My Feminist Perspective of Authority – Part 1 by Elise M. Edwards


I make a distinction between power and authority.  Authority is a personal characteristic based on a relationship of trust between me and a text, a person, or their work.  Power, on the other hand, is operative with or without trust.

This past weekend, I had the honor of participating in a workshop on Living Texts: Celebrating Feminist Perspective and Theo/alogy, Authority, and the Sacred in the Academy.  The workshop was organized for the Women’s Caucus of WECSOR, a regional association of national organizations who study religion.  I was delighted to connect with new friends, mentors and sisters interested in feminism and religion, including some of my co-contributors on this site –Theresa Yugar, Sara Frykenberg, and Corinna Guerrero .  There were two panels that shared our reflections about authority from either student perspectives or diverse professional perspectives.  I shared my experiences as a student.  This workshop was a gathering where women scholars in religion could discuss the challenges and promises of our voices in the academy.  Because our dialogue was so inspiring to me, I thought I’d continue the discussion here.

There are several questions the panelists were asked to discuss.  The two I address in this post are:

  • What is your concept of authority?
  • What texts shape your definition of this?

I invite all of us here to think about these questions in light of our particular places in the academy or religious communities.  At key points in my academic career, I have been challenged to think about the issue of authority, and each time, I have come away from the exercise with a clearer picture of the purpose for my studies, the career I wish to pursue and the kind of support I seek from the people around me.  These three concepts  are connected to the issue of authority in the academy for me:  (1) The purpose of my studies is defined by a sense of calling, in which I am subject to a divine authority and accountable to the communities that support me (2) a vision of my career encourages me to claim the authority I already have within the classroom, build upon it, and carry it with me into non-academic contexts; (3) and the support I seek from those around me is a complex web of relationality in which I must frequently determine who has the authority to guide me and who should be denied that kind of power.

My concept of authority reflects both a feminist commitment to the shared, full humanity of women and men and an awareness of my multiple positions within the hierarchies of higher education and a broader society that multiplies these dichotomies in response to my race, gender, and class.

In the academy, I define authority primarily as recognition of which persons and communities and which texts I allow to guide my work.  Various professors; scholars at conferences, societies, working groups, caucuses; and texts differ in levels of authority for me.  The people who have authority in my academic work are those whose supportive words provide direction and assistance, and whose criticism I take seriously.  In this respect, I make a distinction between power and authority.  Authority is a personal characteristic based on a relationship of trust between me and a text, a person, or their work.  Power, on the other hand, is operative with or without trust.

I came to this understanding in the last year of my studies for a Masters’ of Theological Studies degree; a year when I was making decisions about a career change that led me to pursue a PhD in religion and a career in academia.  In class, I read a selection by Gareth Moore, who, in his reflection Believing in God notes that in biblical accounts, God’s activity is not described as an effect of somebody with great power or strength but as a sign of somebody with great authority.   Many of us know from personal experience that too often, petty and capricious people have power.  Moore explains that we may acknowledge somebody’s power by submitting to them, but such submission does not require we hold the person in high regard,”…for it is possible to be powerful and petty.  But to acknowledge somebody’s authority is to see [her] as great; and at that, without resigning your freedom” (247).

Moore uses this distinction between power and authority in human relationships to describe humanity’s relationship with God, but I applied his explanation of the meaning of authority as a model for human authority.  He is not writing as a feminist, but when I combine his concept of authority with my feminist commitment to the shared, full humanity of women and men, I come away with this principle: Authority requires trust in addition to the recognition of power; therefore, authority should be granted only when norms of mutual respect and affirmation of humanity are upheld. 

As a scholar, there are many people and institutions that have the power to challenge my work.  But I grant a relative few the authority to guide it.

I’m interested to know: Who are your authorities? What shapes your definition of authority? Let’s continue the discussion below.  I also invite you to join me next week when I will blog a series about this issue at http://musecreative.blogspot.com/.

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.



Categories: Academy, Christianity, Community, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, God-talk, Power relations, Relationality, Thealogy, Theology, Women and Community, Women and Scholarship, Women and Work, Women's Agency

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5 replies

  1. Although I freely acknowledge that I have learned from others, and I value community, and I experience the presence of Goddess in my life, I acknowledge no authorities outside myself and my own weighing of what is true in my life. In this, I have learned from others, and I acknowledge shared experiences with others, but in the end, I am the one who decides what is true in my life. I have had experiences that I would consider revelatory, but even these must be tested. For example if I thought Goddess wanted me to kill in her name, I would judge myself wrong, and I have also been wrong when I thought the Goddess wanted me to live happily ever after with a man who certainly wasn’t worthy of me. In other words, even what feels like revelation, may not be. And let’s not even get started on all the crazy things others have said were authorized by God. As far as trusting texts and traditions, there is no way I would do that, as they are all enmeshed in interlocking systems of domination. Even when it comes to women writers who have provided me with a lifeline, I still must make judgments based on my own inner authority.

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  2. Elise, I found your blog through a mutual friend, Carolyn Staley. The subject matter caught by attention because I am currently taking an extended unit of CPE at a local hospital. My relational learning concern is centered on embracing my personal authority and finding my voice in real time. I’ve struggled with this concept of personal authority, but your differentiation between authority and power has been very helpful. If authority requires trust, as you say, in recognition of those with power, and if it demands mutual respect and affirmation, then if I’m going to embrace my personal authority, I need to learn to trust and affirm myself respectfully. I have served on church staffs for over 30 years and I know that this whole issue of authority and power can make a big difference on the effectiveness of community and leadership within the church. Too often we just settle for hierarchical systems of power and never do the hard, but necessary work of mutual respect and trust. Thanks for sharing your great insights.

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    • Thank you, Tom. I will also thank Carolyn for passing this on. She was my study buddy when we both began our theological studies, and we learned a lot by helping each other. The distinction between authority and power has helped me claim my own voice, too. I’m glad it will help you do it in a respectful, non-hierarchical way.

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