Forty Years and Counting: Women and Religion in the Academy By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

The receipt of an invitation to the Fortieth Anniversary Celebration of the Women’s Caucus in the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature this week, takes me back to the summer of 1971.  At the first meeting of Women Theologians at Alverno College (which was followed up at Grailville in succeeding years), I proposed that we form a feminist caucus in the field of religion, as had already been done by feminists in several other fields.

Since I was one of the few women at Alverno who had attended the annual meetings in the field of religion, I was delegated to call Harry Buck, then director of the AAR, to ask for space on the program.  Harry, who continued to support the work of women in the field through lecture series at Wilson College and the magazine Anima which he founded, offered not only space at the meetings, but a print-out of the names and addresses of all of the members of the AAR who were not obviously male.  I invited all of them to come to a feminist meeting at the AAR in Atlanta. It is hard to imagine now, but before 1971, the women who attended the AAR in any given year could probably have been counted on one hand.

I was a graduate student, but because the AAR was still a relatively small organization, I already knew many of the influential men in the field.  When I arrived at the hotel, I was immediately waylaid by a senior colleague who told me that he had been delegated to ask if our group planned to nominate a woman for the post of President of the AAR.  If so, he wanted to know if we thought it would be “gentlemanly” or “condescending” for the man nominated by the committee to step aside.  At that point we had not even considered a move as bold as nominating a woman for President, but I did not tell him that.  In those days the President was elected by acclamation at an open meeting which was generally poorly attended.

Some 30 or 40 women attended our meetings in Atlanta, including Christine Downing who became our nominee for President, Mary Daly who became the first chair of the Women and Religion working group (later section), Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza who along with me became the first co-chairs of the Women’s Caucus—AAR and SBL.  We chose Chris to run for President because she was the only woman among us who had presented a paper at the AAR.  We came to the open meeting unannounced, nominated Downing for President, and with several men voting for her as well, managed to get her elected–much to everyone’s surprise!  The next year the process of electing presidents was changed to a mail ballot.

We also voted through the Women and Religion working group and a Task Force in the AAR on the status of women in the profession.  Chris was asked to chair the Task Force which included as members, Sallie (McFague) TeSelle, Elisabeth, me, Elaine Pagels, I think Mary Daly and Nelle Morton, and three others.  Sallie agreed to compile a Registry in the Field of Religious Studies with the help of graduate student Barbara Andolsen to aid departments in finding women candidates for academic positions.  Due to the pressure of the Task Force, the AAR created a location for open posting of academic positions, which previously had been filled through the “old boy” system.  I believe we also compiled statistics on the then small number of women in academic appointments and in graduate school in the field.

The AAR in those days was very much a gentleman’s club with much pipe and cigar smoking, heavy drinking, and as we were to learn (though not on the official program) opportunities for scholars of religion to visit prostitutes. (Truth is stranger than fiction:  we learned of the last-named activity when a friend of mine was asked by a male colleague if she thought it was now more appropriate for men in the field to sleep with women in the field rather than prostitutes at the AAR.)

After 1971, it was never again quite the same.  At the 1972 meetings in Los Angeles, Mary Daly presented “After the Demise of God the Father” and Rosemary Radford Ruether discussed “St. Augustine’s Penis.” Other presenters in 1972 included Patricia Wilson, Joan Arnold Romero, Linda Barufaldi, Leonard Swidler, Elizabeth Farians, Nancy Falk, Penelope Washbourn, Rita Gross, Gayle Kimball, Martha M. Wison, Bernard Prusak, and Winsome Monroe.  In 1973 (when Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero took over the chairing of the group), Gilbert Romero, Anne McGrew Bennett, Patricia Budd Kepler, Mary Wakeman, Linda Pritchard, Barbara Yoshioka, Clare Denton, Ebba Johnson, Valerie Saiving (Goldstein), Bernadette Bruteau, Christine Garside, Emily Culpepper, and I added our voices.  Many of these ground-breaking presentations were collected in 3 volumes published by the AAR and edited by Judith Plaskow and Joan Arnold Romero: Women and Religion 1972; Women and Religion 1973; and Women and Religion, Revised Edition.

In those heady days, we were not yet as diverse as we would later become, but we spoke to each other and made connections about the status of women in religion across time and place.  Our excitement was palpable.  It was not until some years later that women working in the field of religion began to separate themselves from each other along religious and disciplinary lines.  That was a great disappointment to me and to many others.  Perhaps that is why I am so eager to participate in the new dialogue opening up on this blog.

Categories: Feminist Theology, Foremothers, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Women and Community, Women and Scholarship, Women's Agency

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13 replies

  1. Dear Carol,

    Thank you so much for sharing your stories of the early years. It’s so important to have an historical context for the work.




