About Kate

Kate Cooper is a prize-winning historian who writes about women and family, daily life, and religion in the ancient world.

Kate’s most recent book, Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women, shows how women and story-telling – the stories women told and the stories told about women – were central to the ‘viral’ spread of early Christianity. (Read the reviews here.)

Kate regularly contributes to broadcast media on the history of gender, sexuality, and religious identity, as well as writing for print and on-line publications such as the Times of London, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post – you can find links in the ‘media’ section of this site, and receive updates by following @kateantiquity on Twitter.

Kate’s research on the roots of religious of violence is supported by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship (2012-15); her project title for this work is The Early Christian Martyr Acts: A New Approach to Ancient Heroes of Resistance. During 2013-15 she is Visiting Fellow in the Humanities at the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

Kate’s academic ‘home’ is in the North-West of England, where she is Professor of Ancient History in the University of Manchester. (Her academic c.v. can be found on academia.edu.)

Recent interviews and podcasts

The publication of Band of Angels has sparked warm interest in Kate’s work. Here are some links:

  • Historians, Invisible Women, and the World of Stories Podcast of a roundtable discussion with Bettany Hughes, Selina Todd, and Tim Whitmarsh about Band of Angels held at Oxford University’s Centre for Research in the Humanities (click here)
  • Mary Magdalene in Text and History Audio podcast of a roundtable discussion with Jane Shaw and Rebecca Lyman at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (click here)
  • Two Scholars Imagine The World of Early Christian Women Write-up of an interview with the distinguished Biblical Scholar Deirdre Good at General Theological Seminary in NYC (click here)
  • Faith, feminism, and early Christian women Interview with Vicky Beeching, for the Faith in Feminism website (click here)
  • Have women been ‘airbrushed’ out of history? Interview with Katie Collins, for the wired.co.uk website (click here)
  • Why early Christian women still ‘matter’ Interview with Claire Rush, for the Sophia Network website (click here)

Finally, here is an interview by Colin Midson for Atlantic Books at the time of the UK publication of Band of Angels.

Colin:  Can you give us a sense of how you went about researching the book?
Kate:    Many people think that very little information survives about early Christian women, but luckily that isn’t true at all. The problem is that many sources were written by men, who often mention what the women were doing only in passing. So over the years I just kept collecting – all the cases where a man would mention what his mother or his sister was doing, or where he would describe the life of a particularly impressive woman he had known or heard of. Over time it started to add up to a wonderful mosaic.

Colin:  Of all the women whose stories you tell in the book, did you find any one in particular that touched you personally? 
Kate:    When I was at university the sister of one of my friends was raving about something she had read, the diary of a young woman from ancient North Africa who was thrown into prison because she was a Christian. I thought this was the most remarkable thing I had ever heard of – that a woman like this had kept a diary, and that it had been saved for nearly two thousand years. Her name was Perpetua, and she lived in Carthage at the end of the second century. Her diary is full of dreams and surprising reflections – and two brutal arguments with her father, who wants her to renounce her faith so she can come home to the family instead of being thrown to the lions. It is terribly sad and terribly beautiful – she is the second-century’s Anne Frank.

Colin:  Was the role played by women in the spread of Christianity unusual? Did the Christian story have a particular potency for women?
Kate:    In the early centuries, Christianity was a movement that spread through friendship and family networks, and of course this was often through women. It was not the only movement to spread that way – sociologists now believe that social networking is the pattern for most religious change. But in the Christian case I think it mattered enormously that so many of the core Christian ideas were about fairness and caring for the weak and the outcast – placing value on, and finding meaning in, their ‘women’s work’ of caring for the old, the young, and the infirm.

Colin:   Has the relative absence of women from the story of the Church affected our society?
Kate:    Oh, yes.  I meet so many people who think of Christianity as an ugly and misogynistic religion, and of course that is because they don’t know enough about it. The women have always been there, but they haven’t always been visible. Most people don’t realize that in any society, it is the ‘invisible people’ who are in the majority, and often terribly influential, in a behind-the-scenes kind of way. This said, it is quite sad that a religion that began with a mother and her wonderful baby should have had so much difficulty with remembering to honour the contribution of its women.

Colin:  Do you think there was a concerted conspiracy to write these stories out of history?
Kate:   It is a sad fact of human nature that most people believe they deserve whatever privileges come their way. And most people tell stories in a self-involved way that forgets the contribution of others. This is what Christian men have done. I suppose it’s possible that women would have done the same thing if they had not been too busy caring for the needs of others.

Colin:  The Church is currently struggling to reconcile long-held traditions with the idea of modernising and reflecting its congregation – are there lessons in your book that could help that transition?
Kate:     The wonderful thing about Christianity if you look at it historically is that no two communities were ever alike. Over the centuries ideas have constantly evolved and renewed themselves to meet new practical and spiritual needs. It’s not about ‘modernising’ – it’s about letting the faith ‘breathe’ and respond to its environment, offering new riches to meet new needs. This is what it has always done!

The basic lesson of my book is that women have always been unstoppable, despite the most daunting of circumstances. Their creativity and willingness to take risks for what they care about have been Christianity’s secret weapon for two thousand years, and I suspect that this will continue to be the case.

Colin:  Do you think the women that you write about are more significant as religious figures or as feminist icons from history?   
Kate:    One of the greatest things about historical Christianity has been the legends of the saints, a collective biography of hundreds of men and women who lived their faith in an inspired and inspiring way. Many of ‘my’ women have been inspiring people for nearly two thousand years, so they are certainly religious icons. But if you are looking for feminist icons, early Christianity is the ideal place to look – it is full of women standing up to lions, emperors, parents, and husbands – sometimes all at once.

Colin:  Are the religious landscapes you investigate in the early Christian period echoed in any societies around the world in the 21st Century?
Kate:    I have had some wonderful conversations with Muslim women from Britain and North Africa who say that the kinds of family relationships that I have written them about remind them of the village life that they have heard about from their grandmothers. That may be a romantic idea! But in so many places – in Britain as well as elsewhere – women’s daily lives are characterized by hardship but also by tremendous spirit and courage. It is that combination – hardship and spirit – that is at the core of early Christian women’s story.

Colin:  In the UK at least, it sometimes feels as if we are living in a climate of rampant atheism. Have you found it difficult to find a receptive audience to ideas about religious history?  Are people in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Kate:    Research shows that most people in the UK identify themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. What I think that means is that they are uncomfortable with religious institutions – many people see only pointlessness and hypocrisy when they look at the institutional side of religion. But when it is about real-life people putting themselves on the line because of their values or because of the calling of the spirit – that is something almost everyone admires, and most people can relate to.

In America, there is a more open enthusiasm for faith and spirituality, and there are lots of reasons for that. Partly it goes back to the religious idealism that is at the root of American history. But I suspect it is also because American religion tends to be more domestic. So many Americans meet in each others’ homes for Bible study or other kinds of faith-based sociability, and in the more old-fashioned congregations the whole year revolves around who is baking what for the various church suppers and festivals. These networks are really the thing that gives vitality to the community.

Colin:    How do you think the modern Church is likely to respond to the ideas in your book?
Kate:      I hope it will be like bringing water to a thirsty camel!  Both men and women have been starved for inspiration, and bored by so many same-ish histories about institutions and their power struggles. What people are missing, and what they love, are stories about people who put themselves on the line for something greater – for other people, or for values they really care about.

Everyone has a woman in their life who has inspired them, and I suspect most people will have a flash of recognition when they hear about the remarkable women of the early Church. The Christian tradition is really much richer than people have been led to believe, and I think both women and men will be delighted to discover its hidden riches.

Colin:   How do the religious roles and experiences of women generally differ from those of men?
Kate:     Historically, women have been taught by their mothers and grandmothers how to see the beauty in small acts of caring, and this is a priceless gift. But they have been in a challenging position, because they have been held to a much higher standard where the Christian virtues were concerned. In the past, women had a deeply respected moral authority, but comparatively dull or foolish men were still given power.

This meant that if the women were going to keep the men on the right path they had to do it without the men noticing that they were being ‘handled’. This was often quite difficult, and not a good use of the women’s best energies! But Christianity has always recognized that the most powerful people are not always the most wise, and that was always a source of strength to women. In the modern world, I think the challenge for women is to hold on to the special wisdom that has always been theirs as ‘outsiders’, while at the same time pushing for a fairer society.

Colin:   How has your own faith influenced your writing and academic interests?
Kate:     My faith is very much a handed-down-from-mother-to-daughter thing. It is a kind of homespun heart-religion that dovetails much better with the twenty-first century  than a religion based on dogma.  It was a gift from my mother and her sister – one of the first gifts they gave me, and the one that has lasted the longest.

