Harvard Divinity School’s Conference on “Religion and the Feminist Movement”: Two Perspectives

Editor’s note: EEWC was represented at a historically important conference held recently at Harvard Divinity School. This issue’s Council Columnist, Alena Amato Ruggerio, shares her experience from an attendee’s perspective; and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott shares her experience from a speaker’s perspective.

Part 1: A Participant’s Experience

by Alena Amato Ruggerio

On November 1, I flew to Cambridge, MA, grateful for the blessing of attending a watershed conference that would bring together so many of the feminist theologians who had influenced me through their books and activism. The goal of the Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference at Harvard Divinity School was to create a space for oral history at the intersection of religion and second wave feminism.

I’ll admit it, part of the reason I wanted to go was to see my “rock stars.” The academic life is lived through books, and so the opportunity to meet in person the women who had been so pivotal in my personal religious feminist journey and in my academic research was impossible to pass up. The prospect of hearing the stories of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Delores Williams, Carol Christ, Judith Plaskow, and Letty Russell was exciting.

I was not the only one who sensed the history-making nature of the conference and yearned to participate. According to Anne Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, the conference venue originally held only slightly more than 100 seats. After learning of greater interest, the conference planners moved to an auditorium that would seat 300 people. Registrations continued to flood in so quickly that a room to hold even more people connected via closed-circuit television was added to the plans. Even then, approximately 150 hopeful registrants were turned away, and countless more never had the chance to apply since the registration process had to be closed down about two weeks before the conference.

From personal experience, I can understand the logistical and budgetary nightmare of not knowing exactly how many participants will attend the conference. The RFMC conference planners had no idea there would be such an overwhelming flood of interest in their conference, and they could only expand it within the limits of their budget and their time frame.

What bothers me, however, was how they apparently chose those fortunate ones who would attend. On the registration form, each person was asked to list her feminist credentials in the interest of “ensuring a diversity of voices” at the conference. Rather than simply accepting the registrations of the first 300 applicants, the conference committee evaluated the registration applications based on criteria that were never disclosed. I don’t have a problem with the necessity to limit registration; I do have a problem with invoking diversity as the criterion for exclusion. Multiculturalism 101 tells us that instead of silencing those you think will be speaking the loudest, a better way to ensure more diverse voices in the conversation is to have as many interlocutors as possible, specifically seeking to hear those voices which might not otherwise be heard.

The issue of making the painful decisions about who would get a place at the table was not limited to the throng of participants. The speaking schedule was crowded enough with 25 stellar presenters, most of whom had the floor for only twenty minutes, but neopagan women like Starhawk (who did not attend due to the observation of Samhain), Hindu women, and Buddhist women were conspicuous by their absence. (Vicki Noble, the co-creater of the Motherpeace Tarot, however, mentioned her Buddhist practices but did not frame her narrative in terms of Buddhism.)

On the other hand, those speakers who did attend stirred the hearts of the audience. I was especially moved by Azizah al-Hibri, who spoke about Karamah, her organization which works within the system of jurisprudence to advocate for Muslim women, and Riffat Hassan, originally from Pakistan, whose poem, “I Am a Woman,” so touched us that a participant paid for copies for many of us to take home. The tears also flowed at the recounting of Margaret Toscano’s trial of excommunication from the Latter Day Saints church. The most controversial speaker was Mary Daly, who accused feminists still affiliated with patriarchal religions of being “deader than dead.” Naturally, my favorite speaker was Virginia Mollenkott, who described the support we showed her at the EEWC conference last summer after she identified as transgender as “a moment of unconditional love.”

Another EEWC connection–or at least an opportunity for such connection– occurred when I had an opportunity to speak with a young woman from the audience who had asked World Vision representative Roberta Hestenes about lesbianism in the evangelical church. After that panel presentation, I sought out the young woman to invite her into the activism of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. This example not only highlights the opportunities for networking at the conference, but also the strong presence of the younger generation. Harvard Divinity School carefully delineated the conference’s focus on second wave feminism, but many young women asked questions from the audience and presented their own perspectives on the future of feminism. Although there was some generational tension (for example, historian Gerda Lerner admonished those who would claim their theology as new and groundbreaking to acknowledge the hundreds of years of women whose writings and activism preceded them), I found the atmosphere welcoming in comparison to accounts of the recent Re-Imagining Conference, where Mary Daly reportedly dismissed third wave feminism as divisive without having attended Rebecca Walker’s bridge-building speech hours before.

I returned home with my head full of provocative ideas and a deeper sense of the recent history of feminist struggles in religion. Even in a time of budget cuts, Southern Oregon University valued my participation in the Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference enough to help fund my travel, but I find that the lessons I learned there will extend far beyond the classroom, providing inspiration to help tell the next part of the story of religious feminist activism.

