Teleconference with Marie M. Fortune, Jeanette Stokes, Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu
“A Century of Creative Feminist Leadership in Religion”
Moderated by Emily Cohen and Wendy Mallette
May 22, 2013
Marie M. Fortune of FaithTrust Institute, Jeanette Stokes of the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South (RCWMS), and Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) gathered for a conversation on “A Century of Creative Feminist Leadership in Religion.” Together, these non-profit organizations have logged more than a century of progressive feminist religious work for justice. During this teleconference these colleagues reflected on their founding visions, their struggles and challenges to keep small organizations flourishing, and their strategies to create the platforms necessary to expand this justice work.
The conversation opened with these feminist leaders reflecting on why they chose to create new organizations instead of joining established ones. Marie explained, and others agreed, that at the time there was nothing like their organizations to join. The women’s centers that did work in feminism and religion were connected with seminaries, but part of the work of organizations like FaithTrust, RCWMS, and WATER was to bring feminist theology resources out of the seminaries and into other communities. Furthermore, because churches were so often part of the system of violence against women and sexism, it was important to form spaces outside of these institutions to work. Jeanette shared that she founded RCWMS based on what women in ministry said they needed at the time, which was to know that other women in ministry existed and to connect with them. Similarly, Mary explained that she and Diann founded WATER to create new spaces for women to do work in religion without the demands of academic or religious institutions. Diann agreed and furthered that WATER was formed as an ecumenical and later interfaith space where women could do theology, ethics, and ritual on their own terms.
The conversation shifted towards discussing what justice-seeking looks like in these three organizations. Jeanette began by explaining that her organization and the others were interested in justice for women in the church and world. Because her work responded to the needs of women at the time, its focus has changed vastly over the years. Mary spoke of WATER’s preferential option for marginalized women, so issues of women of color, lesbians, older women, and poor women have been central. Diann spoke of her early and continued work in responding to the lack of liturgies that met women’s need for ritual. All the colleagues named numerous groups and organizations—women’s organizations across denominations, Catholic women religious, progressive religious organizations, women’s music and artist collectives—whose work shaped the field and whose support has been essential for these organizations.
The next topic addressed how these women who have privileges with respect to race, class, and education do work in the field. Marie mentioned the privilege that she and Jeanette access due to their ordination status. However, Marie pointed out that gender continues to prevent women from gaining access to funding and noted the systemic underfunding of programs for women and girls. Jeanette spoke of the importance of the financial support she had from her family early on in the founding of her organization before they learned to fundraise. She also spoke of her organization’s coalition building, first with African American women, and today with Hispanic and Asian women as well, so as to operate in an antiracist way. Mary spoke of the lack of privilege that Catholic women have with respect to the church, but that WATER’s antiracist commitment plays out through WATER’s collaborative work that promotes the work of women of color and poor women in the US and around the globe.
The conversation was opened up to the listeners. The first person to speak voiced that these three organizations had been a life-thread for her as a Catholic woman. Jeanette turned to the question of the new directions for this kind of feminist work. She spoke about how she was influenced by seasoned scholars in the field who encouraged her to start something new and challenged young scholars to do the same. Mary continued by speaking about WATER’s history of having more than 45 interns over the years who have gone on to do their own work in the field. Diann followed-up with the image of passing on the torch and her interest in what the next generation of feminists would create.
The conversation closed with a discussion about the challenges that these four entrepreneurs faced in their early years and how that differs today. Marie expressed that much of their success came from not being aware of the challenges ahead, which allowed them to jump into the work and also being able to stand on the shoulders of women who came before them. She noted that women who follow now have many more shoulders to stand on. Jeanette explained how starting a nonprofit today is more challenging than thirty years ago due to college debt, higher expenses, and more strict regulations. Mary agreed with Jeanette’s analysis and put forth an additional challenge of “the work has been done” myth needs to be countered, especially in the academic world. On the other hand, the technology that is available today makes new work and communication possible, allowing for a global alliance. Diann brought up the importance of archiving the work of feminists and encouraged participants on the call to preserve their work so that women’s histories can be researched in the future. The conversation closed with a discussion of the changes that these organizations have seen over the years with respect to their acceptance in secular feminist organizations.
More needs to be said by these four colleagues, but this was an excellent start. WATER thanks everyone who joined this call and helped to make this conversation so informative, especially Marie, Jeanette, Mary, and Diann for their sharing of fascinating histories. The next call will be with Monica A. Coleman from Claremont School of Theology in southern California on June 12, 2013. She will be speaking on the topic of “Third Wave Womanist Religious Thought” which is the subject of her most recent edited book.