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Interview: Rachel Gardner, director, Youthscape, and President of the Girls’ Brigade, England and Wales

19 October 2018

‘The world doesn’t feel like a safe place to be young and female in’

This year marks the Girls’ Brigade’s 125th anniversary. In England and Wales, more than 10,000 girls, aged between four and 19, are involved. It holds such a strong place in the hearts of women who’ve been through the ranks, but our challenge is always how to encourage women who’ve never been through GB to set up or help run a group.

Being part of a global movement helps to keep us in touch with the challenges faced by girls all round the world. Our girls have built into their very DNA a stance of ready engagement with whatever they face.

I’m a portfolio worker. I do a number of things, like the Romance Academy Project, Youthscape, and Home for Good. I innovate models of youth engagement, and champion the worth, potential, and impact of girls and women in all areas of life.

I wrote the The Girl De-Construction Project because my daughter is already noticing, at the age of six, that there are places where women are not. I want her to know that she can go and be anywhere. She watched the World Cup and asked: “Mummy, where are the women?” Also, because GB is part of a global movement to see girls empowered to reach their full potential and become leaders. Also, because I develop resources in the UK with and for young women at risk of sexual exploitation.

Sadly, there’s a very narrow view of what biblical femininity is. Christian young men can suffer with that toxic gender stereotyping, too. It’s a lazy biblical hermeneutic which colludes with structures where alpha men have most of the power.

I spent most of my twenties not knowing how to live fully as a spiritual, sexual, emotional, and powerful woman. I wish someone had given me a richer vision of who Jesus was inviting me to grow into. Women in the Bible didn’t live to be role- models for us — they were just dealing with their lives. We love Abigail, Esther, and Ruth not because they conformed, but because they found a new identity for themselves in God.

I’ve been a youth worker for just under 20 years. I thought that there’d come a time when I’d be done with speaking to young women about our intrinsic worth and God-given authority to live and lead, but I haven’t. After reading comments from women of all ages who’ve read my book, I’ve been reminded that in every season and every culture there’s a need for everyone, especially female everyones, to work out how we’ll define and refine our identity in the light of who God is.

Perhaps you can’t imagine growing up in a world where the pressure from perfect images is so ubiquitous, so all-consuming. Young women are groomed to see themselves as a project — which is why I played with that idea in the title. The “girl” identity can be infantilising (although it’s “girls” who are systematically sexualised), but “woman” sounds so sorted and allows no room for manoeuvre and resistance.

Real opportunities and rights for girls and women have an impact, but our daily experience is often still one of sexism. Women and girls account for 71 per cent of trafficked people, usually for sexual exploitation. The world doesn’t feel like a safe place to be young and female in.

It seems ironic that, in an age when we’re all more connected to each other and to new ideas, young women have less access to role-models who can counter-balance the skewed images in mass media.

Generally, older women aren’t asking younger women “Do you need to process this stuff? How can you sort the reality from the image?” We’d have been gatekeepers of this stuff in the past, literally at the door, monitoring the phone — but we don’t control their contacts any more.

We refer to young women as digital natives, but they’re not born with an ability to process all that information.

Many parents and carers are eager to help their child to be free to be all they are and all they can be. Be wise women: I’m learning to live in a saggy body, but I’m strong. I know myself. Young women need to see us being more kind to ourselves, not chasing perfection — chasing maturity.

I talked to my daughter from a very young age about her body being good. She knows all the correct names for her body parts, including vagina and vulva — which makes for hilarious conversations sometimes when we’re out and about in public. She is encouraged to transform her environment with the presence of her body and brilliance of her ideas. I hope that she grows up knowing how to use her body to give flesh-and-blood expression to her soul.

I grew up by the sea, which meant that it became second nature to view the sea as all powerful, unpredictable, stunning, and terrifying. I grew up in a Christian family who went through storms and crises, but all the while I saw my parents lean into God, trusting he’d hold them in the storm and carry them to shore. He did, and this had a huge impact on me. I love the picture in John 21 of Peter, on his fishing boat, getting his clothes back on and jumping into the waves to get close to his beloved friend on the shore. I’ve grown up with adults in my life who have taught me how we live in awe and deep intimacy with Jesus.

Life’s always been hectic — both then and now. My husband, Jason, is a curate in a church in north London, and we’re both youth workers. We love having as open a home as we can manage, but, when we’re not working, we’ll pack a picnic, get a takeaway flat white, and park-hop across London.

I love the intoxicating, infectious sound of my six-year-old daughter laughing when Jason is tickling her.

I’m angry when I’m frustrated, and I’m mostly frustrated at myself. But I also feel deep anger when I hear of people misusing their power and platform: abusing, manipulating, or demeaning others. Sadly, we can see it everywhere. I rage against the lies that convince young people that they’re not good enough, not loved, not lovable, and without a future.

I’m happiest when I stumble across a bargain in Oxfam, or switch the engine off on a quiet country road to hear the wind in the trees, or when I’m hanging out with friends and neighbours around a bonfire late into the night.

Being able to become a mum through adoption felt incredible, and was the most utterly terrifying thing I’ve ever done. I faced those daily encouragements of realising how impatient, selfish, and unbending I am; but I also felt the joy of discovering that, when I thought that all was lost, I did have the courage in me to learn to love my daughter well. We are adopting a little boy this summer.

The young people I meet give me hope. The older I get, the more I realise that I can do nothing, and hope for very little, without regular times spent with God. The more I drink in his presence, the more I get to grips with what he says and does, the more confident I am that he is good and trustworthy, and that lives lived in surrender to him is the hope for the world.

I picture the Creator of the world, beyond male and female. God is my father, and also mother, who gathers me under her wings. Masculinity or femininity doesn’t capture the whole essence of who God is. I sometimes deliberately choose to pray for the mothering, nurturing of God.

I pray most for freedom for those I love, and people around the world trapped in systems of violence and oppression. And I pray that God would wake me up to what’s on his heart.

Can I be locked in a church with two people? I’d love to spend time with Amy Winehouse. Her talent was out of this world. I’d want to hear her sing, and listen to her story of pain and hunger to be known for who she really was. I’d also love Ruth from the Bible to drop by. I have a lot to learn from her about not running away from others being dependent on you, and I’d pick her brains on how she worked out how to live in herself in such an oppressive culture.

Rachel Gardner was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

The Girl De-construction Project is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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