HERSTORY of the Women's Caucus
Forty Years and Counting: Women and Religion in the Academy
By Carol P. Christ
The receipt of an invitation to the Fortieth Anniversary Celebration of the Women’s Caucus in the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature this week, takes me back to the summer of 1971. At the first meeting of Women Theologians at Alverno College (which was followed up at Grailville in succeeding years), I proposed that we form a feminist caucus in the field of religion, as had already been done by feminists in several other fields.
Since I was one of the few women at Alverno who had attended the annual meetings in the field of religion, I was delegated to call Harry Buck, then director of the AAR, to ask for space on the program. Harry, who continued to support the work of women in the field through lecture series at Wilson College and the magazine Anima which he founded, offered not only space at the meetings, but a print-out of the names and addresses of all of the members of the AAR who were not obviously male. I invited all of them to come to a feminist meeting at the AAR in Atlanta. It is hard to imagine now, but before 1971, the women who attended the AAR in any given year could probably have been counted on one hand.
I was a graduate student, but because the AAR was still a relatively small organization, I already knew many of the influential men in the field. When I arrived at the hotel, I was immediately waylaid by a senior colleague who told me that he had been delegated to ask if our group planned to nominate a woman for the post of President of the AAR. If so, he wanted to know if we thought it would be “gentlemanly” or “condescending” for the man nominated by the committee to step aside. At that point we had not even considered a move as bold as nominating a woman for President, but I did not tell him that. In those days the President was elected by acclamation at an open meeting which was generally poorly attended.
Some 30 or 40 women attended our meetings in Atlanta, including Christine Downing who became our nominee for President, Mary Daly who became the first chair of the Women and Religion working group (later section), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza who along with me became the first co-chairs of the Women’s Caucus—AAR and SBL. We chose Chris to run for President because she was the only woman among us who had presented a paper at the AAR. We came to the open meeting unannounced, nominated Downing for President, and with several men voting for her as well, managed to get her elected–much to everyone’s surprise! The next year the process of electing presidents was changed to a mail ballot.
We also voted through the Women and Religion working group and a Task Force in the AAR on the status of women in the profession. Chris was asked to chair the Task Force which included as members, Sallie (McFague) TeSelle, Elisabeth, me, Elaine Pagels, I think Mary Daly and Nelle Morton, and three others. Sallie agreed to compile a Registry in the Field of Religious Studies with the help of graduate student Barbara Andolsen to aid departments in finding women candidates for academic positions. Due to the pressure of the Task Force, the AAR created a location for open posting of academic positions, which previously had been filled through the “old boy” system. I believe we also compiled statistics on the then small number of women in academic appointments and in graduate school in the field.
The AAR in those days was very much a gentleman’s club with much pipe and cigar smoking, heavy drinking, and as we were to learn (though not on the official program) opportunities for scholars of religion to visit prostitutes. (Truth is stranger than fiction: we learned of the last-named activity when a friend of mine was asked by a male colleague if she thought it was now more appropriate for men in the field to sleep with women in the field rather than prostitutes at the AAR.)
After 1971, it was never again quite the same. At the 1972 meetings in Los Angeles, Mary Daly presented “After the Demise of God the Father” and Rosemary Radford Ruether discussed “St. Augustine’s Penis.” Other presenters in 1972 included Patricia Wilson, Joan Arnold Romero, Linda Barufaldi, Leonard Swidler, Elizabeth Farians, Nancy Falk, Penelope Washbourn, Rita Gross, Gayle Kimball, Martha M. Wison, Bernard Prusak, and Winsome Monroe. In 1973 (when Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero took over the chairing of the group), Gilbert Romero, Anne McGrew Bennett, Patricia Budd Kepler, Mary Wakeman, Linda Pritchard, Barbara Yoshioka, Clare Denton, Ebba Johnson, Valerie Saiving (Goldstein), Bernadette Bruteau, Christine Garside, Emily Culpepper, and I added our voices. Many of these ground-breaking presentations were collected in 3 volumes published by the AAR and edited by Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero: Women and Religion 1972; Women and Religion 1973; and Women and Religion, Revised Edition.
In those heady days, we were not yet as diverse as we would later become, but we spoke to each other and made connections about the status of women in religion across time and place. Our excitement was palpable. It was not until some years later that women working in the field of religion began to separate themselves from each other along religious and disciplinary lines. That was a great disappointment to me and to many others. Perhaps that is why I am so eager to participate in the new dialogue opening up on this blog.
Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.