Senior Symposium Presentation

I wrote about my baby last week – my senior thesis, capping off at 120 pages on a womanist/feminist interpretation of the Christian Liturgical year. While ten minutes feels like an inch of what i had to say, here’s the presentation i gave at the Senior Symposium on Friday, should you like to watch it!

You might want to turn up your volume to hear. Many thanks to Alex (whom i reference in the film as having presented right before me on God and the Holocaust) and Nora for filming!

Baby Announcement

My baby weighs a couple of pounds, sitting at precisely 115 pages now. No trimmings yet; all bare bones, the introduction and the chapters and the endless endnotes. I was in labor for eight months.

I quit doing an honors thesis last fall. Even though i’d written about it, thought about, planned its length and topic since i first walked on Skinner Green. The pressure was too much, the culture of no-sleep and endless-stress that seemed part and parcel of writing such a monster completely unappealing. Especially because my therapist and i had worked so long on me learning to let go and let God. (Well, my phrasing. She’s not from North Carolina.)

It was a release. My advisor, Jane, told me to just keep reading, keep writing small papers, and we would just do an independent study. That seemed perfect: i got to indulge my craving for womanist theology whilst foregoing the purple-eyed haze everyone else seemed to be in.

Until.

It was just before Thanksgiving, and my backpack was plump with books on Jesus and womanism published in the last five years. I rattled off summaries, drawing my breath to talk about a womanist Christology when –

“Has nothing changed?” Jane stared me down. She’s got that deadly mix of Steel Magnolia and a feminism born in the 1960s. My stomach plummeted.

Everything i was talking about – the need to understand Christ as gender-full, as embodied in the faces of people of color and not just a white guy with a splendid beard – it wasn’t, well, new. More nuanced, yes, but nothing too drastically different than Kelly Brown Douglas or Jacquelyn Grant in the 1980s. Critiques of masculine God-language go back a long ways, farther than even Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848.

Her question plagued me the whole break. It wasn’t just a question of research: this project had always been more personal than that. It was a fundamental push against the anthem of change, the promise that feminism and Christianity were working, in inches, but working, towards a better beloved community.

And then i was back on the thesis track.

I’ve worked since then to answer her question, but instead of taking the usual de-constructive route (tackling a thinker or ideology and ripping it to feminist killjoy pieces) i’ve undertaken a project i see as re-constructive: writing an interpretation of the Christian Liturgical Year through a feminist/womanist lens. It’s in its final phases now, one enormous PDF waiting for copyedits and Jane’s last Southern-sensibility-critique.

On Friday, at 2:15, i’ll be presenting on my baby as part of the Mount Holyoke Senior Symposium. (More logistics here, under “Religion”) I would love it if you’re around and wanted to come here a piece of the story that led to this project, and why i think it is a meaningful discourse for feminists/womanists of faith to be having.

In her recent interview with Micha Boyett (fellow Talking Taboo contributor!) Erin Lane asks Micha why her new book Found was the book she wanted to “birth out into the world.”

While my thesis is by noooo means a full-length book, i love this imagery of the book as a child. As something you create and love and then have to let go, and let God.

And let me tell you, it’s been one hell of a pregnancy.

A Little Bit of a Rebel.

I remember when i was given the dress: black, capped sleeves and a full, hoop-ish skirt that looked both bohemian and bona fide all at once. Mom had taken Granny shopping and i, insolent, was dragged along to Coldwater Creek.

Not prime hunting grounds for a fourteen-year-old.

While Granny picked out her usual sweaters with mom and the attendant, i amused myself by trying on the dress. I didn’t expect to like it, and even less did i expect to open a box with the black dress tucked inside for Christmas that year. Granny had seen me prancing in front of the dressing room mirror and Mom had helped her tuck it inside her stack of cardigans.

My grandmother was never an outspoken woman; she was South Carolina sweet-aggressive to her core. Dabbing napkins at her lips even when the strokes had ravaged her mind of so many of the manners she prized. “Whatever you’d like, sugar,” her automatic reply to anything asking her opinion.

