Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, & Expanding Borders”

An hourlong teleconference with

Xochitl Alvizo, Gina Messina-Dysert, & Rosemary Radford Ruether 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Xochitl Alvizo, Gina Messina-Dysert, and Rosemary Radford Ruether for May 2015’s WATERtalk. They discussed their new book “Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders” and led a conversation centered on new movements in feminism and religion, as well as how technology creates spaces for expanded dialogue and change. Rosemary is a renowned feminist scholar and Catholic theologian, and is currently Senior Visiting Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology and Graduate University. Gina is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and co-founder of Feminism and Religion blog with Xochitl. Xochitl, who recently completed her Ph.D., will begin a position as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the area of Women and Religion and the Philosophy of Gender (LGBT), Sex, and Sexuality at California State University, Northridge, in the fall. Thanks to Xochitl, Gina, and Rosemary for their important work. The presentation notes and following Q&A are not verbatim, but should be used along with the posted audio of the call.

Rosemary Radford Ruether opened the call as a leading feminist scholar with many decades of experience. She has worked in feminist theology and feminism and religion for more than 45 years with a focus on issues of feminism, racism, anti-Semitism, and gender.

Rosemary’s first major book on feminism was New Woman, New Earth in 1975. She was one of the first people of her generation to combine feminism with theology at a theological school. She taught at Howard School of Religion from 1966-1976, at Harvard Divinity School from 1972-1973 and at Yale Divinity School in 1974, where courses on Women and Religion were only beginning to develop. She and a colleague, Rosemary Skinner Keller, wrote and edited several books together on women and religion in America. Rosemary R’s main work was in patristics; Rosemary K’s in American studies. Together, they researched the history of women and religion in American in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for a three-volume encyclopedia.

The field of feminism and religion has continued to develop since Rosemary’s early work. Most theological schools of substance offer classes on issues of women. Two or three generations of women scholars and some men have been working for feminist values in religion. But Rosemary is also concerned that a certain number of women in religion still do not realize how much the field has developed, how long women have been in this work, how much foundation has been laid. She sometimes finds herself in discussions and public conversations where people see feminism and religion as a new idea and are unaware of the work that has already been done.

Gina Messina-Dysert is not one of those people. The idea for the book Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, co-edited with Rosemary (with contributions by Xochitl) was inspired by her co-founded blog Feminism and Religion.

She and Xochitl founded the blog with Caroline Kline and Cynthie Garrity-Bond to create an online space for feminism and religion that was encompassing of various religious traditions. Within a few months, the site grew with contributors posting every day of the week. Feminism and Religion now has a global audience with readers in 181 countries. Such a quick following illustrates the opportunities technology offers for having wide conversations around feminism and religion. Women are often oppressed within religious traditions and do not have equal voice to their male counterparts; the blog created an opportunity for women and men to offer voice and help shape their religious traditions.

As Gina and Xochitl put the blog together, they wanted to acknowledge that technology options in the 21st century have given people ways to participate in dialogue who had before been limited by power structures or geographical locations. People now have access to articles and blogs with renowned feminist theologians, places for upcoming feminist activists to share their voices, ideas, and dialogues between scholars and community members.

Blogging has the ability to eliminate hierarchies. Social media offers connection regardless of geographical boundaries. Not everyone can get to a classroom; social media is a way to engage for people who have access to the Internet creating an opportunity for voice.

Through blogs such as Feminism and Religion, The Exponent, Feminist Studies in Religion, and activist sites like Ordain Women, current borders that exist in relation to dialogue feminism and religion expand. Where women often lack leadership roles in their religion traditions, a digital space allows women to take the microphone and share their ideas.

Xochitl opened with a note about the many generations present on the call, reflecting Rosemary’s statement that this conversation on feminism and religion has been ongoing for decades.

She has learned from Gina through partnerships on several projects to appreciate the possibilities that technology and social media afford in thinking about activism and feminism. Her inclination is to be more cautious with technology, in part because she prefers face-to-face interactions.

