Running for the President of the American Academy of Religion By Kwok Pui Lan

Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan is an internationally recognized scholar and pioneer in Asian feminist and postcolonial theology. She teaches at the Episcopal Divinity School and is the 2011 president of the American Academy of Religion. Dr. Kwok has published extensively and is the co-editor of two volumes Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion and Theology (Westminster) and Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians (Fortress). Her other publications include Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Westminster), Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World (Orbis), and Introducing Asian Feminist Theology (Pilgrim).

“Pui Lan, would you be willing to run for the Vice-President of AAR?” the chair of the Nominations Committee of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) called and asked me back in April 2008.

The AAR, with 10,000 members, is the world’s largest professional organization of scholars in religion. The majority of its members are from the U.S., but approximately 17 percent are international scholars from over 70 countries.

It was a great honor to have been nominated—for the Vice-President would be in line to become the President in 2011. The problem was that there would be an election and I would have to compete with another candidate, who happened to be a professor at Harvard University.

I thought, “If I win, that’s good. But what happens if I lose?” 

That spring Hillary Clinton was competing with Barack Obama to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. She lost to Obama in the Iowa caucuses and fought back tears after being asked how she kept going in New Hampshire.

Although I was rooting for Obama, I was deeply impressed by Clinton’s courage to face defeat after defeat so publicly.

I asked myself, “If Clinton can face losses in such a public way, what do I have to lose?”

Yes, what have I got to lose?

I decided to run for the AAR presidency because I wanted to stand up for others. Even when I was a doctoral student, I was frequently invited to speak in meetings in churches and academia. I would be the lone Asian woman speaking on a panel.

I generally preferred to stand up when speaking so that the audience could see me. Very often after my speech, there would be a soft-spoken, timid Asian female student, who would come up to tell me that she was glad to see me standing and speaking. In the 1980s, an Asian feminist theologian was a rare sight.

So when I received the call, I remembered these Asian women students who once told me they were proud to see an Asian woman standing. When I said yes, I was answering to a larger call in life.

In a Wabash workshop for pre-tenured Asian and Asian American faculty, I said that as leaders, we have to bring the tribe along. Those of us who are pioneers have the responsibility of opening the door a little wider for others to come.

After Hillary lost, she told the misty crowd gathered at Washington’s National Building Museum: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” She also said, “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

I have received many awards and recognitions in life. The AAR presidency would be like icing on the cake. Like Hillary, I want to make the path a little easier for others next time.

In the 102 years of history of the AAR, only seven or eight racial and ethnic minority scholars have been elected as President. I am the second person of Asian descent to have been elected; the first one was Professor Vasudha Narayanan of the University of Florida, who specializes in Hinduism. She was also the first woman of color to have served in this prestigious position.

Some Asian American scholars and students organized a banquet to honor me on the eve of the AAR annual meeting at San Francisco on November 18. I said to them, “Tomorrow night I will deliver the Presidential Address. I hope that many years later, you will remember that I stood up and spoke from the podium.” I wanted to encourage them to answer the call and accept invitations and challenges that come their way. If I can stand up, they can too.

This article is cross-posted on Kwok Pui Lan’s personal blog.

Categories: Activism, Foremothers, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Politics

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10 replies

  1. Congratulations Dr. Pui-Lan!
    I am extremely happy for you and for us.
    Last semester I read your book, “Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology” and was
    inspired to sharpen my anticolonial voice to make sense of my place and purpose as a spiritualist scholar involved in addressing the persisting colonial-imperial oppressive status imposed on the women of Puerto Rico. Your success is a victory to all women for generations to come. Thank you for your courage. With love and gratitude, Vrinda


  2. Pui Lan: so good to have you here! There was indeed a lot of love and pride in that banquet that night and also, as David said, in that morning joint panel session when you spoke (with Judith Plaskow, Rudy Busto, Jane Iwamura, and Rita Nakashima Brock) about the future of solidarity work. As wonderful and helpful as my mentoring has been from former advisors, what I did not have were faculty of color (male or female) to show me the roles of navigating academe in light of particular challenges that I would face as an Asian American female. So I thank you for all the ways you have been a pioneer and for the leadership you continue to show for women and minorities of all kinds.


  3. So did you vote for Obama? Aren’t you glad that a woman was supported for AAR president?
    When feminists can get behind a woman like Hillary instead of voting for yet another man….
    This article really seems odd to me. You’re glad you got elected president and you admired Hillary, and yet that accomplished Senator and international advocate for women is not good enough to be president of the U.S.? Dr. Pui Lan, I just don’t get this. This is the very contradiction that holds all feminists back.


    • Turtle Woman,
      I think there are a lot of issues at play here. I too was conflicted with who I should vote for in the Presidential election in 2008. Although I am and still remain a Hilary fan to this day, I knew that she was not going to get the nomination just based off of polling numbers and my knowledge of how Presidential politics really works. I would have loved for her to have gotten the nomination and I believe she would have won the Presidency but Obama’s nomination and then election is nothing to scoff at either just because he is, as you say “another man.” Obama had to overcome adversity and we must not forget that he, like the post above states, is the first black man to be elected President and like with Dr. Pui Lan, the second woman from Asian descent to be elected President of the AAR. Both of these achievements are stupendous and need to be celebrated.

      I am often confused by many of your posts Turtle Woman. Are you mad that Hilary wasn’t elected simply because Obama is “just another man?” Are you seeing the issue on just gendered lines? Are you completely disregarding his race and the serious barriers African Americans have had and still have to overcome in this country (as well as the world)? If you are only paying attention to the fact that he is “just another man,” I feel you lose out on the point of this amazing post entirely.

      Am I a bad feminist because I voted for Obama even though I wished Hilary was the one that got nominated? Am I a bad feminist because I didn’t write her name in on my ballot to “hammer my beliefs” into the patriarchal system that you often write about and against? I had to choose between what I considered to be “two of my best friends.” When I say this, I mean that I knew both would do great jobs and choosing between them would be hard but, like with politics, the choice was made for me when only one of them received the nomination.

      I wanted to shift my attention to the point I believe you are trying to make. In highly male dominated fields and organizations, women achieving leadership positions should be celebrated. I wanted to draw your attention to the recent election of Dr. Linda M Alcoff as President of the APA (American Philosophical Association.) I was able to met her and listen to her speech at the NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) meeting in Atlanta, GA this past November. She mentioned that “so many women are leaving the field of philosophy for other fields, like women’s studies, because of the serious problems they face against their male coworkers who do not see their work as valid.”

      She then went on to tell a story about how, when she was asked to run and then won the Presidency of the APA, a senior male scholar in the field created a website immediately calling for her impeachment because he did not feel that she was qualified as a woman among many other issues that he apparently had with her. In highly male dominated fields, like the AAR and the APA (to name only a few), when women run for these positions they often ask themselves the question, like Dr. Pui Lan did, “What if I lose?” The fear of losing and retribution is enough to keep anyone from running but the ways in which this fear hurts women as well as individuals from communities of color is what this post (and her speech) is all about.

      The message behind the story is that individuals “cannot be afraid to run.” Dr. Pui Lan’s statement that “If she can stand up, so can you,” is an empowering message to all of those who are afraid or who have been afraid. The fight that women have to win to achieve these leadership positions is hard but when they manage to win and overcome these obstacles the benefits are exponential and like with Dr. Alcoff’s final statement at the NWSA conference she plans to give one “hell of a Presidential address” at their next annual meeting, just like Dr. Pui Lan did this past November at AAR.

      Thank you for this empowering post Dr. Pui Lan.



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