Feminism and The Salvation Army

When I go back to Uni after Easter I begin a new project looking at quilt making.

A group of us are going to hand sew a quilt and either give it to a family in poverty or let a charity sell it and use the money to help others in poverty.

I’ve been looking at themes for the quilt and looking at feminism, in particular, feminism in my own upbringing.

I was raised in a Salvation Army home where both my parents are officers*, my parents had a choice between leading a corps and managing a hostel, they chose to run hostels. This meant living in a flat within the hostel and raising your family as part of the hostel ‘home’ – one big happy family!

I was always proud to be a part of a church at the front of women’s equality. The Army founder, William Booth, was very vocal on women’s equality in the church. I took this from The Salvation Army’s UK website.

Gender equality

“I insist on the equality of women with men,” said our founder William Booth in 1908. “Every officer and soldier should insist upon the truth that woman is as important, as valuable, as capable and as necessary to the progress and happiness of the world as man.”

As The Salvation Army became established, so women were given leadership responsibilities. Catherine Booth, William’s wife, fought to expand the role for women in church and public life, advocating better conditions and pay for women workers in London’s sweated labour, most notably in the match-making industry. In the early days of The Army, women were sent to open new corps (churches), while others started social work among the women of the streets. By 1878 there were nearly equal numbers of women officers (41) as there were men officers (49). William’s daughters are great examples of how important women were in the early development of The Army. Catherine (Kate) pioneered work France, while Emma became the principal of the first Army training home for women, Evangeline became the first female international leader (General) of The Salvation Army and Lucy led the Army’s work in India, Denmark, Norway and South America

This commitment to equality remains today.

I always knew that my parents wage wasn’t much, it wasn’t a job for them but a calling from God. I also knew that my mums wage was less than my dads but since my dad always handed all money to my mum it never crossed my mind whether this was fair.

In all honesty, being raised amongst homeless men left me more aware of the unfairness of men’s lives than women’s. I often saw the inequality of relationship breakdowns where often the woman retained the home and full custody of the children whilst the man left the home and became homeless. A lot of the men had children they never saw because the wife had remarried or the man was too ashamed of his living arrangements to visit his family.

Even as I worked myself in a men’s hostel I knew a single man had little chance of getting council housing and felt the despair that young men had from having to sleep on the streets, while a woman in an equal position had more chances.

I was quite looking forward to looking into feminism and thought my first port of call would have to be a chat with my mum. I didn’t expect what I found. Thankfully I had my video camera with me and decided to video the conversation.

Just for clarification, we were on our way to pick up a friend and also had my dad in the back. He’s pretty deaf these days and oblivious to most of the conversation. He’s happily yawning and singing in the back as usual.

So, here’s what I got from the video.

I was right about my parents wage not being equal, but didn’t realise that this had been a new change. For quite a while my mum didn’t get a wage at all, instead my dad got the whole pay packet. This meant my mum couldn’t pay the National Insurance stamps and didn’t qualify for a pension when she retired. The Salvation Army have since rectified this and top up my mum’s ‘Army’ pension to make up for what was lost.

My parents wage wasn’t much, like I said, this wasn’t a career but a calling. You did the ‘job’ because you knew God had asked you to do it. They often worked 70 hour weeks, but the pay was so little that they still qualified for child support payments. I always understood that the pay was purposely set so they could access benefits and save the Army some money. Even after the Army decided married women should be paid a wage mum was still only paid 40% of dad’s wage. In a sense it wasn’t an extra wage, just my dad losing a portion of his money and it going to my mum.

I remember whenever we went for our weekly food shopping the receipt was sent to the Army and the money claimed back. I never understood this, but even this seemed like a way for the Army to pay less of a decent wage. When itemised bills arrived it sent people into a bit of a panic, knowing that their itemised shopping receipt would be sent to their boss. From that time onwards we had two trolleys, with one being for things we didn’t want dad’s boss to know about. Of course, this was nothing dodgy, but mum didn’t want her boss to know she was buying sanitary towels!

My parents had the same title. The Army use military terms and officers were given ranks according to their years of service. Lieutenant, Captain, Major… If a woman married a man with a lower rank she had to take on his rank. Even if that rank was a ‘demotion’, but if a man married a woman of a higher rank he automatically took her rank (promoted), even though he hadn’t put in the years of service.

My understanding has always been that married officers work as an equal unit, and I like that idea. My parents (I believed) were joint managers of the hostel, my Aunty and Uncle, joint ministers of several churches. My Grandparents, joint ministers of their churches. Yep, my family goes all the way back to riding in William Booths motorcade!

Yet when the Army elects a new General it is the husband that carries the title of General, whilst his wife is made a Commissioner with the job role ‘World President for women’s ministries’. We have had a woman general in recent years, but General Eva Burrows was a single officer. If she had been married, she would be given the lower rank of Commissioner, in charge of women’s ministries. Will there ever be an occasion that the Army appoint a wife as the general and the husband takes on the lower rank? I doubt it, besides what will his job be? Will he be asked to manage women’s ministries? I wonder how many remarkable women have been held back because they married a man not as capable as she was?

Another problem my mum had, apart from not getting a full pension, was when she had to retire. Being ten years younger than my dad, who retired at 65, my mum had to retire with him at 55. Still very much young enough to work and do a lot of good in the world, yet forced to quit a job she loved. However in the opposite instance my dad would be allowed to retire or continue until my mums retirement. 

I knew my dad had been taught his wife’s role was to raise children, but mum fought hard to have her own place in the hostel. Often she would sneak down to the office to work without dad knowing, because she wasn’t given a desk of her own and was expected to do the paperwork at the dining room table. 

In the 80s, Dad was given an honourary degree from Manchester University (Polytechnic as it was) but my parents both did the work. Don’t be fooled into thinking my mum was some dainty little lady, she rolled her sleeves up to bath her share of long term rough sleeper and she stood her ground against aggressive drunks. My dad also was asked to speak in many places about his work in the hostel, but very rarely was mum rewarded, or asked to give her opinion. My dad was in several books, TV documentaries, magazines and newspaper articles, but mum… Never – Oh, she was filmed bathing a man for a channel 4 documentary film about dad once!

I’ve always been more respectful of my dad and his experiences, but after speaking to my mum, I finally have respect for her work too.

Despite no pay, being seen as lower than your equally qualified husband, and having to retire when you know you’ve not finished your life’s work, she, and many women officers have done jobs that many of us would turn their noses up.

It reminds me of a situation I saw shortly before my parents retired. I was about 20, living at home, which was a flat next to the men’s hostel in Leeds.

Like I said, my parents never had a great wage and new items were rare. My mum had spent the evening at a restaurant with women from the church and had worn a very expensive second hand dress, donated by our one richer relative, but it was one of mum’s few luxuries.

My mum came home, and within minutes there was a phone call from the hostel reception. A man in the hostel had cut himself and needed help. Immediately my mum went to help and although I usually avoided anything to do with the hostel I decided to go along. We walked along a corridor of doors leading to dormitories. On the floor was a trail of blood leading from the bathroom, all the way to one of the bedrooms. We followed the trail of blood.

In the dormitory was a man, very drunk, crying and covered in blood… I mean, covered! Even the mattress was soaked. Without a seconds thought I watched as my mother went and sat right next to him, putting her arm around his shoulder and talking to him gently. He was a man who had been married with children, but his wife had thrown him out. Today was his sons birthday and he had been turned away from his ex-wifes house. He had decided to drink and cut his wrists to end his life. 

It was the 90s and AIDS was just beginning to be talked about as passed through blood, yet my mother held the mans bleeding wrist with one hand and hugged him with her other arm, all the while telling him it would be okay.

I stood in the doorway watching the scene, worrying about my mum getting blood over her luxurious dress and the worry of  her sitting with a suicidal drunk, but to my mother, this man was worth the world.

So this post is for my mum, who often said she’d rather help bathe a dirty old homeless man than do a sermon.

*Because the Salvation Army uses unusual terms I will try and explain things further.

Corps – Church

General – The highest rank in the Salvation Army

Marching Orders – A letter that arrives informing you that you are moving to a new place. These days your circumstances are taken into consideration, but one reason I (and many officers children) didn’t get good qualifications at school was because our family moved during out vital exam years. I spent a lot of wasted German classes preparing for a German exam, only to move to a town where the school only taught French!

Officer – An ordained minister in The Salvation Army

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

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