Gender and the American Religious Historian, Part I

Spiritualists looking properly detached from this world.

As mentioned in my post last week, I want to highlight the scholars who take gender and women seriously in American Religious History for National Women’s History Month. Below, I have provided my first four scholars, and these are the folks that I find most pivotal when I think about the power of gender history to inform and change American religious history. As one might tell, I have favorite pieces of scholarship from each, and each has a large body of scholarship to draw from. The ones I highlight are the ones that influence me most deeply as a scholar.

Here are they are:
1. Ann Braude, of course, is at the top of my list. Her works include Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America (2001)Sisters and Saints: Women and Religion in America and several edited collections, notably Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: The Women Who Changed American Religion. Her essay, “Women’s History is American Religious History” (1997) is required reading. In this piece, she argues that women’s history is central to the narratives of American religions, and that common descriptors like secularization refer to men’s roles and decreasing presence in churches rather than abandonment wholesale of Christianity. For Braude, religious history looks different from the perspective of women, and this needs to be accounted for in our tellings and retellings of American religious history. Again, I wonder how many have taken seriously her call of the gendered nature of our categories of American religious historiography.

2. Pamela Klassen‘s work on religion and maternity is one of my currently most assigned pieces in my gender classes. While I don’t assign the whole of Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (2001), I do assign her  “Sacred Maternities and Post-Biomedical Bodies” from Signs. Klassen’s analysis of home birth tackles one of the most problematic areas for feminist theory, pregnancy. Her article presents the ways in which home birthing women describe their bodies and what is “natural” as well as what is supernatural about birth. Her explorations of what is at stake in the natural clearly shows how pregnancy is socially constructed and biological. Just because we assume biology doesn’t mean it is. Klassen deftly showcases how the biological becomes paramount in the case of pregnancy, but home birthing women graft social and religious meaning on their bodies as well. They might be “postbiomedical bodies” but they are social bodies as well.

3. Marie Griffith‘s work on Women’s Aglow also appears quite frequently in my classes in American religious history and gender. Much like with Klassen, I don’t assign the whole of God’s Daughters:Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (1997). Instead, my students read “Submissive Wives, Wounded Daughters, and Female Soldiers…” from David Hall’s edited collection, Lived Religion in America. This haunting piece on the power of submission to God in the lives of women often troubles my students. That discomfort allows for good analysis and equally compelling discussion. I am also deeply in love with Born Again Bodies (2004), which emphasizes the importance/significance of bodies and food in American religious history. Griffith’s assertion of the danger of slimness in religious circles to emphasize certain white, female bodies and the corruptedness of differing bodies stayed with me long after I finished this work. The centrality of bodies to theology also made me rethink my own approach to white, male bodies in my own work. Griffith has just been named the director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

4. Robert Orsi‘s “ ‘He Keeps Me Going’: Women’s Devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus…” in Religion in American History: A Reader is another constant in my classes. This article is a portion of  Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (1999), which is my favorite book, hands down, by Orsi. Every time I read this article, I find some new layer of complexity from the lovely interweaving of immigrant history, the Catholic Church’s position on women in newsletters, and the material relationships of the women to St. Jude. He writes, “Women…created and imagined themselves, manipulating and altering the available grammar of gender” (349). Moreover, Orsi poignantly notes, “Women believed that they became agents in a new way with Jude’s help” (349).  Women believed in agency, but Orsi seems less convinced. This line proved particularly fruitful to my students this semester as they struggled with the question of agency and the desire to see agency even if there is none. Belief in agency startled them and me, and we wondered how St. Jude operates. We pondered what does the attachment to the patron saint of lost causes really mean for women, for Catholicism, and for our class.

A fittingly handsome St. Jude with kind eyes.

 

Stay tuned for the next parts! Now, cross posted at Religion in American history.

 

Gender Matters: My Lesson for Women’s History Month

Okay, so I am a little late to the party. It is already March 11th, and I am just getting around to my own reflections on National Women’s History Month (NWHM). I even missed International Women’s Day, but I think President Obama had it covered. (Historiann, the better blogger, already commented on the sausage fest that is the National Endowment Humanities Medal winners.) Timely, I am not.