At Granny’s funeral, my mother stood in the pulpit, unable to wear her robes because it was a Catholic service and her full ordination at a United Methodist Elder seemed irrelevant to her childhood priest. She was not allowed the Eulogy, either; she had fought to say even a few words to celebrate the life of her now-dead mother.

But half an hour before the funeral, she’d asked me to retrieve something she’d left at her own church down the road. Breathless from my sprint in heels, i’d managed to make it there and back in time for the opening hymn.

My mother stepped up to the microphone after the sermon. She began by describing how docile her own mother had been in life. “But,” she smiled, preacher-smile. Eyes sucking you in and fire catching. “She raised her daughter to be something of a rebel.” Turning her head back to the priest, all South-Carolina-Sass, she donned the white stole i’d fetched for her.

“So if you’ll allow me, I’m going to speak to y’all today as that little bit of a rebel.”

I still have that black dress. It’s a few inches higher above my ankles than when i was fourteen, but i could never bear to part with it. Granny and i may have mostly listened to the Classical Station while eating Lowes fried chicken when the strokes started, but she was still my grandmother.

Which is why, this past International Womyn’s Day, i donned the dress once more.

One of my favorite new nonprofits, Women’s Voices Worldwide, sponsored its second-annual Celebration of Speech. (I’m only a tad biased in my feminist fervor for them, having worked as an intern two falls ago). The event is a day-long rotation of womyn speaking: recreating historic speeches, featuring freedom-fighting womyn in the area’s speeches, and highlighting winners of a contemporary speech competition sponsored by WVW.

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My hair was curled in as 19th-century fashion as i could muster, black dress and pearls the closest i could get to resembling Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

I read a selection from her “Declaration of Sentiments,” which she delivered at the start of the suffragette movement when she was only 32. I was familiar with her speech, opening with lines taken verbatim from the Declaration of Independence, with the key insertion of “men and women created equal.” But what resonated with me the most reading it aloud were some her more poignant reasons of patriarchy’s repeated injuries against womyn:

“He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.

“He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.

“He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”

Even as early as 1848, feminists weren’t “just” tackling voting rights. There is a fundamental challenge in Stanton’s words both to “Biblical” male authority and to the denigration of womyn’s self-worth because of this perceived cis-male authority. Of course these early waves were imperfect; though born out of the abolitionist movement, they were enormously racist and exclusive of the fierce work done by womyn like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These are racist ramifications we must still, as people and feminists and Christians, grapple with and work to change.

Reading as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Reading as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Yet the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not end in vain: the 19th amendment was passed, divorce laws radically changed, and in many Christian churches apostolic authority no longer denies womyn like my mother the right to lead congregations.

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With J, after the speech!

But one perusal of Sarah Sentilles’ A Church of Her Own or the introduction of Jacquelyn Grant’s White Woman’s Christ, Black Woman’s Jesus makes it clear that ordaining womyn does not universally eliminate sexism in the church.

And as i read Stanton’s fiery words, surrounded by so many womyn re-creating and creating words of their own justice-seeking bent, i was not wearied. Sometimes, when i’m plugging along at my thesis or feeling overwhelmingly frustrated that my mother could not “officially” preach at her own mother’s funeral, i have to wonder: has nothing changed? It’s exhausting, this lenten season i sometimes feel perpetually stuck in.

But mustard seeds sprout mighty branches.

My grandmother’s docility did not breed docile daughters. We turned to rebellion out of love for her and love for all our foremothers. So we keep plugging along, against the microaggressions that we are only worth what we weigh and the macro claims that as womyn, we should not pursue ordination or call on Mother God or think of Mary Magdalene as the ultimate apostle.

We remain, exhausted and exhilarated, in rebellion.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s full speech can be read here.

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On Mary & Elizabeth (Rethinking Advent, Days 6 – 10)

We meet somewhat biweekly over home-cooked food for conversation. I’ve been piecing together small lessons and discussion guides on womyn in the Bible; we started with Eve, my notes guided from “Eve and Adam” by Phyllis Trible. Then there was Hagar and Sarah, and last night we did one of my favorite pairings: Elizabeth and Mary, mother of Jesus.

