08 March 2012
The women that inspire us
To celebrate International Women's Day today, we asked 12 leading Christian women to tell us which females inspire them. From unsung local heroines to trailblazers in the world outside the Church, from Bible characters to amazing women in history, here's what they told us...
My inspiration is Irena Sendler, the Polish Catholic social worker in the 1940s who saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. With a team of co-conspirators, Irena even smuggled out babies in ambulances, sometimes disguising them as packages. There are stories of her dog barking so loudly that the Nazis couldn’t hear the children crying. Years later, in a letter to the Polish parliament, a very frail Irena wrote: “Every child saved with my help is justification of my existence on this earth, not a title to glory.” Irena reminds me that being a woman is not about opting out, giving up or sitting back. The Bible and our own Christian heritage is packed full of women who changed the hearts of kings and the outcomes of wars, freed prisoners and fed the poor, built hope and founded companies, raised children and practised faithfulness, loved recklessly and lived generously. They are both companions to men and leaders of men in bringing God’s love to this broken world. I am so proud to be their sister!
Rachel Gardner, director of Romance Academy
I recently did a school assembly on Marie Curie. I have to confess that before I was given the subject I didn’t know too much about her apart from her scientific discoveries, which alone are incredible.
What inspires me about her most, however, is the fact that she achieved so much against the odds. Young, Polish and above all female she had to work against a system which said she could not do it. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win one in two different categories and she was the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. She was incredible, but I believe she was incredible because she had an incredible attitude: "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."
Bekah Legg, editor of Liberti magazine
A woman that I found inspirational over many years was someone called Meg Foote. She was vice principal of All Nations Christian College when I was a student there in the 1970s, at a time when there were few women in senior leadership roles in the evangelical world. She possessed a combination of passion for Jesus and a rootedness in the stuff of everyday life that made her both inspiring and very approachable. Seemingly unshockable, she had a twinkle in her eye that communicated hope and spoke of someone who didn’t take herself too seriously. And as an increasingly frail older woman she wrote countless letters of encouragement packed with practical biblical wisdom to former students all around the world. I’ve kept mine because they are so inspirational. On top of this she set up and ran until shortly before her death a lively Bible discussion group for her fellow residents in the sheltered housing where she lived that tackled thorny topical issues faced by older people.
Fran Beckett, consultant – Anthony Collins Solicitors
I’m inspired by Mary Magdalene, a woman who made dramatic changes in her life as she became a follower of Jesus. She took risks and did what she felt needed doing. She was criticised by others for anointing Jesus with expensive oil, but Jesus recognised what she did as motivated by her love for him and defended her against her critics. While other disciples stayed away after the crucifixion, she went to look for Jesus’ body in the garden – a difficult and brave thing to do, driven again by love. He met her there, and she became the first to see the risen Jesus and to share the good news of his resurrection. For me, through her discipleship she embodies righteousness, steadfastness, courage and love in action.
Loretta Minghella OBE, director of Christian Aid
I’m particularly inspired by the Samaritan Woman, aka The Woman at the Well in John 4. I know that she is seldom thought of in leadership terms. In fact the popular idea is that she was an outcast, a woman of dubious morals. But this conclusion doesn’t really fit the facts surrounding her story. I appreciate her as a leader who emerges from the margins of society (incidentally, this suggests that she falls into the centre of God’s concerns), a Samaritan who happens to be a woman and a woman who happens to be a Samaritan. She is unnamed in the Bible, so in a very real way she could be any woman. Not only does she overcome resistance and opposition (not of her making), she also takes the initiative and persuades a town full of potentially hostile anti-Jewish Samaritans, that The Jewish Guy up by the Well is worth listening to and might even be the promised Messiah. If that isn’t an indication of huge leadership ability, what is?
Kate Coleman, founder and director of Next Leadership
One of the women leaders I hugely respect is Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. In 1980, she had a vision to build a movement among bright, energetic young graduates to commit to teaching in some of the neediest and under-resourced schools for their first jobs. She was passionate about helping young adults who had been well-resourced to channel what they had to help those who had little and to play their part in reversing some of America’s social injustice. She is a model to me of perseverance, a champion of youthful idealism and holds to her great conviction that where you are born should not determine your future prospects. I love her energy, her zeal and her groundedness. She also manages to have a husband and four children in her spare time, which seems truly super-woman-esque!
