Editor’s note: In its original version, this story failed to convey the scope of feminist offerings at the Divinity School, particularly coursework and research on the intersections of gender with race, class and sexuality. This incomplete picture misrepresented YDS curriculum and neglected the contributions of Black women to YDS scholarship on feminist theology.
The article has been updated to include examples of those course offerings and correct a factual error in the following sentence, which has since been removed: “While this overt sexism might not be as pervasive in the present day, students and faculty interviewed by the News spoke of an absence of feminist curriculum and expression at the Divinity School that remains a prominent issue.” While several students spoke of the absence of a particular course, faculty emphasized a broader curriculum of feminist theology across the school. The News has additionally updated the headline of this story to reflect an ongoing conversation about those resources.
Joan Bates Forsberg DIV ’53 came to the Yale Divinity School in 1950, as one of just 10 women in her class under the Divinity School’s quota, which at the time allowed only 10 percent of admitted students to be women. Forsberg is now 92 years old and retired in California and, while some of her dates and memories are understandably hazy, Forsberg remembers her time at the Divinity School fondly –– for the most part.
Forsberg recalls having to be housed two blocks away from the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle because the women couldn’t live with the men. When she arrived, the dean welcomed her and all of the other women by stressing how important it is “that [they] focus on [their] work and finish [their] degree[s] because [the Divinity School] kept out 10 good men who would go onto ministry to let [them] in.” Forsberg laughed slightly and continued, “So you darn well better shape up.”
While this overt sexism might not be as pervasive in the present day, two current students and one alumna interviewed by the News criticized the lack of a feminist survey course — which the school once offered — and spoke of declining engagement in the school’s Women’s Center. But while faculty do not anticipate the return of a survey course, they cited examples of feminist theology in many courses across the school, reflecting the school’s investment in an intersectional approach that spans academic disciplines.
But a recent alumna and full time employee of the University, who asked for anonymity due to concerns about professional backlash, does not find the school’s offerings sufficient.
“It became very clear to me that YDS, although it has a huge breadth of coursework, it doesn’t really have feminist theology coursework,” she said. “There really isn’t a program, a real infrastructure at YDS, that can facilitate conversations about gender both in ancient biblical studies, but also in religion and popular culture today.”
The school’s breadth of coursework includes feminism across disciplines, said Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Jennifer Herdt and divinity professor Linn Tonstad DIV ’03 GRD ’09. Tonstad explained that many of the feminist theology courses currently offered by YDS focus on Black theology or womanist theology and that the number of faculty engaged in those topics has increased in recent years. So too have the number of women on YDS faculty as a whole.
YDS spokesperson Tom Krattenmaker declined to comment for this article.
Feminist courses at YDS
The alumna told the News that divinity students looking to take feminist theology classes largely have to look to the women, gender and sexuality studies courses offered through the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences or other professional schools. Divinity students, the alumna explained, are allowed to take half of their coursework outside of YDS, but that these courses lack a strong theological focus and “aren’t the same” as ones that YDS could potentially offer.
“There is that lacking [with regard to feminist infrastructure and coursework] at YDS,” YDS Women’s Center co-Director Sarah Ambrose DIV ’22 told the News. “That did not used to be the case. It used to exist.”
But while several students criticized what they see as a lack of feminist theology courses, faculty interviewed by the News emphasized that the school approaches feminism intersectionally, as reflected in its course offerings.
While the Divinity School no longer offers a survey course on feminist theology, there are many courses across areas of study that address feminist thought, faculty told the News. Courses currently offered at the school include professor Almeda Wright’s course “Women’s Ways of Knowing” and professor Judith Gundry’s class “Women and Gender in Early Christianity.” Professor Donyelle McCray teaches “Radical Lives of Proclamation,” which focuses on the spiritual lives of seven visionaries –– three of whom are women –– and professor Clifton Granby teaches “Virtue, Vice and Epistemic Injustice,” which considers ignorance related to gender, sex, race and class.
Additionally, YDS offers a master’s of arts in religion concentrated in women’s, gender and sexuality studies, to which students can apply studies in other University departments such as American Studies, WGSS, LGBT Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration.
Ambrose said that, while the gender studies classes at the other professional schools are a “great resource” for the Divinity School, students often feel that their time could be better spent taking divinity classes because they are looking to get a theological education.
“I would love to see the [Divinity School] add more courses on gender outside of the ancient world, especially surveys like feminist theology and feminist ethics which were once offered,” Ambrose said.
Tonstad told the News that she “very much doubts” that a survey feminist theology course will be offered again in the coming years. She said that she “doesn’t get a strong sense” that faculty members feel there is any absence in the curriculum pertaining to feminism.
Gundry similarly said she feels the Divinity School offers “good coverage” of feminism in biblical studies –– but did not mention anything related to the school’s course offerings in modern feminist theology.
“My own sense is that there have been some changes, but that this is not a shift of resources away from feminist theology,” Herdt wrote in an email to the News. “Rather, feminist theology has become mainstream and so is baked into the curriculum in a broad-based way.”
