Today’s post is another contribution to our ‘Pushback Series‘ that we began earlier in the year. It is a reflection from an anonymous contributor about her time as a feminist biblical scholar at a conservative theological college. We have made this reflection anonymous because the politics of such theological networks can have a negative impact on the reputation of scholars who advocate for justice and change.
An Epitaph for the Feminist Biblical Scholar
It is with a telling kind of trepidation that I put down in writing something of my years as a lecturer in a conservative theological college. I’ve started this story several times and have been unable to finish it because it is painful. I survived 15 years in a liminal and toxic space. This is an epitaph of sorts.
Why stay in such a space layered as it was with thinly veiled microaggressions, benevolent violence and gaslighting? It began as it does for many, as a fresh-faced postgraduate student, a woman with a feminist ethic and a gift for reading the biblical text. It begins with idealism, the belief that being on the right side of history means that surely things must improve, but it ends with the final turns of the screw of structural discrimination.
Unfortunately, over time my own idealism turned to cynicism. I have seen young women enter the school during my time with that same belief on their faces. I admire but also feel concern for the young women entering the school now. Some so clearly have hopes of catalysing its transformation into an inclusive space. Because women do not have longevity in this theological school, the history of women scholars is incomplete there. Each new year or new generation seems to start anew without the knowledge of the generation of women that came and went before. So many of us have gone. I’m not sure who will know or be able to call to mind my own struggle there for pay equity, equity of work conditions, better representation of both women students and staff, and justice.
This isn’t the experience of men in the school who seem to look about in confused wonder when the toxic experience of women is raised. The niche in this country for biblical studies is gendered and well-guarded. Certain men experience long tenures in theology at the institution. Their tenures end with handshakes, ceremony and adulation. There is a congratulatory and beneficial circle of male-to-male recognition that operates at several layers. The theological school is male dominant, with long periods of time without any women in a full-time role, other than in administration. A few young women were employed in low paid, casual contract graduate assistant roles. These graduate assistants were often counted in statistics to make the theological school seem less male dominant.
I was the only woman for a long time in the institution with an established research background in biblical literature. I was granted the occasional feminist or critical theory research supervision in theology but only if the student could not be convinced to undertake a more ‘serious’ topic. I did supervise some marvellous postgraduate research in areas concerning the Bible and sexuality. Working with these students was rewarding, even though a melancholic thread in the work was knowing that, like myself, there was little chance they would ever make a living in theology regardless of the quality of their work.
Theological institutions do not always operate on merit. Success in research, in teaching and in terms of the usual measures of performance is no guarantee for employment nor equitable treatment. Even less respected is a woman daring to engage in anything close to feminist, critical or non-traditional studies of the Bible.
These confessional institutional spaces are a challenging place for women working in feminist and progressive fields of biblical literature. At the time I left the theological school for a university position, the evangelical ideology had become particularly claustrophobic. There had been moves to ensure that no research could be undertaken that fell outside a conservative interpretation of the institution’s statement of faith. Academic freedom was not a concept that was to be tolerated any longer. Ironically, my own work had never been raised as an issue for the simple reason that it had never been read by anyone in the theological school. My feminist biblical research hid for 15 years in plain sight.
My time at the theological school ended predictably: with the above mentioned thinly veiled microaggressions, an apparently intentional project of benevolent violence, and a truly horrible period of gaslighting at the end. I had seen this same mode used on other women. For some, the tack was through redundancy – outwardly the narrative would be that they were surplus to requirements, but the inside story might be that their work on certain theologies was upsetting donors. For others, the creation of intolerable and inequitable work conditions, teamed with a narrative consistently relayed of neither fitting nor belonging, ended with a slow but purposed alienation leaving me little option but to find work elsewhere.
I’ll end this sad tale here. I have certain griefs around this period in my life that will take some time to heal. I am still able to undertake research in biblical literature in the university environment, but no longer have the same opportunities to work with a new generation of feminist biblical studies postgraduates.
*Image: Mina Fonda Ochtman, “The Evening Lamp” (c. 1900)