Claiming Notability

Book Review by Win Whelan

Colleen D. Hartung, ed. 2020.

Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion.

Women in Religion Vol. 1.

Chicago: Atla Open Press.

The website, Wikipedia, claims to honor people who are somehow “notable,” that is, they may have been famous for their artwork or have discovered healing remedies that have saved many lives. They may have founded national organizations or written books that have won prizes. They may have led movements that are historically meaningful for society. Wikipedia has become the go-to source for any bit of information that one would want to find.

But there is a problem. In her chapter on “Leveraging Notability,” Colleen Hartung writes that only 18% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women, and only 9% of the editors are women. As a result, a team of volunteer writers has created a list of women who have, for example, founded national organizations, won prizes for their artwork or for their writing. Hartung writes: “The 1000 Women in Religion List contains more than 1500 individuals who are noteworthy as founders, practitioners, teachers, resistors, and researchers of the world’s religious and wisdom traditions, yet do not have a biographical entry on Wikipedia” (p. v). The list attempts to include women of every religion in every part of the world.

One of the reasons for this lack is that to be considered “notable,” there must exist references in published sources. But women’s accomplishments are not often covered in news media, trade journals, scientific journals, or even religious writings, as much as are men’s. “A woman might be noteworthy,” says Hartung, “but without secondary sources to back that up, she is not notable by Wikipedia standards” (p. ix). During the 1920s, Ida Weis Friend became president of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Yvonne Delk served as the UCC representative on the Programme to Combat Racism for the World Council of Churches. Neither of these women have pages on Wikipedia.

Many women’s accomplishments are on the domestic level and outside the public eye (p. xviii). Even so, they may be revolutionary in scope, so much so that they leave a legacy that improves the way society functions. Yet their accomplishments are not “notable” by Wikipedian standards. The “1000 women in Religion” project is dedicated to research this little known legacy. This project will, for example search out women who have been included in a group such as “American Missionaries,” who might be thought of as headed by men. If women are included, they are often the helpers or assistants, not as initiators or leaders. In collaborative efforts, women generally outperform men, but while the men on the project are noted, the women are often overlooked. It takes time, perseverance, and investigative skills, as well as an intense curiosity and drive to look into library collections, archives, old newspapers and so much more, to be able to uncover these women and what they might be notable for.

Hartung gives credit to Wikipedia for acknowledging the organization’s bias and is supportive of those working to correct it. Here are two examples of women who deserve a page of their own on Wikipedia, but as yet are not considered notable enough to be there.

Janet McKenzie became aware of a contest offered by the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. The contest was to submit a work of art which would depict “What would Jesus look like in the year 2000?” Out of sixteen hundred images, and one thousand artists, McKenzie’s painting came out on top. Elizabeth Ursic writes McKenzie’s story in Chapter 2 of the “Claiming Notability” book. Ursic has listed twenty published sources including books and “Youtube” interviews documenting McKenzie’s work. As a young woman and single mother, McKenzie decided to use her talent as an artist to produce images of strong and empowering women. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and at the Art Students League of New York. She won a traveling scholarship which enabled her to travel with her son Simeon, through Europe for a year.

Upon returning to New York, McKenzie decided to move to Vermont, and then finally to Island Pond to live a more monastic way of life. Eventually, she felt a call to paint more spiritual subjects. It was then that McKenzie heard of the competition offered by the National Catholic Reporter. Judge Wendy Beckett wrote, “This is a haunting image of peasant Jesus - dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence” (p. 23). The image became internationally known, at first in a negative way. Many people commented, “Jesus didn’t look that way.” But later positive reviews came pouring in, overwhelming the negative. Since then, McKenzie has painted many and various spiritual images: Holy Mother of the East, Madonna and Child, The Visitation, among others. For a model, she used Maria, a young African American woman. Her idea here was to say that Jesus is in all of us, and to remind people of the importance of loving one another. She wanted her nephew, a mixed race African American and people of all races to be able to see a Jesus that looks like them.

Mc Kenzie died on May 23, 2021, but her work has only gained in popularity. Orbis books has published two books, “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie” Susan Perry, editor; and “The Way of the Cross: The Path to New Life” by Joan Chittister. McKenzie’s painting, “A Brave and Quiet Heart,” stands in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando FL in response to a mass shooting there. Harvard University commissioned her to paint “Divine Journey: Companions of Love and Hope.” At one point, McKenzie said of “Jesus of the People,” It’s on its own path, and I’m trying to keep up with it.”

Another example included in Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion but without a page in Wikipedia, is Shundō Aoyama Rōshi. Shundō Aoyama Rōshi was born near Tokyo Japan, in 1933. When she was five, her mother took her to the Buddhist Muryo Temple where she was put in the care of an aunt, and began her religious training. She studied scripture, ritual, meditation, as well as the way of tea, flower ornamentation, and the way of calligraphy. In 1948 she continued her education as a nun, and by 1976 she was the abbess of Aichi Senmon Nisōdō in Nagoya. She was one of the first nuns to receive a higher academic education. In 1984 she became abbess of Tokubetsu Nisodo. Here she trained novices and was responsible for training special monastics to become teachers of the tradition. She was authorized to give Dharma transmission, that is, to establish a successor in a line of teachers and disciples. As a prominent Zen master, she has lectured in many areas of the world, and as a woman she has been a leader for gender parity. She conducts classes and meditation programs for nuns and laypeople. Her Zen retreats are attended by up to two hundred participants. Mainly because of her efforts, Zen nuns have made great strides in the twentieth century; her teachings have been a magnet for both men and women who desire a monastic type of life. Under her tutelage, nuns are trained in the way of zazen as well as scripture study, the way of flower arranging, as well as science and mathematics. Aoyama Rōshi has become a leading scholar of Soto Zen and a distinguished author. She has written 50 books on a range of topics such as “Quiet Conversations on Zen Tea: Listening to the Wind in the Pines (2007), Flowers of Compassion (1997). Some of these writings are based on early Buddhist texts: “Flower Garlands of the Dharma: A Taste of the Dhammapada” (1984). She has received numerous awards, one of which is a lifetime achievement award for transmitting Buddhist teachings and culture.

“Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion” is a treasure of a book, telling the stories of ten women of various creeds and cultures who deserve to be designated as “notable” by Wikipedia and the world over.