Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Reading, Feminism and Sprirituality by Dawn Llewellyn Reviewed

This review is based on my own experience of reading it, yet I share it with you the reader being conscious that I am part of a set of wider communities and that your reading of the text will be different to my own. This sums up part of what underpins the thinking within Dawn Llewellyn’s excellent book “Reading, Feminism and Spirituality: Troubling the Waves”.

I found this to be a very readable book. It is is rooted in a methodological approach called “reader centred feminist research”. This involved using semi-structured interviews to find out how particular books had helped Christians and Post-Christian feminists in their spiritual journeys. Within this Llewellyn is challenging the notions that (i) waves of feminism should be viewed as distinct and based upon difference and (ii) that Christianity was only an influence on early feminist thought. I felt that one of her most compelling points was that Feminist Theology is stuck in the past and needs to catch up with more recent developments in feminism.

This book was refreshing to me and something I found fascinating. However, to understand why I found this perhaps more exciting than you may do there are a few things about me you need to know:

1.    Up until last year I taught A Level Sociology for a number of years and within the theory and methods section I would trot out the accepted wisdom on the different brands of feminism before linking them to specific waves. Then I would add in more on religious feminism than was in the text books because this was an area of particular interest to me. I also looked around for contemporary sociological studies which explained their methodology well in a way which was accessible, particularly for my more able students who I could happily send away with a whole chapter from a book to read.

2.    I am an avid reader myself. This is the twenty forth book I have read this year and I belong to a women’s book group at work as well having set up a small book group for the community in which I live. I also set up a book group in my previous church, having been part of one somebody else organised in the church I was in before that.

3.    I am a Christian Feminist who is familiar with the work of a range of writers who regard themselves as feminist or post-feminist.

4.    Some of the sample that Llewellyn used decided that they did not want pseudonyms used and as such I was able to identify that I knew one of the sample quite well from where I lived previously. The fact that this participant had passed me on a feminist text that I have found useful in planning worship somehow meant part of what was being said was personal and I could connect with part of the text on a deeper level.

So why were those things relevant and why do I recommend this book as an exciting and useful text?

Well, firstly it was a book which challenged me and gave me new theoretical information I hadn’t picked up previously. It also gave me new ways to think about things. As I say it was very readable and the language is understandable. This meant I was able to pick up the arguments being made easily and wrestle with them without getting caught up on trying to understand the points being made.  

Secondly, it challenged my own prejudices about second wave feminism. I know I owe that group of people a debt. However, particularly in light of the way it seems primarily to have been second wave feminists who have taken the rad fem approach of denying the gender of trans people or seeking to hold on to binary approaches I have struggled with them as a group. This book challenged that way of looking at things. The overview of the development of different forms of feminism explained why I am clearly located in the position I am yet it also disturbed my view of my foremothers and the way in which I have come to generalise many of them.

The third thing this book did was made me stop and reflect on how my avid reading is actually part of my own spiritual discipline. I had recently told my spiritual director how I like to go to some local gardens and pray there before or after spending some time with a book. When she had asked if it was a spiritual book I said sometimes but it was just as likely to be a novel or an autobiography. I just like to read there as well as pray there. Those books I read though are important and have been important in my spiritual journey.

Then there was the thinking about the relationship between reading individually and in community. I reflected on the different types of group I am and have been part of. Some of them fit in to Llewellyn’s argument that because of how books are chosen they don’t often fit into those which have been particularly significant in journeys. However in both groups I am currently in books are chosen and recommended by the members, in part because they have been significant reads to those people.

Finally, I really liked the way the methodology was explained in the appendix. This would be a great teaching tool for anybody looking for material to use at A Level or higher when teaching methods.

So as you can tell I enjoyed this book. It connected with me on a range of levels and said something very fresh and relevant.

The only problem is being an academic book it is pricey, I borrowed it from the theological library where I live, when ironically I had finished the novel I intended as holiday reading a day early and urgently needed something to read on the train the next day. It reinforces to me the need for these books to be made more accessible. I could get hold of it because I have the right access to a library. However, if we went back in time to when I didn’t have such access I would have been unlikely to have got hold of this. As a teacher I would have been unlikely to have been able to use the resource which would have been so useful to me at that point, because it would have been a hidden text. Ashgate, which are now part of Routledge I note, have started to overcome this by producing more of their books in paperback. Whilst they are still not cheap they are half the price which this book is and thus become just about affordable for many people. Palgrave Macmillan, the publishers of this book, may want to take note of this.