Imagination for Transformation
By Mary Hunt
I try to imagine what the first women at Harvard Divinity School felt when they stepped foot on the campus 50 years ago. When I arrived, in 1972, it was still a mostly male institution. But on a hot night last June, the Sperry Room was filled with women (and some men, of course) from around the world celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. This scholarly vehicle for sharing the prolific production of knowledge in the field, independent but supported by HDS, is a worthy successor to their efforts. The intellect, courage, and collaboration of those early women at HDS are part of the collective imagination of subsequent scholars.
More than simply a publication, the JFSR is an important part of the feminist movement that is transforming religious studies. The journal was founded in 1985 by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, now Krister Stendahl Professor of Divinity at HDS, and Judith Plaskow, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College who was a research associate in women’s studies and theology at HDS in the first year of that program (1973–74). It is read all over the world as the premier journal in the field, providing an intellectual forum for scholars of many religious and feminist persuasions. I doubt that those first HDS women ever imagined such a publication.
What those first women never imagined is now transforming religious studies. Undergraduate and graduate programs alike include feminist courses. Publishers feature titles on feminist hermeneutics and feminist theology, pastoral counseling and other ministry-related areas that have been rethought in light of women’s experiences. The intersections of race and gender, class and ethnicity, for example, are problematized in scholarly discourse as well as in applied solutions. Critiques of anti-Semitism in early feminist work have opened the door to a religiously pluralistic future in the field. The predominantly white, Christian women of the early days are now joined by women from a wide range of racial and ethnic groups and religious traditions.
JFSR’s diverse constituency and collaborative style set it apart. If JFSR were only a journal, some would argue it would be enough, just as adding women to HDS might have been enough in itself to make history. But multiple commitments to change distinguish the journal and reflect the priorities of many women in the field, according to its mission: “The JFSR has two communities of accountability: the academy, in which it is situated, and the feminist movement, from which it draws its nourishment and vision. Its editors are committed to rigorous thinking and analysis in the service of the transformation of religious studies as a discipline and the feminist transformation of religious and cultural institutions.”
Rigorous feminist scholarship is a tool of social transformation. It arises from critical analysis and invites imaginative, constructive work. In keeping with its mission, JFSR, Inc., the independent nonprofit umbrella under which the journal is sheltered, celebrated 20 years of production with a conference last June entitled “Teaching for Change: Creating Knowledge, Transforming Institutions.”
For four days, 80 colleagues from 13 countries worked together to critically assess the state of the field and sketch the contours of the future. It was a rich time, an occasion when scholars and students, activists and academics from many countries could debate and discuss the questions. Using innovative pedagogy, they reframed and reshaped the issues with input from many perspectives. Not least, they danced and sang in celebration of women’s creativity. The early women at HDS would have approved and joined in enthusiastically.
Participants discussed feminist pedagogy both in the academy and in grassroots organizational settings. They looked at the challenges of interdisciplinary work in a discipline-driven field. They stressed the importance of attending to power dynamics in the classroom and beyond as activist scholars forge new approaches to teaching. Reports from around the world showed a variety of specifics yet many similar big issues across national boundaries: Australian women prioritizing the needs of Aboriginal women, and Japanese feminists coping with employment issues, for example. The next steps came into focus.
Public policy was identified as one place where feminist scholarship in religion can exert new influence. Violence against women, threats to limit reproductive choice, and the particular needs of Native American women were among the pressing issues that feminists in religion might address through lobbying and other political moves in the United States. One group realized the urgent need for a website that will become a forum for continuing the international collaboration of the conference. They set about the task of building one, reminiscent of the early HDS women who simply applied. Another group stressed the need to build independent organizations rather than relying on the largess of established institutions. Plans are afoot to make that happen as well.
Most of all, the women scholars and activists imagined what intellectual and practical resources are needed in the next several decades to build on the accomplishments thus far. They include internship opportunities for students in feminist organizations; the sharing of bibliographies and syllabi as courses develop; the translation of some of the classic works in the field, most of which are in English; the mechanisms for sending resources, especially back issues of the JFSR, to seminaries and theological schools that need such materials as they bring their curricula up to date in this area.
Judging from the exciting results and commitments to collaborate, feminist work in religion is in good hands. The early women at HDS took quite a risk entering into heretofore male space. I worry when some people seem to take women’s presence in the field for granted. They never imagine what it took for those first HDS women to apply. Nor do they seem to grasp how other pioneers like the JFSR cofounders and their colleagues worked to bring an idea to fruition against considerable odds. Nonetheless, this year’s celebration of women’s presence at HDS and JFSR’s 20th anniversary demonstrate that imagining alone can result in nice fantasies, but imagining together can remake the field of religion and, perhaps, the world.
For 20 years, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion has been much more than a niche-filling publication.
Mary Hunt, who received a master of theological studies degree from HDS in 1974, is the codirector of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the editor of A Guide for Women in Religion.