Editor’s note: The following letters are in response to the article “Students, faculty reflect on feminist resources at Divinity School.”
Dear YDN Editor,
The News presented a skewed and inaccurate picture in your recent article about support for women at Yale Divinity School. It was irresponsible to publish the story without doing due diligence.
Especially troubling was your use of an anonymous source for the assertion that YDS lacks feminist theology coursework — a false claim upon which your article is premised to a significant degree. Other than a half-hearted, 11th hour attempt to get quotes from a handful of women faculty members, where was the effort to examine the course offerings and research areas of our faculty?
The assertion about a lack of feminist theology in the curriculum begs a question you should have explored: Which feminism? Feminism is built into our curriculum across the subfields (including, quite prominently, biblical studies), and is pursued in different forms, such as womanist theology and queer theology. Feminism now is often approached through intersectional approaches that expose the ways in which the oppression of women is bound up with race-based, sexuality-based, and class-based marginalization and oppression. You make only passing reference to these realities when, in truth, they undercut the very premise of your story.
Women have an extraordinarily strong presence on our faculty, which receives only the barest mention in your article. Two more women were tenured last year, bringing us to the point where more than half our tenured professors are women; our faculty includes 12 tenured women and 10 tenured men. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to square this fact with the false picture you present in your article.
Nor does your article acknowledge the Divinity School’s M.A.R. program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the eight stellar faculty members who teach in it, not to mention others, including Professor Carolyn Sharp, who also center feminist scholarship and pedagogies.
We are sorry your anonymous source was disappointed by our curricular offerings. But we want the Yale community to know that feminist theology is taught and learned every day, in robust and groundbreaking ways, at YDS. We are proud of the legacy of feminism at YDS, of its current strength, and of its bright future.
Jennifer A. Herdt
Senior Associate Dean
Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics
Yale Divinity School
To the Yale Daily News:
We are writing to correct a fundamental misrepresentation regarding the situation of the feminist curriculum at the Yale Divinity School contained in the recent story by Julia Brown and Madison Hahamy. As I explained when I spoke with Julia Brown, in the past, gender was often approached as a single-issue focus of analysis in the Divinity School curriculum. These days, that has changed; gender is now understood to be inextricable from issues of race, and that is reflected in the makeup of the faculty and the structure of the curriculum. Professor Eboni Marshall Turman teaches an entire curriculum in Black feminist and womanist thought. Professors Donyelle McCray and Almeda Wright teach courses on people like Pauli Murray and topics like Women’s Ways of Knowing. All three of them are Black women who work on Black feminism; none of them were interviewed for this story.
The result is the perpetuation of a white feminist analytic lens that makes invisible the leadership, labor, intellectual power, scholarly work and mentorship of Black women at the Divinity School. We could name a number of other factors that did not appear in this story (courses on gender and liturgy, sex and gender in the Bible, and gender and sexuality studies; the innovative scholarship and teaching of early-career faculty in biblical studies) but those are far less important than the central fact that the most exciting feminist work at the Divinity School is done by Black women who are nowhere in this story.
With and on behalf of my colleagues,
Associate Professor of Theology, Religion, and Sexuality
Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Studies
Michal Beth Dinkler
Associate Professor of New Testament
Associate Professor of Latin American and Latinx Christianity
Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics
Assistant Professor of New Testament
Eboni Marshall Turman
Assistant Professor of Theology and African American Religion
Assistant Professor of Homiletics
Horace Bushnell Professor of Christian Nurture
Mary Clark Moschella
Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling
Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation
Sally M. Promey
Professor of Religion and Visual Culture
Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies
Carolyn J. Sharp
Professor of Homiletics
Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology
Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible
Associate Professor of American Religious History
Almeda M. Wright
Associate Professor of Religious Education
Let me begin with this: I am a Black man, so I understand the complexity of my response to such an article; nevertheless, I am a Black man who is compelled by Black feminist and womanist religious and theological inquiry. Therefore, I am compelled to speak whenever I see the invisibilization of my kin.
