these errors.

When I explained that this wasn’t really the purpose of the comments section on the blog and briefly responded to their complaint, I got a further response.

I would hope the purpose of opening comments was for inviting the opinions of others to the post, even dissenting ones, as long as they’re polite and respectful. Which I believe mine was. I read widely. As I stated, I don’t read an author for “representation” but for their thoughts and ideas. That’s a good interpretation of “not judging by the color of skin” or their gender… “but by the content of their character” or thoughts in the book. Like encouraging people to “vote with their woman parts” as someone so famously did… encoyraging them to “read authors” by their gender or ethnic background is indeed a form of racism and sexism. And subtly, if unknowingly, broadcasts to them and the readers that they “need the extra help” because of their gender or ethnicity. They should be insulted that their words and thoughts and artistry alone is not enough and that people somehow think they’re so “handicapped” by their gender or ethnicity that they need some “white knight” to swoop in and “pull them up” to a place they “might not achieve” without their help. I’d be insulted. Im insulted for them. Perhaps you hadn’t thought as deeply about my comment and what I was trying to say as you probably should have. I was actually trying to help you perhaps see a Different perspective on this “promoting” people by “gender”. I hope I have not offended, but if I have… I hope the offense has prompted your thinking and consideration. Cheers. – Barabbas

I didn’t want to see the comments to that blog post dominated by a further back and forth between us, so I have instead taken time to address the comments here. Barabbas is of course free to respond in turn via his own blog.

Over the years, there have been different attempts to encourage equality. These have included legislation against discrimination, the use of anonymous marking in schools and universities as well as on job applications, quotas for particularly under-represented groups in society and in the case of women MPS, single gender short lists.

I believe that it is right to take action to encourage equality and better representation in society. Why? Well it’s in response to the realisation that discrimination does put barriers up to people who don’t fit certain criteria from accessing certain career paths, benefitting from particular opportunities and having their voices heard. 

This means that they aren’t heard, not because of their abilities but because of their gender, ethnic background or class. They are overlooked and invisible because they simply don’t have the right connections and they don’t fit in. There isn’t a level playing field, there are obstacles in their way that have nothing to do with gifting, ability or character.  There is no point saying “Well I want to consider what each person has  to offer on their own merits” if we simply aren’t hearing people from a whole section of society.

I don’t agree with quotas and shortlists.  Why?  Well because I don’t believe these work. They do encourage tokenism. It then really does look like the person is there, not on merit but to meet the quota. And, if you have a quota, you tend to stop at it.  You think “well we have our female theologian’s chapter in the book. So we’ve done our job.” That may well lead to excluding other female theologians who have as much to contribute.  What if the 5 people who are best qualified to write about a subject are all women?  Would we have a problem with publishing a book only by female authors? I don’t think we should have a problem with that.

I’ve written more about my issues with the specific approach here.

However, there is a difference between filling quotas and intentionally going out of our way to give attention to a missing or silent section of society -and in the church, that means a missing or silent part of the body.  I am a complementarian and that affects my view of how things like leadership functions in the church and how married couples relate. However, it is not my understanding of Scripture that women should be silent or absent. Their gifts should be used, their wisdom and knowledge heard. To my mind, that includes through writing and sharing their wisdom, including theological understanding.

The reality is that women’s voices have not been heard in these areas.  I think that’s partly  due to wider societal factors but also due to a misunderstanding of what complementarianism entails.  So, I believe it is right to attempt to redress the balance. This is not about simply publishing, reading and promoting books by women because they are women. Rather, it’s about making sure that we don’t overlook and miss out on the contribution of some brilliant theologians and writers simply because they are women.

I am encouraged therefore to know that at least one publisher is proactively looking out for gifted female writers. I also, as I’ve said before, want to see publishers give attention to a whole range of missing voices who aren’t heard simply because they don’t have the right connections.

And I would suggest that it is helpful and good to particularly promote some brilliant female authors.  The point of my list the other day was not that these are the best women authors, not that they fit on a list of women authors but that each of them, in their own right would belong on my list of top theologians and authors worth reading. They belong up there with the men.  Ros Clarke and Karen Jobes belong on your bookshelf alongside Gordon Wenham and Don Carson. You should be reading Helen Thorne alongside Paul David Tripp.

Incidentally, the feedback I’ve got suggests that none of these brilliant authors feel in anyway patronised or offended to be included on the list.  I suspect because they aren’t attempting to second guess my motives. They’ve taken the list at face value.

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