The theme for NWHM this year is “Our History is Our Strength.” As a historian and as a woman (I wonder why I feel the need to say both?), this theme resonates and irritates. History, we know, functions as a legitimator to claims about men and women in our public culture as well as scholarly cultures See Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice (1998) for a rousing discussion of how history as praxis is gendered. Moreover, the reclamation of women in history, the analysis of the fluidity of gender in different historical spaces and places, and the ability to analyze how gender functions as code for power relations are all crucial to understanding not only the place of women in American culture but also the constructions of womanhood/manhood and the consequences of these constructions. History becomes a possible tool of empowerment and agency because of its weight, its veracity, and its power to present our pasts to us.

A lovely poster to commemorate NWHM.

Women’s history month as a concept bothers me, though. Much like the critiques of Black History Month as separate space/history, I fear the limiting scope of one month as women’s month. The tagline in my head proclaims, “Women’s History, just a month every year!” My criticism is not original or new, but the concept of one month as the stand-in for the whole of women’s history is problematic. And it encourages the popular belief about history as “his-story,” a tired joke that still matters. One month a year cannot possibly d0 justice to the lives of American women and women globally, but I will take one month if the other possibility is no inscription of women’s history on our calendar year. I want celebrations of women’s history as history, unavoidable and required, rather temporary, demarcated and different. Women’s history is American history, and it is clearly American religious history.

Recently, I find myself describing my work as not just American religious history but also gender history. The mantle of gender historian is not new for me, but there is a new stridency. Yet, I find myself reading recent historical works and asking, “Where’s gender? Where are women in religious institutions, movements and practice? Why don’t we discuss masculinity more?” When I feel really sassy, I ponder, “How can one do work in the twenty-first century without at least gesturing to gender?” I am not asking for much, an awareness of the social constellation attached to sexed bodies would be a good start. Perhaps, a glance at Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble or Bodies That Matter, an occasional use of Michel Foucault on power, or hell, a nice lengthy description of how men and women in a variety of religious movements practice, believe, embody or “live” religion in relation to their gender. Gesturing to gender is better than ignoring the centrality of social and religious value attached to sexed bodies. Religious folk are not just what they believe or do. They have bodies. Bodies matter. Sexed bodies matter.

How many of these women are significant to American religious history?

My teaching has forced this issue, like so many others. There is new pressing urgency to the import, and likely centrality, of gender to religious studies. Since I am teaching a gender and religion course, I feel like my whole semester is a women’s history celebration while simultaneously  a desperate mission to emphasize the centrality of women’s history and gender history to religious history. Much like Catherine Brekus in her introduction to The Religious History of American Women, I wonder why American religious history still seems impenetrable to women’s history, gender theory, and my current pet peeve, discussions of masculinity and men constructed as men. Gender matters, but convincing one’s peers can be a zero-sum game. (To see my take on the problem of women and leadership, click here.) Why, I wonder, is it possible to ignore Ann Braude‘s salient and punchy statement, “Women’s history is American religious history”? She’s right. Almost fifteen years after her essay appeared in Retelling U.S. Religious History (1997), what gives? Braude eloquently showcases the sheer presence of women in American religious spaces. Women were the “people in the pews” for the majority of American history. By dismantling the popular thesis of feminization, Braude showcases that women did not “feminize” churches because their presence was the constant, not the presence of men. Braude’s insight should be foundational to explorations of American religious life alongside critical theories of race, class, and market. Perhaps, my stridency rears its ugly head here or not. What I want, if I could convince the historiographies of American religious history to bend to my will, is honest engagement of the impact of gender on the religiosity of American men and women as well as increasing attention to fluidity of gender identity in the historical past and the contemporary period.

Of course, I went with suffragettes on the march with a baby in tow.

