No coward soul: a biography of Alison Gent, radical feminist, activist for the ordination of women

Author: Yvonne Lesley McLean

McLean, Yvonne Lesley, 2013 No coward soul: a biography of Alison Gent, radical feminist, activist for the ordination of women, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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The title of the thesis, No Coward’s Soul, is taken from a poem by Emily Bronte and in it are encapsulated the major themes. The personal tone of the title denotes the biographical nature of the thesis. This is a biography of Alison Gent who was from childhood a devout Anglican. Theology, then, is the concern of this biography. The theological background of the church in Adelaide which nurtured Alison’s faith is studied with particular reference to incarnational theology. Anglo-Catholicism, marriage and divorce are also considered.

The title indicates the prominent place literature had in Alison’s life. She was an erudite woman and used her knowledge of poets and writers to inform her Christian thinking. The negation of cowardliness points to Alison’s strength and courage in the face of pain and grief. I have used the term ‘warrior woman’ to describe Alison’s persona. It cannot be limited to the difficulties she endured in her marriage, nor in participating in radical feminist practices, nor in her combat with the church protesting for the ordination of women.

Alison Gent’s biography encompasses, then, a diversity of activities all of which are of concern for men and women into the twenty-first century. The historical and cultural context of the narrative is Alison’s life spanning the years 1920-2009. Her life began in the relatively homogeneous and predictable interwar period in the conservative city of Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. But Adelaide was not immune to the cultural and religious crises of the 1960s; and unpredictably led the nation in reforms instituted during the time of progressive premier Don Dunstan. As the move for women’s ordination gathered strength in the 1980s the church in Adelaide became a focal point in the national debate. In this context Alison stood out against the church. She was armed with a mature spirituality and theological understanding but she was a distinctive warrior - an Anglo-Catholic, the wife of an Anglican priest, a mother and a radical feminist activist.

Alison’s struggle for justice for women in the church and society determined that this biography would be a feminist biography. Interviews with Alison were conducted using a feminist interviewing technique. Also considered were feminist theories, Christian feminism including feminist biblical hermeneutics, and feminist theology in relation to ecclesiology and ordination. Alison maintained what she called her ‘simultaneous involvement of church and women’s movement.’ The account of the beginning of the women’s movement in Adelaide offers a study of secular feminism and Alison’s contribution to its activism for abortion reform.

The narrative of Alison’s wide-ranging and ‘simultaneous’ activities lent itself to a narrative theology which, influenced by Wittgenstein’s notion of life as a weave, McClendon’s biography as theology and Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic framework, is presented as a series of ‘forms of life’. While an artificial construction, it nevertheless allows methodological order. The author selected four areas of Alison’s life, the Anglican Church in Adelaide, marriage, the women’s movement and the protest for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, in which struggles she showed herself no coward.

Keywords: Christian Feminism, Anglican Church, Women's biography, Status of Women, Narrative theology, Wittgenstein, Lindbeck, Women's Liberation Movement Adelaide, Anglican Clergy Wives, Ordination of Women in Adelaide

Subject: Theology thesis

Thesis type: Professional Doctorate
Completed: 2013
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Assoc Prof Stephen Downs