Alena Amato Ruggerio is an Assistant Professor of Communication and a Women’s Studies Associate at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon and a member of the EEWC Executive Council. The Council has elected her to serve as the next EEWC Coordinator, beginning January 1, 2003, as Linda Bieze’s term of service ends.

 © 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2002

Part 2: A Speaker’s Perspective

by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

As a writer/scholar/theologian who has done most of my work in solitude, I was pleased to be invited to Harvard to hear the stories of many women whose writings and activism had influenced my life. And the actual experience was even better than I imagined.

I was moved to hear Charlotte Bunch urge women not to concede religion to an anti-feminist agenda, and to learn that in her Center for Women’s global Leadership she is trying to pass on to other women the incentive that the Methodist Youth Movement had provided for her. I wept to hear Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s agony at not being counted in the minyan that was to recite kaddish for her deceased mother (only males count), and her later creation of a feminist seder because “necessity is the mother of revolution.” I sorrowed that former EEWC member Roberta Hestenes could (despite all odds) learn to understand Scripture as supportive of equality for women, but could not extend that same liberation hermeneutics to include her lesbian sisters — and that when a young participant asked her about that very issue, she refused to admit her well-known opposition to gay ordination.

I was overjoyed to meet Carol Christ and Vicki Noble and to assure them that their work on goddess/women’s spirituality had been like an underground river nourishing the work of many of us in other areas of endeavor. And I was proud of EEWC’s Alena Ruggerio, who was able to correct the great historian Gerda Lerner. After Lerner said from the platform that recent biblical feminist exegesis was “painful” because it replicated 700 years of feminist biblical criticism, Ruggerio pointed out from the audience that it is vital for each generation to bring its own questions to the Scriptures and to define answers in its own idiom — and Lerner nodded her assent. (At Alena’s age, I would have been deliriously happy to have successfully modified the viewpoint of a distinguished scholar. Congratulations, Alena!)

I was saddened but not surprised to hear Ada Maria Isazi Diaz’s remark that the more she identified with Latinas, the more she became invisible. And moved by my old friend Riffat Hassan’s distress that only two Islamic feminists were on hand to represent 500 million Muslim women. Riffat emphasized that the only way to help liberate Muslim women was to work within the Islamic tradition; Margaret Toscano, a recently excommunicated Morman feminist, made a similar point. Orthodox Jewish feminist Blu Greenberg emphasized “tinkering with Jewish tradition without flouting divine authority”; and I stressed that if feminist scholars in religion care about liberating fundamentalist Christian women, they must not speak dismissively concerning Scripture. In a sense, all four of us were fencing with Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, who had urged the group not to seek to “explain away” patriarchy in the Bible. She’s correct, of course, that there are in the Bible texts of terror and reflections of hideous patriarchal injustices that must be frankly labeled as such. But if she means that recognizing the efforts of biblical authors to subvert and transform patriarchy is “explaining away” patriarchy, her approach would force text-oriented Jews, Christians, and Muslims to choose between their faith and their own liberation.

I loved the zest of African American Preacher Addie Wyatt, who at 78 described herself as “hopping but not stopping,” and who talked about the labor union activism of her younger days. I loved the power of Lois Wilson, a senator from Canada and former president of the World Council of Churches, who left us with a feminist nursery rhyme: “Subversive and strong/ The whole day long/That’s what little girls are made of.”

I loved the eloquence of Jeanne Audrey Powers, who reminded us that “subversive seeds become a bloomin’ thing” and that “power belongs to those who stay to write the report.” And I loved the tough tenderness of Donna Quinn, a Catholic nun who defied the Vatican concerning abortion and who pronounced the whole Harvard conference “a eucharistic celebration” because we women “have each other.”

There was talk of elitism because the conference could accommodate only 300 people and still retain the intimacy of give-and-take between platform and participants and the focus of having all presentations be plenary. Of the participants admitted, one-third were scholars, one-third activists, and one-third students. Although it was unfortunate that many were excluded, the entire conference was videotaped as an artifact of oral history, and a book is in the works. Mark Oppenheimer’s article about the conference (Boston Globe, Nov. 24, 2002) displayed the media’s lust for controversy; apart from Mary Daly, women did not attack one another because our stated purpose was to listen to one another’s stories.

That the organizers did many things well was reflected in the fact that most of the questions and discussion came from the students, and among them, mostly from the African Americans and Latinas who only too often are squelched by white culture. So brava for the Harvard Divinity School organizers, and thanks for the memories!

Watch a video of Mollenkott’s presentation on YouTube.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is one of EEWC’s founding members, a prolific author, and a much-in-demand speaker. Her web site is http://virginiamollenkott.com.

 © 2002 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 26 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2002

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