In the wash of Christmas, i think the conversation documented in Luke 1:26 – 56 gets barreled over. Marked as less radical, less important than Mary about to pop on a Donkey in the City of David. I think our neglecting of this passage is because we focus on Mary’s “virginity” rather than her willingness to rebel against society for the sake of her faith. This text, when we grapple with the incredulity of the conversation and the context, is revolutionary. What happens between these two womyn causes us to pause in our assumptions. Forces us to realize that womyn are going to play an instrumental role in the ministry of Jesus, going to challenge and subvert systems of patriarchy that the religion founded in Jesus’ name itself will uphold.

Day 6: Awake.

Day 6: Awake.

Mary, an unwed teenager is pregnant – and her life will be on the line when people find out. Elizabeth, whose husband has gone mute at the announcement of her conception, is apparently in her 90s and plump with her first child. Both womyn are in extraordinary, and painfully marginalized, circumstances. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard, who wrote of Mary in Fear and Trembling: “Has any woman been as infringed upon as was Mary, and is it not true here also that the one whom God blesses he [sic] curses in the same breath?”

Mary may have chatted with an angel about what she is now carrying, but that angel certainly didn’t ensure everyone in her community knew she wasn’t some philandering whore. Elizabeth may have long awaited this child, but her youth is clearly long gone and her husband has such disbelief he cannot even speak with his wife.

Day 7: Ready.

Day 7: Ready.

And yet the conversation in Luke is one of nothing but elation; “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth greets her cousin (Luke 1:42). Words later that will be woven into rosaries, laid at the feet of Mary’s likeness in cathedrals that are literally named “Our Lady.”

But Mary doesn’t get to know all that, in this moment. All she knows is that she is with child, and definitely not by the usual route. She’s young, she probably knows how unlikely her story will sound to her fiancé, and she has been chosen to live up to an enormous task.

And still, still she is filled with wonder.

Day 8: Wisdom. This is  meant to be a sheaf of wheat, symbolizing Ruth & Naomi and their role in Jesus' lineage, put on a Jesse Tree by the children at church on Sunday.

Day 8: Wisdom. This is meant to be a sheaf of wheat, symbolizing Ruth & Naomi and their role in Jesus’ lineage, put on a Jesse Tree by the children at church on Sunday.

“This is like, sisterhood at is absolute best!” commented one of the participants in our discussion. The fact that there are two named womyn having a conversation without a male present is radical enough when looking at the scope of Scripture. But this? This companionship, this fearless faith in each other and that God provides even when the rest of society does not? This is revolutionary.

Day 9: Delight.

Day 9: Delight.

I think this is the sisterhood Mary Daly wanted us to embody, the kind of witnessing and loving and supporting that is needed amongst womanists and feminists. Being unafraid of wonder, even when such wonder is at odds with the world.

Day 10: Holy. A piece from the Psychology of Racism class' project: (Re)Defining Racism.

Day 10: Holy. A piece from the Psychology of Racism class’ project: (Re)Defining Racism.

Elizabeth is the first to know whom Mary is carrying; an old, pregnant woman is the first to see the promise given to a teenage girl – a promise then given to all.

And that, that fills me with wonder, too. 

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current jam: “christmas is all around” billy mack.

relevant resources: enuma okoro’s beautiful piece, “when a christian and a muslim meet in paris,” my first post on the rethinking advent photo-a-day project.

The Big League.

The run stretched from the fold of my knee to my ankle. I toppled out of the car, engine still purring, legs wobbling at their unaccustomed new altitude.

“Just stay in the car!” i craned my neck back at Jonathan, his fingers still thrumming on the wheel. He’d probably put NPR back on without me there. I’d been too nervous to listen to the latest exposé on Joy Division, or whatever.

The lady behind the Rite Aid counter gave me a perplexed once-over, my shimmery pink swath of a dress and elegantly messy bun a vision of out-of-place.

