Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series
Wednesday, February 10, 2021 1-2 PM ET
with Colleen D. Hartung and Elizabeth Ursic
“Gender Bias in Biographical Notability: Telling the Stories of Women Activists in Religion”
Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion
The video recording of this WATERtalk is available here on YouTube; the audio recording is available on SoundCloud here.
Some of those involved in the book either as subject, author, editor, and/or translator:
L to R, Top Row: Colleen Hartung, Elizabeth Ursic, Ellen Margaret Leonard
Bottom Row: Martha González Pérez, Cherie White, Janice Poss, Mary Ellen Chown, Polly Hamlen
Introduction by Mary E. Hunt
Good afternoon from the WATER Office in Silver Spring, MD on Wednesday, February 10, 2021 to discuss Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion with the editor Collen Hartung and one of the authors of a chapter, Elizabeth Ursic who is also the project etc. of 1000 women (see project description for this.
Like all of WATER’s efforts, this session is not simply an academic seminar, but a way to learn in order to bring our learning to the creation of a more just and equitable world. Nothing could be more concrete that figuring out ways into the major engines of common knowledge like Wikipedia. Like virtually all social institutions, these remain hopelessly mired in patriarchal assumptions such that women and non-binary persons get left out consistently.
I hope you have had a chance to look at this book which is available for free. We suggested reading Colleen’s Intro and my Foreword for a sense of the project. The book is free through open access: https://books.atla.com/atlapress/catalog/book/40
Colleen D. Hartung, PhD, is co-founder and chair of the 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia Project where she works to develop global programs to address gender bias on digital platforms like Wikipedia. She teaches people around the globe how to edit and write biographical entries about women in religion. She is the editor of Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion.
She is the editor for the Atla Women in Religion series and is the author of a contribution to Polydoxy: Theology of Multiplicity and Relation titled “Faith and Polydoxy in the Whirlwind” (Routledge, 2012).
Colleen is joined today by her colleague, Elizabeth Ursic, PhD, who is Co-chair of the Women’s Caucus at the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. She is a professor of Religious Studies at Mesa Community College in Arizona with a specialty in gender, art, and theology. She is the author of Women, Ritual and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship with SUNY Press. Her chapter, “Janet McKenzie: A Sacred Artist’s Life of Creative Activism” appears the volume we are discussing.
They will speak about the book as well as the larger project in which it is set. “1000 Women in Religion is a project of the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature aimed to create, update, and improve Wikipedia articles pertaining to the lives of cis and transgender women who are notable as scholars, activists and practitioners in the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions” (Wikipedia).
Here is how we at WATER blurbed the book for our What We’re Reading page:
“The interstructured forces of sexism, racism and the like conspire to keep women from being added to the roles of religious figures accessible through Wikipedia and related platforms. Colleen Hartung and colleagues propose to put 1000 Women in Religion This first volume includes the lives of Yvonne Delk, Beatriz Melano Couch, and others.”
We also welcome and thank the authors and subjects who could join us today: Mary Ellen Chown from Canada wrote about Dr. Ellen Margaret Leonard who is with us today; Martha González Pérez from Mexico wrote about Beatriz Melano Couch, an article which Cherie White from Nashville translated; Janice Poss wrote about Miranda E. Shaw; and Polly Hamlen wrote about Dr. Yvonne V. Delk.
Thank you, Mary for inviting us and for writing an inspiring forward to our book Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion. We are grateful for the opportunity to share a bit about the book and the work of the larger, international 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia project that is its inspiration.
When we received the invitation from Mary to speak, I went to WATER’s website and scrolled through the list of activists, scholars and religious practitioners who have shared their work in the context of this great gathering. It is an esteemed group. As chair of the 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia project and series editor of the Women in Religion series, I have developed this quirky habit. When I encounter a list of celebrated women like the one on WATER’s website, I wonder if these amazing women’s contributions and lives are covered by a Wikipedia biographical entry. There are 126 noteworthy women who have presented with WATER. Only 47 of these women have a biographical entry on Wikipedia. As for other biographical information about their lives, most do not have more than a stub for a book jacket cover or their bio page on a university website. It is rare to find a chapter or book length biography like the one discussed in November’s WATER talk about the remarkable life of Theresa Kane.
This curiosity and habit I have developed is informed by some hard facts. Only 18% of the biographical entries on Wikipedia are about women. Wikipedia has a well-documented woman problem. Studies show that the knowledge accessed on Wikipedia, millions of times a day, reflects and extends the gender bias that characterizes the culture generally. But in particular it reproduces the bias present in our culture’s writing and readership of biographies – that tilts dramatically toward a preference for biographies about great men. Notability standards on Wikipedia echo our cultural attention on celebrity, fame, masculine leadership and masculine hero worship.
The lives of people who identify as women and who focus on more collaborative efforts and coalition building are under covered in all types of media; in trade books, in academic writing, in journals, in newspapers, on television and social media. This culture wide lack of reliable, verifiable secondary sources is one of the major stumbling blocks for those of us working to increase the representation of women on Wikipedia. Hence the idea for the Women in Religion series and our partnership with Atla Open Press. Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion is the first volume in this series.
With this series, we have two goals, at least. Number one, the series aims to improve the coverage and availability of secondary sources about women important to the development, practice and study of the world’s religious, spiritual and wisdom traditions. We address this bias by writing about women whose noteworthy lives and works should be part of our everyday knowledge about the history and practice of religion and spirituality but they are not. However, those of us involved with this series and with the 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia Project are well aware that writing 10 biographies in a volume or even 100 biographies in a series or even more, 1000 biographies on Wikipedia is not going to do much to shift the dial on gender bias that characterizes our culture, our tastes in biographies or the representation of women in religion on digital, encyclopedic platforms like Wikipedia. And so, the series has a second perhaps more important goal. In the writing of the biographies, we aim to challenge and extend concepts like notability, neutral point of view and conflict of interest by engaging in a critique and exploration of issues having to do with equity and gender parity in the production of knowledge by and about women. In the long run, it is a critical engagement with these concepts and issues that will change our ways of thinking about what kinds of contributions are worthy of noting which will allow us to more fully represent the lives and works of people who identify as women.
In the first volume, and in those that follow, we develop research and writing strategies that are informed by this critique and exploration allowing us to lift up the works of influential women who aren’t necessarily recognized as leaders or founders but who nonetheless had and continue to have a profound impact on the development and practice of, as well as our knowledge about religious traditions. To this point in time, most of these women have been marginalized as secondary, background supporters to history’s male movers and shakers. This series aims to deploy biographical writing as a strategy for refocusing our attention onto the contributions of these unrecognized but significant women of influence. We do this by moving their lives and their ways of being in and shaping the world to the foreground, in a biography, so we can learn from and celebrate their mighty work.
So, with this first volume, we take a look a Wikipedia’s notability guidelines for significant coverage in reliable, independent secondary sources. We look at these notability guidelines as they are a reflection of cultural definitions and social customs that determine notoriety. The great men that most often occupy this category are conquering generals, popes, famous authors, titans of industry, leaders of expeditions that discover new worlds, geniuses that discover scientific wonders and more.
The feminist-oriented perspective that grounds this project, rejects this patriarchal, hierarchical framework. It is not that women can’t be all those things and more. They can and they are though in more limited numbers because of gender bias and discrimination. The biographers in this volume take into account all the ways their subjects fulfill our standard expectations around notability. They honor their traditional achievements as founders. They celebrate their pioneering accomplishments in the leadership roles they assume at the local, regional, national and international levels. They do this to make a strategic, traditional, culturally irrefutable claim about their subjects’ notability. Then on these foundations they move deeper into their subjects’ lives in ways that critique and extend these familiar and biased standards.
For example, Melissa Ortiz Berry uses her research to uncover the way the work of Bertha Mae Lillinas, was erased. Bertha Mae was a popular hymnist and preacher in the Nazarene Church during the 1920s, when few women held these roles. Berry’s research and writing unearths the early sources documenting Bertha Mae’s noteworthy accomplishments. But she goes on to pinpoint the unfortunate erasure of Bertha Mae’s contributions. This erasure occurred in later, more accessible biographies about her husband’s life. Haldor Lillinas’ biographers glossed Bertha Mae’s ground breaking work in favor of a more socially acceptable presentation of her husband’s accomplishments. Berry’s research allows her to make the case for Bertha Mae’s notability but as well she provides a critical assessment of the way the works of women are minimized and ignored based on biased social norms.
Biographer, Martha González Pérez, uses her research to show us how Beatriz Melano Couch’s local and regional work for the advancement of the rights of women and children, in Argentina and across South America, influenced the global development of liberation theology. Martha González Pérez documents Couch’s local and regional accomplishments. But she then goes on to trace the global impact of this work. By doing this she makes a case for Melano’s notability as an influential Liberation Theologian who should be recognized for her work alongside her more noted male colleagues.
And then there is Dr. Ellen Margaret Leonard who devoted her life to a collaborative effort to advance women’s rights in the Catholic Church. This effort eventually took shape as the Catholic Network of Women’s Equality in Canada. Her biographer, Mary Ellen Chown, identifies the centrality of this collaborative work to Leonard’s more well-known work as a systematic theologian. Chown makes the case for the noteworthiness of this collaborative work which helps to shift our understanding of notability.
Our time today is too short to share the specifics about the life and works of each woman covered in the volume. But I will quickly run through a summary of the strategies used by the remaining biographers to increase our knowledge about their subjects and to stretch our understanding of notability.
