“The pictures that line the halls speak volumes about the history of racism and sexism and they shape the future in powerful ways.”–Simon Timm
The author of these words recently posted a short video on Youtube entitled “Mirror Mirror on the Wall: The Legacies of Sexism and White Supremacy at Yale Divinity School.”* The video begins with a catchy little ditty with the words, “God is not a man, God is not a white man.” It tracks paintings and photographs of professors and other luminaries in the field of theology on the walls of the Yale Divinity School. By Timm’s count: 99 white males, 6 women, and 3 blacks. The single black woman is counted in both categories.
Among the white men are portraits of 49 YDS professors and administrators. An additional 50 photographs of theologians in the stairwell of the library are of white men. Although only a few of the images are identified, the women on the walls appear to include three retired white women professors and the first black woman to graduate from YDS. The black woman was added in 2015 following student protests along with the first black student (a male) to sit in on classes at YDS and the first black male student to graduate.
The video notes that YDS did not have a tenured woman professor until 1977 and did not have a tenured black professor until 2005. Apparently portraits of professors are added to the walls following retirement. It thus appears that no black professors have stayed long enough to retire at YDS.
I remember how I felt as a young white female graduate student at YDS in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Gold-framed oil paintings of white men in academic gowns glared down at me from every wall, reinforcing the common assumption that a woman was an anomaly in the hallowed halls in which I studied, took classes, ate lunch, and drank sherry with friends and teachers on Friday afternoons. Their omnipresence underscored the words of my professors and male student colleagues. “As a woman you will probably not finish your degree.” “Even if you do, I would give a job to a man with a family over you.” This sort of thing may not be voiced anymore, but jobs can still be defined as requiring expertise on white male theologians and white male theological traditions. Advisors can still advise students to focus their work within “the mainstream” if they want to be hired.
“Quite a few years after I graduated from Yale, I was in New Haven for a bat mitzvah and walked around downtown between the ceremony and the evening party. I found myself feeling spacey and slightly ill and wondered whether I was coming down with something. Then I realized that I was simply feeling what I had felt the entire time I was at Yale.”–Judith Plaskow in Goddess and God in the World
The toxic atmosphere at Yale both created and reinforced by the mirrors on the wall makes women and people of color intellectually doubt our right to be there, and it can penetrate into our blood and bones causing mental distress and physical illness.
“By continuing the near exclusive veneration of white men, many of whom perpetuated the institutionalized sexism and racism of the past, we reinforce the white male hegemony that has caused so much suffering to the rest of society.”–Simon Timm
Timm states that despite student protests asking for more images of women and minorities on the walls, nothing much has changed at Yale Divinity School. With tongue only partially in cheek I invite all of us who feel that our portraits or portraits of our favorite theologians should grace the stairwell of the YDS library to donate them–with appropriate epithets.
Maybe someone should start a fb page titled “Mirror on the Wall at Yale Divinity School” where theologians and theology students could upload photos of women theologians of all colors and men theologians of color with accompanying words. YDS administrators could be referred to the site. Just to be fair, we might also suggest adding photographs of unacknowledged coauthors such as Charlotte von Kirschbaum and Ursula Niebuhr.
*Thanks to Kate Ott for alerting me to Simon Timm’s video by posting it on Facebook.
Carol P. Christ is author or editor of eight books in Women and Religion and is one of the Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement. She leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in Spring and Fall: Early Bird Special until February 15. Follow Carol on Twitter @CarolP.Christ, Facebook Goddess Pilgrimage, and Facebook Carol P. Christ. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.
A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published by Far Press in the spring of 2016. A journey from despair to the joy of life.
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be published by Fortress Press in June 2016. Exploring the connections of theology and autobiography and alternatives to the transcendent, omnipotent male God.