“Y’all carry tights?” i was practically yelping, in need of an inhaler but afraid to elevate my heart rate any more.

“Back row, near cosmetics.”

Heels clacking and eyes as wide as my eyeliner would let them, i flailed my way to the rear of the store. My salvation: rows on rows of Leggs silky-sheer. Five dollars later, i was doubled over in the dingy back bathroom struggling to pull a mess of nylon over my prickly legs. Hopping from foot to foot, i plucked off the ring my Grandmother had given me for my high school graduation, gingerly placing it on top of the toilet paper dispenser. As beautiful as the blue stone was, the beast was the reason for this four-inch-heels sprint through the drug store.

And there i was: legs in nylon knots, trying not to collapse into a hypoglycymic meltdown Rite Aid toilet stall, twenty minutes before the moment i’d been dreaming of since second-grade carreer day.

It was the night of the Talking Taboo book launch.

My book, the real book – not the Advanced Reader’s Copy – was tucked next to my vintage leopard-print coat in the car. I’d outlined in pencil the excerpts i would read, rehearsing with a hairbrush-as-microphone like i was still sixteen and auditioning for American Idol. I’d spent the afternoon slathering myself with hollywood mascara, not caring that i’d be overdressed because you only get one first book launch and this was the dress i felt the strongest in. Pink, effeminate, swishy, and tender. Not a congruent image to the ball-busting feminist ricocheting off the Rite Aid toilet stall walls, but just as much me as the foulmouthed bra-burner found on page 170.

I wound a stretch of scratchy toilet paper around my hand, dabbing at the smears in my foundation. Surrounded by flourescent lights and graying tiles, i stared myself square in my mirror-face. You can, you will, you have. I plucked up my Grandmother’s ring and smoothed down the faux-silk of my skirt.

Jonathan had turned NPR back on by the time i wobbled my way into the passenger seat. Graciously, he turned the volume off and gave me his best honey-you-can smile. With one hand on the wheel and one hand wrapped tightly around mine, he drove the final two miles to the Reality Center downtown.

“You got this, babe.” He’d donned a sport coat and khakis for me, never letting me be the only one overdressed again. In his pocket was a pen, one i’d use later to sign my first book.

“Do i have lipstick on my teeth?” i blurted. He shook his head. “And you’ve got my inhaler?” He tucked the red plastic next to the pen. “Okay, okay, let’s just take a second.” I envisioned myself on my yoga mat, drinking in oxygen as muscles popped with tension-release. Whispered a prayer of thanks, a prayer for confidence, a prayer of humility.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

Half-wobbling, half-strutting, we made our way inside.

With the incredible Erin Lane, co-editor, her husband Rush and my own Jonathan at the event!

With the incredible Erin Lane, co-editor, her husband Rush, and my own Jonathan at the event!

current jam: ‘rise to me’ the decemberists.

best thing: signing mary’s book!!

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How Do We Speak Against Shame?

This Friday, i’ll be sitting in my best blazer on a panel with some of the best womyn i know, talking about shame at Homegrown: North Carolina Women’s Preaching Festival 2013.

Talking Taboo is on the launchpad, y’all, on a catapult ride to a Mary Daly-esque outerplanet. (Or maybe that’s just my personal NASA-themed fantasy…) The books have shipped, and orders are coming in at local independent bookstores across the country so you can get your hands wrapped around our 40 essays dismantling taboos and reconstructing faith.

And somehow, as deliriously excited as i am to be in print, i’m also still kind of crapping my pants. My essay is, after all, entitled “Sex, Shame, and Scarred Knees.” It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize it is acutely personal and confrontational in one swath of five pages.

But that’s the whole point, for me, in talking about taboos: going for the gut, the personal jugular. I get so frustrated with academic hoopla that over-objectifies ideas and only wants to talk about problems as if they exist in this neutral universe. Like system problems exist outside of our own experiences.