All the biographers in this volume make a case for their subject’s notability based on a presentation of high-quality sources. The use of reliable, verifiable secondary sources is a primary requirement in academia and on Wikipedia. The nuanced approaches to this research necessity, used by each of the authors provides helpful models for future writers. Elizabeth Ursic jogs our memory by recollecting forgotten sources that remind us of the groundbreaking character and much covered presentation of Janet McKenzie’s image Jesus of the People which was part of the National Catholic Reporter’s Jesus 2000 project. Karma Lekshe Tsomo supplements her detailed but limited English-language sources about her subject, Shundō Aoyama Rōshi with information demonstrating the wealth of sources available in other languages. Polly Hamlen places her sources about Dr. Yvonne V. Delk in a historical context that allows us to see clearly, for the first time, her subject’s notable contributions to the civil rights movement.
A second category of strategies has to do with the fact that many texts and sources available to authors seeking to describe the life and works of women are deficient in some way; they are incomplete, contradictory, confusing and sometimes hard to access indicating some kind of erasure in the historical record. Many of the authors in this volume address some critical missing piece in the coverage of their subject’s lives. Deborah Fulthorp retrieves information about Mae Elenore Frey’s work as an influential Pentecostal preacher and evangelist from its storage in archives that are largely inaccessible to the general public. Janice Poss refocuses our historical attention onto Miranda E. Shaw, the author of award-winning, well-read books on women and goddesses in Buddhism. She reminds us that these books didn’t write themselves and provides us with an embodied picture of this influential Buddhist scholar.
A third category of strategies has to do with the fact that much of the work that women do as practitioners, scholars and activists in religion takes place in the local and domestic sphere, outside the public eye. In these cases, part of the biographer’s job is to identify the broader influence of the local, the private and the domestic on the global and public sphere. Rosemarie Daher Kowalski makes a notable heroine of her subject by detailing the domestic minutiae that enabled the creation and spread of the Assemblies of God Church around the globe. Daher Kowalski troubles the boundary between our assessment of domestic and professional influence.
A fourth and final category covered in the volume has to do with fact that much of the work women do is collaborative and aimed at building coalitions of people that get things done. In general, the individual efforts of the women involved is not well documented. The job of the biographers in this volume was to make note of their subject’s individual contributions to these collaborations in ways that reshape our thinking about notability. Rosalind Hinton identifies Ida Weis Friend’s participation as a coalition builder and collaborator across multiple local, regional and national organizations and then documents her individual contributions and their global impact. By a skillful use of their sources, biographers in this volume make the case that the notability of their subjects is enhanced by their collaborative efforts.
So, why are these research and writing practices important? Here are a few concluding thoughts.
- We are writing women back into history, lifting them from the footnotes, library archives and local histories into the foreground as the subject of a biography. By this act, we are rewriting history as a whole by creating a more inclusive accounting of the important contributions of women; an accounting that provides a more accurate and equitable representation of the role of women.
- Because the works of women are under covered, their influence and contributions are under cited in secondary literature. This has consequences in terms of tenure and other types of advancement for the careers of women who have done noteworthy work that does not get shared as widely as it should. It also has consequences for the careers of the women they mentor.
- These writing practices also help to shift the dial on gender bias in the general culture by shifting or collective thinking about what counts as notable.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to read the full chapters about the incredible women covered in the volume and to follow along as further volumes are published. Watch for Volume 2 this fall. The working title for this volume is Raising up the marginalized voices and contributions of women in the Academy. As well, we invite you to participate as biographers in future volumes and in the larger 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia Project. I’ll make sure that WATER has the link to the CFP to Volume 3 of the Women in Religion Series due on March 12. In this volume we are covering women who have been associated in some way with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. As well, we will make sure you have the link to the 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia Project page and my contact information if you would like to receive more information, attend a meeting, or just have questions.
Now, I leave it to Elizabeth to say few words about how a project like this emerges from the collective struggle of women and a few men who came together in an organization like the Women’s Caucus at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. She will also share a bit about the origins of this project in her work as the chair of the Women’s Task Force at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions. And if there is time, we can hear about her experience as one of the biographers in this volume.
Thank you, Colleen and thank you, Mary. Colleen has done something extraordinary in a river of work that Mary and many of you on this call have been doing for multiple decades to provide opportunities for women to have their voices heard, and to have women acknowledged for the work they do.
My inspiration for encouraging a project like this began during my graduate work in the early 2000s. I was doing research on the Daughters of Wisdom, a Catholic order. I went to a History of Women Religious conference at Notre Dame University and it became very clear that accomplishments of women in the Catholic Church, especially women religious, had been under-reported and that their works had been attributed to Bishops and others. At the conference it was very exciting to see young graduate students pairing with Catholic sisters to do research on the orders’ archives. Without intentional efforts, these treasure troves of information plus the living histories of these sisters might have never come to light. My own dissertation ended up expanding to include three Protestant chapters and finally got published as a book in 2014 with SUNY Press: Women, Ritual and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship.
The book debuted at the National Women’s Studies conference with an author’s reception in the exhibition hall, and Wikipedia had a table there. They had information about the lack of women being covered in the Wikipedia platform as well as the lack of women creating the writing submitted to Wikipedia. They were there looking for professors and classes and I volunteered one of my college classes. It also became clear that the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature was a perfect organization to partner in this effort and our community of scholars were very interested.
