WSRP Associates Share New Location and Ideas

At first glance, it might appear that the five research associates with the Women's Studies in Religion Program at HDS this year don't have much in common—other than the fact that they're all women. To an extent probably greater than ever before, these 2001-02 resident scholars represent a startling range of academic specialization, ethnicity, religious background, and geographical origin. 

Yet as they have shared their ideas since September, the five scholars have discovered that their work is interrelated in stimulating and sometimes uncanny ways. The art historian who studies the role of gender, sacrifice, and blood in determining ancient sacred spaces (Joan Branham) has plenty to talk about with the literary scholar who is working on a book on Eve in Jewish literature (Anne Lerner). There are significant historical and experiential sympathies between the ethicist who writes about evil and the experience of African American women in the church (Emilie Townes) and the historian who studies Choctaw women's roles in the French colonial period (Michelene Pesantubbee). And the South Asian studies scholar (Vijaya Nagarajan), who focuses on a daily ritual practice in southern India called the kolam, spans so many disciplines in her research that she always seems to find points of contact with the other four, and they with her. All five scholars are, of course, grateful for their year at Harvard Divinity School because it allows them more time than usual to concentrate on their own work, but all say they are equally thankful for the opportunity to learn from one another.

It is just this kind of intense interdisciplinary relationship that the Women's Studies in Religion Program was designed to provide when it was founded in 1973. Each academic year, the program brings five scholars in religion and women's studies to HDS so that they can conduct primary research while also teaching a course related to that research as well as giving a public lecture during the spring semester. The goal is to generate crucial scholarship not only for the academy but also for religious communities, policy makers, and educational institutions at all levels.

"Well over 100 research associates have participated in the WSRP Program over the years," says Ann Braude, the WSRP director and Senior Lecturer in American Religion. "Together, they have produced a body of scholarship that has helped transform the study of religion and the theological education of ministers and religious leaders. Their publications challenge many long-held assumptions about women, leadership, authority, and values."The 2001-02 research associates have been in closer dialogue with one another than ones in the past, says Braude. "The program's new home in the Carriage House has intensified the intellectual exchange among the research associates," she explained. "It's been a pleasure to see how much this year's group has become a part of the life of the School, marching in convocation, attending community tea, and interacting with students."

Following are brief descriptions of the 2001-02 WSRP research associates and their work, although the best way to get a sense of their scholarship is to attend their public lectures in the coming months.

Joan Branham

Joan Branham is associate professor of art history at Providence College, where she focuses on the interaction of religion and material culture in ancient and medieval periods. While a PhD candidate at Emory University, Joan conducted much of her doctoral research at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, examining "sacred space" as it was formulated rhetorically and architecturally in late antiquity. In articles such as "Sacred Space under Erasure in Ancient Synagogues and Early Churches" (The Art Bulletin, 1992) and "Vicarious Sacrality: Temple Space in Ancient Synagogues" (Ancient Synagogues, 1995), she has discussed the complicated influence of the ancient Jewish Temple of Jerusalem—the paradigm of sacred space—on formative synagogues and churches. This study is forthcoming as a book, from Cambridge University Press. 

Currently, Joan's interdisciplinary approach questions the role of gender, sacrifice, and blood in determining sacred spaces. What systems are at work to designate sacrificial blood (animal, Eucharistic) as the most sacred substance in a space and reproductive blood (menses, lochia) the most profane? At HDS, Joan's research and seminar, "Sacred Space as Gendered Space," which she taught in the fall semester, address critical theories of sacred space, as well as visual and textual representations of women in proximity to sacrificial arenas.

"The Women's Studies in Religion Program has been an ideal hub from which to work," Branham said. "It has allowed me to connect to extensive scholarly activity at Harvard in history of religions, gender studies, and art history, but has also provided me with an intimate group of colleagues for dialogue and support. This year of researching and teaching in an environment of intellectual curiosity and excellence can only be described as a dream come true." Branham's broader interests in the humanities have also led her to act as both on and off-camera consultant for PBS and Discovery Channel documentary films, such as "A History of Blood," "Women Pharaohs," "American Byzantine," "Hagia Sophia," "Qumran: Doomsday Cult," and "Ancient Skywatchers."

Anne Lerner

Anne Lapidus Lerner of Jewish Theological Seminary is fascinated by the way that later writers reinterpret the texts, contexts, and interstices of the Hebrew Bible as a basis for their own writing. This year, she is working on a book on Eve in Jewish literature and teaching a course on Eve in Jewish and Christian Literature called "Reflections of Eve" (spring semester). Her book Passing the Love of Women: A Study of Gide's 'Saül' and Its Biblical Roots examines the way in which the French writer André Gide used the Saul stories from I Samuel.

"This program has been an oasis where I find shelter in the company of scholars interested in my work who expand my intellectual horizons with theirs," Lerner said. "It provides a stimulating safe space to try out new approaches and to hone ideas. What a blessing!"

Lerner's scholarly interests include the study of modern Jewish literature, particularly modern poetry; the reinterpretation of classical texts by modern writers; and the position of women in Judaism. Among her publications is Who Has Not Made Me a Man: The Movement for Equal Rights for Women in American Judaism, which has become a classic study of the interaction between the second wave of American feminism and Judaism. Co-director of the Gender and Text conference that was held at JTS in 1990, Lerner is among the editors of the volume Gender and Text: Feminist Approaches to Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature, published by JTS and distributed by Harvard University Press. She has also published several scholarly articles on the Hebrew poet Esther Raab. 

Lerner received her PhD degree from Harvard University. A member of the department of Jewish literature at JTS since 1969 and director of the school's Jewish Women's Studies Program, which she founded in 1995, Lerner has also served JTS as associate dean of the graduate school, dean of List College, and vice chancellor. The first woman to hold that last post at JTS, Lerner was one of the highest ranking women in American Jewish institutional life. As vice chancellor, she focused on bringing Jewish knowledge to the lay community through adult education. 

She is married to Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner of Congregation Kanfei Shahar of Teaneck, New Jersey, and founding director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism. Lerner's voluntary commitments include frequent service as a cantor at her synagogue and lay leadership positions, including four years as vice president for education at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County. She is on the editorial boards of Women's League Outlook, Hadassah, Judaism, and Lilith.

Vijaya Nagarajan

Vijaya Rettakudi Nagarajan has been an assistant professor in the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco since 1997. She completed her PhD in South Asian studies with an emphasis on Tamil literature, anthropology, and art history at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1998. Her undergraduate training was in environmental studies and engineering.  Nagarajan has conducted a series of public dialogues on the theme of Voice, Memory and Landscape with writers such as Arundhati Roy, Peter Mattheissen, Ivan Illich, and Maxine Hong Kingston, and has taught a course on that theme. She also teaches courses on Hinduism, religion and nonviolence, religion and environment, and religion and ecology. She also assisted in creating an environmental studies program at USF.

This year, Nagarajan is completing a book-length manuscript on Hindu women's understanding of ritual, gender, and ecology through the lens of a daily ritual practice, the kolam, rice-flour patterns made by hand on thresholds of homes, temples, and businesses by millions of Tamil women in southern India. These ephemeral designs resemble in some ways Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand-painting ceremonies. "Women's sense of power and powerlessness, their sensibility toward the sensuality embedded within Hindu daily practices, are what I am interested in exploring," she explained. "To have this research project on location here, and to write this book here in what is probably the most religiously, intellectually, and ethnically diverse program I have ever been a part of in my scholarly career, gives value not just to the project but also legitimizes women's voices from the other side of the world." 

"To have research associates who range in interests, and who are senior and junior, has provided a rich, productive, engaged space," Nagarajan continued. "My research is situated in many different fields and this home of WSRP within the wider Harvard intellectual community has provided me with a wide enough lens angle for the multiple points of view I work with. I have been struck by how inviting, affectionate, and inclusive the community has been—not only to me, but also to my family, my husband and two twin infant daughters."

Nagarajan taught a seminar in the fall entitled "Women, Ritual and Ecology in Hinduism," which she says was "fantastic" and "increased my desires to bring this work to a larger public than I had imagined before."

Among her publications are "(In)Corporating Threshold Art: Kolam Competitions, Patronage and Colgate" in Religions/Globalization: Theories and Cases, eds. Lois Lorentzen, Dwight Hopkins, David Batstone, and Eduardo Mandieta (Duke University Press); "Rituals of Embedded Ecologies: Drawing Kolams, Marrying Trees and Generating Auspiciousness," in Hinduism and Ecology, eds. Christopher Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School); "The Earth as Goddess Bhudevi: Towards a Theory of Embedded Ecologies in Folk Hinduism," in Purifying the Earthly Body of God, ed. Lance Nelson (State University of New York Press); "Hosting the Divine: The Kolam in Tamil Nadu," in Mud, Mirror and Thread: Folk Traditions in Rural India (Museum of New Mexico Press). 

For the last 20 years, she has also been affiliated with several nongovernmental organizations, including the Recovery of the Commons Project. She has also been co-director of the Institute for the Study of Natural and Cultural Resources, for which she has helped produce hundreds of public events and dialogues with artists and activists. She lives in Berkeley with her husband, Lee Swenson, and their twin daughters, Jaya and Uma. 

Michelene Pesantubbee

Michelene E. Pesantubbee is an assistant professor of religious studies at the  University of Colorado in Boulder. She specializes in Native American religious  traditions, particularly among the Choctaw and Cherokee in the southeastern United States. Her doctoral dissertation, "Cult of Domesticity or Cultural Continuity? Choctaw Women and the Protestant Church," was based on extensive field work. Pesantubbee received her PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, but did her undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma, in her home state.

As a WSRP associate, Pesantubbee is working on a book-length manuscript about Choctaw women's roles during the French colonial period in the Louisiana Territory. This spring, she is teaching the course "Native American Women and Religious Colonization."

"As a Choctaw growing up in an Indian Methodist church with Cherokees and Creeks who still have a living ceremonial cycle, I have always tried to understand how the Choctaw could so completely lose their ceremonies," Pesantubbee said. "This book is a culmination of my efforts to understand the nature of culture loss and retention particularly as it applies to Choctaw women."

"I am very thankful for the support of the WSRP director and the other research associates who have given me wonderful feedback on my manuscript," she continued. "This year has given me the time and resources to work on this book, not only for tenure purposes, but also for other Choctaw who want to know their history."

Pesantubbee's publications include "Cult of Domesticity or Cultural Continuity? Choctaw Women and the Protestant Church" in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (June 1999) and "From Vision to Violence: The Wounded Knee Massacre," a chapter in Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence (2000). She is currently co-chair of the Native Traditions in the Americas Group (American Academy of Religion), a board member of the Center for the American West, and a member of the Society for the Study of Native American Religious Traditions. 

Emilie Townes

Emilie Townes, an ordained American Baptist clergywoman, is a native of Durham, North Carolina. She holds a doctor of ministry degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a PhD in Religion in Society and Personality from Northwestern University. She is professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Townes's primary area of concern is African American women in the church. Her writing, teaching, and activism have centered on this subject and on drawing the linkages among race, gender, class, and other forms of oppression. While at HDS, she is focusing on the interrelationship between culture and evil, working on a project entitled "Dismantling Evil: Black Women's Religious Moral Wisdom in the Analysis and Critique of the Cultural Production of Evil." Her spring course is entitled "The Political Economy of Misery."

"This program gives me time to reflect and write—it is a wonderful renewal for me as a scholar," Townes said. "The demands of my regular academic life means that I rarely have time to have a sustained thought that isn't related to a committee meeting or the classroom. Being able to do so here in the company of such talented women as the other research associates, Ann Braude's supportive presence, and the vast resources of the Divinity School and the Yard have been nothing short of a gift for me this year."

Before taking the job at UTS, Townes served as professor of Christian social ethics and black church ministries at Saint Paul School of Theology and instructor in the department of religious studies at DePaul University. Additionally, she served as an adjunct professor of ethics and society at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary and was a member of the field education staff. She has also been an adjunct professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Townes served as interim pastoral leader of Christ the Redeemer Metropolitan Community Church for three years. She is a past-chair of the Board of Directors of reStart, Inc.—an interfaith agency for the homeless in Kansas City. Townes also served on the Commission on Life and Theology of the American Baptist Churches and on the National Commission on the Ministry. She is a former member of the General Board of the American Baptist Church.

Townes is the co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She is also the editor of two anthologies, A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering and Embracing the Spirit: Womanist Perspectives on Hope, Salvation, and Transformation. Her own books include Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope and In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness. Her most recent book is Breaking the Fine Rain of Death: African American Health Issues and a Womanist Ethic of Care, which related to her second area of research, women and health in the African diaspora with attention to Brazil and the United States.