It’s partly a feminism thing; i can only tell my story, and my story is a gradient of privileged (white, cisgendered, American citizen, middle class…) as is the stories of every thinker from Max Weber to Alice Walker. It’s also partly a theological thing; sitting in a stuffy room all day talking Christology is a necessary part of the learning curve, but it’s only relevant when we can embody what we discuss. Feminist/womanist theological ethics – my particular field – is a brilliant, needed, complicated, and an evolving facet to the study and practice of religion. But i still believe feminist theological ethics (or any conversation, really) matters most when we can implement what we talk about in the academy in to real life.

And real life can be some tough shit.

Tough, personal, painful shit. Like feeling isolated, marginalized, ridiculed for pushing back on heteronormative and sexist sexual ethics. Or thinking my body was too fat and too hairy and too imperfect to be lovable, even by its inhabitant.

It was not easy to write about my shame in any place other than my well-hidden cavern of angst and Kahlil Gibran quotes: my journal. My first twelve drafts or so were so externally-focused it felt more like a gender studies essay than a personal confrontation with taboo.

But i knew, i knew i was not the only person in the world who had struggled with the church’s perfectionistic teachings on human sexuality. And it was the thought of writing to younger me that made me be bold. If one – just one – pre-teen girl could crack open my story and heave a sigh of “it’s-not-just-me,” than my exposure would be worth it.

So on Friday, i’ll be talking about just that: how do we speak out against the shame that has silenced us?* I’m the first to say i’m no expert. Hell, my therapist would gladly tell you (were she not bound by HIPAA) i’m in a daily uphill slog against self-shaming. There’s no five-step plan that frees us for life from shame. It’s a systemic thing, shaming womyn for our sexuality (and you know, a million other things people of every gender are shamed for).

But the thing about systems is this: we’re all participants in the system, which means we all have the potential to disrupt the system’s power over us in our own narratives.

buy the book here!

best thing: flights home in less than 24 hours.

current jam: ‘eavesdrop’ the civil wars.

resources on shame, courage, and radical self-love: dr. brené brown’s TED talk & website,  audre lorde’s article “uses of the erotic,” wehappytrans* website.

*not a rhetorical question! how do you speak against shame? what barriers prevent you from speaking against shame?

The Relief of “I-Thought-It-Was-Just-Me”

There have been a slew of reasons why this blog – WanderingWrites – has remained vacant until now. But certainly one of the most life-giving reasons for my hiatus has been this group of energetic, electrifying, and eager young woman. It’s been a delight and a privilege working this summer at the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South and working behind-the-scenes with the (almost ready to publish!) Talking Taboo anthology. Here’s more about Courageous Conversations, reposted from the Talking Taboo website!

pre-order my book, talking taboo, here!

talking taboo

post by contributor elizabeth mcmanus

When Erin Lane, co-editor extraordinaire, asked me to submit an essay for the Talking Taboo collection, my first reaction was to leap-dance around my room to Whitney Houston.

My second reaction was spine-curling panic.

Panic, for two reasons. One: i had to choose a single taboo to write about, when the options before me filled a book three times over. And two: whatever i wrote about was going to go public. Something everyone from my favorite professor to my future in-laws could peruse.

I felt like i was about to do a strip tease for everyone i knew, and for everyone i didn’t. Rationally, i realized that the possibility of everyone i knew reading my essay was slim, but rationality isn’t my strong suit when Whitney Houston is at a decibal-shattering volume.

So i met with Erin. Armed with a plate full of Daisy Cakes…

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Why “Feminist” Theologies?

My coursework this semester has thus far been (a) curl-in-a-ball-of-anxiety overwhelmingly large in its stack of readings and paper-writings and (b) simultaneously the most exhilarating ride i’ve yet had academically at school. Considering how madly in love i am with Mount Holyoke – and that a certain religion class second semester my first year is what prompted many of my early blog posts – this is of weighted significance to me. There is never a way to do all of the reading expected of me (and never has been) unless i were to sacrifice all mealtimes and sleep, but discerning what is of the utmost priority has been excruciatingly difficult. I just really, really love it all. I truly feel the coursework i am doing now will directly apply to my thesis next year and, transitively, to the work i aspire to accomplish in the acquisition of a Ph.D. So this struggle to read it all out of unbridled love is a marvelous gift of a dilemma.