Around the same time, I was invited to be a trustee for the Parliament of World Religions, one of the largest interfaith gatherings in the world. I chaired the Women’s Task Force for the 2018 Parliament, and we had 8000 people come to the Toronto that year. Colleen was on our task force committee, and she became the lead for what is now known as the 1000 Women in Religion project which debuted at the parliament. Since then, she has become a Wikipedian herself of high regard and has connected with all kinds of groups helping to expand knowledge creation about women.
When I think about what has changed over the last 20 years that I have been involved in this movement, it has been the digital platform that has shifted the conversation. There is certainly more opportunity for making women’s contributions known with digital platforms, but there are still challenges as many sexist biases continue in the digital world. The biggest change I have noticed in Wikipedia since 2014, is that instead of just focusing on getting diverse voices into digital knowledge production, Wikipedia is beginning to recognize the biases of knowledge production. I just want to highlight Colleen’s brilliance and Wikipedia’s willingness to discuss notability standards. There is such a wide gender gap regarding what is considered notable about women in general, but it is even more dramatic for women in religion. As Colleen pointed out, we know it takes more than just finding notable women; there is a need to expand and update notability standards. For me, this is what academic activism can contribute.
This book is producing primary sources that then can be cited as secondary sources in a tertiary encyclopedia, which is what Wikipedia is. We need to funnel the full pipeline! Back in 2018, Colleen wondered how this was going to happen when she literally bumped into one of the leaders from Atla, which used to be known as the Association for Theological Librarians at the 2018 Parliament. It was kismet. ATLA was just beginning to publish digital book series, and we had this huge project where we needed to create more primary source materials. That is how this volume and the book series came to pass.
To sit here today with people who have actually written chapters about these illustrious women and to even have some of the women present with us brings me such joy! As Colleen mentioned, I have a chapter in the volume about Janet McKenzie, a famous sacred artist. Like all the authors in this volume, I was surprised that Wikipedia did not have a biography page about such an accomplished woman.
So thank you Colleen. She is taking this project farther anything I imagined. It is now a worldwide movement and you can join her. She does monthly Wikipedia meetings, and she will provide the links. And if you are interested in writing a chapter for a future volume, we have that opportunity too. Thank you.
Mary E. Hunt
Thanks to you both, Colleen and Elizabeth, for that overview of the important work you are doing.
I was one of women ordained in the Episcopal Church early on, and one of the members of the first group in Philadelphia had written us up in Wikipedia, and she said that overtime what she writes keeps getting changed by someone else and she has to keep going back and correcting it. Can you address that issue, please?
Part of the problem that Elizabeth brought in her presentation – I had said that only 18% of the biographies on Wikipedia are about women – the number of women who are actually editing on Wikipedia is worse; it’s about 9% of the editors who edit Wikipedia are women. Hence the problem that you’re having. We have this body of people who are in our editing, and 91% of those are men, and some of them are our supporters and collaborators, but many are young technologically-adept males who come from a certain perspective.
What we have to do is exactly what you are doing or what whoever is doing the editing on your article: when you put an article up, you can click a little box that says “watch,” so then you get a notification when someone comes in and changes the article, which happens all the time. Wikipedia is this world-wide collaborative effort; you put something up there and everybody comes along and edits on top of it. That’s part of the beauty; that’s also part of the frustration. It’s an interactive thing. Obviously, you have a person watching and going in fixing things. We could talk about what they can do to get themselves more credibility on Wikipedia so that the changes they make stick. It’s just an illustration of one of the reasons we’re not just about writing biographies; we’re also about recruiting more women editors. The more women that we can get as editors, the less that what is happening to those articles will happen because there will be people with a broader variety of perspectives participating in editing, which will bring down the searching of these young tech guys for articles they feel like they can easily go in and change.
From the chat:
Cherie White: Colleen & Mary, an important person to write about is Julia Esquivel from Guatemala & I know someone who has studied her poetry & would be a great person to write about Julia
Janice Poss: Cherie, she has a Wikipedia page already. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Esquivel
Cherie White: Great! What about Elsa Tamez?
Janice Poss: Yes, she too! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsa_T%C3%A1mez
Sheila Curran: What about Sr. Carmel McEnroy, author of the groundbreaking work on the role of women in the Second Vatican Council.
Janice Poss: We can add these 2 women to the project in Wikidata so they are included in our main list. Thank you for this!
Polly H: We have been adding women over the past 2 years, and Elsa Tamez was one that I created.
Sheila Curran: Hna Consuelo dePardo and Adelaida Sueiro Caberdo Feminist Liberationist Theologian in Peru since 1970/80s
Janice Poss: Here’s an article on Adelaida Sueiro Caberdo.
Mary Kay Dobrovolny, RSM: I have a few women who I would consider contributing articles on myself. Most notably Clare Augustine Moore – a 19th c. illuminator who was quite prolific in her work and highly regarded in her own time.