Sarah Wynter, editor of Youthwork magazine
My inspirational woman is called Hazel Carlisle. It's ok- you won't have heard of her, unless you live in the very small village I grew up in. Hazel has been a fixture at the village church since many decades before I was born. She is now in her 80s, but can still be seen peddling around the village on her upright bike, back as straight as a debutante. I wouldn't be surprised if she was a debutante actually. Hazel is an inspiration in that hidden way that CS Lewis speaks about in The Great Divorce. She's not done much that's public, but she's prayed and served, served and prayed with all her might her whole life. When she speaks of God her eyes warm and her cheeks crinkle as if she's talking about a new lover, and I know it's from all the hours she's sat with Him. I'd like to be like her.
Elizabeth Hunter, director of Theos
Any woman who 'breaks the mould' - by refusing to be tamed and suppressed on account of her gender - is, for me, an inspiration and a leader. Despite the dreadful violence and being personally opposed to violence, I can't help admiring Jael who “took a tent peg and a hammer in her hand and
went softly to him [Sisera, her enemy who was sleeping] and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground...and he died” (Judges 4:21). I love the Syro-Phoenician woman who - desperate for her daughter to be healed - persuades Jesus to change his mind when, at first, he refuses (Mark 7.24-30). I am inspired by George Eliot (a woman unable to get her work published under a female name) and all those who had to disguise their gender in order to fulfil their God-given callings in life. Perhaps the most moving example of this - and, therefore, my top choice, is “Dr James Barry”. Dr Barry was a woman who dressed as a man for more than 50 years so she could train and work as a doctor in the 19th century, serving as an army medical officer and her gender only being revealed on her death. I sometimes wonder if that's what it will ultimately take for us to see a woman bishop in the Church of England.
Martine Oborne, novelist and Anglican priest
I was uncertain, I was skeptical, I’d finally decided to explore the Bible for myself, and I was 12. I started (mercifully) with a gospel: Luke to be exact, and within a chapter something jumped out. I realised it wasn't all about stuffy middle-aged men. I found the story of Mary: someone about my age who responded to God with everything she had. She combined serious thought about what God had said in the past with what He was doing now among His people coming out with a very personal worship song. She was the first to preach about the coming Messiah, she surrendered her life to follow God’s call and she saw it through till the end. I was so inspired I wrote a Bible study and forced half the girls in my class to stay in at break time and do it... 20 years later I'm an Anglican priest and her story is still one I come back to when I’m in need of some inspiration to trust God... not just for nativity plays!
Sally Hitchiner, an Anglican priest in London
Lisa Smosarski is an inspiration. As editor of Stylist magazine, she has totally reimagined the way women's magazines need to be. The magazine's whole ethos says women are not defined solely in terms of their interest in celebs, fashion and beauty (the complete antithesis to loads of other women's mags). Stylist does cover that stuff, but it also takes seriously aspects of life such as work, culture and business in an accessible, but not tokenistic way. It might not sound like a world changer, but I think it's been really significant in terms of the women's market, and hopefully had a knock-on to the way women see themselves.
Ruth Dickinson, editor of Christianity magazine
Rizpah (2 Samuel 21:1-14). In a country marked by famine, a cycle of violence had claimed the lives of seven of Rizpah’s family members. Rizpah stays on the mountain where their bodies had been left. For months she pours out her love and grief by protecting them from the vultures by day and the wild animals by night. Eventually, reports of her tenacious fight reach the corridors of power. King David orders the removal of the bodies and following a proper burial the famine is lifted from the land. Key in the turnaround of David’s heart, his policy and the fortunes of a nation is the courageous vigil of this humble concubine. The account in 2 Samuel 21 shows that a good leader is a humble leader - someone who prays, listens to the rumours from the periphery, recognises the godly cause in simple acts of righteousness and changes his heart and course in its light. Rizpah’s time of mourning takes place “under heaven” and is a powerful statement of righteous advocacy on earth. Her tenacious, loving stance in the midst of a cycle of violence carries something of the eternity that God had placed in her heart (Ecclesiastes 3).
Marijke Hoek, Forum for Change co-ordinator
So many past and present women inspire me, but two Marys above all: the Mother of Jesus who recognised a God who “put down the mighty from their seats” and suffered at the hands of men because of it; and Magdalene whose witness to the risen Christ on Easter morning inaugurated the mission of the Church. Her love for Christ was scandalously intimate to the religious men of her day, and heroically tenacious nonetheless.
Jenny Taylor, director of Lapido Media
Which women inspire you? Share your female heroines using our comment facility...