Xochitl’s chapter reflects her concern for how we use social media and technological media in feminism. The tools are used for liberating, potentially revolutionary things, but people can also get attacked through them. She wants to think about the ways we participate in technology, to be consistent and reflective with the values of feminism that we bring to the conversation. How do we participate in ways that further the conversation and are not just platforms for personal soapboxes? How do we listen to one another and take the contributions people make seriously, so that our own perspectives and positions are challenged and expanded to new possibilities.

Xochitl commented that amina wadud has said that we do not achieve solidarity by wishing for it or by speaking eloquently about it, but by actually working in practical material ways towards justice. These sites become the places where we can think creatively about ways to advance justice.

Questions followed:

  1. The moderator of the call opened the Q&A with a reflection on her recent trip to Cuba. She had no phone service or access to Internet, a reminder that many people do no have the access to technology that those who do take for granted. Are we, however inadvertently, increasing the gap between haves and have-nots, or the haves and have mores? How do we in feminist theology keep a delicate balance between using the resources available to some of us and not exacerbate the differences?

Rosemary: I’ve been functioning primarily in the traditional roles of creating classes in schools, and publications of books and articles. I’ve dedicated myself to making available experiences of feminism over the last 200 years in the U.S., reclaiming things people didn’t know. The next step is to make those books more accessible in different languages. How else can we get input from China, India, Latin America, Africa? We need to get international dialogue going and make it possible for people to communicate across languages and cultures. There is also the issue of people being able to afford or have access to books, but the Internet is a major way in which resources can be spread and made accessible.

Gina: The Internet is a major way through which resources need to be spread and made accessible, but we need to continue to recognize that there is a gap and work to close it. There are many people who don’t have access to technology and are not engaged in conversation because of global economic issues, and that is seriously problematic. We have an option with technology to create larger conversations, get more voices into the mix, and raise awareness about issues that many people do not understand.

I like to use the example of the Dehli Braveheart campaign that took place in 2013. A young woman in India was gang-raped and died, and people wanted justice for her. They started protesting and tweeting about that protest, and through Twitter, people all over the world created a global campaign for the woman. [That attention] pushed the justice system to persecute the people who were involved in the attacks when originally, they weren’t going to do anything. This is a great example of how technology brings many voices into the conversation to push for social change, a tool we haven’t had before.

Xochil: I went to Cuba last spring, and a friendship I made there has continued through email. I think about the ways our relationships with one another can continue even in these different locations. How we sustain those relationships is a way, even if we don’t have all the same resources and access to information, that we can exchange ideas individually. Each of us has a network of people and communities of activism and faith. Even with just the relationship of one person to another across countries, there’s a lot that can be accomplished.

  1. An aspiring Catholic feminist scholar asked what drawbacks the presenters see in social media, such as mental health issues or people attacked online.

Xochitl: We see the diversity of engagements – both positive and negative. The anonymity of participation sometimes leaves people with a sense of disregard for others. We’ve seen bullying and harassment. But it’s important for the ways in which we engage in the media to reflect our values, what we want to enact in feminism. Intentionality and reflection when using social media is important.

We need to be transparent and collaborative about how we engage, so we can create a productive environment.

  1. A caller working in theology and ministry wondered if the speakers had any recommendations when pursuing a Ph.D. Is there room in the field, and what are some specialties that students should be looking at?

Gina: You don’t need a doctorate to do this kind of work. Every person brings a lot of value and experience to the table. But if you want to pursue a degree, find an area of study about which you are passionate; that’s where you’re going to be the most help. Choose a program where you feel you belong, one you want to be engaged in. You’ll learn the most for yourself and in that way be beneficial to the movement.

Rosemary: Find programs that are open to a variety of approaches and allow people to pursue what interests them. I get a certain number of people who come to me who want to get Ph.D.s. I try to help them discern what places they can study at where they can shape the studies that interest them.