But something is still nagging at me.

Easily one of my favorite classes is a seminar entitled “Feminist Theologies,” taught by one of my most most most favorite professors to have ever graced academia. (For liturginerd friends, we just finished Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible and are well on our way into Audre Lorde!). Presently, i am making my way through one of my favorite theological texts: Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly. To say i think Daly is one of the most critical, important, brilliant, and linguistically creative theologians of the twentieth century is a mild understatement. Though i have plenty of contentions with her work (as, i think, she would approve of considering the whole idea of a feminist space is one of lively discourse) i think her presence in the women’s movement and in the Church is fundamentally revolutionary.

And nothing speaks to me more of her relevance, even today, than this selection from “Chapter One: After the Death of God the Father,” first penned in 1973:

“The unfolding of God, then, is an event in which women participate as we participate in our own revolution. The process involves the creation of a new space, in which women are free to become who we are [ … ] The new space is always located ‘on the boundary.’ Its center is on the boundary of patriarchal institutions, such as churches, universities, national and international politics, families. Its center is the lives of women, whose experience of becoming changes the very meaning of center for us by putting it on the boundary of all that has been considered central. In many universities and seminaries, for example, the phenomenon of women’s studies is becoming widespread, and for many women involved this is the very heart of thought and action [ …] By contrast, many male administrators and faculty view ‘women’s studies’ as peripheral, even trivial …” (Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, Beacon Press, Boston, 41). 

To me, this begs a question that is tugging at my heart: why does Mary Daly have to be qualified as a “feminist” theologian? Certainly more close to my heart, why is that i always feel i have to qualify that i want to study feminist theology in graduate school? I know that qualification is one i am in control of professing, but it feels necessary that i denote my interest is in the study of egalitarianism and struggles for subverting oppression within the canon of theology. And, at least for now, i think the best label is “feminist” theology.

But i can’t help but feel this is, in some way, buying into this marginalization Daly is critiquing. Sure, she’s writing about the academy within a framework of religious patriarchal oppression, but social structures exist because we all play a part within them.

And i truly feel that Mary Daly is a landmark theologian for her critiques of patriarchy, misogyny, and the marginalization of women in the Christian faith. These criticisms are no less revolutionary than Luther with his 95 theses articulating his frustrations with malpractices in the Catholic church of the sixteenth century. The parallel that both Daly and Luther were practicing Catholics is not one that i think ought to be lost on us, either.

And yet, Mary Daly is studied in a context of gender and religion, rather than the scope of all theological history because, apparently, her words only matter if you’re into that sort of thing. The fact of the matter is, though, that gender and sexuality are an inextricable part of our lives. Gender informs the way we interact with other humans, larger social institutions, and thus our faith (or lack thereof) in whatever tradition practiced/not practiced.

Isn’t this qualifier of “feminist” theologian boxing her in within the religious study of theology the precise way she is critiquing the academy for pushing the study of gender to the boundary?

To be fair, i’ve not taken theological courses at a Divinity School. I’ve not done a comprehensive study of all theological courses across the country or world. So maybe i’m railing against a system that is undergoing important and necessary change.

But even if i am utterly mistaken and, in fact, we’re all secretly reading our womanist and feminist and gender study readers by flashlight late into the theological evenings, that doesn’t change the point Daly is making. And that was forty years ago.

So is the feminist qualifier necessary? Does it mark the boundary of people of all gender identities fighting for an egalitarian space within the framework of larger social institutions? Or does it continue to marginalize such ideals to the boundary of mainstream discourse? Can feminism even be used inclusively, when Daly herself was intensely critiqued by her contemporary, Audre Lorde, for her lack of accounting for the experience of women of color?

current jam: “apertura” gustavo santaolalla

best thing: celebrations.