7 Women Scholars On the Gender Divide in Religious Studies, the Power of Mentors, and Leading While Female

This weekend, downtown Atlanta is entirely overrun by scholars of religion. Thousands have gathered for the 2015 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (along with the Society for Biblical Literature). For this special feature (and in honor of this powerful concentration of academic humanity) Rebecca Barrett-Fox has interviewed seven women scholars—sociologists, theologians, historians, and leaders. The reflections she gathered, presented below according to theme, are notable in their insight—as well as in their frankness.  –The Eds.


Ann Taves: I entered college as an atheist, having been raised in a non-religious, culturally Protestant family. I took a highly recommended theory of religion course my freshman year and was impressed by the complexity of religious thought and thought about religion. I decided I needed to investigate my assumption that religion was a psychological “crutch” for the weak minded, so designed an independent study with a religion professor in which I read Freud, Kierkegaard, and Tillich. 


Wendi Adamek brings historical research on medieval China to bear on contemporary issues. She is the author of The Mystique of Transmission and the forthcoming Practicescape: The Buddhists of Baoshan.

Nancy Ammerman has been at the forefront of the sociology of religion for nearly three decades, starting with 1987’s Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World, written when scholars were just starting to analyze the rapid ascendency of Christian conservatives in politics. She has led the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association.

Elaine Howard Ecklund examines contemporary American religion and its intersections with science—specifically, how scientists interact with religion and how religious believers make sense of science. She is the author of Science v. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

In her writing, including including Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety and Trauma and Grace, Serene Jones addresses gender and social justice, challenging the ways that theology has harmed women. She taught theology and women’s studies at Yale for seventeen years and has served as president of Union Theological Seminary since 2008.

Peggy Levitt is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College and research fellow at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Harvard’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, where she co-directs The Transnational Studies Initiative.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work examines religious contact zones of the 19th century, a time when America was being dramatically reshaped by immigration, westward expansion, the end of slavery, and innovations in religion.

Ann Taves focuses her work on human experiences that are atypical and abnormal—in books such as Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things and Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James. A former president of the American Academy of Religion, Taves has held positions at Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, Princeton, and the Claremont School of Theology.

At the end, I was convinced that religion could be transformative and definitely was worth studying. Eventually, I entered grad school at the University of Chicago interested in two broad sorts of questions: the recurring set (why do people believe, do, and experience things that I find surprising or implausible?) and the more personal set triggered by my religious quest and my reading of Mary Daly (why is Christianity so oppressive?). The first question led to my dissertation on Catholic devotional practices (e.g., devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Sacred Heart, and Jesus’ wounds), all of which seemed strange to me at the outset. But when I landed a job at the Claremont School of Theology teaching the history of Christianity, the second more personal set came to the fore.

Serene Jones:  I feel very grateful for the fact that I grew up as the oldest daughter of a father who was an academic. My family was mainline Protestant and middle class. I’m Cherokee, but people see me and engage me as white, and I received every privilege that comes along with that. 

I am aware of how, at every step, where I was met with success—even though I was working hard—I was benefiting from privileges that so many other women don’t have. Women in economically poor households. Women who grew up in families where there was no one to encourage them. Women who face abuse. Women who are racial minorities and who, as soon as they set foot into the academy, face barriers I never did. 

To say I’m grateful doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize those privileges that I had and others didn’t and don’t. Anything I can do in my work to shift that story for other women I’m committed to doing. Because it has to change.


Nancy Ammerman: One could chalk up my interest in everyday religion to gender in some way. The underlying argument you are making when you study lived religion is that official beliefs should not be taken as the measure of religiosity. That argument really is affected by gender because the people who see themselves as the arbiters of what counts as “right belief” have historically tended to be men. Women throughout history have forged an arena of religious practice that might not be considered orthodox. In some ways, the study of lived religion is about making women’s religion visible.

In my study of fundamentalism, at times my gender was a bit of a barrier as male leaders didn’t take me seriously. On the other hand, because they weren’t taking me seriously, they were willing to talk to me. However, women in the congregation didn’t want to talk to me because my world was so alien to them.

This changed when I became visibly pregnant. My status as a mother-to-be was a bridge into the congregation, which enabled me to talk to the women there. And I think that this was one of those moments when I had to recognize the ways that gender does make difference.

Serene Jones: It’s not like gender is part of who I am and the rest of me is something else. My first book, Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety, looks at a topic that could appear very patriarchal, but, in fact, what motivated that research was the growing recognition of the influence of women on Calvinism and the letters he exchanged with women. The ideas for my second book, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace, were tested in the real lives of women in a women’s group. My book on trauma Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World has sexual violence at its center, primarily as it impacts women’s lives. And my day-to-day work at Union has included, among other things, empowering women’s voices in interfaith work, which has been so dominated by men.

