What is the future of the study of Women and Religion?
The Women and Religion section of the American Academy has been around for over 40 years. As a member of the steering committee, I have been contemplating what the next 40 years will bring. When asked to be on this particular section of AAR, I was honored. Its history and the efforts of those who worked to found the section are influential in why I went into religious studies in the first place. I am the beneficiary of years of research and writing as well as an activist presence of women scholars who fought not only for scholarship on women, but scholarship done by women. And yet, I am also skeptical of using “women” or even “religion” for that matter as a singular category.
The purpose of the Women and Religion section as stated in the 2009 AAR report is as follows.
The Section of Women and Religion emerged from a 1971 Women’s Caucus meeting convened by Carol Christ to consider (1) women’s participation in the AAR and SBL and (2) production of scholarship on women in religion, including resources for teaching and producing scholarship. When the Section began the following year, its goal was to provide a forum for scholarship on women in religion “from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives at a time when women scholars and papers on women and religion were far and few between at the annual meetings.” Women scholars and scholarship about women at the AAR has increased dramatically since the 1971 meeting, and, reflecting evolution of the inaugural goal of providing a forum for scholarship “from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives,” the Section has distinguished itself as a unique space for multi-disciplinary, multi-religious, inter- and intra-group scholarly conversations. Work presented is innovative and collaborative, and explores a wide spectrum of religious traditions, cultures, time periods, theories, and methodologies. No other Section so completely fulfills this role.
The Women and Religion section no doubt creates a space for scholarship on and by women, but also serves as a vivid spotlight and institutional structure that continues to disrupt the presumed normative maleness of scholarship and scholars. Close to a half century later, section presentations have questioned the static definition of “women” upon which the group was founded, not to mention the recognition of and collaboration with many groups that have grown up in response to, extension of, or specification in defining “women” based on racial, sexual and gendered categories. We are less successful, yet aware, in my opinion of the work needed to disrupt the static category of “religion” and the normative Christian default within the AAR.
As a steering committee member and one who has presented many times in the Women and Religion section at AAR, I wonder how my work has changed or will change as I question the institutionalization that 40 years can bring to any AAR section, disciplinary category, activist lens, or course subject area.
How I approach the question itself signals a dramatic change in not only our field and the presumed “essentializing” of women and/or religion that occurs simply by virtue of the use of the terms. The approach that came immediately to my mind was “crowd sourcing.” What could be more democratic in its reach and feminist in its approach (representing my own values and those reflected in the history of W&R) than to gather many voices and visions? It is not only an approach to answering the question; this is what I think the future of women and religion will be as an AAR section, disciplinary category, activist lens, and course subject area over the coming years. That is to say, I think the study of women and religion will be about multiple approaches that include virtual networks, inter-faith experience, global reach, and transformative encounters with “others” while continuing to struggle with how we define women and religion in our contexts. It also means there will be a perpetual push toward greater inclusion as we consider how issues of violence related to economics, war, sexuality, gender, the environment, and so on affect the access others have to be part of an influence the conversation.
I’ve also contemplated how the name “Women and Religion” might change or whether or not the section/disciplinary focus will be needed in 10, 20 or 40 years. I don’t have an answer to that right now. What I can say, is that even if it becomes a “historical” chapter in our discussions. It is not a history we ought soon forget. For recent public and political events this summer have shown me that we can quickly return to a historical past that does not promote and safeguard equality.
What do you think about the future of Women and Religion as a section at AAR, disciplinary category, activist lens, or course subject area? The W&R steering committee is using Tagboard and a unique hashtag (#AARWR40) to collate social media responses from twitter, facebook, vine, instagram, google + and app.net. Submissions can be in the form of text, video, and pictures. ALL uploads/posts must be PUBLIC or Tagboard won’t be able to search and collate them. At the annual AAR meeting in November, the tagboard will be available to view and interact with during the session. In addition, folks could add to it while the meeting is taking place.
In addition, you can join W&R on Saturday, November 23, at 4:30-5:00 as past and current chairs of the section such as Judith Plaskow, Naomi Goldenberg, Mary Hunt, Rita Nakashima Brock, M. Shawn Copeland, Joan Martin, Kwok Pui Lan, Mary Churchill, Jung Ha Kim, Jacqueline Pastis, Laurie Zoloth, Rosetta Ross, Michelene Pesantubbee, Nami Kim, and Deborah Whitehead, begin discussion in response to the Tagboard presentation. These founding and long-standing members will respond to the kaleidoscopic vision in a fish-bowl style. After the selected members share their thoughts, participants in the session will be invited to physically move in and out of the circle to share their responses and ask questions.
Make your voice heard – what is the future of #AARWR40?
 Jung Ha Kim and Jacqueline Pastis, Section Co-Chairs, “AAR Women and Religion Section Self-Review,” October 17, 2003, p. 1.
 Michelene Pesantubbee and Rosetta Ross, Section Co-Chairs, “AAR Women and Religion Section Self-Review,” July 19, 2009, p. 1.