  2. Wow – thank you Carol for sharing this important part of history with us. It’s good to remember how recently this was, just 40 years ago! And it’s good to be reminded how just a few people can make such major differences to structures and institutions. I am so grateful for your generation of feminists and I will never take for granted the difference you have made, and continue to make, to my life – to all our lives.


  3. Carol,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and the sacrifices that you and so many of the women you referred to (named and unnamed) have made so that students like myself can continue to follow the path that you have so skillfully laid out and also which allows us to blaze our own trail.

    The last part of your post gave me pause. I come from an atmosphere where women support each other in their work and do what they can to mentor and contribute to the success of new female scholars to the field. This is not always the case, as I am beginning to see. The field is competitive enough with significant hurdles still in place for women in theology and biblical studies. I am hopeful that at the meetings this year we can walk away with a renewed promise to be a support to each other and to help contribute to the growing work of women in this field. After all, I believe in one of your posts you cited a mantra that cites sisterness, motherliness, etc. We are women, all connected, all striving to reclaim the our voice through the oppressive misogynist world still over-run by patriarchy. I am hopeful that through your contribution and all of our contributions to raise awareness that a renewed sense of support might come about. Maybe I am too idealistic – I certainly hope not!



  4. Thanks.

    I don’t think very many of us felt we were “making sacrifices.” That some of us were sacrificed on the altar of patriarchy is another story. Speaking for myself, I had the naive idea that the academy was about the search for truth. I thought I would be rewarded for speaking my truth and the truths of many other women. Sadly, I came to recognize that the academy is as much if not more about the presevation of canonical texts and traditions as it is about the search for truth, and that many of those who hold the highest positions in the academy are not the most creative thinkers of their generations, but rather those who are seen to be preserving certain lines of authority and power.


  5. Thanks – it is helpful to have this synopsis, including the names of those who participated. It is not so hard to me to imagine what is was like pre -’71, bu great to see the progress made since then and how things evolved. It just takes a few women, doesn’t it.

    I am gong to give a talk at a local spiritual bookstore here in Sebastopol on Love, Self-Love and the Body, and your writings on empathy in “Rebirth of the Goddess” will be an important reference for that. So many spiritual people I know talk about how we are not our body, and I always feel that as long as we have that belief we will feel free to destroy bodies. Thanjs again for all your work.


  6. Carol,

    I so loved reading this post – thank you so much for sharing this “herstory.” It is shocking to think that alcohol and prostitutes was a large part of the reality of AAR not that long ago. Your work along with the work of other founding mothers has made such an incredible impact. It is because of women like you that a path has been paved for women like me. I thank you for this.


  7. Carol – I’m so grateful for the history you’ve provided here. One of your last lines, about the increasing division along religious and disciplinary lines, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in Women’s Studies / feminist theory overall. On the one hand, the presence of so many specialized academic journals, schools of feminism, different types of religious feminists, etc. shows our academic sophistication and legitimacy. On the other hand, practically speaking it might mean that we have ghettoized ourselves in ways that aren’t always productive. In my Feminist Ethics class, many of the students have valorized temporary segregation for certain purposes (e.g., female-only spaces, or race-specific spaces, etc.), but it seems that most want to make sure that all are contributing to the common good.


    • I appreciate this comment. I am no longer in academia but I feel myself to be a link between that world and the everyday world of “enlightened” women that I am surrounded by. I am very impressed by the women of Sebastopol, where I live. They are smart and capable. I want them to be connected to feminist spirituality but I hardly know where to start. The diversity and specialization of information sources is sometimes overwhelming and I am not sure where to turn for connection to the movement without getting lost in particulars that are interesting but missing something of an overall connection. I would be happy to receive some guidance on where to go – what sources might be best for me to use. It is the real world that we want to serve I think – how do I make that link?


    • Hi Grace, I certainly believe in “only” spaces for a time and in their place. What disappoints me most is that Christian feminists who are in the large majority are not very interested in dialoguing with post-Christian feminists. In my own experience, I have been told that dialoguing with me is threatening to white Christian faith and privilege because what I am saying makes too much sense and “if,” as one woman told me, “she kept working with me, she might have to quit the church.” Also, that when I teach in seminary context, even if I teach mainly Christian works, my sheer presence and my intellectual reasons for leaving the church “upsets” students. A part of this is that there is no place for post-Christian feminists to teach. It is a self-perpetuating circle of excluson.


  8. Sharon, I am not sure what you are looking for. UU churches are still doing programs. Womanspirit Rising is still a good introduction. All of my books are written for the intelligent general reader and so are many others. A young woman in Australia just wrote me about how much Rebirth of the Goddess meant to her.


  9. Hi Carol
    it’s music to my soul to hear these women reflecting on our story and to see your constant part being recognized as you have modeled ways of holding us in the truth – congratulations.
    Great to see some more photos of the goddess pilgrimage – still treasure my experience in 2006


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