Elaine Howard Ecklund: At the beginning of my career, I did not much feel that my gender was that influential. I am at a different period now, having gone through some life course transitions and choices. I have experienced some subtext that I may not be as serious about my career—for example, questions about my willingness to travel to conferences—because I have a young child. Of course, gender affects everything we do, which is why diversity is so important and why I aim for gender-diverse groups in classroom, research teams, and all professional areas.

My gender may also make me more attentive to the voices of women as leaders, as well as gender inclusive language (or lack thereof) in the organizations I study. 

And of course, the personal has great impact on the professional. I fortuitously married well and my husband, who is also an academic, is very supportive of my career. If and how you partner has a huge impact on your work. When the professional life gets tough, are you finding support there?

Also, a lot of times, as women, we close doors in our own faces. There were times when I saw a grant application and threw it in the trash and my husband picked it up and said to try because I certainly wasn’t going to win the award if I didn’t apply. I got one of those grants that he dug out of the trash, and it had a huge impact on my career.


Ann Taves: I’ve always believed that we’ve just got this life to live and so wanted to be able to look back on my life and feel like I’d done what I most wanted to do with it. Studying religion seemed like a way to stay focused on the big questions of meaning and purpose in life both in my own life and in the lives of others.

My most basic question has been: why do people believe, do, and experience things that to me seem so implausible? Or as my graduate students and I often say: “we are interested in weird stuff!” But this just means studying things that I don’t understand, things that are beyond what I have experienced or beyond what I personally believe or find plausible. Studying such things draws me into other people’s worlds and then, of course, they don’t seem so strange any more.

Peggy Levitt: I’m not a religion scholar by training. In fact, Wendy Cadge, Courtney Bender, David Smilde, and I wrote Religion on the Edge because we felt the sociology of religion was a very ghettoized field that often got in its own way by not showing how it was relevant to larger debates. That book was about how that whole field needs to de-Westernize, de-Christianize, de-institutionalize, and de-normativize itself (that is, recognize that religion is not always a force for good). I want to ask interesting questions and find interesting answers, no matter where.

I think it’s particularly important right now to do work on religion, especially encounters across and between faiths. What are young people learning about when they study religion at school in this country and around the word? How is the study of Islam being integrated into the academy? How will the “ethnic studies” model we have used (i.e., Latino Studies, Asian Studies, etc.) influence how we move forward?


Laurie Maffly-Kipp: At the most fundamental level, I’m interested in understanding why people do the things they do. And as a historian, I’m particularly interested in behaviors that don’t make obvious sense to me. Human beings are such puzzles and are motivated by so many different things. It takes a whole arsenal of approaches, from anthropology to sociology to theology, among many others, to try to understand human beings on their own terms and to see the world through their eyes as best we can. 

The task is always far from complete, and our representations will never be perfect. But exercising that empathetic muscle is crucial to our ability to understand anyone else, as well as to learn from our past

One of the most profound experiences I had in college occurred in a course on Shakespeare with the cultural critic Benjamin DeMott, in which I had to write a paper on Richard III that explained his behavior through his own eyes. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to try to put myself into the psyche of such a vile character. It led me to explore ways of understanding the world that I never would have reached on my own. And ultimately, it made me a historian with a greater capacity to imagine alternative ways of being. That, of course, is only the first step. As a scholar, one must move beyond creative empathy. But it is a necessary jumping off point for all kinds of social, religious, and political pursuits.

Wendi Adamek: Interdisciplinary work has always been the work that I’ve been interested in, and it’s getting to be more mainstream. Buddhist studies has traditionally been very textually oriented. I won an American Academy of Religion award in textual studies for The Mystique of Transmission, but my writing is also steeped in cultural studies. The divides are ridiculous. It’s increasingly accepted that you must do both your cultural studies and your philology responsibly. I don’t know why this pseudo-debate is still ongoing.

Peggy Levitt: Right now, I’m finishing up an article about Santo Toribio, the patron saint of migrants in Mexico, and how his ascension in importance in the Mexican canon has rescaled the town he comes from. People don’t think about religion as a mechanism for urban restructuring and rescaling. They don’t realize that there is a global religious map with its own unique hot spots that differs from the global economic or political map.

I am also really interested in where people learn cosmopolitan skills and practices. There is a lot of talk about creating global citizens and educating the next generation to take their place in the global world. I want to understand how religious institutions contribute (or not) to that. How do religious schools and volunteer groups expose participants to the world? Who does it benefit and whom does it leave out?

At times, the structures of the academy can act as a disincentive. Our disciplines are organized around categories and silos that don’t reflect how people really live today or the work we have to do understand the world we live in.

