October 13, 2003

Conference addresses women's issues

The University played host to over 40 scholars last week for a three-day conference entitled "Women and American Religion," a symposium that addressed the need to include women's experiences and stories in the canon of American religion.

The conference, held at Swift Hall, began with remarks from keynote speaker Anne Bradue, who considered the "continuity between religion and feminism" and traced the progressive melding of theses two spheres.

Braude, director of the Women's Studies on Religion Program and a senior lecturer in American religious history at Harvard's Divinity School, touched on a wide range of topics: the relevance of the second-wave feminist movement to American religion, the relevance of anti-Semitism to anti-feminism, and the misconception that feminism is a necessary agent of secularism.

"Religion has to be addressed in approaching feminism," Braude said.

The conference's crowd was composed mostly of academics, researchers, and a considerable number of graduate students. Audience members came for both personal interest and to present academic research in many subjects, including theology, history, and women's studies.

Alyson Dickson, a Ph.D. student in historical studies in American religion at Vanderbilt, and Samira Mehta, a Masters of Divinity student at Harvard, both flew into Chicago to discuss academic issues that pertain to their fields of expertise.

Dickson is mostly interested in colonialism as well as religious conservatism's relevance to women's history.

"I'm here because I want to explore this area particularly. For me, it's one of the most challenging parts of approaching women in a historical context," she said.

Mehta was more interested in women and religion in the 19th century.

Workshops and plenary sessions began Thursday morning and ran through Friday afternoon, which had titles such as, "Hail Mary Down by the Riverside: Black and White Catholic Women in Early America," "The Path to ¬ĎAmericanization': Women and the Restructuring of American Judaism," and "Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets."

In the workshop titled, "Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets," six men and 16 women discussed a paper written by Elizabeth Reis of the University of Oregon. Clark Gilpin, a professor in the Divinity School, introduced the paper's author and began the discussion.

The group explored a diverse range of topics, exchanging ideas about subjects such as the history of women's angel encounters and Calvinism.

Gilpin said the University of Chicago was well suited for such a conference because of its rich academic history. "The whole field of religious studies was practically invented here," he said. "Since the '20s and '30s, the school has been interested in America's ¬Ďreligion' as a whole."

He added that institutions of higher learning have the responsibility to revisit historical issues and discuss how women's issues relate to them.