Moreover, I want to pass out Joan Wallach Scott‘s famous essay, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” (1986) to anyone who doesn’t attempt to describe and analyze (or please theorize) gender. Scott’s masterful article articulates how gender had evolved as an analytical tool from studies of women to an idea that the study of women was the study of men to how gender was viewed as a cultural construction.  For Scott, descriptive analysis was not sufficient to affect historical paradigms.  Descriptive analysis cannot cut it, so Scott critiqued previous models that centered on origins of patriarchy, which relied on physical differences between men and women and perpetuated essentialism, Marxian analyses, which explained gender as only the by-product of changing economic structures, and the prevalence of psychoanalysis, which was influenced by French post-structuralists and object relations theory.   Scott called for a historicization and deconstruction of the binary opposition of gender rather than relying upon an assumption that exists.  Scott proposed a new definition of gender, which was an element of social relationships based on perceived sex differences as well as a “primary” way of articulating power relationships.  Thus, Scott threw down the gauntlet rather than assume gender in our analyses, we must question the opposition between male and female and to see what is at stake when gender is used to legitimate a position.  What Scott is proposing is to see how gender is constructed and how it is deployed.  She urges historians to examine what happens when someone invokes gendered language. What’s at stake? What’s gained by invoking gender? The better question might be: What is at stake in avoidance?

Thus, to celebrate women’s history, I will be posting blurbs about my favorite women’s and gender historians in American religious history for the rest of March. Please feel free to send your suggestions to me. [Cross-posted at usreligion.blogspot.com]

 

 

Blogging, Motherhood, Essentialism (Historiann style)


This cowgirl is for you, Historiann!

Historiann has an excellent post up about her refusal to adopt parent or non-parent status as a blogger. The comments section are worth a look for all of you who affiliate or don’t with parental status. Here’s a brief excerpt:

For the most part, this is because I blog with my professional identity up front, not my personal life or reproductive history: in other words, I blog as Historiann, not Mommyann or Not-mommyann. I’m qualified to write about history and politics because of my training and expertise in American history, whereas I don’t think that motherhood alone (if it pertains to me) would qualify me to write about anything other than my personal experiences as a mother. As a good feminist historian, I don’t believe that there’s anything essential, unifying, or eternal about the experience of motherhood. But, this refusal to identify myself either as a mother or a nonmother has also raised questions of authority. This becomes apparent when commenters disagree with me [when I write about motherhood from my perspective as an American women’s historian]—they sometimes assume that I’m not a mother, and therefore question my authority to write about issues pertaining to maternity. I had thought that essentialism went out of style in feminism more than twenty years ago—but the blogosphere makes it apparent that essentialism about maternity endures, even among women in the academy.

Authority as maternity is an important concept, and I think her larger point is about how this essentialism means that women becomes coded primarily as “mothers” or “mommies” in opposition to their academic agendas. Yes, women use maternity as will to power as well, but as a junior scholar, the question for me is more how does motherhood *mark* me  or *not* as a scholar. (For instance, I once had a colleague a while ago tell a student that “I was just a mommy” as opposed to scholar, writer, lecturer, budding fashionista, etc.) Gender matters, and so does the construction of supposed parenthood. What strikes me about Historiann’s post is how the label functions particularly for women to somehow suggest that we aren’t serious, dedicated, or scholarly as our male counterparts, in spite of their status as parent or non-parent. Perhaps, her strategic move is the best one: keep them guessing. I fear that I am too obvious, too easy to pigeon hole.

A couple of weeks ago, I typed up a post about my own struggle with how to parent, to write, to research, and to teach (not to mention how to stay sane), but I didn’t post it. This occurred partially because it would mean reflecting personally on my academic blog, but also because I wasn’t sure how this might appear to potential employers, collaborators, or anyone else if they happened upon this blog. Yes, maternity can function as will to power, a claim of authority over women, but  as Historiann notes, it is also as weighty tool to wield against women as well. Essential claims about motherhood signal all we need to know about a woman is parent or not.

So, now, I post Historiann’s excellent run-down of the situation, and perhaps, I’ll add my own contribution soon (or not).

What the Foucault (Do We Know)?: FSU Grad Symposium Redux

I can never look this cool. Bummer.