To change this, you have to be in conversation with the right kind of people. You have to make a commitment to talk interdisciplinarily. You can’t be with people who will retreat to the fallback position of their discipline. You have to invite people to the table who are willing to ask questions from new perspectives.


Nancy Ammerman: For a long time, we saw work in the sociology of religion divided by gender, which was largely part of a quantitative/qualitative divide. There was, and still is, a strong tendency for men to be more likely to work with survey data and statistical analyses that reveal big trends. And even when men do qualitative work, they have been more likely to take up theological questions. These patterns reflect entrenched stereotypes that are larger than the academy, of course.

Today, we see more men focusing on gender, including gender in their analysis, and using methods that have been typically associated with women, such as interviews. Qualitative analysis has risen in prestige, so men are more likely to pursue this kind of research than in the past. My guess is that the rise in prestige for qualitative work came before the men, though.

Peggy Levitt: Women and men are socialized differently inside and outside of the classroom, so the kinds of questions we ask and methods we use can be a reflection of that. I don’t think it is surprising that we see theory and doing theory as a higher-status activity than the work women tend to do, which tends to be more ethnographic and qualitative.

It’s a vicious circle, because women are socialized to ask certain kinds of questions, to be better listeners, and to be not as assertive or not as aggressive, so that also influences people’s choice of what to study and how to study it. Graduate school can also suck the genuine curiosity out of you—and this happens for men and women, though we respond to it differently. You are taught that you can’t say anything until you’ve read all the articles on a topic, so you become timid and avoid risk-taking. If women are socialized to be less assertive anyway, then they are hearing these messages from multiple sources.

Elaine Howard Ecklund: Religion, and not just the sociology of religion, has historically been a field dominated by men, and the sociology of religion does not yet have gender parity, though it is on its way.

And the solution is not just having more women—having women present is a necessary condition but it’s not a sufficient condition. We also need to think about our structures and how they can privilege male perspectives and opinions and keep women out of the picture or allow them in but still treat them in a perfunctory manner. We don’t want a perfunctory response. We need to think about what we are missing if we don’t have a diversity of people in the conversation at the table. We need multiple genders at the table for scholarly reasons.


Wendi Adamek: I don’t think of it so much as gender-based, but in my experience in all of my classes, there is a divide that I would like to do more to address. It is often the men who are good at traditional academic skills like confident speaking, organized presentation, debating points, linear arguments in papers, use of classic evidence-based reasoning—all of which I fully support and train students in—but I find that there is a minority of creative students who have difficulty expressing themselves. They are often women, though not necessarily, and, for whatever reason, they are not getting reinforcement to work out their own styles, and they just think differently.

I would love to have workshops, seminars, and peer-groups for people who feel challenged by the traditional academic skills. I had to learn the traditional skills by trial and error—especially argument. You have to be able to argue. I hear from students who feel terrified when they have to speak up. I’d like to get them into a peer-group and have speaking and writing exercises to help them make evidenced-based arguments but still be associative and creative, to give presentations on a topic without getting lost in the trees. All these skills I had to learn the hard way, but I’d like to give students a support group.

Elaine Howard Ecklund: We need to be encouraging women all around, but, more specifically, we must try very hard to help women students to learn how not to be deferential, which is particularly problematic in a culture where a few great men dominate, as in the study of religion. That can be intimidating, for example, at conferences. We need to teach women how to be assertive in public, not to be tentative, and to stop other habits that are professionally maladaptive.

We also have to help women develop resiliency in the face of rejection. It can be difficult to get published, and socialization may make women take rejection hard. Just anecdotally, from working with graduate students who are starting to publish, I’ve found that men tend to blame journal reviewers when they receive a rejection while women blame themselves. We need to teach women to learn from reviewers but not ruminate. Of course, these are things we need to train all people to do.


Elaine Howard Ecklund: The best mentor is one who is thinking about gender and equality. Robert Wuthnow, a mentor of mine at Princeton, is a great mentor of women who have done extremely well. And you need more than a formal mentor. Any marginalized group needs a bit of initial encouragement to stay on the path, and that can come from any kind of personal relationship. An advisor gives intellectual support, but it’s very important to have a social support group who unconditionally says “You can do this.” I did not take that seriously enough as an early career person.

Serene Jones: I always advise young women, wherever they are, to find a community of women to be mentors and a support system. For me, as a graduate student, it wasn’t just my official mentors but also a community of my peers that kept me happy. You need others to whom you are accountable and who are supporting you. Find those women, get close, and bond, and be present to each other.

Ann Taves: During my first seven years in Claremont (1983-1990), the feminist community was very strong and dynamic. Mary Daly had lectured there the year before I arrived and everyone was fired up. Nelle Morton, a prominent feminist theologian, retired in Claremont about that time as well and become a sort of spiritual mother for many of us. 