I was at a Phyllis Zagano session on women deacons and she said her Wikipedia site was vandalized many times, so I see you’ve already expressed that you’re aware of the reality, and it’s just very sad. So, there’s no easy answer to that, and you’ve answered what to do already, and I’m sorry that that’s the reality.
We have a lot of women who contact us who have Wikipedia articles on Wikipedia about them, and they’re incorrect. Somebody has put an article about them, and the information that is in the articles is incorrect. Because of Wikipedia’s conflict of interest policy, you’re not supposed to go in and fix your own article. So, we’re a small group, yet, so as we get larger, we’ll be able to be more effective at doing all that myriad of tasks that there are to do. One of the things that is on our list to do is to be able to be of more immediate assistance to people who have problems like that.
We have to help that person help us find secondary sources because even if their birthplace or birth date is wrong on the article, and they tell us that it’s wrong, we can’t change it unless there are secondary sources that contradict what that is saying. We have to have a secondary source that gives the correct birthplace or birth date or whatever that piece of information is. This is why we have the Women in Religion series because in that context then we get to produce some secondary sources that provide that information that’s so often missing about women, that early history, even a chronicling of their educational history.
I just wanted to say that when I did this project in the class room, we had Moana Polacca, Hopi Elder who came and told us how she had a page at the time, but they had the birth place of her father incorrect. This is a fairly common issue. I just want to throw out for those of you that are interested in working on this: A. become an editor, B. a secondary source. We’re doing something with this book to create these sources that can be cited. If we had interviewed her and published it in the school newspaper, since newspapers are sources, we could have used that. Consider that if there are people that you love and you want to get certain information out. “.org” and “.edu” sites are citable sites. This is what Colleen has brought to our awareness of how we can really activate and improve knowledge.
In response to Beth, I have been in conversation with Phyllis Zagano about her page, and one of the misunderstandings that she had was she was going in and changing the page, and I told her that you can’t change your own page. You got to have somebody else do it. So, we addressed that with her, and then also there was someone supposedly at the Vatican was also making changes that she was upset about, so I gave her that IP address. So, we’re watching her page. She’s got a huge body of work on her website, and there is a link to that, but eventually we can begin to build that into her Wikipedia page so it becomes much more accessible.
And I believe that connection that you made with her was right here at WATER when she did a recent talk on women deacons, so we’re glad to have a part in that.
Mary Ellen Chown
I just wanted to say again a special thank you to Mary Hunt, Diann, and Anali for bringing us all together as gathering us today. A big thank you to Colleen Hartung, for pulling this together and continuing this work. I just so admire your deep determination and working personally with myself, I know I passed a few deadlines and you kept me on task so I really appreciate that. It’s been lovely getting to know the other women who have written chapters.
I mostly want to say thank you to Ellen Leonard who is on this call today. Ellen, this is a very strange way to be meeting, I wish we could all be together and give you a hug. Due to covid-19, Ellen has gone a very long time without regular visitors and friends. Her sister, Anne Leonard, is on the call today by telephone. I could not have done this volume without both of you. I had lovely visits before Covid-19 started working on these chapters and seeing the love of these two sisters was a privilege and an honor. There are many Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) members on here today, Ellen, with you; we will write them down and let you know all about it. The movement that you started 40 years ago is alive and well and working for justice and equality in the Catholic Church.
That’s from the Canadian women, but from the women here in the US and certainly elsewhere Ellen Leonard’s work has been really been something important for us, as well, over a long period working in a seminary setting and teaching and empowering women. In particular, as you bring out in the chapter, Mary Ellen, is the mentoring factor which often doesn’t get taken seriously enough.
The chapter on Beatriz Melano Couch: I was stunned she was not on Wikipedia. Little known fact: when I was a graduate student, I met Beatriz Melano Couch at Grailville at one of those meetings for young women theologians, and she invited me to Argentina. I went there and spent two years teaching with her in the seminary in Buenos Aires. She was to me and to other people a phenomenon because she was a woman theologian. It was really extraordinary what it took for her to go to Strasbourg, France to study with philosopher Paul Ricoeur and to get her doctorate in theology. To be teaching as the only woman on an all-male faculty in Argentina during the dictatorship, what an extraordinary woman! To think that her story has not been told and then to run into Martha González Pérez in Mexico and to realize that she had written her master’s thesis on Beatriz was amazing. Some of these things are hidden in plain sight and we really have to wrack our brains and not think anyone is included until we can see that they are.
I spent my childhood in Cuba, but most of my life has been spent in Mexico and then there was time in Chile because I was born in Chile, so Latin America in general is very important for me. I’m just wanted to share something I found out recently about a Beatriz Melano: her death was very sad. She became very ill, and a friend just commented to me that she sent someone to check on her when she was living her last days in Uruguay and found her on the floor of where she lived. She couldn’t even get up. That person, who had been a former student of hers, was able to help her in her final days so that it wasn’t so tragic. The whole way women who think beyond the borders created by mostly men and other women is a tough row to hoe and we’re still working on that, so I think this project that Colleen is heading up for all of us is going to have positive results over the long run; I sure hope so.
