Tag Archives: gender

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When It Hurts To Write

Almost all of my scholarly life, I’ve researched, written, and taught about depressing topics: the Ku Klux Klan, white supremacy, doomsday prophets, apocalypticism, religious intolerance, horror, and zombies. I spent more than six years of my life analyzing Klan newspapers; too many hours to count making myself familiar with the construction, deployment, and privilege of white supremacy.

Friends, acquaintances, and random strangers ask how I managed to write about people that unsettle us. I shrugged the question off with a smile and a flip comment about my sense of humor and inflated sense of optimism. Sometimes, I would say with conviction: “I write about these people and these topics because someone has to.” This was a burden I claimed to demonstrate the importance of my work. The research was unpleasant, but it was also intellectually stimulating.  I needed to figure out why the Klan appealed to white men and women. I could bracket my own discomfort for my research projects.

My students wondered about my mental health because of my areas of research. “You’re so pleasant and friendly,” more than one of them noted. My affect didn’t match my scholarly interests. I explained to my students that we don’t just study that which comforts us. Instead, we need to look at what unsettles us and why. Much of my pedagogy rests on confronting students with things, topics, and people they find unseemly to show that history and religious studies is as much as about horror, violence, depravity, and harm as they are about anything else.  We can’t fix our world unless we confront what haunts and horrifies. Looking away doesn’t solve any problems.

I work on depressing topics; it is my niche, I guess.

It is terribly unsurprising, then, that I now write about sexism in academia for Chronicle Vitae. By pointing out gender bias (explicit and implicit) in higher education, I hoped I could do something to make the academy a kinder place for women.  I started this new project wondering how much data I would find about gender bias. Soon, I was overwhelmed by the evidence of bias against women. I ended up with a huge stack of articles, studies, and opinion pieces. Originally, I feared my column would run dry after six months. Now, I fear that it might never end: pay gaps, citation gaps, mommy bias, leaky pipeline, sexual harassment, rape, hazing and bullying, rescinded offers, contingent labor, enlightened sexism, implicit bias, and uneven mentoring and recommendation letters. The list could go on and on.

I didn’t realize the extent of the problem and its enormity. The portrait of women in academia appears bleak. I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and sad. There is too much to cover. Too much to dwell on. Too much that makes me want to cry.

What I quickly learned is that researching and writing about sexism in higher ed hurts me.

Do Babies Matter?  proved to be my tipping point. It sort of broke me because I couldn’t read it without reflecting upon my stalled academic career. My life appeared in its pages. I became just another data point about how marriage and children impact the careers of women academics. Chapter after chapter, I became convinced that I was doomed from the start of graduate school without ever realizing it. I read and cried. I was sad, frustrated, and angry. This book was too much, so I had to put it down.

My visceral response startled me. I write about depressing topics all the time without too much mental anguish. My reaction to sexism should have been no different than my reaction to white supremacy, right? No topic ruffles me, or so I thought.

Yet, sexism in higher ed hits too close to home. I don’t have the luxury of distance from my topic. I see myself in every damn study, and it hurts. This research is like salt in a raw wound. It stings, burns, and irritates. Mostly, it forces me to think about some of my most unpleasant experiences in higher ed. I get to relive things I would rather forget every time I work on a column for Sexism Ed.  It makes me weary. I feel hopeless.

But, I can’t stop writing either. Column by column, I document sexism, misogyny, and gender bias in the academy because someone has to. I can’t stop writing. I just wish it hurt a little less.

2010-03-27 16.50.56

Academic Motherhood

I wrote this piece over three years ago when  my daughter was two years old. It was my attempt to work through my conflicting relationship between my academic work and parenting. I wanted to document how I always felt torn between my desire to be a “good” mother and a “good” academic. I felt I was failing at both. The expectations of both were too much. More importantly, I was too chicken to be marked by motherhood while still on the job market, so I let this post languish. I wish I’d been braver. I’ve added some reflections about how I feel now,

February 11, 2011

On my way out of the house earlier this week, the toddler asked me a poignant question, “Mommy, you go to work?”  I answered in the affirmative, and the toddler pushed the issue with the ever-present “Why?”

Why, indeed?

