- 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?)
Well, I would never disavow my feminism. My entire life—personal and professional—would be impossible without the bravery of the generation of feminists who taught me and the devotion of feminist friends who keep me more or less in one piece. Is my work “feminist”? I sympathize with the problems some of the other scholars have raised about what makes work “feminist”—a [End Page 128] canon, a set of topics or issues, critical or political perspective? I try to write about things I believe are important by engaging material I think is either beautiful or necessary, and to do so in ways that are as honest as I can manage. All of my judgments in that effort have been shaped by the opportunity to live as an earlier generation of feminists hoped their daughters might live. So, I think perhaps “feminist” studies are not a field of studies but the work that people who are feminists do.
2. What kinds of challenges have you faced in your course work and research?
There is never enough time. Not having enough time is probably why so many of us get so much done so speedily. But when you combine the endlessly expanding demands of our careers with the intensively focused demands of raising children—sleep deprivation has been the biggest challenge for me over the past decade—other sorts of challenges can usually be addressed.
There is another kind of challenge, however, that is both philosophical and pedagogical. How do we conceptualize “liberation” after so many of us, having had great opportunities, have had to learn that freedom attracts constraints to itself? No matter how much liberty you have, you must work within the constraints of irreversible decisions and experiences. When you’re twenty you want to believe that suffering and frustration have political causes, which should be overcome—but they don’t always, or, rather, the overcoming produces a new set of frustrations and losses. And the most fortunate feminists of my generation have had the painful luxury of learning that.
The tenderness and excruciations of finitude are something you can only learn by living them, not by hearing about them. And how do we talk about this, especially with others differently situated? Margaret Miles said to me once that that was Augustine’s mistake: He thought you could tell people how to avert painful outcomes—which one can only learn by living some things through to the end—again and again. Yet knowing the limits of freedom even a little can help make other women’s lives and aspirations more intelligible to us—that is necessary to do the sort of work that, say, Marie Griffith, Amina Wadud, or Amy Hollywood does.
3. What sorts of challenges have you faced at your current institution?
I’m Associate Dean at my current institution so I’m obliged to say: none. It’s a great thing to be in a position where you get to write the policies and procedures you said you wanted—and then implement them. The toughest thing is that you can put great policies and procedures in place, but you still have to keep scrabbling to make sure the goals are actually achieved. One is constantly nudging and leaning and giving the last little push. This sort of politics is not as dramatic as standing outside the gates and demanding entry, but if we don’t do it, inertia against inclusiveness and equity is very subtle and very powerful. [End Page 129] Equity is much harder than fairness to achieve, and a lot of it is just pursuing one detail after another.
I am tearfully grateful for a colleague in the administration here at Grinnell College, Elena Bernal, vice president for Diversity and Achievement, who is both a terrific partner in envisioning strategy and a resolute friend in the inevitably more complicated follow-through. I think feminists have always confronted challenges by forming steadfast friendships through thick and thin.
4. What do you see as some of...