This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Hannah Heinzekehr is a second year Masters student at Claremont School of Theology, studying theology and community development. She also works as a Church Relations Associate for Mennonite Mission Network. She enjoys cooking with and for friends, watching and playing sports (especially soccer), drinking coffee and talking about the future of the Mennonite Church.
Feminism is not a word or a movement that I came to easily. In fact, in an article that she wrote for a Mennonite women’s publication when I was 15, my mom noted that I had chosen to reject the word feminism, because it carried too much baggage and wasn’t relevant to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about women’s issues. On the contrary, I was very aware of some of the difficulties that faced my mother when she decided to become a pastor, I felt free to use gender neutral and feminine language for God (for awhile, my favorite image of the Divine was a large oak tree with a swing for me to sit in), and I had an inkling that the discourses I heard at regional church youth rallies about modesty and sexuality seemed to be directed particularly towards women. But I didn’t feel that I needed feminism, because sexism didn’t seem to limit any of my opportunities. The fact that I felt this sense of “limitlessness” is a testament to the work of previous waves of feminism, and to the community that I grew up within. It is also likely a function of my privilege as a white, middle-class child and teenager, who wasn’t constrained by other forms of oppression. I moved through college feeling affirmed by fellow students, faculty and staff. I found that I had access to leadership opportunities and was well-respected in the classroom.
However, this would change for me when I entered the work world. Shortly after my graduation, I was hired by Mennonite Mission Network, our denomination’s service and mission agency. Although I was robustly encouraged by my supervisors, I slowly began to notice some trends. I realized that, when I was traveling, there were still many churches that would not invite me to preach because they did not believe that a woman belonged behind the pulpit. I noticed that in meetings with executives or church leaders, certain types of language and behavior were privileged above others, and that if a man paraphrased an idea I had just shared, it was often received with more enthusiasm. I noticed that if I was too assertive, people might start to place labels on me. Although my direct supervisor was female, I began to notice that much of the leadership of the church was both male and white. I was shocked. These were the issues that second wave feminism had combated and that I had thought irrelevant for my generation.
At about the time when I was sensing the need to begin articulating some of these disparities out loud, and perhaps experiencing a “feminist awakening” within myself, my agency paid for me to attend Damascus Road training, a three-day event focusing on anti-racism work. It was here that, for the first time, I began to understand what the term “systemic oppression” meant on an emotional, and not just intellectual, level. And I began to realize that for many of my peers and co-workers, sexism was not the only binding factor in our workplace and throughout the church. As Patricia Hill Collins describes, there is a “matrix of domination” where issues of oppression including race, gender, sexuality, class and others intersect.
I returned to work ready to start addressing these issues, but unsure where to begin. Thankfully, several of my co-workers were just pushing our department to begin a project that analyzed the written, web and audiovisual communication that our agency produced. There was recognition that even though our models for church and mission had shifted, the words and images that we were using in publications still reflected colonial, racist and sexist sentiments. These sentiments were not appearing intentionally, but were products of the implicit systems of racism and sexism that operate within the church and broader society. As a rhetorical communications major in college, I already believed that language played a role in constructing reality, but this project was the first time when I analyzed concretely what was being constructed by my own discourses.
In this process, consultants, people of color and women from across our denomination, were invited to look at the publications that we put out, and to give feedback. Our department worked with these individuals to develop a process for continuing accountability: each of our projects is reviewed by an anti-racism consultant, and any time that we quote someone, we don’t publish anything until that individual approves the way their voice is represented.
We also worked together to produce a manual for institutional communication called Shared Voices (I was primarily involved in the construction of the 2nd edition of this manual). Since its publication, this manual has been a permanent fixture on my desk: reminding me to ask myself how I am appropriating people’s words in my writing, to think about who I am ascribing agency to, and to remember that the opportunity to be published brings with it power that needs to be shared. Seeking shared voices meant helping to create spaces where individuals could share their own stories in their own words. In my journalism classes in college, we were taught how to write quickly and to focus on developing our own unique synthesis of material that would catch people’s attention. Going through the process of work with Shared Voices has reminded me that good journalism must also be about listening and reciprocity, too.
The process of developing Shared Voices was a key moment in my own development. Given this background, I was glad to encounter the 1992 roundtable conversation on appropriation and reciprocity. This conversation was asking questions of how feminist/womanist/mujerista scholars can engage and use each other’s work responsibly and respectfully. As Jewish feminist scholar Judith Plaskow notes, appropriation and reciprocity are issues that involve power, and I must be careful to write and engage in ways that do not “swallow up and render invisible” my partners on this journey.
Categories: Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue