I cleared away three stacks of books I was reading to prepare for the next chapter of my dissertation. I replaced books on urban sociology, pneumatology, and Mariology with carefully arranged plump green grapes, wedges of cheese, some cured meats, and an assortment of crackers on my oversized wooden cutting board. After spending hours alone with the books written by mostly male authors, it was a nice reprieve to open my small Pasadena bungalow to my doctoral colleagues, all of whom were women. This is how I survived academic patriarchy.
I love new beginnings. Graduations, weddings, babies — they are all hopeful signs to me for what is to come. Because of this, I have spent several years working during orientation week of my last three institutions to welcome incoming students each fall. During one of those orientation weeks, I was helping set up lunch for the incoming Theology PhD students. There was a group of about 20, all of them men. As I set up the lunch for them, one student of color came into the room and made his way over to introduce himself to me and thank me for the lunch. Maybe he approached me because we were both students of color, maybe he’s just courteous to everyone when he walks in a room. It appeared to me that to the rest of the group, I was unseen. I was a meal provider and nothing more — simply background to their important foreground of being PhD students. They had no idea I was their colleague or even potential TA, and given that I was the only woman in the room, they didn’t have a lot of reason to believe so.
As it turns out, there were a couple of women in this incoming class that weren’t able to make it to the lunch, but that made two out of 22 incoming students women. I had three women in my own cohort of 13. Where were the women? Why didn’t I know them? There were so few of us at this school, I felt that we should all know each other in our already small fields. I was determined to find the other women PhD students because I knew that although there were few of us, there were still some of us, and chances are we had all gone unseen or unnoticed even by one another.
According to a 2016 study by the Association of Theological Schools, women constitute less than 40% of doctoral students in ATS schools. The implications for this may be why there are often fewer female faculty available. In the same study, ATS found that women made up no more than 30% of full-time faculty in ATS schools. This number may have changed over the past few years, but it is a good indication of the general trajectory of women in theological studies.
Given the study findings of ATS, it’s no wonder why I had felt so alone in my own doctoral program. In addition, I experienced another phenomenon that may have been unique to our female colleagues. After spending three hours with our PhD cohort, the two other women in my group and I would informally gather and ask each other, “Was it okay that I said that?” or “I hope I didn’t come off as…” or any number of other statements belying our imposter syndrome. In addition, one of the other women in my cohort, who was from a country outside of the US, asked me often how I knew about this conference or that writing opportunity or that scholarship. She was not only navigating male culture in our classes, she was also navigating US culture and even more specifically US theological doctoral culture.
It was at this point that I decided action needed to be taken: we needed a gathering. I loaded up a charcuterie board with cheese and fruits and meats, laid out beverages, and then opened the doors to my little bungalow unit just off of campus. I had no agenda or plan or even mission. My main goal was to gather the women PhD students so we could see each other and share with each other. Once a month in my little living room, we gathered and shared our latest published articles, or what we were planning to present at the next conference, or stresses over papers and comp exams and dissertation writing.
From an outsider's perspective, it may have looked like I started a book club of sorts. What we were actually doing was an act of resistance. We were resisting the narratives of a patriarchal education system that has worked against women in certain fields for as long as formal education has been available. We were resisting the colonizing tactic of keeping people divided and separated. We were resisting a system that had overlooked women. We were taking matters into our own hands without waiting for someone to create a program for us. As we spread brie over our crackers and drank wine or sparkling cider, we gathered and we resisted.
This resistance happens in the method of the gathering. I did not create an agenda or anything that would suggest we needed to have some productivity from the group. The gathering of the group was and is the product itself. Relationships, sharing, conversation, wisdom building, networking, supporting, encouraging, and inspiring are all the products of gathering.
I have led a few different community groups in this style of gathering and have frustrated men who are comfortable using traditional leadership models (i.e. patriarchal and hierarchical) with my method of gathering. “What’s the point?” “What’s the objective?” A frustrated would-be member of another group I was convening (this one on a national scale, gathering Filipino theological scholars) didn’t like the soft structure of our group. I answered him, “We are not a movement yet. We have been divided for centuries by our Spanish and American colonizers and our first act of building is to gather. That is it. We will gather and see each other and get to know each other first and for a while. As we gather we can find our vision and objectives together, as a community.” Discouraged by the apparent lack of “vision” or “structure,” he left the group.
That national group of Filipino theological scholars has been gathering for over five years now. We have increased our presence as a community and are now working toward becoming our own non-profit organization. We gathered first. We saw each other first. We listened to each other and encouraged each other. Gathering means being who we are, as we are, and holding our communal group in resistance to the systems that do not want or value us for who we are, as we are. Sometimes, putting out a cheese plate and some wine is enough to fight the systems for the day.
Photo by Foodie Girl on StockSnap