  1. The moderator asked if any of the speakers had discovered ways in which blogging and social media are beginning to be taken seriously in the academic world. For those on the promotion or tenure track, are there schools that see online content as more than just an alternative method to publication? A well-placed article on a blog that has great echo should be equally as important as one in an academic journal.

Xochitl: I can’t say I’ve seen those changes first hand. But when I was visiting California State Northridge, the chair of the department of religious studies emphasized what most counts toward tenure is accessibility of the scholarship to the community; that the work serves a wide spectrum of people.

Gina: I would add that as we have access to technology and new ways of [writing and publication], we are starting to understand things differently in the academy—seeing blogging as a way of doing public scholarship. Technology does have a wide reach and needs to be incorporated towards tenure. Some institutions are much more progressive then others in this regard. I hope more institutions in the future will get on board. We need a lot of voices to help the academy recognize new ways of engaging a larger audience, making sure we get information outside the walls of the academy rather than keeping it within.

  1. A woman who took a course with Rosemary wondered how we get more elders involved in the conversation. There are few elders on the Internet where she lives, which makes them more out of touch in many ways. Many don’t know there’s a feminism and religion movement.

Rosemary: I live in a retirement community of about 360 people from ages 60 to over 100. An older group ages 90+ have not wanted to get on the computer. There’s not enough systematic effort to get people who haven’t grown up with computers comfortable with them. There have to be organized ways of helping people use technology.

Another listener said one problem among elders is visual impairment, and no one has shown them accessibility options for computers, like bigger fonts and other practical usage matters. If people knew about these aids, they might be more willing to work on the computer.

  1. One reader submitted a question by email: How do the panelists see the role of academic theology culture serving as a catalyst for breaking down religious parochialism in academy religion and theology culture?

Rosemary: Access to different kinds of media allows people who are not part of the academy to begin to be involved in conversation. Academic theology is often unfamiliar for the people who haven’t been part of the conversation. How can you spread this more widely and give people a sense that they, too, can have access to the conversation?

Gina: WATER is representative of a project that is breaking down these boundaries. The more feminist theologians work to bring attention to particular issues in creative ways, the more we bring in voices that are not always given attention because of particular hierarchical structures. Blogs such as Feminism and Religion or Feminist Studies and Religion open up conversation to people in every community. The goal of each project is to expand borders, to create new frontiers, and engage every possible voice in dialogue.

Xochitl: [To quote Harvard Professor Diana Eck:] Diversity is the reality of different perspectives in close proximity to one another, whereas plurality is the active engagement of that diversity towards positive ends. That’s why I always emphasis the intentionality of doing things with care; it really does take effort. Plurality and engagement, whether in feminism and religion or other disciplines of the academy, take effort for a shared vision.

  1. One caller in Canada who is 78 commented that we are using the technology of telephones for this call. She has gained much from the talk about global awareness of people who don’t have access to technology, as well as a critical perspective about social media.

The moderator said that there is a need for us to think about not only continuing to do this kind of work, but also to work toward empowerment by giving the tools of technology to people who are older or marginalized economically.

For further reading on this topic, Janet Bohren offered her thesis The Digital Reformation: A Theological Perspective of Social Media (2012, United Theological Seminary).

“The term “Digital Reformation” was defined by Elizabeth Dreshcer in 2012 as “a revitalization of the church driven by the often ad hoc spiritualties of ordinary believers as they integrate practices of access, connection, participation, creativity, and collaboration, encouraged by the widespread use of new digital social media into all aspects of daily life, including the life of faith” (Tweet If You Love Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation).

The digital reformation is driven by the “digitally enhanced spiritual practices of ordinary believers with global access to each other and all matter of religious knowledge”( 2).

Another interesting series of ethnographic studies was “The New Media Project” of Union Theological Seminary of New York.   The project moved a year or two ago to The Christian Theological Seminary

in Indianapolis, Indiana and is now part of the Center for Pastoral Excellence there. The scholarship is not particularly driven by feminist theory, but I found it provided good background for work looking at the interface of feminism, religion, and social media.”

Kate Stoltzfus, Silver Spring, Maryland       May 15, 2015