Graduate Theological Union

Women & Religion at GTU

Decades of Making a Difference

by Flora A. Keshgegian

Recently, the GTU’s Women’s Studies in Religion program held a special event celebrating more than four decades of excellence and achievement. In honor of Women’s History Month, WSR hosted a discussion featuring professors Margaret McManus (ABSW), Kathryn Poethig  (GTU ’97), Boyung Lee (PSR), and moderator Flora Keshgegian (GTU). Offering recollections from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the panelists stitched together a lively “herstory” and shared hopes for the future of women’s studies at the GTU.

Founded in 1970, the Center for Women and Religion (originally called the Office for Women’s Affairs) was the first established center for women at any theological school, providing a place for women at the GTU to study and explore, to connect with one another and receive support. The Center hosted conferences, offered a variety of courses, and published the influential Journal of Women and Religion, a groundbreaking publication devoted to feminist theology and women in religions. When the Center closed its doors in 2003 due to lack of funds, the Women’s Studies in Religion program was established to carry on the work, offering a certificate in Women’s Studies and a wealth of public programs.  

These decades have been full of changes and challenges. Early years were focused largely on women’s self-discovery and advocacy for basic rights and inclusion, securing more space for women in religious spaces and in the world, and bringing attention to the harm done to women by violence and institutionalized oppression. As the field of women’s studies has grown, so has recognition of the diversity and inequalities among women and the need to deal with differences of race, ethnicity, class, and sexual and gender orientation, as well as differences of religion. When wrestling with the complexities of negotiating such differences within and among groups, it becomes clear that no simple identification and definition of women and women’s studies is possible. The persisting challenge is to equip GTU students with the skills necessary to negotiate an ever more complex world of women and religion.   

Much has changed in the last 40-plus years, but much has not.  In 1971, just 89 of the more than 900 students at the GTU were women; the faculty of 100 included just five women. Today, women make up nearly 40 percent of the GTU’s full-time consortial faculty, and 46 percent of its students. Yet women, especially women of color, continue to feel marginalized. The Women’s Studies certificate is well recognized and sought after, yet the challenge of increasing demands and dwindling numbers make it difficult to find faculty able to devote time to teaching and mentoring students.  Despite ongoing and dedicated support from the GTU and its member schools, funding remains inadequate and tenuous.

Still we draw strength from those who have gone before us. When our three panelists were asked to name something or someone that has inspired them and keeps them going, each named a woman: Margaret McManus spoke of Vida Scudder (1861-1954), professor at Wellesley College and dedicated Christian Socialist, who was the subject of McManus’s dissertation; Kathryn Poethig cited her mentor and professor, Clare Fischer, a former faculty member at SKSM and GTU; Boyung Lee recalled the mentorship and support of Kwok Pui Lan, professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.

When these inspiring women were added to all the other women named during the program, it was clear that a great cloud of witnesses, the mothers and grandmothers of advocacy for and study of women and gender were present with us.  What a difference their contributions have made to countless women, who have then gone on to make such a difference for countless others.

That is the work of women’s studies in religion: to make a difference. We empower and equip those who seek to add to knowledge, to strive for justice, and to change the world.  This work is ongoing.  Inspired and buoyed by all those who went before, we look forward to the decades ahead. 

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