(1) Historical Figures
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “The Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives.” So I start by recognizing two activists, rural and urban, who developed and sustained important movements that continue today in our own time.
Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan activist who founded the Green Belt Movement to empower women and their communities to conserve the environment. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. I read her memoir, Unbowed, when I was in graduate school, and it opened my eyes to the impact that grassroots activism can have. Maathai was also an academic; as a professor and department chair, she was the first woman to serve in many institutions, a difficult path that opened doors for others to follow.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is known for co-founding the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City with Peter Maurin. She was a convert to Roman Catholicism, and it inspired her service. She addressed poverty, war, and labor issues in her writings and activism. While her efforts were often addressed at meeting the immediate needs of suffering people, she worked for structural change, too, to secure a more lasting social justice. I think it’s appropriate to share this quote of hers here for our community of blog writers and readers:
“Writing is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it on yours. It is a part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”
That quote and some of her writings can be found on the Catholic Worker Movement’s website.
(2 ) Authors/Books
In my office, I have a sign that says “Professional Bookworm.” It’s a delight to have a vocation in which I am encouraged (and expected!) to read. Above, I talked about two activists and writers who have inspired me. Below, are two books I’m currently reading that are particularly transformative:
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler:
I met Kate about a year ago when she visited my campus to give a talk on women’s leadership roles in Christian churches and Christian media. After her lecture, I was fortunate enough to dine with her and learn more about her life and work. Every time I talk to Kate, I laugh and I learn something. Yesterday, she was back on my campus for a conference, but this time, she shared insights from her life experience. Her recent book, a New York Times bestseller, talks about her diagnosis and treatment of stage IV colon cancer. It’s a profound book that avoids clichés (like “everything happens for a reason”) to talk about the ambiguity of suffering with its hope, pain, faith, love, and fear. I’m nearly finished with the audiobook, which she narrates beautifully, and I plan to write a review of it for an upcoming post. But don’t wait for that – go and get the book as soon as you can.
Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths by Melanie L. Harris:
Melanie Harris is another scholar who inspires and teaches me through her ways of being in the world. She is loving and wise, and her writing communicates that love and wisdom with spiritual insight. In this book, she describes ecowomanism as an environmental justice movement and spiritual practice. I’ve discussed ecowomanism before; it is because of Melanie’s work that I am increasingly aware of its significance. Feminists and womanists of all kinds are committed to finding a way forward and structuring our lives together that heal and overcome the divides of oppression and marginalization. This book highlights the importance of environmental justice and calls attention to the contributions of African American women who work for it.
(3) Colleagues and Co-laborers
I have been fortunate to work with amazing people in nearly every job I’ve held. There have been really difficult people, too, but the good ones have helped me thrive, regardless. Whether I was working in a library, architectural firm, writing center, community organization, or university, it has been the women I see on a daily basis who encourage and equip me to do my best work. I’ve had many male bosses, mentors, teachers, friends and family members who have helped and guided me and they continue to do so. But it is typically the women who inspire me the most while they teach and guide. In their lives, I see what is difficult, but I also see what is possible. Their perseverance amidst micro-aggressions and overt discrimination is admirable.
I joined the faculty of the Department of Religion at Baylor in 2013. Two other women began at the same time, and together we doubled the number of women in our department’s full-time faculty. Since then, we’ve added another two. The number of women is significant; you have so much more freedom to be yourself when you are not the only one of a particular demographic within a larger group. When there are enough people of a particular kind (whether it be gender, race, age, specialization, or other demographic markers), one person is not tacitly expected to represent their group alone. But the women I work with provide much more than security in numbers. They read my work, help me generate ideas, share resources, celebrate my successes, and encourage me on bad days. They inspire me with their own success. Our full-time administrative staff—all women—organizes everything. I’m also fortunate to have women outside my department and beyond my university who are developing the kind of scholarship that is changing our world. They are teaching the next generation because they believe it can make a difference in our world.
This International Women’s Day, I hope you make time to honor the contributions of those who have inspired you. Please share your “womenspiration” with me in the comments. Who inspires you? What inspiring works are you reading, watching, hearing, making, or writing?
Elise M. Edwards, Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines 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.