Laurie Maffly-Kipp: In addition to my formal mentors, I have also been “mentored” by groups of peers, including a writing group of women in history, literature, and anthropology that I have met with for nearly twenty years, and a cohort of faculty leaders who served as a sounding board for many important professional decisions. I try to learn something from everyone I meet.


Nancy Ammerman: I am intentional about including women in my syllabi. But even now, it’s pretty easy to put the initial draft of the syllabus together and then, after reviewing it, realize there are too many men and too few women and too many white people and too few people of color. You have to be intentional about your choices. Undergraduate students might not notice, but seminary students would crucify me if the list weren’t diverse. And, of course, they should care about diversity in the authors we read. It helps that the seminary classroom at Boston University, where I teach, is probably the most diverse classroom I’ve ever encountered—so there is almost nothing you can say that won’t offend someone. It’s a very difficult place to teach, but mostly it’s fun, and that diversity is a great thing.


Laurie Maffly-Kipp: My first suggestion is to stop seeing childbearing as a woman’s problem and to frame it as an issue for which young families (of all sorts) need support. Second, it requires women and men who are rearing children to be willing to teach their colleagues about what they need, since some problems arise out of sheer ignorance on the part of other faculty who simply don’t understand the particular expectations and pressures inherent in family life these days.

When I told my department chair (who had three children of his own) that I was pregnant with my first child, he was genuinely thrilled for me, and he assured me that the department would be a very supportive place. But it turned out that he had little idea how to give that support, because he didn’t know, in any practical sense, what it meant. I had to tell him that I couldn’t sit through a three-hour faculty meeting without a break because I was nursing and that I needed to be at home by 5:30 to spell my husband with the baby. When I brought it up, though, he was quite receptive (if not a bit embarrassed by my candor about the mechanics of breastfeeding). I taught him something.

Now, I know this isn’t always easy, since many of those raising children are either pre-tenure (as I was) or not on a tenure-track at all, and thus are more vulnerable. Finding other women on campus with similar situations helps. Finally, if faced with a willfully unyielding colleague, chair or dean: document, document, document. I could go on about this, and I’ve only scratched the surface by focusing on the local departmental level. Moreover, when you reach middle age many of us become caretakers for our parents, which also complicates one’s work. We’ve got to make our academic environments more humane and progressive on these issues.

Serene Jones: There is no way around the fact that having children and being a scholar and teaching full time—just in terms of labor—is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. The academy has done little work to equalize the burden of child rearing. The first six years of a child’s life, in particular, are so hard.

For women in earlier stages of their career, we need to rethink their tenure calendars. And each school needs to work on its leave policies, both maternal leave and parental leave. Some of the problem is not just institutional but cultural, especially around household labor. Researchers at Berkeley tracked the effects of childbearing on women in academia, and their study shows that women with children are the least likely of all people to get tenure—while men with children and wives do better than anyone else. It was astonishing when that study came out, and little has changed. We have to fight that and change it, not just for women but for the academy, because the long-term effect is that the university is less attractive to women. The answer to that is not for women to be childless.


Elaine Howard Ecklund: Even with an increased number of women working in the sociology of religion, there aren’t many women who are named chairs in universities. The number of women in the sociology of religion who hold tenure track jobs, earn tenure, get published, and get cited is not changing as fast as we would expect, giving that we are seeing gender parity in terms of who earns a graduate degree. There are conversations happening to bring more women into the sociology of religion, but it’s beleaguering in some ways. And for those who make it to the higher-profile positions, it can be lonely. You may experience isolation as you go up the career ladder because you have fewer peers in general and certainly fewer peers who are women.

Serene Jones: Because of how they are socialized, some women may lead differently than men—and people engage you differently because you are a woman.

There are different ideas about you, and people choose to interact with you differently. On that score, we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface as a culture. We have so many more models of how men lead than we do for women. Even though women have always been leading, we’ve had so many more men in positions we recognize as leadership.

I think this is changing, but when people look at me in an authority role, the experiences they’ve had with women shape how they see me. They may not know how to think about me because they don’t have a suitable template. Should I think about her as my mother? My girlfriend? My daughter? My best friend? My elementary school teacher? There is not a storehouse of information to draw from to help them understand how to interact with a woman leader. As a woman leader, you are always plowing new psychic territory.

It’s also new psychic territory for me. My own sense of what it means to be woman leader is also constantly evolving. I’ve been president at Union Theological Seminary for seven years, and in the earlier years, I was much more anxious about figuring out how I would lead because I had never done it before. As time has gone by and I really begin to feel comfortable in the clothes of leadership, I don’t spend as much time thinking about how to lead. Though it still percolates, I’m just more competent to lead because of my experience.


CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this piece the transcript of Ann Taves’ responses had been edited to suggest that she worked directly with Mary Daly. The text has been corrected. RD regrets the error.