You underline a difficult problem that pioneer women are not only forgotten but also often mistreated as well.
Martha González Pérez, translated by Cherie White
Thank you for Colleen, Mary, and Cherie for helping me to do this project and get it translated. I first learned about Beatriz Melano in a course on church history. She was the only woman along with a woman named Carmen who appeared as theologians – the rest were men. When I realized that she was almost my mother’s age, this overwhelmed me, and I decided to investigate her. In my theological stories, I realized Melano was a part of a whole network of theologians but who were mostly men. She was an innovator not only as a theologian, but as a professor and person involved in liturgy. She was a pioneer as a feminist theologian and liberation theologian. She offered for ISEDET, the theological institution in Buenos Aires, a very innovative, different pedagogical approach than what other theological institutions were doing. I have other things I’d share if I had time, but I’ll just say that I never imagined that my investigation on Melano would be included in a volume with other notable women. It was a blessing to know Mary Hunt and through her, Colleen, and that this project could become a reality. I’m grateful for all of you.
I wanted to thank you for hosting us. I authored the article on Yvonne Delk. I think that it’s really important just to mention how important it is to record the stories of our heroines while they’re still alive. I benefited from the opportunity to speak with Yvonne Delk personally, and her story was well known for many people have been in the United Church of Christ for many years, but not for the younger generation, necessarily. I think one of the things that we can do as biographers is to capture the living stories of people who are still with us so that younger generations have that for going forward. Oral history is a really important part of this project. Colleen well knows I had a very much longer article that I had to cut, and it was painful to cut very important stories out of my article to make it fit, but I think all of these women that we are talking about have such interesting lives and such interesting stories. In addition to what’s printed, I think we are collecting really interesting oral histories as well that I hope will also be preserved and can be the source of future study. It’s an exciting project in so many different directions but I really encourage people to join us. It’s a great group of collaborators, and it’s really exciting to see these stories captured.
[From the chat] Elizabeth Ursic
The women’s caucus is now a “.org” site, and we could put up extra material on our web site since Polly had to cut back on her material!
My only critique: the names of the authors of the chapters weren’t included alongside the titles and the names of the women the chapters were about.
I agree; that was the copy editors’ decision on the final round; I didn’t know that happened until it was printed.
The biographies of the contributors could well be another volume; connecting those would be very important.
More Q&A from after the official ending of the session:
About being surprised by who is not in Wikipedia, one of the people I think you would be super surprised by not being in Wikipedia is Traci C. West. She has presented here at WATER. We’re rectifying that and doing a chapter on her in the next volume, but it is just shocking. Don’t ever say to yourself, “Oh, of course that person is on Wikipedia,” because it’s just not true. It’s scandalous.
The other thing about writing women’s biographies that I’ve experienced that happened again here in this gathering is when women hear their stories told, it is a really incredibly powerful thing. It’s powerful for the women whose stories are told, and it’s also a powerful thing for the women who are in their presence when they hear their stories told. It’s been an unexpected, transforming gift to watch the impact on the lives of the women who have done these amazing things to have their stories told.
To say again the importance of the presence of Ellen Leonard—I hope that you understand the centrality of place you hold for Catholic women in Canada and around the world, not only in your person but in the generation that you represent as well. The kind of work without which there would not be a woman now as the under-secretary in one of the Vatican offices, even though her colleague was named Bishop the same day, nor would there be women acolytes and other lectors without you and other women like you who paved the way. So, thank you so much for gracing us with your presence.
What I’m hearing is the importance of getting everybody into Wikipedia, and I’m wondering if there is another place, another platform where women in theology are written up in a good manner, graciously and truthfully.
I’ve been through a lot of theological sources. It’s one of the sources for where we get our list for 1000 Women in Religion. But women are just under-covered everywhere. Wikipedia is mostly a reflection of the bias that exists in the culture and the bias is just as rampant in theological circles, if not more so. What’s great about Wikipedia is that it is like an Open Access platform – anybody can edit. Not everybody does, but anybody can. It’s a good leverage point for a lot of things: leverage point to get people into the knowledge production community, to get women to participate in actual knowledge production, and it’s also great leverage point for starting to bring people in with feminist points of view and other postcolonial, LGBTI points of view, and start to change the guidelines for what counts for an article about a notable person. I wish there was a source that we could just go to that’s the ideal place that already exists, but I guess we make the world we want to live in.
