September 16, 2008

Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, has sparked a firestorm of discussion on many feminist issues. A conservative Christian, she is closely identified with an agenda that in many respects is the opposite of what I think of as feminism. See my recent piece in the new on-line magazine Religion Dispatches for some thoughts. Since this blog is intended to be a place where issues of religion in public life and feminism come together, I offer this as a starting point for our conversation and look forward to your comments.

Mary E. Hunt

September 2, 2008

Voices of Women Religious Scholars in the Public

The Public Voice dialogue of Feminism in Religion Forum first started in November of 2007. Since that time, we have discovered that our site requires a more interactive style. We have moved to a blog format and invite your comments.

Our original posting has been removed and is listed below in the following five posts:

For the Feminism in Religion Forum's first Public Voice posting, we have asked four scholars to comment on the following issue: Voices of Women Religious Scholars in the Public: Are they present? If so, when and on what topics? If not, why not? We have not asked the contributors to respond to each other but to elaborate on the issue in relation to the work of Feminism in Religion Forum and the Public Voice page in particular. Many thanks to our first contributors!

Emilie M. Townes, Yale University Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A.

Kathleen McPhillips, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Mary E. Hunt, Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

Naomi Goldenberg, University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Naomi Goldenberg - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

Last Thursday, November 8, I chaired a session titled "Challenges of Religion in a Globalized World" at a small conference about "Women, Religion and Development" in Ottawa. The four speakers on the panel were not scholars of religious studies. They were either sociological researchers or professionals in the field of international development. In their presentations, "religion" as a category was not problematized. Each speaker assumed the following: 1. religion is something very good for men, women and children; 2. criticism of any aspect of any religion is either ethnocentric, or disrespectful, or racist, or colonialist, or neo-liberal or all five. 3. any negative qualities attributed to religion originate from "culture" which distorts basic religious goodness; and 5. that "the media" are responsible for much ignorance about religion because what is reported is simplistic and does not sufficiently acknowledge #1. Unfortunately, in my role as chair I had no time to raise any questions about these assumptions. No one in the audience did either.

One panelist mentioned a comment that a woman in Afghanistan made in the context of a discussion about religion. "Don't be so politically correct," the Afghani woman said. "Please don't defend the systems we ourselves want to change." Neither the panelist nor anyone else at the conference referred again to that remark or seemed to notice how it conflicted with the assumptions that grounded their discourse.

I have three hopes for the type of interventions that religious studies scholars could make in public discussions of the sort I am reporting here: 1. that complexities regarding the categories of "religion" and "culture" be pointed out clearly and often; 2. that critical inquiry regarding religious traditions be encouraged and 3. that the common equation of religion with goodness be disturbed. I don't want to disappoint the anonymous woman in Afghanistan whose words I find so meaningful.

Kathleen McPhillips - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

There are two questions I want to raise here involving religious scholars and the public sphere. First, many scholars are also activists, so I want to use the term 'scholar' to indicate a person who is negotiating the public sphere in a complex manner. For example, I am supervising three post-graduate students, one of whom is writing an account of women and Buddhism while herself a practising Buddhist. The second student is writing a thesis on Islam and Christianity which comes out of her work in setting up an inter-faith dialogue group in Sydney. The third student has written a thesis on feminist spirituality and art, while herself an artist and feminist pagan.

So the first question is about where these - and other - scholars make interjections into the public sphere. From my observation, I see that they are actively involved in numerous places, including the various local groups that they belong to; their own faith practice; and the work of writing. They are continually making bridges between what they experience/do/practice in the community, and what they read, research and write. They write for scholarly journals and local newsletters. They also broaden this out to connected issues and are politically active, such as [for the Buddhist student] protesting against the recent political oppression in Burma, climate change and environmental campaigning [for the feminist pagan], and multi-faith, multi-cultural celebrations and anti-racism work [for the inter-faith dialogue student]. Without doubt, these three scholars are active in the public sphere at various points.

