Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“A Guide for Women in Religion”

An hourlong teleconference with

Mary E. Hunt, Kecia Ali, and Monique Moultrie

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Mary E. Hunt (feminist theologian and co-director of WATER), Kecia Ali (associate professor of religion at Boston University) and Monique Moultrie (assistant professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University) about their newly released book A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z (revised edition). Thanks to all three editors for an inside look at this important guide, as well as an insightful presentation on what it means to write, teach, and work in the field of religion today. What follows are notes on the presentation and subsequent discussion. These are not meant to be verbatim, but to be used along with the posted audio of the call.


Mary Hunt opened the hour and began with a tribute to co-editors Kecia and Monique, who were “amazing in their dedication and talent in this project…I did not know either of you beforehand and now I feel like I’d go to the moon with both of you!” she said.

The Guide for Women and Religion is “the third generation of efforts to share our collective wisdom,” Mary said. The first version of the Guide, published in 1992 entitled Guide to the Perplexing: A Survival Manuel for Women in Religious Studies, was edited by Rita Nakashima Brock, Kelly Brown Douglas, Paula Fredriksen, Adele McCollum, Judith Plaskow, James Poling, and Susan Thistlethwaite. That guide looked at how women got through graduate school into tenure track jobs when there were not a lot of women in the field.

In 2004, Mary edited a new version with Rebecca Alpert, Karen Baker Fletchers, Valerie Dixon, Janet Jakobsen, Rosamond Cary Rodman, and Katharina von Kellenbach. A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way from A to Z was a new format inspired by the old, not chronological from kindergarten to emerita, but an attempt to broaden the notion of what it means to go to grad school and have a career in religion: publishing, non-profit sector, politics, business, library/information technology, among many other entries.

She cited “all the editors as women’s names get lost all too easily,” thankful for the generosity of those foresisters in the field for enabling them to create this guide “to orient future colleagues and to invite their collaboration.”

Ten years later, Palgrave (the original publisher) wanted a third book, a revised edition of the second book. Mary approached Kecia and Monique about being co-editors. They recognized that many things had changed, but sadly some fairly basic things had not changed whatsoever, such as sexual harassment and racism. One of the largest changes in the new edition is the impact of technology.

“We canvassed many colleagues to get a broad sense of what is going on,” Mary said. “We faced the job market squarely so our earlier decision to broaden beyond tenure-track jobs was only reinforced; we discussed our own experiences across racial, religious, age differences and tried to be faithful to a collective process in what we wrote.”

The guide, Mary said, is meant to be an invitation to colleagues in the field, especially newly arriving colleagues, to bring their unique and valuable insights to bear. She suspects there will be a fourth guide in time for which the experiences are simply being hatched right now.

Kecia Ali spoke about several entries in the Guide. Inevitably, she said, there was overlap between categories. The editors made special effort to approach related topics from different angles.

One important term was mentoring, a practice that has been so important to women in the profession in the years since the first guide. The editors provided resources about looking for a mentor as well as being a mentor, and wanted “to indicate something about the prominence of the generational transfer of wisdom and the gendered transfer of wisdom,” Kecia said. Paula Fredriksen, who was one of the original editors, was one of Ali’s senior colleagues at BU, a clear example of someone who contributed to the maturing of women within academic religious studies, and has continued to be of support and assistance.

 Kecia also mentioned the idea of sponsoring, when someone with a certain amount of clout uses her networks and power to help mentees have access to a variety of opportunities. “If I get an initiation to deliver a lecture I can’t accept, I will try to suggest the name of a junior colleague in my place,” Kecia said. “It’s important to make sure you’re sponsoring people from a variety of racial backgrounds, institutions and locations.”

The guide’s resource section also changed considerably since the second edition, with the explosion of resources online about many aspects of career development, the hiring crisis in academia, books published about race and gender in the academy, books about motherhood and family life, etc. “Our goal here was to be illustrative rather than exhaustive,” Kecia said.

Monique Moultrie highlighted sections about technology and media relations (absolutely necessary for those working in the field), as well as racial and sexual harassment. “Be conscious and aware of micro-aggressions and verbal or nonverbal slights that occur to marginalized groups,” Monique said. “We thought about the ways we can have discussion on these types of occurrences. The most important piece of advice is to document, document, document, to have details so that if scenarios need to go to a legal form, you have an account that’s not just based on your memory.”

Monique also spoke about work/life balance, the ways in which women integrate careers with family and personal life, and care for themselves, kids, extended family, an institution. “We were attentive to the fact that women of color tend to be overburdened in experiencing work/life balance because of the need of diverse representation [in institutions],” Monique said. “Is this balance achievable, is it possible?” The Status of Women in the Profession is putting together a forthcoming manual on the subject.