On a positive note, I’ve been working with our Australian colleagues, and they have been doing a terrific job. We have an Australian Women in Religion group headed by Kerry Burns who’s at the Mannix Library at Catholic Theological College, University of Divinity, and one resource that we’ve been using from Australia is the Australian Dictionary of Biography which has a lot of interesting historical information about women of faith, particularly women religious since they were so foundational to establishing schools and hospitals in Australia. So, we’ve been able to use those really well-researched articles; they have biographies on that site that we can then use as a source to put in biographies on Wikipedia. I have been working with them to do that, and they have a list of 400 women that we know are notable from New Zealand and Australia and we are working our way to adding them to Wikipedia. There are some resources out there, but that’s what we need more of: secondary sources that are really well-researched, able to use their primary sources to create the biography and then we can reference those for Wikipedia, so that’s a nice model of a positive circle.
In terms of the archives we had to work on, I was privileged to work with Linda Wicks who is the Archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph Toronto. They have done painstaking work with their women religious to have files on them to have their information. Ellen, you had your resumes and all the courses you took and articles in that that I was able to draw on. Many years ago, Pam Ross, a member in the Catholic Network of Women’s Equality, put our archives into the National Archives in Canada. It is just a treasure trove to go in there and see letters from these women 40 years back trying to get this movement going, and many of the members who are even still on this call today, I’ve had the privilege of going there and I saw these women that I’ve known only for a few years and realize that 20 years ago they were chairing a committee to get things going. We have researchers now going in there asking, “Where do these movements and people come from?” All those archives were in there, so I feel like the work Colleen is doing in the Wikipedia work is just adding to future generations saying “How did we get here?” and to document that – it’s just awesome.
Rosemary Radford Ruether has produced the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, so part of this movement is to move printed things into digital. That’s part of the issue is that some of these are in print. It’s a movement of putting things on Wikipedia or on these digital platforms; it’s the move from print to digital.
[There are three volumes of the Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America (2006, Indiana University Press), edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether: a wonderful resource that needs to be refreshed.]
If somebody has the time and desire to take this on, I’ve been working through that volume page by page because there’s so much information about so many women. I’m trying to create a spreadsheet of all the women with that as a source, and there’s also indications of other sources. So, you can take a volume like that, create a spreadsheet, put the information onto WikiData, which is a subset of Wikipedia, and then that information/link is waiting for somebody to write the article.
I want to say “Hi” to Ellen, it’s so nice to be here. Ellen was a great support to me in the time of my studies and became a friend, as well. Colleen, I also wanted to say to your comment about how telling women’s stories are empowering both for the individual whose story it is and those who are hearing the story – that’s been my experience today. I’m thinking of all of these different women that need to be added and it’s energizing, and I thank you for that, too.
I was just looking around my screen and thinking I want to see you all on Wikipedia.
How terrible that some of these women of the caliber of Beatriz Melano Couch, Traci West, Yvonne Delk, were/are not known.
A list of the best ways to get involved is attached below.
Talking about Yvonne Delk, I came to Washington in 1980, so I worked beside her both as a young intern and then a young staff person. I think we’ve all worked with people that we don’t realize how incredible they are. So, even today having you here, Polly, Colleen, and Elizabeth talking about Yvonne Delk and I didn’t even realize what I was growing up with. And that’s probably all of our stories – that these incredible women have marked our lives in ways that we don’t even know, and now our gift to them is to raise them up. Thank you for doing that.
When I first contacted Rev. Dr. Delk and told her about our project writing about notable women in religion and I told her, “I want to write about you,” her first reaction was, “I’m not notable; I’m just an ordinary person.” And the truth is that her story is extraordinary, and I think many people don’t know she did sit-ins in college. Some of it is about this perception that Colleen has articulated that only certain kinds of people get to be notable. We’re really trying to break that down. One of the things that I took away from my interviews with Yvonne is that she was a collaborator. She really made sure that other people were at the table, and she was very intentional about making alliances and bringing people together. That’s the kind of feminist work that is underappreciated as a leadership style and isn’t recorded as notable or historic. That’s what makes it difficult in some cases; people aren’t making the argument that these individuals are notable. That’s where this project can really breakthrough is to highlight different ways of being a leader, different ways of being notable, and then we have to help people see that their stories are worth including. I think that’s an important conversation.
Before Beatrice Melano Couch, there was liberation theology and feminist theology, and after her, there was feminist liberation theology. The reality is that her life and being was pivotal because she was both a feminist theologian and a liberation theologian. Because of her and other women like her, like Elsa Tamez and others, we use the term feminist liberation theologian. We use that term like it just arrived out of the sky when in fact it arrived because of the intersectional lives of those particular women.
Ellen Leonard, many thanks to you. You were a marvelous teacher to me when I was doing my theology and a wonderful director directing me into courses that I wouldn’t have thought I was eligible for, so Ellen has been also a tremendous influence on my theological education, so I wouldn’t miss this opportunity to say thank you.
We have heard over and over, not only here but in the chapter on her, that Ellen has been that pivotal person for so many people, and if that isn’t notable, I don’t know what is. So, Ellen, again, thank you. With a bow of deep reverence and deep gratitude to you for all you have contributed and continue to contribute through your prayers and other ways of being with us. It’s so important that your friends and colleagues and students have this chance to say thank you, and I hope this particular experience of real sisterhood across six or seven countries resonates with you on this day.