As I am still recovering from a whirlwind weekend at Florida State University’s Tenth Annual Graduate Symposium, I wanted to note how much I enjoyed my time this weekend and what a boon this conference is to religious studies graduate students. What you all should know from the outset is that I am not a neutral observer. I love this conference, and Mike Pasquier and I even organized it long, long ago. (Hat tip to our own contributor Emily Clark was the organizational guru this year).

Now, I did not attend every panel nor did I attempt to, so I encourage readers and participants who attended other panels to send their reflections along. What I was able to do was to talk to graduate students of alma mater and other institutions about their own work and mine as well. The paper presenters swung for the fences, and I enjoyed their energy, evidence, and historiographical strategies. Grads in American religious history presented on papers ranging from Emily Post to Christian manhood to the Holy Land Experience to body studies to Burning Man to border saints to the problems of “lived religion” to beards and shaving. The brilliance of this symposium is that it allows a welcoming and encouraging environment for grads to present their work with feedback from the likes of John Corrigan, Amy Koehlinger, Amanda Porterfield, Kathryn Lofton, and Sylvester Johnson to name only the Americanists. (Any graduate student in religious studies writ large should plan to go next year.)

The keynote with the best title ever was “What the Foucault Do We Do Now?” with Matthew Day, Sylvester Johnson, Matthew Kapstein and Katie Lofton interrogated the place of power in the study of religion, the institution of the academy, and the genealogy of religious studies. The panel paired scholars of ranging interests from methods and theory to Buddhism to American religious history and posed the question of how power (read Foucault) functions both for our subjects of study but also for our positions as scholars. For the interest of RIAH readers, Day, Johnson and Lofton proved to engage exactly what is at stake in religious studies from very different positions. Johnson prodded the strange bifurcation between the academy and the “real” world, and he argued compellingly that just because the origins of religious studies are bound to colonial endeavor does not mean we (religious studies scholars) should burden ourselves solely with origins. Instead, our knowledge and expertise applies to the “real” world because the academy, despite various attempts, is still bound to our contemporary moments. We are experts, we have power, and we should use it.

Lofton employed IBM advertisements to discuss the merger of power and subjectivity. She suggested that these particular ads did not uplift individuals but rather created a powerless collective at the whim of power grids, bad traffic, and other mundane problems of contemporary life. Each of us faces the similar hum drum, and the ads questioned our agency even in how companies market products not to me or you, but some amorphous us. From ads to religion, Lofton noted that perhaps religion is best understood as repository in which things, ideas, and brands collect. My sense was that religion was archive, hodge podge, even bricolage in this analogy. To understand religion is to understand the pile-up.

In my assessment, Day’s contribution offered the opposite of Lofton–religion as empty. Day was troubled by the category of religion, the discipline of religious studies. Building upon Bruce Lincoln and Russell McCutcheon, Day argued that religious studies scholars don’t problematize religion, so that as a category religion is valueless because of its infinitude. He asked can it be art or sports? Moreover, he wants religious studies scholars to question the reliance upon “experience” as a measure of religion. What does it mean? Or more importantly, what is at stake when we gesture to experience? Day’s critique suggested a need for a critical edge about what is religion and what we study when we assert religion as our subject matter. Moreover, does the gesture to experience limit our subject matter?

During Q&A, I asked Lofton and Day to compare their stances about religion as repository or as empty. What is at stake in empty or full? Their answers are theirs, but I couldn’t help but wonder what my own assessment of this was. Part of me wants to claim the middle path of “can’t it be both?”, but that is terribly unsatisfying. The power of religion as a category is what is at stake in their assertions, and I wonder how often religious studies scholars interrogate what exactly religion is in our own work. Is it empty or full? Is it value-free or value-filled? Do we craft our own categories of religion as experience, belief, practice, etc? Do we use the categories of those we study? In my own work, I confront the strange yet different assumptions about “good religion”(read helpful and therapeutic) versus “bad religion” (read harmful or malicious) because I work on the “bad.” The commentary usually moves something like “bad religion” is not religion at all. What is religion becomes, then, essential to how to approach the Klan, the hate movement, or even my newer fascination with apocalypticism. How I make the case that this is actually religious becomes significant. I point to the pile-up: theology, ritual, practice, and belief that all show the Protestant nature of the Klan. Yet, I could also point to the emptiness (malleability) of Protestant as a label, of religion as a construct, yet I don’t. I could though. Empty or full?