Now, I might normally shrug off this question as the inquisitive mind of the a young child, the insistent need to know why, but the question triggered my now familiar “mommy guilt.” Instead of “why are you working”, I heard something like “why are you abandoning me?” The question hit me at a vulnerable moment, in which I am doubting my ability to mother and to produce quality academic work (and wrangle 100 plus students this semester). How can I balance? Or juggle both? I left my toddler in the care of her other parent and stewed over my choices during the drive to the university. Perhaps, I should have kept my now romantic and nostaglic schedule from the fall semester, in which I taught only two courses and went into the university three days a week. Wasn’t that better?, I ask myself. Was the toddler better? More well-adjusted? Does my new spring schedule damage our tenuous child-parent relationship? One day am I going to be the festering source of all of the toddler’s, now adult’s, problems? The question that haunted me in the cold jaunt from my office to my car is: What if I am doing it wrong?

By the time the cold seeped through my jacket, fury replaced worry. Why do I do this to myself, I mutter. As I jab my hands in my pockets, I uncover a remnant of the toddler, a hair bow displaced and absently jammed in my winter coat. Fury melts into warm memories, and ambivalence is all that remains. I love my child, and I love my work, and I struggle to make it work.

This struggle of self-doubt and love, maternity and career, mother and child is an ongoing, frustrating public debate. And I usually duck for cover in the verbal volley between stay-at-home moms and working moms because until recently I felt like I was both part-time. The critiques of each type of mommy generally create maternity writ large, general and unhelpful. Yet Tina Fey’s recent piece in the New Yorker (February 14, 2011) clarifies this struggle with humor and wit. As Fey notes, “The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield” (64). Moreover, she argues that the worst question to ask a working mother is “How do you juggle it all?”, which equates to “You’re screwing it all up, aren’t you?” (64).  While Fey talks about the way others ask “juggling” questions as accusatory, she also alludes to the questions I ask about myself constantly. Am I screwing this up? Why, indeed?

Fey, of course, is talking about the particular pressures of Hollywood, and Hollywood isn’t my concern. My concern is the parallel to the academy and the place/status/opinion of maternity. As Fey agonizes other whether to have a second child and when, I agonize too. My book is coming out this Fall (yay!), other projects are piling up, and I wonder what will happen to my academic career if I have another child. How will I juggle? There, of course, are women in American History, American Religious History and American Studies, who have not only a child but children. This is not an impossible feat, but I wonder (“selfishly”, “awfully” and “narcissistically”) about me.

How will I juggle? Aren’t I just screwing it up? The questions repeat again and again. The constant refrain of the working mother/academic/historian of gender and religion/spouse/sister/daughter/instructor that I am. My tacit resolution has been to assume that my child will survive with my working, and that my agonizing is just that, a fanciful agony over my poor performance of a maternal role. Yet, I struggle with maternity.

In her excellent article (that is part of an equally excellent book), “Sacred Maternities and Postbiomedical Bodies: Religion and Nature in Contemporary Home Birth”, Pamela Klassen argues that not only is maternity under-explored and under-theorized but also there is a wariness about broaching such a topic. Maternity is its own minefield.

May 9, 2014

I found this post while writing a column about mothers in academia. I found this post with Mother’s Day only two days away. I found this post while the baby rolled over and played with his favorite frog toy, which was once his sister’s. I found this post at a moment where I once again find myself wrangling motherhood and career (or lack thereof).

Things, of course, have changed.

I no longer work at an university. I’m not sure that I’m still an academic. Instead, I’m staying at home with the baby while his big sister goes to pre-Kindergarten. I write in my “free” moments: nap time, early mornings, or those elusive pockets of time in the day when the children don’t need me.   I now feel guilty about abandoning my writing.

But, I no longer have the ability to toggle back and forth between my identities as mother and scholar. Motherhood consumes most of my time. What the baby needs is pressing and urgent. He can’t wait for me to finish a sentence, and he cares not for my deadlines. His sister needs to me to be present for her. To read to her. To cuddle her.  To listen to her. To make her realize that I love her more and more everyday even though her brother takes away much of my time. Writing, then, gets pushed aside in those moments of need and love. My loyalties feel torn between kids and career. Still.

My worries are now different. I want to write. I need to write, but I can’t necessarily find the time.

I’m typing right now with the baby asleep in my lap. His steady breathing becomes the soundtrack to my post. I stop occasionally to smooth his hair or pat his back. To tell him I love him more and more every day. To whisper that I’m his mother, but I’m also more. To assure him that writing takes away time not affection. To cuddle him while I still can. To let us know that I can be both a mother and writer. To hope that one day my guilt will dissipate as I’m realize that I don’t have to be a good mother, but just good enough.

 

Teaching Bodies and Embodiment

A design for a unisex bathroom sign.
A design for a unisex bathroom sign.

How do we make the theoretical tangible and personal? How do we show the expectations of a gendered being? How do we interrogate embodiment and the expectations beset on bodies? How do we understand our bodies as archives of the cultural and the personal? What do we learn when we turn to our archives? What do we have the ability to discern?

