Arts & Culture

Gender and religious scholarship

5 min read

Conference covers range of practices and texts — and centuries of radical change

A few minutes into a conference last week at the Radcliffe Gymnasium, a building technician appeared on the balcony to open some windows. At the podium below, one of the presenters paused to say, “Air is good.”

The conference itself was a burst of fresh air — a two-day look at how through the centuries women have used, subverted, and changed religious practice. “Gender and Religion: Authority, Power, and Agency” (April 3-4) was the seventh annual gender conference sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Last year the subject was gender and food; next year the conference will bring in scholars to look at gender and the law.

These public examinations of scholarship and current thought acknowledge “the symbolic heft of gender,” said organizer Ann D. Braude in her first-day introduction, quoting from a letter to Harvard President Drew Faust, praising the conferences. (Braude is director of Harvard’s Women’s Studies in Religion Program, and senior lecturer on American religious history at Harvard Divinity School.)

“Gender and Religion” had the expected scholarly heft, bringing in 25 world-class writers, scholars, and practitioners from as far away as India and Israel. To an audience of more than 400, they presented, queried, discussed, and prognosticated during five panels.

Scholars covered a wide range of religious expression, and how women fit into it. Among the avenues of inquiry were medieval mysticism, Choctaw green corn ceremonies, witch trials, biblical interpretations of racial intermarriage, slavery conventions in religious texts, challenges to clerical infrastructures, and even a conservative Christian sex manual.

But all the scholars seemed to agree: Though there are miles to go, women have more power and influence than ever in their religious traditions.

Changes within religious tradition, including new explorations of sexual freedom, have involved “crossing boundaries” for women, said Harvard Divinity School Professor Diana L. Eck, who moderated one conference panel — “to relate to one another, in bold and new ways … whether it has been authorized or not.”

Over the centuries, women were largely banned from religious scholarship or decisions on important policy, said Braude. But things are changing.

“Religions change,” said first-panel presenter Bernadette Brooten, a scholar of Christian and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “So do genders.”

Over time, conceptions of what it is to be feminine, masculine — and religious — have undergone cultural transformations, she said. And the conference, in part, was about how to measure that change for women, and how to create more of it, said Brooten.

The Radcliffe conference, she hoped out loud, would shed light on the “profound changes in religion” in the past four decades, including inroads into scholarship by what is now two generations of scholars affected by feminist perceptions.

Women, she said, are changing concepts of clergy, reinterpreting religious symbols, opening inquiries into the sometimes subversive side of traditional female submission, and studying the material culture and texts of faith in a new light.

Women scholars are also untangling religion’s legacy of slavery, a legacy, Brooten said, that is still entwined with marriage and sexuality. In biblical terms, she said, both wives and slaves were “ownable.”

“Religions change,” said Brooten to an audience of scholars and listeners of diverse faiths. “We change them. Side by side, we are free.”

Freedom means taking action too, said Madhu Purnima Kishwar, a Hindu author, scholar, and social activist from Delhi. In the Hindu faith, she said, there are no commandments, no central tenets, and no sharp divide between the divine and the human.

But there is a deep tradition of respect for feminine energy (shakti), said Kishwar, “believed to represent the primeval creative principle underlying the cosmos (personified in) a vast array of goddesses … being created all the time.”

She introduced a new goddess – used in her campaign to help India’s 10 million unlicensed street vendors: Manushi Swachhanarayani, “the broom-wielding goddess of good governance and social justice.”

Kishwar’s many-armed broom goddess — a symbol of religious potential for feminine energy, justice, order, and the malleability of spiritual images — was the buzz at the two-day Radcliffe event, taking on the status of a conference avatar.

One abiding question at the Radcliffe event: How have feminists — widely skeptical of religious fervor decades ago — come to terms with the world of spiritual beliefs?

In Islam, women’s rights were not long ago regarded with suspicion as “the soul of secularism,” said panelist Afsaneh Najmabadi, a professor of history and of the studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard. But today, rifts between Islam and secular feminists are slowly healing, she said, with Iran the principal “battleground of modernity.”

Authority was another abiding theme at the conference — where it comes from, who has it, where women belong in having it.

Women religious scholars — in Islam and Judaism in particular — have only recently had access to sacred texts, once considered the exclusive purview of males. “Claiming what the text means is an exercise of power,” said Najmabadi — “in a sense, speaking for God.”

In Christianity, centuries-old conceptions of religious authority now have greater nuance, said Faust. That is thanks in part to the groundbreaking scholarship of medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum Ph.D. ’69, whose seminal “Holy Feast and Holy Fast” (University of California Press, 1987) was the subject of an entire April 3 panel.

Bynum — on the panel herself — changed the way we think about the extreme asceticism of the Middle Ages, along with “gendered religious symbols [and even] Western ideas of the self,” said Faust. “Caroline is the kind of scholar others dream of being.”

Princeton University scholar and panelist R. Marie Griffith praised Bynum for proving a scholarly feminist framework for understanding ritual submission in early Christian women — and, by extension, their conservative Christian counterparts of the present. In both male-dominated ages, she said, “female moral agency remains subversive.”

In the end, women through the ages have challenged religious authority, subverted power, and acquired agency using the power they have always had: “Creativity,” said Braude, “in the face of constraints.”