Growing into Feminism with the Book of Margery Kempe
Last year I was fortunate enough to present a paper on The Book of Margery Kempe at a local conference. The version of the paper I presented focused on the gendered roles Margery’s contemporaries attempted to assign to her, her resistance or reconfiguration of those roles, and how her self-defined roles were ambiguously (rather than strictly) gendered.
This was my first serious attempt at casting a feminist eye towards a religious studies source, and I was both excited to have an opportunity to delve into Margery’s world and nervous about presenting since my degree area wasn’t Women’s Studies or Gender Studies. A deeper concern – one that I didn’t realize until later – was my level of discomfort with the word feminist and the unfortunately negative stereotypes and intolerance the idea of feminism can evoke within the academy and in general.
In the drafting stage of the paper, I was examining the roles assigned to Margery by the male figures in the Book including Margery’s husband John, Christ, Margery’s confessors, and various other men who accuse, defend, or accompany her at various stages. While closely reading Margery’s conversations with Christ, I had an uncomfortable thought: Christ is hardly less abusive to Margery than her earthly husband, John. Later that day I mentioned to my partner how frustrating I found the scholarship I’d been reading on the Book, which seemed to systematically gloss over the negative aspects of Margery’s relationship with Christ, but didn’t hesitate to criticize Margery’s relationship with John.
I also expressed that I wasn’t particularly confident that I could – or should – get up as a young, female presenter just out of graduate school and give a paper where I, in effect, call Margery’s relationship with Christ ‘abusive.’ It was all too easy to picture the primarily male (and predominantly Judeo-Christian) attendees getting up and walking out in disgust (at best) or tearing my fledgling confidence to shreds with a few pithy sentences (at worst). Who was I – not a PhD, not an established scholar of Gender Studies, Religious Studies, or CritLit – to make such a potentially inflammatory claim?
Although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time, the contention of an abusive relationship with Christ seemed dangerously feminist and a risk I didn’t think I could afford to take as a newly graduated Independent Researcher. Trying to walk a narrow line between being an ‘academic’ without the safety net of an institution relies very much on reputation and first impressions – did I want to risk alienating others in my field before I even found my footing? With those questions in mind, I decided to play it safe and shift the focus of my paper slightly to examine Margery’s actions, choices, and what I came to see as her ambiguous gender formulation for herself. In the end, my presentation was well received; post-presentation comments were polite and thoughtful. Now I must wonder – was that due to selecting a “safer” topic or did I misjudge the audience? Or both?
Now over a year later, I’ve worked through much more scholarship on feminism, feminist theories and methods, and the applications of feminist theory to the study of religion. My fear of the word feminist – especially as applied to me or my work – has all but disappeared as a result. As with many fears, mine was born and sustained through ignorance – ignorance of the diversity of thought that is somehow contained within the word feminist and the remarkable shift in perception an understanding of feminism can endow. I only hesitate to claim a feminist identity in my life and work because I’m not confident I’ve learned enough yet, and I’m still absorbing what it means to be a feminist scholar of religion.
Do the tools I’ve acquired through my feminist and gender studies provide me with a better mechanism for approaching a source text like The Book of Margery Kempe? Without a doubt. Will self-identification as a feminist bolster my confidence when I make well-reasoned, yet potentially controversial observations to an audience who may not understand or appreciate why those observations are necessary? Yes, because the acknowledgment of an identity itself brings a certain strength, including the strength to not flinch from the uncomfortable truths a feminist perspective may bring to light, and more importantly, the strength to educate others.
Additional reading and resources:
Atkinson, Clarissa. (1985) Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and World of Margery Kempe. Cornell University Press. : http://bit.ly/1mDAjgQ
Harvey, Jennifer. (2013) “Activist Scholarship in a Post-Tenure Key” Feminist Studies in Religion Forum. https://fsrinc.org/blog/activist-scholarship-post-tenure-key Accessed 10 June 2014.
Lochrie, Karma. (2012) Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh. University of Pennsylvania Press. : http://bit.ly/1u2iewT
Smith, Leslie Dorrough. (2014) “Who Are You? I’m a Feminist” Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation Blog. http://edge.ua.edu/leslie-dorrough-smith/who-are-you-im-a-feminist. Accessed 10 June 2014.
Staley, Lynn. Ed. (2001) The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. W.W. Norton & Co. : http://bit.ly/1pC109I
Tonstad, Linn Marie. (2014) “A feminist closet?” Feminism and Religion Blog. http://feminismandreligion.com/2014/04/11/a-feminist-closet-by-linn-marie-tonstad/ Access 10 June 2014.
Windeatt, Barry. Ed. (2005) The Book of Margery Kempe. Penguin UK. : http://bit.ly/1kMOH9T
Claire Miller Skriletz graduated in 2012 with a Masters degree in Religious Studies from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her areas of interest include the broad fields of gender & religion, religions in/of Japan, Buddhism in the West, and applying ethnographic methods to the study of contemporary religion. Her MA thesis examined the insufficiency of existing theoretical models for the study of Buddhism in the United States, particularly as it applies to the Buddhist Churches of America. In 2013 she presented a paper on gender and representation in The Book of Margery Kempe at the Rocky Mountain-Great Plains Regional AAR conference, and in August, a paper at the International Jain Conference on gender and ethics in the Dhammapada Commentary, a collection of early Buddhist morality tales. She currently is an Independent Researcher living in Colorado with her partner and three cats. She can be found online on her website and blog, http://claire.skriletz.net.