They were very spiritual and even mystical, and they always suspected that we have women to thank for all the best parts of Christianity. At the same time, they also had a tremendous sense of mischief. So when I was a young researcher, they loved the idea of me getting in behind the story told in the history books and digging out all the hidden stories and the wonderful forgotten things that women had done. The book is dedicated to them, and I hope other mothers and daughters will enjoy hearing what came of it all. Now that I am older and they are gone, I recognize how lucky I was to have had them cheering me on.

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8 comments

  1. Stephen Taber · · Reply

    I attended both of your presentations on Mary Magdalene at Grace Cathedral yesterday. There are a number of issues I have that I have not seen addressed, including how the Gospel of Mary was received in the early church and why it did not get into the canon. Specifically, how close did it come, and why was it not included? It seems rather different than the gospels that made it, in that it seems more didactic and not at all a narrative.

    Also, how was Mary Magdalene perceived in the early church, before Gregory the Great? is there evidence of her status having changed over the period of the first 600 years? Howe is this evidenced?

    What is known of Mary? I understand that it is alleged she wrote the gospel of John. That would indicate that she was a very learned person, skilled in Greek and philosophy, which would not be characteristic of a woman and/or a disciple of Jesus.

    I am interested in resources from which I can explore these and other questions. The book from which you took the translation is devilishly expensive (more than $60 used). Karen King has a translation and commentary. What do you think of it? Also there is a book about Mary, the First Apostle, by Ann Graham Brock. I have ordered both of these and hope to read them in the next week. Do you recommend them? What other books do you think I should consult?

    Thanks for your help.

    Stephen Taber

  2. Dear Stephen,
    I’ll address these questions in the Mary Magdalene post that I’m doing today; thanks for writing! If I don’t manage to answer them all please don’t hesitate to follow up.
    Very best,
    Kate

  3. Dear Dr. Cooper,

    I am currently working on my master’s in history and wanted to thank you for your research. It has been a huge impact upon my own research concerning early Christian martyrdom, the Roman family, and gender history. My undergraduate thesis was a gender analysis of Roman martyrs to see how men and women were treated differently using martyrologies, Roman law, and societal norms. I also looked at the masculinization and refeminization of the female martyrs once the Church established itself. Your martyrdom scholarship has really made a different in how I analyze my sources to read more between the lines to see what is not there. The topic is an emotional charged one and I am so glad that someone is grappling with the topic. Your book on the fall of the household and Roman family life has also been beneficial to my graduate thesis concerning the female roles within the family and greater society, the attitudes towards, and the virtues attributed to them based on funerary inscriptions and monuments. It is amazing your insight into the Roman family.

    Thank you for your research! I look forward to reading more from you.

    Sincerely,
    Kori

  4. Many thanks, Kori, for your kind words! When you write, you always hope that there is someone else out there who will find a way to carry the ideas in their own direction. Good luck with your work – I wish you every success and hope to read your publications in the future!

  5. Stuart Wells · · Reply

    Many thanks for your Durham, NC, talk. You ignited a great discussion. Here’s more on the transformation taking place in U.S. mainline churches:

    U.S. congregations report major gains in accepting gays and lesbians, racial, ethnic diversity (Huffington Post)
    Duke sociology professor Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, presented some initial findings earlier this month at the joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Boston.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/us-congregations-report-m_b_4262027.html

    1. Thanks for the interesting reference! So glad you were able to attend the reading and hope we can keep building momentum toward the goal of honouring people whatever their gender, race, or sexual idenity.

  6. Elizabeth Findley Shores · · Reply

    Dr. Cooper, I was delighted to discover this blog because we have so much in common. Your mother and aunt grew up on University Avenue next door to my mother and uncle, Anne and Lyman Findley. I have a letter that your mother wrote to my mother about her memories of their shared childhood experiences. For a book I am writing about the houses at 329 and 331 University Avenue, I would like to learn more of what you know about 331 and about Anne’s and Robbie’s relationship and the relationship of my grandmother Earline Findley and your grandmother Louise Shook. I hope to hear from you.

    1. Dear Elizabeth (if I may) – words fail me in describing how lovely it is to hear from you. I have ALWAYS wondered what happened to Lyman and Anne! As a child I heard so many stories about their escapades with my mother. My favourite was about swinging on the trapeze on the verandah at my grandparents’ house. My cousins Carol and Fran, who are older than I am and knew my grandparents better, will be thrilled – and they may be of greater use to you than I. But I can’t wait to hear more about your project! With very best wishes, and more soon, Kate

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