Feminist Studies in Religion as Bread and Butter

by Mary E. Hunt
This article was first posted on Feminist Studies in Religion Blog here.

Feminist studies in religion are a hot commodity in the current political turmoil. So-called women’s issues are front and center in the debates. The long settled question of contraception has been snatched from mothballs for conservatives’ purposes. But there is such a dearth of feminist religious voices, so little room in masculinist journalist and clerical discussions to get a word in edgewise, that almost anything we add to the conversation is useful. Whoever expected that our training would be so valuable?

Not Michelle Singletary, who has stirred up discussion in her recent Washington Post column, “The Color of Money.” She raised thoughtful questions about going into debt for college/graduate school with no lucrative job prospects in the offing. On first reading, I thought she was pushing students to study engineering rather than the humanities to get a better return on their education investment. However, as I read more closely, and as she rolled out more details, I increasingly agreed with her that the questions deserve consideration.

The key is not the subject one studies, but the well-rounded training one receives in the field that makes a person job-ready. Score one for internships, Clinical Pastoral Education, joint education, law, or social work degrees, field education, and some of the other dimensions of theological and religious studies programs that are mistakenly seen as extra. These are often seen as less important than core courses in history, exegesis, or systematics. Without them, it is hard to bring the academic knowledge to bear in an effective way.

These cognate programs are crucial to our collective effectiveness. Put together—a strong intellectual foundation in feminist thought and a good hands-on training experience in feminist practice—we can assure that our emerging colleagues will be prepared for jobs that address the needs of the world.

Three areas that we need to augment in graduate training are media, money, and management. Even the few PhD’s in feminist religious studies who will go on to the classroom need this training to do their jobs. The majority, I predict, will work in the nonprofit sector, in publishing, government, and religious bureaucracies. All will need to be sophisticated in the ways of communication, fund raising, and organizational issues.

Few graduate programs in religion offer comprehensive media training to their students. Yet we are expected to be media-savvy in just about every job. Whether presenting with PowerPoint, blogging, using Blackboard or Moodle, maintaining a Facebook presence, and sending the occasional Tweet, colleagues (especially over thirty) need help on both the technical and ethical issues involved. Moreover, if we want to amplify our voices (I appeared recently on Al Jazeera English) in the debates, we need to learn how to appear effectively before a camera.

Money is a seldom-heard word in graduate school, other than about the lack of it. But what about grant writing, spread sheets and budgeting, fundraising and accountability to donors? These are facts of contemporary life as we create new organizations, run departments in cash-strapped universities, and handle our own financial needs into retirement in an economy that still assumes that men hold the money. Changing ideas is a marketing challenge as much as a conceptual one. We need to provide our colleagues with the tools they need to make it happen.

Management is a foreign concept in our circles. I always thought people who worried about it were in the business school crunching numbers while we in the humanities were occupied with higher things. Little did I know that, whether as a department chair or a non-profit leader, a pastor or an IT professional, management of people and organizations is part of the deal. There are better and worse ways to handle personnel issues, sophisticated techniques for thinking about succession plans, reporting requirements for taxes and benefits. Admittedly, after years of heavy lifting in the theological arena, most of it strikes me as commonsensical. But I have made enough mistakes to respect the expertise of people who think about these things for a living and to utilize their insights.

I propose that we open a conversation about these practical matters among feminists in religion. There may be more offerings than I am aware of, and there are certainly ways to socialize what we know. Future graduate programs, which aren’t getting any less expensive, need to reflect the job requirements, both intellectual and practical, of the 21st century workplace.