My First Experience at a Women-Only Conference by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“This ain’t your daddy’s conference!”

I knew that I was going to be attending a totally different type of conference than I had ever been to before when I received the following instructions on additional items to pack: (1) my own mug with which to drink coffee or tea (“we will go green in this conference as much as possible”), (2) 3 oz. of water “from a source of nature near your home” to be offered during “opening worship,” and (3) a small, modest, pre-owned, homemade, or inexpensive “earth-honoring gift for exchange.”

When this blog goes live, the second day of the PANAAWTM Annual Conference will be in full swing at San Francisco Theological Seminary. PANAAWTM stands for “Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry.” Its deepest origins can be traced to two sources: (1) Asian American women in theology and ministry in the West Coast who, with the help of Bishop Roy I. Sano, had begun networking among themselves in the late 1970s,  (2) a small group of women who, under the assistance of trailblazing feminist theologian Letty Russell, also first came together in 1984 to “explore common interests and the possibility of forming a network” (n.b., these women had come predominantly from Asia and were either pursuing graduate theological education or working in ministry in the United States).

Today, PANAAWTM’s goals are as follows:

  • To facilitate the development of theologies in our own voices;
  • To provide a group in which we are able to support one another and exchange ideas;
  • To support our ministry and leadership in our churches, our educational institutions, and the larger society;
  • To increase our contribution to the development of Third World and other liberation theologies;
  • To participate actively in the feminist theological conversations in the United States and Canada.

My attendance here this weekend will mark not only my first time at PANAAWTM, but also my first time ever participating in an all-women conference. On top of that, I’ll be sharing these experiences with fellow attendees who are also all of some Asian heritage and heavily and unabashedly steeped in feminist theology, liturgy, ethics, and other scholarly/activist/spiritual pursuits. Simply put, this ain’t your daddy’s conference!

The opening panel, which was open to the public and held at the Chapel of the Pacific School of Religion (a longtime supporter of PANAAWTM), was amazing. The 2012 theme is “Abundant Life and Unjust Prosperity” and each panelist spoke out her expertise and passion.

Pictured from left to right: Rita Nakashima Brock, Nadine Cruz, Gale Yee, and Nami Kim (moderator)

  • Gale Yee (Nancy W. King Professor of Biblical Studies, Episcopal Divinity School) began with the provocative bumper sticker pictured below, explained the true meaning of shalom, and then proceeded to describe how Jesus came to liberate people from material, not just spiritual, poverty. She invited us to reconceptualize Mary, the mother of Jesus/God not as the white, upper class, royal looking “lady” of many portraits, but as a dark-skinned, poor, and racial-ethnically/religiously/and politically oppressed outsider.

  • Nadine Cruz (Consultant on Pedagogies of Engagement in Higher Education) spoke soberly about disturbing trends in the academy—the commodification of “service-learning” and disvaluing of indigenous and nonWestern forms of knowledge chief among them. She also explained why she is ambivalent about the popular rhetoric in the U.S. of the 99%.: from her vantage point as someone who has come from the Philippines, the majority of the world is the 99% while the U.S. as a whole represents the 1%. Still, she offered us two case-studies of peoples who have acted courageously with “moral brilliance” and discussed (especially during the Q&A) the importance of creating spaces to begin to imagine (not simply move hastily to strategize) what genuine alternatives to empire could look like.

Rita Nakashima Brock outside of the interfaith tent at the Occupy Oakland encampment on Frank Ogawa Plaza on November 2, 2011. Photo by Amina Waheed. (Image source)

  • Finally, Rita Nakashima Brock (Director, Faith Voices for the Common Good), provided both statistical analysis of the distribution of wealth (comparatively and historically, within the U.S. and across the world) and firsthand accounts of her experiences with Occupy Oakland. She offered an inspiring account of the worldwide reach and effects of various encampments (thus linking the events of Zuccotti Park with Tahrir Square with UC Davis, etc.). She also spoke of those in the Occupy Oakland as incarnating an alternative vision to the status quo – free food, free healthcare, free education, free childcare, status based on participation and not on pedigree or conventional hierarchies, and so forth.