Graduate students, if these kinds of questions are interesting to you, plan on attending next year’s symposium at FSU. If they aren’t, plan on attending or presenting anyway because you can’t beat the encouraging environment, the weather, or the chance to ask, “What the Foucault do we do now?”

[Cross-posted at http://usreligion.blogspot.com]


What Would Oprah Do?

In the film, Monsters vs. Aliens, a delightful riff on alien encounter of movies of the 1950s, aliens appear, they aren’t nice, and the clueless U.S. government headed by an equally clueless President (Stephen Colbert) attempts to find a ready solution to the alien menace. As the staffer, generals, and advisors make rapid fire suggestions, one staffer proclaims: “It is at times like these that I wonder: What would Oprah do?” In the face of disaster, Oprah becomes the go-to guru of not only self-empowerment but also national salvation. What would Oprah do, indeed?

In her new book, Kathryn Lofton engages not only what Oprah does but what she is. The Immanent Frame posted an interview with  Lofton about Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (2011). While I will blog about the book later (I need to crack the packaging), the interview gets to what is at stake in the study of Oprah, her show, her brand, her influence for American religious history.

Here’s my favorite snippet of the interview:

NS: What is it about how American religious history is studied now that has left Oprah not well-enough understood?

KL: I would say that the “how” of what we study is less problematic than the way we cordon our topics, which is very much an inheritance of our role as seminary church historians. I want to see more books written about objects that seem unlikely for religious studies,such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas. Moreover, I think our disposition toward our subjects is often too tender for our own good. If, on the one side, we’ve been formed by our seminarian genealogies, on the other, we inherit an abused mentality, one that flinches constantly at the possibility that elsewhere in the humanist ranks we’re being mocked for proximity to the religious subject. And so we appear, I think, often too defensive of our topics, believing they need caretaking before exposure to the imagined Marxist menace. So, if there is a critical edge to the book, it is to goad us to be less worried about explaining our subjects to their cultured despisers, and instead to pursue the mediations of their belief systems, the multiple functions of their ritual reiterations, and the social systems to which they reply and in which they participate. (Emphasis mine)

This question of what *counts* as evidence for American religious history as what, perhaps, does not is a crucial one that I have struggled continually with in my work. What *counts* as American religious history? The interview with Lofton compounded questions that have plagued me for weeks about how to understand the role of popular culture, consumption, and “secular” millennialism in the context and essential to how we talk about Americans, religion and practice. What evidence if cordoned? What evidence do we despise? What evidence receives a free pass? What would Oprah do?

Oprah, by Lofton’s standards, problematizes the work of American religious historians by injecting pop culture as a necessity to the larger vision of Americans and their religiosities. My particular interests are those “objects that seem unlikely for religious studies, such as those seemingly in the purview of pop culture, but also those from economic and political arenas.” My first post on this new blog was on zombies and consumption, and obviously, zombies might not fit nicely or neatly into the canon (academic not weaponry). Lofton’s interview suggests that there is also something clearly at stake in how we define something as religion and someones as the religious. (Moreover, there is something crucially important about the academic subjects we treat “tenderly” and those who do not merit such generosity.)

Gary Laderman’s Sacred Matters takes us a similar call of addressing what Americans are devoted to, and according to this excellent book, Americans find sex, celebrity, science, music, and guns sacred. In December of 2010, Laderman reflected on what we believed: war, money, sexual boundaries and the natural world to name only a few. Laderman, like Lofton, pushes the boundaries of what is religion and makes us consider what tropes, narratives and themes we deploy to construct stories of the religious lives of Americans. The question becomes not so much what would Oprah or zombies do, but what does their study show? How might we use popular culture to craft stories and as historical evidence?

All of this preliminary posturing is a way for me to say that Lofton’s book is now at the top of my reading list, and I can’t wait to see what Oprah can do for American religious history.