These are all questions that haunt me each time I teach my gender course. Showing how gender is lived becomes the primary way to push against simple views of biology or construction. What happens to bodies weighed down by cultural expectations and the reality of the flesh? The complicated mess of embodiment is essential to exploring how people live, past and present. Where does flesh end and culture begin? Can we even ask that question?

One of the ways I help students think about embodiment is to allow students to allow them to gender me. I stand in front of the class and ask them to analyze how I perform gender. The students, then, get to rate my performance of gender as a way to make the abstract theory real to them. But importantly, this exercise allows me to discuss gender habits, stereotypes, and subversion. I might appear “feminine” but the students pick up on my strategies of subversion too. Gendering me provides a mechanism to ground discussions of Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Lise Elliot, and Joan Scott. How does my bodily performance demonstrate gender? In particular, I want them to think very carefully about the role of religion in our construction as gendered beings:

Religion defines men and women in intimate and powerful ways. But, class debates and my lectures on gender theories don’t always make these topics approachable for students. Gender emerges as something academic and distant rather than something personal and tangible. Ann Braude noted the still potent and important fact “women’s history is American religious history.” But, how can you convince students that gender matters historically and today in interpretations of religion and American culture? … My teaching approach to gender and religion has become much more personal and face-to-face. (Read more here).

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“the all too-real, imaginary narrative of sex and race”

LisaFooToday in my #rest320 (Gender in Global Religions), I am teaching Donna Haraway’s “‘Gender’ for the Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word” (1991).* The article provides a theoretical introduction to the complexity of “gender” as a term of life and analysis. Haraway pivots between the languages/constructions of gender and sex, theories/theorists of gender, and intersections of identity in the embodied lives of historical actors and modern selves. I assign this article for several reasons, but my primary goal is to demonstrate to students the complicated grammar of gender and many attempts to define gender and sex separately. What is at stake in the definitions of sex and gender? Why do the strict boundaries often enforced between the two tell us about the study of gender and/or sex? Does the bifurcation hinder more than it helps? What work (social, political, cultural) do definitions do for us?  What might definitions hide?

I deeply love that Haraway engages the fraught politics of language and life in the attempted divisions between gender and sex in the English-speaking world. In rereading, I also become sorrowful as I ponder the resistance (still) to gender as a category of analysis in some subfields and disciplines. Or the more insidious response that gender no longer matters as an analytical tool (I have aired these complaints before). Her insights  still resonate powerfully (at least to me) in 2013. Similar debates still rage about biological determinism and social construction. Discussions of gender somehow stall (in intriguingly different ways) around the tired bifurcation of sex and gender. As it always seems, there is still work to be done.

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Gender and the American Religious Historian, Part II

This nun image is for Amy Koehlinger, though others may enjoy it as well.

This is my humble attempt to document those scholars who use gender as a category of analysis in American religious history. The first four on my list were the scholars whose work has most deeply influenced my own. The rest of my list includes scholarship I love as well as scholarship that I need to know (and you do too!). My current goal is to list 31 scholars for the 31 days of NWHM. Let’s see if I can do it!

So, the list continues on:

5. Catherine Brekus, the editor of The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past and author of Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845, is one of the strongest voices about the inclusion of women in American religious history. Her introductory piece to The Religious History of American Women pulls no punches. She writes:

More than thirty years after the rise of women’s history alongside the feminist movement, it is still difficult to ‘find’ women in many books and articles about American religious history…[M]any seem to assume that women’s stories are peripheral to their research topics, whether Puritan theology or church and state. They do not seem hostile to women’s history as much as they are dismissive of it, treating it as a separate topic that they can safely ignore. Since ‘women’s historians’ are devoted to writing women’s history, those who simply identify themselves as ‘American religious historians’ can focus on topics that seem more important to them (1).

Brekus makes it clear that American religious history needs to attend to gender and her contributors showcase how studying the lives of women change the tenor, strategies and narration of American religious history. I reread her introductory essay, whenever I need a kick in the pants to do good gender analysis as a method to improve my scholarship. Women’s history is not just the purview of women’s historians.

6. Evelyn Higginbotham is the author of Righteous Discontent:The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church: 1880-1920 (1993).  While I am not the most familiar with her work, I should be. Harvard University Press describes this ground-breaking and award-winning work:

In her account, we see how the efforts of women enabled the church to build schools, provide food and clothing to the poor, and offer a host of social welfare services. And we observe the challenges of black women to patriarchal theology. Class, race, and gender dynamics continually interact in Higginbotham’s nuanced history. She depicts the cooperation, tension, and negotiation that characterized the relationship between men and women church leaders as well as the interaction of southern black and northern white women’s groups.

Righteous Discontent finally assigns women their rightful place in the story of political and social activism in the black church. It is central to an understanding of African American social and cultural life and a critical chapter in the history of religion in America.

7. Amy Koehlinger, a contributor to The Religious History of American Women, the author of The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (2007), and one of my mentors, helped me wrestle with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble as well as informed my approach to 1920s Klan femininity and masculinity. Amy’s work on Catholic nuns and their struggles in the Civil Rights movement analyzes race and gender in tandem and demonstrates how nuns negotiated their new roles during the advent of Vatican II. Her new project, titled Rosaries and Rope Burns, explores importance of boxing for Catholic men as well as examines how the sport influenced performances of masculinity. This isn’t first time she’s tackled masculinity. Her essay, “Let Us Live for Those Who Love Us': Faith, Family, and the Contours of Manhood among the Knights of Columbus in Late Nineteenth-Century Connecticut” in the Journal of Social History, takes to task Mark Carnes’s work on fraternities in the Victorian era for focusing solely on Protestant men’s attempts to move away from domesticity. The Knights of Columbus, on the other hand, imagined their fraternal work as an extension of their family life.

8. Lynn Neal is the author of Romancing God: Evangelical Women and Inspirational Fiction (2006) and a co-conspirator when it comes to all things religious intolerance. Romancing God explores the relationships of evangelical fiction to evangelical romance novels, and Lynn takes seriously the piety and devotional reading of these Christian women. Rather than disparage the romance novel, she explores the complicated relationships evangelical women have with the books that they read and how this genre influenced their practices of Christianity. (I’ve blogged about Lynn and Amy’s work long ago.)

8. Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, author of New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (2009), and contributor to The Religious History of American Women. Kathy also blogs at  with outr much beloved crew at Religion in American History. Her work employs case studies of Catholic women to demonstrate how debates over Catholic identity during the Progressive era were also negotiations of gender roles. She has written deftly about the place of women religious in Catholic infrastructure.

9. Anthea Butler, who I follow at Religion Dispatches, is the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (2007). Butler’s work engaged me as soon as she cataloged the fashion of the women of COGIC and discussed the ways in which fashion cleared up the problem of sanctified women’s bodies. Here’s what I said about her book at the Journal of Southern Religion:

Moreover, fashionable dress might present a gender-confused body. For members, “the Spirit could not move into a body that was ‘confused’ about its gender identity,” which meant that women policed the clothing of other women to guarantee one could become sanctified (79). Additionally, dress was the preferred method of controlling men’s sexual behavior. By dressing modestly, COGIC women differentiated themselves from prostitutes and appeared “respectable” (80-81). For Butler, dress is also the signal for changes within the denomination. Restrictions of dress emphasized the importance of self-sanctification, and the embrace of more fashionable attire signaled the engagement of church mothers with the larger world. To become civically engaged, these women had to retire plain dress and be “a smartly dressed, well-coiffed and well versed church mother with a vocabulary steeped in scripture yet attuned to the social realities on earth, rather than heaven” (136). The evolution of the Women’s Department from 1911 to the 1960s could be traced sartorially. Their dress signaled their spiritual concerns, and their clothing shifted from a material artifact representing inner purity to smart clothing that symbolized a concern with the larger world. For Butler, by the 1970s, clothing had been stripped of much of its religious meaning, and well-dressed women were no longer engaged, but submissive to the commands of male leadership.

Her careful attention to the sartorial and the complexity of gender performance for COGIC women makes this one of my beloved examples of Pamela Klassen’s assertion that the history of religion is a history of clothing.

10. Bret Carroll‘s article on the mediumship of John Shoebridge Williams is one my favorite academic articles, which is not a title I pass around lightly. Carroll uses the diaries of Williams to show how the medium faced conflicting norms of masculinity in Spiritualism but also larger 19th century American culture. Williams had a peculiar dilemma, in that he believed he was growing breasts because his daughter, Eliza, possessed him. I recently taught this article in my gender seminar, and my students were a bit flabbergasted. Yet, the complexity of masculinity, femininity and the problem of androgyny appear in this well-written and humorous article about one male medium’s struggle with his gender performance. Feel free to rush to JSTOR for your reading pleasure.

Note: The University of North Carolina press is not influencing my choices with any monetary gains. They just rock when it comes to gender scholarship in American religious history.

[Cross posted at Religion in American History on 3/18]