For Women’s History Month, Manon Ceridwen James introduces her new book Women, Identity and Religion in Wales: Theology, Poetry, Story.
Why did the women I worked with lack confidence? Why did I lack confidence? These were questions that intrigued me as I went about my work as a parish priest and diocesan officer within the Church in Wales. My experience as a first-language Welsh speaker was that Welsh people were thought of as strange, inferior or amusing by those from outside Wales. So, did some of my feelings, and the feelings of my parishioners and diocesan colleagues stem from these experiences of being Welsh and being female? What part did religion play in this? Did faith and the institutions help or frustrate a healthy self-confidence?
This gave me the impetus to investigate whether being Welsh and being female were stigmatised identities, as well as the part religion plays in the construction of Welsh female identities. I explored different philosophical and sociological approaches to social and individual identity, the recent religious history of Wales and how Welsh women have been portrayed over recent centuries. One shock was to come across the earthy, sensuous poems of Gwerful Mechain and her fifteenth-century religious praise poem to the vagina, completely contradicting the respectable ideal of womanhood that I had assumed was an essential part of Welsh female identity. I set about finding out what had happened to images and stereotypes of women between Gwerful Mechain and our respectable images of Welsh women today. (Clue – unsurprisingly, the 1847 Report on Education, known as the Blue Books, plays a huge part.)
I wanted to find out how women thought and felt about themselves today and interviewed thirteen middle-aged women about their life stories. I also read and analysed a sample of Welsh women’s current writing in memoirs and poetry – looking at the work of Menna Elfyn, Mererid Hopwood, Jan Morris, Charlotte Williams, and Jasmine Donahaye – to examine how they wrote about their identity or religion. What I discovered surprised me. The women I interviewed told me stories of misogyny, prejudice and the pressures to be respectable in the middle of such difficult circumstances as illegitimacy, coming to terms with sexuality and divorce. Both the writings and interviews revealed a similar sense of empowerment and resilience, and a strategy of humour to deal with attempts to shame and stigmatise. This finds expression in the trope of the Strong Woman, linked to the Welsh Mam, which it seems is still operative in the lives of Welsh women today.
In the book I explore this journey from my sense that Welsh women lacked confidence to the realisation that they consider themselves to be ‘strong women’ able to reject attempts to control or subdue them. There is, therefore, a real challenge for the churches and Christian institutions in Wales – if they want to engage with Welsh women effectively, they have to do so with humility and change practices, cultures and theologies that shame, stigmatise and infantilise.
Manon Ceridwen James is the Director of Ministry in the diocese of St Asaph, Church in Wales, and is an honorary Canon of St Asaph Cathedral.