- Roundtable: Negotiating Feminist and Gender Studies
1. Do you see yourself as pursuing studies in gender and religion or feminist studies in religion? (And why?)
I absolutely see the questions and methodologies developing from feminist and gender studies as crucial to the kind of researcher and the kind of teacher I hope to be. Religious studies has always been an interdisciplinary field. Feminist and gender studies also shares this commitment to interdisciplinarity, making the range of questions and concerns for the field of religious studies even greater and the possibilities for scholarship more vibrant and exciting. I must admit, though, that I am not simply excited about gender studies and feminist scholarship in the study of religion; I also regard both as absolutely necessary! My vision of what is important for the health of the field of religious studies includes questions about gender playing a much more normative role in how we do our work. I think that asking questions about an author’s assumptions about gender, for instance, should never be a peculiar province of feminist theory. Rather, it should be part and parcel of good, thorough, and thoughtful scholarship (though, of course, feminist and gender studies provide the tools to ask, and, at times, answer, these questions more effectively). I can’t imagine not pursuing studies in gender and feminist thought as they intersect with the study of religion.
Obviously, as Elizabeth Bucar notes, not all scholarship on gender necessarily draws on feminist theory or shares feminist concerns or even identifies as feminist, however contested and slippery the term may be. There’s certainly no shortage of scholarship in religious studies that centers on gender because it is anxious about the erosion of male privilege, for instance. Such scholarship I take to be self-consciously antifeminist. There are also scholars of religion, whom I take to be doing work on gender that is extremely interesting and important for feminism, but who are wary of describing their work as feminist. I am interested in feminist scholarship on religion and gender. I say “gender” because I am preoccupied with the kind of textual, philosophical, and political work that [End Page 123] constructions of manhood, maleness, masculinity, and womanhood, femaleness, femininity do in religious texts, thought, rhetoric, and practice. I say “feminist” because I neither can nor want to claim neutrality or disinterestedness. I look at gender as a site of complex negotiations of power, as a category that often demarcates not simply differences but also oppression, radical asymmetry, and injustice (though again asymmetry doesn’t always cash out as injustice). Hence, I am not only concerned with describing the ways in which femininities and masculinities shape religious subjectivities, norms, practices, institutions, and languages; I am also interested in critique and transformation of what gender does, how gender is done, and what is done with gender. Religious texts, beliefs, and practices, and the communities that are articulated around them, offer rich sites for exploring not only how gender norms are constituted, made effective, and sustained but also how they are critiqued and transformed.
How scholars engage with critique and transformation is a different question, one that requires care and awareness of one’s own limitations, prejudices, investments, and so on. Feminist scholars simply cannot presume that critique and transformation make sense in the same way in all spaces and at all times. I can understand why some hesitate to situate their work within feminist studies, even as they pursue research on religion and gender. There’s a specter of the “politics of rescue”—the white, Western, liberal feminist who liberates the “backward” woman of the developing world from the repressive framework of her “patriarchal culture and religion.” I am extremely troubled by this type of feminist politics and feminist scholarship, but I see no need to distance myself from feminism per se. Even if some feminist scholars have reductively equated agency with resistance and autonomy, and discounted the subtle, significant ways in which capacities and efficacy can be expanded without a demonstrated “autonomous subject” as “doer”; even if some feminist scholarship of the past assumed that patriarchy is universal and experienced exactly the same way everywhere—the relatively...