The second question relates to access to the public sphere. In particular, the ways in which certain voices and opinions are legitimated and others discounted. This is related to power and wealth in capitalist democracies. Over the last five years particularly since 9/11, the use of the public sphere for the articulation of multiple voices has become problematic and I believe, we have witnessed both a moral and political surveillance of voices that are not consistent or in agreement with those in power. If I can give an example here. Each year the Blake Religious Prize ( is held in Australia, attracting many diverse art works. This year, one of the pieces was a statue called "The Fourth Secret of Fatima" depicting a traditional image of the Virgin Mary wearing a blue burqa by the artist Luke Sullivan. Before the majority of people had been able to view the piece, the newspapers grabbed it and ran headlines such as "Christianity is mocked again" and "Sneering artists ridicule the faith". Nearly all major politicians (mostly male, Christian and white) and many Christian clerics (also male and white) were cited as stating that the piece was deeply offensive to Christians.

The question of what the piece might be trying to convey, what the artist himself has to say about it, what Muslims and Jews might think of it, and indeed whether it is good art were buried beneath the loud knee-jerk reaction. The fact that the statue may have been a powerful comment on religious traditions as patriarchal, hierarchical, institutions where women remain second class citizens was completely lost.Clearly, the artworks in the Blake Prize were not created to "be offensive". The artists are not "using" art to drive home a political message. They were created to express certain concerns and communicate these concerns to an audience in a creative and lively way. Opportunities for thoughtfulness and debate were lost and this is what concerns me most: the lack of spaces in public culture to debate issues and raise questions.

Mary Hunt - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

I read two major U.S. East Coast newspapers every day, two daily digests of progressive and conservative religion and politics news, and several weekly news journals. Admittedly, I watch little television, though I do keep an ear on National Public Radio and Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" Rarely do I read, see, or hear women scholars in religion.
Several years ago Marie Wilson of the White House project reported that only 14% of the influential Sunday morning talk shows guests are women. While that has improved some, I daresay when it comes to religion the numbers are even lower. An egregious offender in this regard is Tim Russert's "Meet the Press." Mr. Russert is famous for his large panels on an issue, for example religion, with a lone woman among a group of suits. I notice that when a Catholic woman is included she is usually a nun and not necessarily a theologian.

The exception to the rule is a public radio program entitled "Interfaith Voices" (, hosted by Maureen Fiedler which I recommend highly. It features women as experts on myriad topics. Of course even this show could use more women, but it is a good start. The show's reach is widening by the week. Yet compared with the big media outlets it is still a drop in the bucket.

My conclusion is that women scholars in religion are rarely cited as experts. When we are, it is on topics supposedly specific to women, like reproductive justice. When it comes to bringing a religious perspective, whether conservative or progressive, to an issue like war or economics the religious voices are deep and booming.

This is not just a problem in the media. One of the major complaints of some of my Washington religious lobbyist friends is that they have to put up with the same white, male, clergymen as self-appointed leaders on issues because it is alleged that members of Congress will respond best to them. This is a tough dynamic to change. Careful strategizing and good networking with colleagues in the policy arena will take us a long way toward changing it, and in so doing put new faces on religion.

Emilie Townes - Public Voice

Originally Posted November 2007

Religion is bandied about a good bit in the media these days. The coverage, however, is often a troubling caricature of religions and rarely, if ever, provides a cogent description of the complex ways that religion manifests itself in peoples' lives. I find it particularly disturbing that the ways in which women are grafted into these stories--usually as victims who need to be rescued from either themselves (because they are making poor choices about their bodies) or darker-skinned men (Islam). Woefully inadequate at best, promoting overt and covert acts of violence against women at worst.

This page exists to provide a clear and accurate alternative to such caricatures and the dangerous reactions they spawn. Here, we will feature thoughtful informed perspectives on the ways in which women's lives influence and are influenced by religion. That we feature women religious scholars is an added bonus as readers will have the opportunity to read and reflect on some of the most astute observers of the public role of religion and the ways in which women are active participants in this.

It is my hope that we will have a variety of voices and insights on this page and that they will not always agree but give us a rich range of perspectives that will spark the readers' imagination and, hopefully, activism to engage the public dimensions of how we can use our knowledge to promote greater spaces of justice and equality in societies in which we live and work.