A REVISED and updated version of Woman: The full story (2003), The Contemporary Woman takes readers on a brisk — at times, breathless — journey through history with the aim of celebrating women’s lives from the far past to the present day, and also inspiring younger generations with stories of their foremothers.
Starting with the earliest Bible narratives, Michele Guinness presents lively character studies of some key Old and New Testament women (the “four great matriarchs” include “the first great Jewish Mama” — Sarah). She goes on to a close scrutiny of the New Testament Pauline texts on women.
Woven through the biblical analysis is an eclectic line-up of women role-models — Josephine Butler, Hilda of Whitby, Gladys Aylward, and Evelyn Underhill, among others. Snapshots of their stories offer a prompt to further research as well as a reminder why such figures should not be allowed to fade from collective memory.
Besides the historical perspective, Michele Guinness draws on her own life for illustration, including her Jewish background and experiences as a clergy wife and mother, who maintained her own career at a time when such a choice was still deemed unusual. She also offers reflections from her daughter Abby on the teenage growing-up years.
The book’s cover hints at radical perspectives, with a dramatic silhouette of a (possibly female) figure, arms aloft crucifixion-style. That hint is not really borne out by the contents, unless the reader belongs to those parts of the Church where women leaders are still a novelty — or are yet to be permitted in the pulpit at all. Strenuous efforts are made to interpret all the biblical material as pro-women, but the Church Fathers receive a more summary mention as “masters of misogyny”, which I thought somewhat harsh.
For me, Guinness always writes in an entertaining and engaging style, even if I disagree with some of her observations and conclusions. In her acknowledgments, she asks disarmingly, “Who am I to add my few drops to the ocean of words already in existence?” Her answer is that she longs for younger women to “live out their calling with boldness and faith” — and her appreciation of her ordained daughter-in-law and her daughter, now a senior manager, is heart-warming.
The Revd Naomi Starkey ministers in a group of churches in north Anglesey and is also a pioneer evangelist.
The Contemporary Woman: Can she really have it all?
Hodder & Stoughton £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50