Commitments, Patterns, and Possibilities: Feminist Conversations about Religion Online (@ the Table: “Feminism Online,” Part 4)
What does it mean to engage in feminist conversations about religion online? Is there something that makes the meeting of “feminisms” and “religions” unique, even important? As a member of the board of the Feminism in Religion forum, I am sometimes called upon to answer these questions, by conversation partners, potential contributors, friends, and loved ones. Why read or contribute to FiR? Or, an even larger question: why even blog?
Some of these doubts stem from questions about what, if anything, makes a platform like Feminist Studies in Religion distinctive or relevant. Is it just an outlet for feminist responses to religious news or current events? (If so, what makes it different from aspects of Religion Dispatches?) Or is it that we feature feminist writers who are religious, or are feminist because they are religious? Is that the kind of work emphasized by other sites, like Feminism and Religion? In response to such queries, I tend to respond: yes, maybe, but not necessarily so.
One, for example, need not be particularly religious (or even a particular kind of feminist) to contribute to FiR, often because one of our main points of intervention is the academic world. Here, our ties to the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion – a steady, even tenacious resource, since it is the oldest, interdisciplinary and interreligious feminist academic journal in religious studies – are crucial. As the blogging arm of JFSR, then, FiR shares the journal’s unique and historic commitments to both scholarship and movement. This long-standing mission stresses “two communities of accountability: the academy, in which it is situated, and the feminist movement, from which it draws its nourishment and vision. Its editors are committed to rigorous thinking and analysis in the service of the transformation of religious studies as a discipline and the feminist transformation of religious and cultural institutions.” Our organization is not interested in women and intersecting forms of oppression for “purely academic” purposes, but is invested in connecting such work for the purposes of transformation. Such commitments sound incredibly relevant to me and to many others.
These accountabilities also signal why it is worthwhile to consult blogs and consider contributing to them. Feminist academic writing can aim for connections between scholarship and movement, but blogging is uniquely positioned to address these, perhaps because it even dwells in between these. In comparison to traditional academic outlets, the relative immediacy and proximity of platforms like FiR make them vital resources. Many of us have had experience with the sometimes significant lull between the preparation, publication, and reception of written work in traditional publishing, the kinds of lull that can dull the impact of connections to contemporary and/or localized dynamics. In the middle of the last decade, for instance, I tried drawing connections between the dynamics of biblical interpretation and the assault on reproductive rights in South Dakota, as well as the use of same-sex marriage bans as a “wedge issue” to drive reactionary voter turnout in some states. Since those points were made in publications that only came out in 2010 (or later), the more precise my points were, the more problematically out of date (even irrelevant) they were five or six years later! In my attempt to reach for present-day relevance, I had side-lined longer-range concerns I had about the segmentation into “single issue” politics, or the normalization of certain constrained forms of embodiment and relationality (in the politicization of both women’s health and marriage).
There is, of course, a lesson in these kinds of examples: the importance of thinking in terms of larger trends and longer arcs for feminist scholarship and movement(s). This indicates the value of the kinds of contextual or systemic perspectives that academic writing can provide. This, in turn, is what grounds the immediacy of blogging as a format: the scholarly backgrounds of feminist bloggers can help to provide context to an event, connect incidents to institutions, highlight the place of specific cases within wider patterns. Blogs are important because they are more immediate, even urgent outlets to respond, for instance, to the shootings in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church (see here, here, and here). When supported by feminist scholarly perspectives, posts can connect horrific events like these to persistent histories in which groups have often claimed to be acting “on behalf of women” to justify intertwined forms of gender, sexual, racial, and imperial violence (given how the shooter claimed “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country”). Our response to the death of Sandra Bland is urgent not only because it is now one of the most recent instances of the violence experienced by women, men, and trans folk of color, but also because it is part of a historical pattern in both local and larger settings. Of course, many of us are paying increasing attention to police and other modes of state violence because of movements like #BlackLivesMatter (organized and led, in a de-centered way, by and with queer women of color).
When people ask about what makes online writing or commentary feminist, I think about these kinds of dynamics and practices: whether a post addresses both the micro and the macro, an example and trajectory, event and context, the immediate and the historical. To do so in a feminist scholarly fashion also requires being reflexive about how one does this work. Such a critical disposition does not mean demolishing those with whom you disagree, but it does mean articulating a feminist set of commitments and accountabilities and then not ignoring the (sometimes difficult) evaluative work of whether work corresponds to this set.
Of course, such articulations and evaluations themselves can be points of deliberation, debate, and disagreement. Given my background as a biblical scholar, I often notice that people’s disagreement is often not the result of the text of scripture, but of what approach people take to the text (in debates, for instance, about women’s ordination or same-sex marriage). The difficult reflective work, then, has to take place on that level: about our approaches, commitments, and ultimately coalitions. What feminist values are prioritized by different feminists, and what does that mean for feminist dialogues and coalitions? I suggest that we can use resources like those provided by FSR and proceed on the basis of the dual commitments long articulated by JFSR, “to rigorous thinking and analysis in the service of the transformation of religious studies as a discipline and the feminist transformation of religious and cultural institutions.” At the moment, I worry over whether and how my work can help to challenge the dynamics of gender, sexual, racial, and imperial regulation and respectability, an important constellation for religious organizations to consider. As Reverend Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou recently noted: “The young people in the street disturb our religious respectability and sensibility. Queer woman, single moms, pants sagging, tattoos—it disrupts the very character that the church presents to the world. I’m not terribly hopeful for the church. I think queer, black, poor women are the church’s salvation. They don’t need to get saved. The church needs to get saved.” Feminists aiming toward such “salvations,” or transformations must find ways to disturb and disrupt the business as usual of religious studies and institutions, online, on the streets, under the sheets (of our beds, our laws, our scriptures)… wherever we meet.
Previous: Mary E. Hunt’s “Blogs and Us” (Part 3)