With that, I say thank you to everyone. Deep thanks to Colleen and Elizabeth for your work and your presence with us. Please go to the Alta site to access the book. It doesn’t get easier than that!
We wish you safe and healthy days ahead. Thank you for being here and good day from WATER.
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Related and Referred-to Resources:
We invite you to join the 1000 Women in Religion project monthly editing meetup and/or our monthly organizing meeting. Both meetings are good places to get connected and get general information. Contact Colleen D. Hartung at firstname.lastname@example.org for getting on the mailing list or just to ask questions.
Link to free access to Claiming Notability for Women Activists in Religion: https://books.atla.com/atlapress/catalog/book/40
For more information on the 1000 Women in Religion Wikipedia Project: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_1000_Women_in_Religion
Encyclopedia of Women in Religion in North America, edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (2006, Indiana University Press); on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Women-Religion-North-America/dp/0253346851)
American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting (more information below): https://www.aarwr.com/uploads/2/0/4/2/20420409/conference_guide_3.6.pdf
Women, Ritual and Power: Placing Female Imagery of God in Christian Worship by Elizabeth Ursic (SUNY Press, 2014): https://www.amazon.com/Women-Ritual-Power-Placing-Christian-ebook/dp/B00O2DUFG0
The Call for Papers for the Women’s Biographies Panel at the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature scheduled for November 2021 in San Antonio, Texas (more information below): https://www.womenscaucusaarsbl.org/2021-call-for-papers
The Atla Call for Papers for Volume 3 in the series Women in Religion entitled Uncovering Women’s Stories from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (more information below): https://books.atla.com/atlapress/announcement/view/5
American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting: March 19-21, 2021 Graduate Theological Union, 2400 Ridge Road Berkeley, CA 94709
Saturday Morning – 1000 Women in Religion Wiki Project Editathon:
Join us in our effort to address gender bias on Wikipedia by improving the coverage of women in religion on Wikipedia. This special panel will be on Zoom at – forthcoming – from 11:15-12:45 pm (PST) At this workshop, which is being held during the 2021 AAR/WR annual meeting on Saturday, March 20th 11;15 to 12;45, participants will sign up as wiki-editors, create their personal user page, learn the basics of editing and make their first wiki-edits. We can also help 3 you to start a new article about a woman who is not on Wikipedia but should be included. Our worklist will focus on: women scholars of religion, especially BIPOC scholars. Participants are also welcome to work on women from any religious, spiritual, or wisdom tradition who are not on the worklist. There will be plenty of time for questions and time for hands-on assistance. No need to be a technological expert!
Please contact us at email@example.com if you need more information or have resources that might be helpful to our members.
The Call for Papers for the Women’s Biographies Panel at the Women’s Caucus of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature scheduled for November 2021 in San Antonio, Texas is available here: https://www.womenscaucusaarsbl.org/2021-call-for-papers.
The panel is entitled “Interreligious Harmony and Knowledge Equity: Issues for the Women in the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Follow this link:
The deadline for this call is March 12, 2021.
- You must be a member of the AAR or the SBL to be accepted as a panelist.
- Please note, different from the previous two years, you must also submit a proposal to the Atla call described below for your panel paper to be considered as a chapter for Volume 3 of the Women in Religion series.
- Also different from previous years, proposals and the ensuing papers/biographies must include a focus on this year’s theoretical theme of knowledge equity. Please find attached a couple of sources that will help you begin your research and focus on this theoretical aspect.
- So, your submission has a dual focus; it is a biography about a woman who is associated with the Parliament of the World’s Religions AND it applies and extends current research on the issue of knowledge equity.
Kerrie Burn, the editor for Volume 3 of Atla’s Women in Religion series has created a very helpful spreadsheet listing women who have been keynote speakers, lecturers and otherwise associated with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The list is not exhaustive but a helpful beginning. Here is that link: https://1drv.ms/x/s!AjFeTbG4E94VmxdMdpI_PMzWelgD?e=utn58y
The Atla Call for Papers for Volume 3 in the series Women in Religion entitled Uncovering Women’s Stories from the Parliament of the World’s Religions: https://books.atla.com/atlapress/announcement/view/5
- The deadline for this call is March 12.
- The editor for Volume 3 of the Women in Religion series is Kerrie Burn. Kerrie has created a very helpful spreadsheet listing women who have been keynote speakers, lecturers and otherwise associated with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The list is not exhaustive but a helpful beginning. Here is that link: https://1drv.ms/x/s!AjFeTbG4E94VmxdMdpI_PMzWelgD?e=utn58y
- The AAR/SBL and Atla calls are related and participants are encouraged though not required to submit their proposal to both calls. When submitting to both calls, be sure to follow each call’s specific requirements.
- Again, your submission has a dual focus; it is a biography and a theoretical examination of some aspect of the issue of knowledge equity.