Herdt added that queer and womanist theology have been “receiving more attention” in recent years, pointing to the hires of Tonstad, who teaches “Queer Theology,” and professor Eboni Marshall Turman, who teaches “Black Theology.” Co-Director of the Women’s Center Leah Snavely DIV ’21 said that efforts like this, which are more intersectional than traditional feminist thought, are “encouraging.”
Additionally, women now make up more than half of tenured faculty members at the school. Tonstad also noted an increase in the number of faculty who focus on gender and sexuality in their coursework.
“I have seen a distinct shift in the number of faculty members that are involved in teaching in areas of gender and sexuality,” Tonstad told the News. “When I came … I think there were four professors or something like that who were actively engaged and now the list is at least twice as long.”
Early years of the Women’s Center
The three students also took issue with what they said was the Divinity School’s lack of extracurricular space for feminist expression.
“There seems to be this misunderstanding that because we are so well-represented, we no longer need spaces on campus that directly pertain to the female experience,” Snavely wrote in an email to the News. “[The Women’s Center] was much more active when there were YDS faculty members who taught and studied feminist theory.”
Forsberg was one of those faculty members integral to the establishment of the Women’s Center. She joined the school’s staff in 1971 after the 28 female students at the school at that time complained to Colin Williams, then-dean of YDS, that there were no women faculty from whom they could learn.
Williams invited Forsberg to come teach, but, since there were no open faculty positions at the time, she started as the registrar and an advisor for students. Shortly after that, she became an assistant dean for student life and, ultimately, the associate dean for student life. In the early 1970s, as more women began applying, she was a member of the admissions committee. Forsberg said that she was specifically chosen to help “bring a perspective” about women applicants.
While on the committee, Forsberg remembers a male faculty member asking her how all of the women even knew to apply, insinuating, she laughed, that she was doing all of the recruiting herself. He had not seen so many women applying for an educational program before.
In 1971, when students came to her and asked for a Women’s Center, Forsberg advocated on their behalf. To her surprise, she succeeded.
“I got out of the room before anyone could change their mind,” Forsberg said.
Male faculty reacted to these changes with varying degrees of acceptance. Forsberg recalls a faculty search for someone in biblical studies, one of the most important areas of curriculum at the school. At the time, the University had ruled that women must be included in faculty searches.
Forsberg laughed again, as she did each time she recounted a particularly misogynistic anecdote.
“I heard a report that one of the senior biblical faculty was really fretting about how, ‘If we hired a woman in our department, what will we talk about in our departmental meetings?’”
According to Ambrose, the Women’s Center was “huge” during the 1970s and remained in its prime until the early 1990s. She attributed the center’s success to “really incredible female faculty” at the Divinity School who were concerned with what it meant for women to exist within the religious domain.
But Ambrose and Women’s Center communications coordinator Oana Capatina DIV ’20 told the News that the center’s success did not last long into the 21st century.
“I think over time the center lost its legacy of full-time faculty and staff involvement,” Capatina said. “Obviously faculty come and go, [professors] Letty Russell and Joan Bates Forsberg have since retired, and I think that definitely is what contributed to it. Not having a full-time faculty member spearhead programming at the Women’s Center is what led to its demise.”
Tonstad told the News that she does not think there has been “as much faculty engagement” with the Women’s Center in recent years, compared to when she joined the Divinity School faculty nearly a decade ago.
Even so, she said that the number of professors engaged in feminist theology has increased over that same period.
“I think it would be great to allocate serious resources to [the Women’s Center], and I know it would receive broad support by the faculty,” Gundry told the News. “I don’t know why we don’t have that, but I’m sure there is a broad concern to have that kind of support.”
Ambrose told the News that support in the form of funding for student-led, intersectional efforts, such as the recent revival of the Women’s Center’s feminist journal Voice, would be particularly helpful in this regard.
Forsberg continuously reiterated that she loved her time at the school and never felt unwelcome, even though she faced a multitude of barriers at two stages in her life at Yale: once as a student — nine of the original 10 women in her class ultimately finished — and then again as a faculty member. One of the original 10 got married and did not graduate.
“It was just different for people to see me in some roles,” she added.
Forsberg’s name is an iconic one at the Divinity School. Even though she’s been retired for many years, students and faculty alike know who she is, helped by the fact that she has a place on the wall of portraits in the Divinity School Common Room. She was the first woman on the wall, and her picture was fundraised and advocated for by a group of students.
A few years later, the portraits of Letty Russell and Margaret Farley, two other early women faculty members, joined Forsberg.
On the day that Farley’s portrait was hung, Forsberg recalls Farley saying to her, with a twinkle in her eye, “I wanted you all to know that at night when the doors are closed and everybody’s gone, we come down off the wall and plan together how the school should really be run.”
According to Herdt, the Divinity School’s tenured faculty includes 12 women and 10 men.
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