On Being an Academic Mennonite Woman

Sitting at Statue by Ruth Orkin

Sitting at Statue by Ruth Orkin

A few weeks ago I was at the AAR meeting in Baltimore.  I was at a reception with two of my colleagues (who are young, white, men – also exceptional scholars and great friends!) when a young man approached us. He introduced himself to my colleague, shook his hand enthusiastically, and before I could introduce myself he launched into some scholarly soliloquy (I don’t even remember what they talked about).  My colleague took notice and interrupted his self-important networking speech introducing me as his colleague. The young man paused, glanced at me, and promptly continued speaking with my colleague. Needless to say, this awkward interaction didn’t last long, considering neither my colleague nor I  were all that impressed with this character. This interaction reminded of how often women experience this kind of treatment, and much worse. (Don’t believe me? Go read this blog on being a woman in philosophy -or any male dominated discipline in the academy).

I also reflected on how isolated these kinds of experiences have been for me, realizing that most of the push-back I’ve encountered as a woman academic has been less in the academy than it has been in the church – specifically, among Mennonite churches.

Several people I have spoken to about this recently have asked me for specific instances in which I have been dis-valued as a woman academic in the Mennonite church and I have had trouble providing these because it’s more of an ethos that I have experienced than dramatic isolated events. I have felt like my lack of “substantial evidence” is then taken as a way to delegitimze my claims, or at least cast serious suspicion on them. So, here’s what I’ve got.

When thinking about social power people have a tendency to reduce their analysis to their subjective experiences. Looking at social power dynamics from your own experiences is good. However, the other requirement of social power anaylsis is to look at objective social-economic-political conditions.  Only considering subjective experience quickly brings debates to an impasse because everyone has been discriminated against/marginalized, etc (i.e. relativism).  Considering objective conditions locates these experiences with in a broader framework where talking about privilege and marginalization is meaningful (i.e. relativity).

A Story
Back when I had started my undergraduate degree I joined my parents for a roadtrip down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to visit some of our relatives there. One evening, while staying at my aunt and uncle’s place, they invited a couple of their friends over for the evening.  It just so happened that my mother and my aunt were inside exchanging recipes while I sat on the porch with my father and my uncle who would usually discuss all sorts of interesting topics.  When the couple arrived, the woman joined my mother and aunt inside while the man came out back to join us. He greeted my uncle, he greeted my father, shook both their hands, looked at me, and then sat down and began to talk with them.  He respectfully inquired into my father’s occupation, his family, and then (this is where it gets good) asked about his children. My father answered all the questions except one.  The man finally asked my father: “and what does your daughter do?” Without missing  a beat my father redirects the question to me: “well, she can answer for herself.” The man looked at me uncomfortably. I replied that I was a student at Canadian Mennonite University (emphasizing the “Mennonite,” hoping that the word might ease his mind). He turned his attention back to my father and asked: “And what does she study there?” My father again redirected to me. I cautiously answered, “I’m studying Biblical and Theological Studies.” He didn’t say a word, turning to my uncle changing the topic. We must have sat out there for a couple of hours and the man did not so much as acknowledge my presence once even though I continued to participate in the conversation the three men were having. Even though both my father and my uncle continued to converse with me. We finally went inside when the other couple they had invited came over. This man had brought his fiddle and we were looking forward to him play (good ‘ol Orange Blossom Special).  He had only played a few tunes when my aunt or uncle mentioned that I also play the violin.  I was immediately handed the instrument and expected to play – and I gladly did so. While I played the first tune I noticed a change in the man who wouldn’t acknowledge me. He watched and listened intently as I played and when I finished he clapped and immediately asked me how long I had been playing and if I could play more (oh so studying theology is not a worthwhile thing for me to do but entertaining others by playing the fiddle is – duly noted…). I did play more and he continued to speak to me about playing the fiddle.

Now, before the Mennonites reading this get all up in arms (non-violently, of course) about how this doesn’t reflect their church experience, this isn’t the reality at the conference level of the church, and how many Mennonite churches do value and support their academics and theological work, let me just emphasize that I am writing from my experience in the church I have attended all my life, some of the Mennonite communities I have been in, and other academic Mennonite women I have talked to. Also, I’m pretty sure my experiences here are not isolated, an exception to the rule, but that my readers who would object might be surprised by how many women academics have encountered this in Mennonite churches and communities.

A few observations and questions
I have general observed that in Mennonite post-secondary education there are more male students in biblical and theological studies than female students. This inequality continues to grow in the upper years of undergraduate studies and is especially noticeable by the number of men compared to women at the graduate level and beyond. (I have chosen to reflect on theology simply because it’s the discipline I’m in).

Some questions I have for churches:
How many women (compared to men) attend/ed university? How many in graduate programs/phds? How many women are on your preaching schedule? How many woman lead book/bible studies? How many women in your congregation are studying theology or biblical studies (or have)? What kinds of gifts might the academics in your church have to offer? What kinds of gifts do they already share? What kinds of space does your church make for academics to share their gifts? How does your church support and encourage academics, specifically women? How many Mennonite scholars are women? Compared with men, how many women are professors of theology, biblical studies? What about other male dominated disciplines? How many women who have graduated with theology degrees have gone on to graduate work? How many haven’t? Have you ever inquired as to why? Have you ever encouraged a woman to study theology? To pursue grad studies?