At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention, Mother Sojourner Truth is recorded as posing a critical question to those gathered, “Ain’t I a woman?” While there is some controversy around whether this question was phrased in this way, the spirit of Truth’s remarks still stands. She was pointing out to those gathered in Old Stone Church that the Black men in the south and the white women in the north were neglecting to reckon with the experience and plight of Black women in this nation at the time. Black women’s experiences, and their ways of knowing and showing up, were ignored. It was a response to not only a civil rights movement, but a burgeoning white feminist movement. Here we are in 2020 and the same question can be asked, are not Black and trans women women too? From reading the article “Female students bemoan lack of support at Divinity School,” one would not think so. Or that at the very least, their womanhood is a qualified one that cannot speak to the plight of all women, or more specifically white womanhood.
The assertion that Black and trans women are not women is implicit from the very title of the article. This is transphobic language, whether chosen by the authors or the YDS students interviewed, the use of “female” as opposed to “women” makes a very clear statement about who is considered a woman. If it were meant to include trans women, then the word “women” would have intentionally been chosen. An alumna who spoke on condition of anonymity stated in part “it [YDS] doesn’t really have feminist theology coursework” and then goes on to say that there is no “real infrastructure at YDS, that can facilitate conversations about gender both in ancient biblical studies but also in religion and popular culture today.” Current students Sarah Ambrose DIV ’22 and Leah Snavely DIV ’21 seemingly concur with the thoughts of this alumna, but their conclusions are inaccurate and problematic.
While YDS is not perfect and has a long way to go in its course offerings, their statement erases the Black and queer women on faculty who are doing the work that these women seem to be searching out. The Rev. Dr. Almeda Wright has taught classes that by their very nature ensure that Black feminist thought is considered. Just next semester she is teaching a class entitled “Women’s Ways of Knowing,” which will “explore questions that take seriously the voices and practices of women.” The Rev. Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, a Black womanist theologian and ethicist, has been on the faculty at YDS since 2015 and has taught courses such as “Womanist Theology and Ethics” and “Black Feminist Theory,” to name a few. Dr. Linn Tonstad, a queer woman and theologian, has taught numerous classes, including “Queer Theology,” that take up feminism explicitly. There is also Dr. Donyelle McCray, a Black woman homiletician who teaches an entire course on the life and ministry of Pauli Murray. None of these courses deal with the “ancient world” but rightly wrestle with “religion and popular culture today.”
The article goes on to quote a current student as saying that efforts like the offering of queer and womanist theology are “encouraging” while also stating that these are more intersectional than traditional. It is widely accepted in academic communities that “traditional feminism” is historically racist and transphobic, as there is no space in them for the inclusion of Black and trans women. If in 2020 intersectional feminisms are not enough, one has to ask oneself if what they are really asking for is to “Make Feminism Great Again” by hearkening back to a time when only those who were white and assigned sex female at birth were considered women. To state that there is no institutional support for women-identified folks is one thing, but to say that there is an intellectual lacuna in the curriculum is to devalue and invalidate the work of the Black and queer women on YDS faculty. While all that has been mentioned is undoubtedly troublesome, what is also troubling is how noticeably absent the voices of current Black women students are. Therefore, I present their words here in full, so as to allow them to speak for themselves and for me to not impose my own authorial voice on their words.
Khaleelah Harris DIV ’21: “That which has been expressed in the article alongside the very questionable way in which this Women’s Center was revived bolster my soul’s need to interpret this call for feminism as a very explicit call for white feminism. The article was cowardice insofar as it presented their need for white feminism as a deficit in the curriculum and an institutional problem that impacted YDS students who identify as female. The students’ attempt to present the story of the center’s revival and their rationale lacked integrity.”
Amina Shumake DIV ’21: “Women who call themselves, ‘traditional feminists’ first begin as children who derive their sustenance by draining the milk from the bosoms of Black women. Their teeth develop and sharpen on Black fingers; getting stronger, growing taller at the demise of blackness. These so called, ‘feminists’, then grow up participating in the physical, religious, political, economic, and social lynching of the very same women who built them. Do not be fooled. If ‘tradition’ denotes purity; tradition lies, tradition steals, tradition murders, and tradition rapes. I am not surprised by the rhetoric riddling the brains of certain white women. These feminists are like vampires who do nothing but thrive off the blood of Black women. They are not revolutionary nor imaginative because they do nothing but reproduce the very evil it wishes to expel.”
JALEN PARKS ’19 is a second-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.