As I prepare to go to sleep, my mind keeps flashing back to the debates we had about lesbian separatism (both the movement and the concept) in my fall 2012 semester Feminist Ethics seminar. While most of my students (straight or queer) ultimately could not endorse permanent separation based on any socially significant distinction (in, e.g., religion, race, sex, sexuality), almost all of them recognized the value of women-only (or race-specific, etc.) spaces—spaces where persons in the relevant social group could enter into and out of for the purposes of communal belonging and solidarity, play and rejuvenation, professional development and networking, mobilization and collective action, and still other ends.

By the end of this conference, it is my hope and anticipation that I will have experienced all of that. And may it be that the five students from my home institution who have come along with me will end up feeling the same way.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book project on Asian American Christian Ethics. Read more about her work on her website.

She hopes that the organically-grown-with-love kumquats from her mother-in-law’s tree (“water from a source of nature close to you”) and the flower brooch she made with materials in her home (“an earth-honoring gift for exchange”) will be satisfactory.  

Categories: Academy, Activism, Asian American, Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Theology, General, Mariology, Race and Ethnicity, Social Justice, Spirituality, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church

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13 replies

  1. Hi Grace. I have felt the same thing at all female retreats/gatherings. Extra touches of warmth and love and creativity all around, like a cozy Maternal blanket.

    On another note, I wanted to tell you about an event on gender justice I am organizing in Boston on 4/29-5/1. We have a great line up of speakers (including the president of World Relief and the Women of Vision Director at World Vision) but still would love more attendees! Check out the website ( and let me know if you have any interest in attending or if you think of anyone who you think would be interested in this.

    If anyone is reading this and is interested in this, email me at or just check out the website and register online!

    Is there anyway to advertise something like this on this blog?


    • Emily: Thanks for writing; PANAAWTM is now over and I did indeed experience all that I had hoped for. Re: advertising, why don’t you get in touch with Xochitl (on this blog) who handles posting? You can blog about the conference as a way to advertise it! :)


  2. ps It is sort of an “evangelical” Christian gathering, but hopefully mostly enlightened and many recovering “evangelicals” who care about justice. we’d love for anyone to come!


  3. So glad you’re a part of PANAAWTM, Grace! I wish I could be there with all of you! Blessings to all of you at the “this ain’t your daddy’s conference!” Will be in touch with you soon regarding CPAAM!


  4. It was great to see such a large contingent of women from my alma mater. Thanks to all who came up for the weekend!

    When I was at CGU, the only Asian or API women were spouses of students, and I felt very alone in my classes because I was often the only woman of any color in them. Once, I was in a class with 3, myself, Catherine Keller, and Rebecca Parker, and it was wonderful, but I still missed having any woman of color sister who understood white privilege (I was doing race, gender, and GLBT justice work as I went to grad school and often felt like I lived in two split worlds–exactly what Nadine Cruz talked about re: the academy’s deep but very narrow swath of knowledge).

    I hope the energy of this short conference can become a way to build a group in Southern Cal, and maybe even a CA statewide regional group!


  5. Rita – it was great to reconnect with you over the conference. I can only imagine the feelings of isolation you felt while in grad school; thankfully, in many places, this is no longer the case. I will certainly do my part in building-up our Southern California group! :)


  6. As a first year grad student at CST, I find myself without a community – whether it be all women or not – I knew that the life of a grad student en route to being a scholar would be somewhat lonely, but just didnt’ know the degree. That is why I wanted to participate this year, but I opted to participate in family affairs. It is comforting to know that there are fellow female asian thinkers, workers, or simple friends in this journey. I had never been to an all-female retreat/conference but it gives me hope and excites me a little to gather with all female friends and colleagues. I hope to redefine community…not geographically close, not generationally close, or ethnically the same…but something broader and yet more intimate will (hopefully) define community.



  1. The Power of Feminist Rituals « Feminism and Religion
  2. A Tale of Two Conferences (Or Reflections of a Parent Who Occasionally Travels for Work) | Dr. Grace Kao
  3. Social Transformation in the Urban Context (a.k.a. PANAAWTM 2016) By Grace Yia-Hei Kao | Dr. Grace Kao
  4. Announcing PANAAWTM 2018 | Dr. Grace Kao

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