Here’s a teaser of my review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for Women in Higher Education. In the review essay, I describe my own ambivalence about the term “feminism” and my experiences being a feminist in academia. (Note to self: Some people are jerks.) This book is fabulous, and I would argue that what higher ed needs is more bad feminists.
I bought into the vision of feminism that its detractors portray: strident, unyielding and unwelcoming. I still believed in gender equality, equal pay, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy. In practice, I was a feminist, but the word tripped me up. I found myself uttering, “I’m not a feminist, but …” in conversations.
Graduate school clarified the social need for feminism as well as my personal need, but the word proved to be problematic. I noted the way male colleagues acted toward women who proclaimed their feminism with sighs, eye rolls, guffaws, and snorts. I observed how professors assumed feminist scholars were too subjective and not rigorous enough.
The derision and hostility that feminism engendered even inside the academy gave me pause. If feminism couldn’t find a home in academia, where would it be accepted? (I found pockets of safe space.) My feminism became stealthy and quiet, even as I studied and taught gender theory. I was happy with my background feminism. I knew what I stood for. Who cared if I labeled myself a feminist or not?
At my previous university, a senior male colleague pulled me into his office to explain that he was a better feminist than I was. This was not a random encounter. I was invited to participate in a methods and theory group, and he was not. He wanted me to know that I was only a token.
The group was mostly men, so he reasoned that they needed women. This could be the only possible reason that I was invited. He shamed me for my acceptance of the invitation. His feminism would not allow him to participate in such a group because of their gender politics. Thus, he was a better feminist, and I was a bad one.(more…)
Today 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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 Troubleor 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.
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.
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]