LONDON — Josephine Robinson is a pioneer.
She won a place at Oxford University in the late 1950s, when most colleges were closed to women.
She trod the boards of the Old Vic, one of London’s most famous theaters. She is married to one of Britain’s best-known TV and radio personalities. And for the last 20 years she has headed up a major Catholic women’s organization.
Robinson is chairwoman of Britain’s Association of Catholic Women, founded to give voice to women who wanted to affirm their loyalty to the Church and full support for traditional Catholic teachings. It will mark its 20th anniversary in 2008.
A counselor with a pro-life group for many years, Robinson gives regular talks to engaged couples. She is the author of two books on marriage, including the recently-published Marriage as Gift, and has become a familiar voice on Britain’s radio when issues concerning the Church and women are raised.
Tell us about the Association of Catholic Women.
A group of us got together because we were so tired of hearing the words “Catholic women” immediately followed by adjectives such as “angry,” “marginalized” and so on. We wanted to show that this was false — that as Catholic women we love the Church and give our glad assent to her teachings.
Our belief in the Church is centered on the idea that God loves men and women equally, and for us as women there is a message in that Mary is the most perfect human being, celebrated by the Church since its earliest days.
And what does the Association do?
It has grown substantially since those first meetings. Much of our work involves speaking up in the media. We also run day-conferences and retreats, publish a quarterly review, organize a major national annual religious education project for children, take pilgrimages to shrines around Britain, are sponsors of the annual Festival of Catholic Culture in London and much more.
A major campaign was the production of our “Catholic identity cards” — over 40,000 of them have now been distributed. These state that the holder is a Catholic and in case of emergency a priest should be called — and ask that medical care should include fluids, however administered. This is in response to the very real concerns about what can take place in hospitals. There was a lot of publicity and orders poured in from all over the country.
And I mustn’t forget our prayer league — Oremus. We list prayers for all our work, and the intentions of the Holy Father; it’s a way for every member, including those ill or housebound, to be involved and is crucial to the work.
We’re also very much involved with public issues. We set out our Catholic perceptions to government departments when occasion demands, especially on subjects that directly relate to us as Catholic women: education, marriage, family, protection of life.
Were you brought up a Catholic?
Yes, in a very happy and loving family. I attended a Catholic boarding school from a rather young age. That was chiefly because of the Second World War. Children were being sent to safe areas, out of London, and so I went away to school at 7, much earlier than would normally have been the case.
I must say I enjoyed my schooldays — it was a convent — and have many happy memories.
Then there was Oxford…
In those days, of course, one went to a women’s college, of which there were just three. I think we were about 1,000 women to about 7,000 men at the university. The atmosphere was very academic. There were some brilliant — and very eccentric — women. Dorothy L. Sayers conveyed it accurately in her book Gaudy Night: It really was a bit like that!
And you were involved with acting.
With the OUDS [Oxford University Drama Society] and with the Experimental Theatre Society (at one point we toured America playing Shakespeare) various plays, including King Lear. Then the Korean War broke out and all the planes from Britain were diverted to the war effort. We were stranded in New York with no money and no means of getting home. The newspapers discovered our plight and there were headlines back home. Our parents all started to make a fuss, and we got back eventually.
Then you decided to become a professional actress on the London stage.
And on tour, working at theaters around Britain. A lot of Shakespeare: I was Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Olivia in Twelfth Night. I also particularly remember Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral — that was at the Old Vic.
And you married. Your husband, Robert Robinson, has become famous for his “Brain of Britain” series on BBC TV and radio.
Rob and I met at Oxford and were in the drama group together. We married at Holy Redeemer Church in Chelsea, where all our three children were subsequently baptized and where two of them have also had their weddings. And now I’m a grandmother.
Robert Robinson’s face has become familiar to millions. Has it been hard being married to a celebrity?
Slightly odd at times. We’ll go into some country pub together and suddenly there’ll be silence as people recognize him. … But mostly everyone is extremely friendly. Then there are all the letters, and people who want to meet and talk.
Where do you see the Association of Catholic Women going now?
We’re extremely busy; it’s all still expanding. There’s quite a bit of media work, which is a big responsibility.
If you are speaking for the Church, you must be so careful to make things understood. When we first started, we tended to think: “But it’s all so clear, it’s all so obvious: Why can’t people simply see how true it all is?”
But gradually you learn that of course people will disagree, and you have to show the truth and beauty of it all.
I suppose I could say our work is organic: It’s grown naturally, from one project to the next. And I must honestly say that over these years all of us who have been involved have seen how our own faith, and our understanding of the Church’s message, has deepened.
We hold two big open meetings in London each year, and have been blessed with some top speakers, well-known priests and laypeople, covering all sorts of topics: Church music, the life of John Henry Newman, World Youth Day, to list just a few recent ones.
We also have lovely pilgrimages to Catholic shrines, of which, of course, there are a large number here in England.
And we have the League of St. Anne and St. Joachim: That’s very close to our hearts. It’s simply an invitation to anyone, asking them to pray for “all who seek to pass on the faith to the next generation.”
If possible, it’s suggested that people can privately offer Mass, say once a month, in honor of Sts. Anne and Joachim asking for their prayers.
I think I would say that perhaps some of the very extreme things we were trying to counter — the really ferocious campaigning feminism — has abated. We can’t ever say that our association has been successful; we can’t say what part we have played.
We can only say that at least we have tried to speak up for what is true, especially in the matter of the Church’s teachings.
We’ve come a long way since we started. We’ve deepened our faith, become more aware of what it means to be human, and have made deep and lasting friendships.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.