I recently had the honor of serving on a panel entitled “Feminist Theology: Four Perspectives” with three of my faculty colleagues: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Monica A. Coleman, and Najeeba Syeed. It had been organized by the Claremont School of Theology Alumni/ae Association in partnership with the La Plaza United Methodist Church and the Los Angeles United Methodist Museum of Social Justice (where the event had taken place).
We had an incredible time. La Plaza UMC, led by CST alum Rev. Vilma Cruz-Baez (’07), graciously hosted a reception before our panel discussion. As we feasted on hearty Mexican food (my favorite was the watermelon agua fresca), we perused the Exodus exhibition in the Museum of Social Justice, which featured dramatic black and white photographs of migrants and others who had made their lives in Los Angeles (n.b., the Museum is located in the basement of the Church, which is itself located on historic Olvera Street). I was grateful for the warm welcome and short history of the Museum that Director Leonara Barron provided.
After further introductions and words of welcome, moderator Thea Mateu Zayas (CST ’14) cued us panelists to begin our presentations.
Our esteemed colleague, Rosemary, went first. In her typically erudite manner, she explained what ecofeminism is, particularly to what exactly ecofeminism is serves as a corrective. I was especially grateful to hear her denounce any simplistic identifications between women and nature as well as tease out what ecofeminism implies for ethics and theology.
Professor Monica A. Coleman went third. She spoke beautifully about the ways in which her entrance into religious studies
had been shaped from the start by black women’s scholarship–the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Katie Geneva Cannon, Delores Williams, Renita Weems, and others. She then explained what “third wave womanism” is, the impetus behind her widely-anthologized “Must I Be a Womanist” article, and the many ways that she and others will continue to “wade in the water” by “troubling” conventional wisdom.
Our fourth panelist, Professor Najeeba Syeed, brought down the house! She opened with an original poem and then, with the commanding presence and passion of a scholar-activist-preacher, enumerated in eight different ways the difference that a critical feminist perspective can make to interreligious encounters or studies and transnational politics. I can’t possibly do justice to her many points (e.g., she encouraged the audience to consider who has access to sacred space, interrogated the supposed link between women’s liberation and particular expressions of public piety, delimited the ways in which feminism “busts up” traditional categories of analysis in religion), though one tweet I read later about her presentation captured what I suspect was a widespread reaction among the students in the audience: “Friend turns to me after @NajeebaSyeed finishes: ‘Holy shit.’ Me: ‘Yeah, she’s awesome.’ @CST_News feminist theology panel.”
What about my remarks? I spoke second. I began by offering my understanding of feminism–one that I named as having been influenced by the work of Judith Butler, bell hooks, and Sister Margaret Farley (among others). I also stressed how the best feminist scholarship today is intersectional.
I next described how feminist theo-ethical commitments inform my current research projects. I spent most of the time talking about an anthology I am co-editing with Rebecca Todd Peters (“Toddie”) that is tentatively entitled Encountering the Sacred: A Theological Exploration of Women’s Lives. But I also took the opportunity to acknowledge how the work of Carol Adams and others had led me to develop scholarly and activist interests in nonhuman animals, given the parallel ways that women and nonhuman animals can be exploited and commodified under patriarchy.
In the final segment of my talk, I spoke of the ways in which I remain in the debt of flesh-and-blood feminist theologians, particularly those I am fortunate enough to count as mentors, colleagues, and friends. I named fellow panelist Rosemary as a prime example, given her active support for the scholarship of emerging feminist theologians, such as by agreeing to co-edit an anthology with a former student and newly-minted PhD and writing the Forward to the book of another former student who had recently completed her MA degree. But I also named the ways in which leading Asian and Asian American feminist theologians and bible scholars have given tirelessly (in both time and money) to a small organization of which we are a part, PANAAWTM (Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry), so that graduate students can continue to receive scholarships to attend our conferences.
I concluded by noting that while I continue to learn from senior feminist scholars, I am most influenced and supported on a day-to-day basis by my feminist colleagues who are peers and friends. I therein took the opportunity to name the many ways in which fellow panelists and close friends Monica, Najeeba, and I have helped one another navigate various professional and personal challenges.
The Q&A that followed was lively and soon it was time to leave. I remain grateful for all those who made the event possible, including the extended Claremont School of Theology community (the administration, faculty, staff, current students, and alumni/ae) who spent one September evening in a historic LA UMC church reflecting on the importance of feminist theology.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and co-director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and has a forthcoming co-edited anthology with Ilsup Ahn on Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press). Read more about her work on her website.