Discussion followed:

  1. One caller who is a retired professor asked how the book applied to women in other fields, not just religion – to artists, engineers, or scientists.

Kecia responded: The majority of the entries in the guide are aimed specifically at women in religious studies. “We have entries…which talk about some of the institutions in our field and some of the problems in theological schools, issues of ordination and the ways in which those are gendered,” she said. “That said, it would be wonderful if people outside of theology found it helpful, and many of the problems women in our field experience are also parallel to those experienced by women in other areas of the academy.”

  1. Another caller wondered what contributed to the fruitful collaboration among the three editors.

As a junior scholar, Monique entered into the project hesitantly with some questions from her department. “We are often discouraged from doing collaborative work…it doesn’t ‘count’ as much as original scholarship,” she said. “But I found that is an old mindset. [The book] revamped my commitment to doing collaborative work. It reiterates entries such as work/life balance; there are some things you don’t have to do on your own. [We should] understand the importance of collaborating with others so that you’re not carrying the weight of every project.”

Kecia valued the group’s complementary talents. The book was produced on a tight deadline, in less than six months, and having each person’s input was important. “We spent a fair amount of time at the beginning figuring out what our process was going to be and how we would divide things up,” she said. “It was a nice balance to ongoing solitary projects.”

The Grail [Catholic-rooted women’s organization] always says “Together we’re a genius,” Mary quoted. In many institutions, to receive get tenure, there are publication requirements, and collaborations don’t weigh as much. “But collaborative work takes the best of what each person has to offer and melds it into a new product is really exciting,” she said. We should think of ways to get collaborate work to ‘count’ in the field.

  1. Diann Neu, discussion leader for the call, asked the editors to further discuss how to create a passion for collaboration in others.

It is important to start with what you’re passionate about in collaboration. “When we first met, we went through and decided what we were most passionate about, what we really wanted to tackle, before dividing up what we were indifferent about,” Monique said.

Kecia found it helpful to know that the others would look at what she was writing or revising, that it wouldn’t necessarily be the final word. “It made it possible to not get stuck in the way that one sometimes gets stuck in individual scholarship work,” she said.

The book’s content also became a combination of everyone’s voice, according to Mary, including the older voices of the earlier edition.

  1. One caller thanked the editors on behalf of junior members of the academy for the book, for the democratizing/decolonizing of this knowledge for women in the field. She is currently studying for a PhD and does experience some fear of the shrinking academic environment. She asked the editors to speak to the economic issues such as debt and fewer jobs.

Kecia responded that the statistics are horrifying when looking at rates of debts and hiring into long-term professional jobs. It’s important to think about what a PhD will bring an individual. “What is the relationship between vocation and making a living?” Kecia said. “There’s a lot of talk about the language of love; we have to love what we do and be passionate about it. Love and passion are important but so too are stable employment and health insurance.”

The guide is also attentive to finances, managing money, and thinking through what that means for people in various stages, Monique said. Many women with PhDs are adjuncts or in contingent labor positions. Students must be aware of the possibility of great debt, but are capable of making their decisions while fighting against the system of unjust labor, she said.

Mary has had a “marvelous experience” after 30 years at WATER, but she understands the privilege connected with her job –race and class and being a U.S. citizen all tie in to her ability to have a different kind of career while maintaining a certain standing in the profession. There has not been a lot of change in terms of women’s experiences in the profession, and there are not many jobs that go to women and people of color. But Mary is “all for the creation of new colleagues,” she said. “You also have many skills and talents that you bring to the field that we need.”

  1. One caller asked if the kinds of challenges described are worse in the field of religion or if it’s just endemic to the entire academic world.

Mary responded that problems in religion exacerbated by the fact that particular religions require things like ordination, but don’t ordain women or queer people, making religion a “candidate for being among the most recalcitrant players in the field.”

There are also particular ways in which the study of religion can marginalize women, Kecia said. Women tend not to be the ones who are asked to speak as experts on their traditions—those experts wear beards or clerical collars. “Yet women in religion since the 1990s have risen to prominent positions,” she said. “While there is still much discrimination, there are many signs of the progress that we’ve made. The fact that we are now at the third edition of some type of guide attests to the persistence of women in pursuing professional excellence and transformation in the field.” *

“A Guide for Women in Religion: Making Your Way From A to Z” is available for purchase through Palgrave-Macmillian. The next WATERtalk will be Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time with Rita Gross. For more information, visit

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland

January 5, 2015