Squinting at Justice

A view from a scenic overlook

One of the luxuries of summer at the Women’s Center is having some additional time to sit back and reflect on why we do what we do, with an eye towards making the connections between our mission statement and our program more articulate for students and members of the wider community. What motivates the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center? When the Women’s Center achieves its pre-eminent objective, what will it have achieved? Of the various ways that question could be answered, perhaps the best is that a vision of comprehensive gender justice will have come to fully inform our understanding of good human life, our continuing strivings for the developed life of the church, and our anticipations of God’s realm of justice and peace. That is another way of saying that the task of the Women’s Center is to “write the vision” of full justice in matters of gender, large and clear enough that people can catch it, and brightly enough that they are inspired to pass it on. Saying that, however, also discloses the perilous nature of this project, or mission. Because writing any vision, especially a vision of justice to be sought and achieved, is always perilous; writing a vision of gender justice in particular is doubly perilous; and whether anyone in the Women’s Center is in a position to do so is open to question over and over again.

The problem of blurry vision
There is always a problem with articulating a vision of the desirable future. That problem stems from the mismatch between the people we are, with the knowledge we have, based on a knowable world that is far from good and just, and the reality of that other, fully different, world. It is a mistake to label the gulf between this world and that one “unbridgeable.” The bridge between those worlds is transformation itself. But the effects of transformation are holistic, affecting our desires and preferences, the very categories of our knowledge, our social arrangements, everything. For that reason, the present is never the best place to catch the vision of the good world in all its clarity and precision. We don’t get good reception, we might say, on this side of the bridge. At best we have approximations, of unmeasurable degrees of blurriness.

Worse, however, once we latch on to that distorted image, we can quickly cast it in stone. What first strikes us as a grandiose, almost unimaginably utopian vision of realized justice hardens over time into shackles of injustice around the ankles of the pilgrim community, making it harder and harder to move down the road of transformation. The people called to live into a world of harmonious justice and peace are also called to move past the impediments to that justice and peace as transformation in the direction of that justice and peace reveals them to be impediments. We, however, often prefer to enshrine our first, dim intuitions of beckoning justice as timeless, unalterable commands. For this reason, there is always a perilous and potentially treacherous balance to be struck between articulating a clear and attractive vision, and leaving room for the maturation and transformation of that vision.

The special problem of gender
If articulating any vision is problematic, articulating a vision of change that involves gender is especially so. The special problem that besets gender justice arises from the extraordinarily close, constitutive, and confounded relationship gender has to us and to the realities we are capable of perceiving as delightful enough to want to run towards. Gender is a basic category of human identity and human relationship, and it is everywhere; none of our social arrangements fail to incorporate it, none of our meanings lie outside of it. As a consequence, our definitions of concepts like “justice” and “equality” always already incorporate concrete understandings of the gendered way things are, always already incorporate our “blind spots” — with respect to what it means to be a real person, for instance, and how gender plays into that — and our visceral understandings of normality — with respect to what constitutes “violence,” for instance, in contrast to ordinary enforcement of normal standards of deferential behavior. Our very imaginations of what would be good, pleasant, desirable, are formed in and by a world of existing gender arrangements, and the desires of our hearts are saturated with their colors. A vision of gender justice painted in truer colors can easily seem pale, or garish, alongside the familiar injustices we have learned to long for.

The precarious position of the present
The Women’s Center and its staff are aware of these problems, and aware that we are not exempt from them. So we are also aware that whatever concrete vision we have of comprehensive gender justice is partial, provisional, open to examination and question, and liable to change and continuing articulation. The most certain elements of the vision we have are negative ones: gender justice won’t include violence against women and girls, will be incompatible with rape and sexual abuse, will not sacralize the silencing of women’s critical insights or the sidelining of women’s gifts and talents. Gender justice would not forget to remember the history of women’s participation in and contribution to human society, including the society of the church. Comprehensive gender justice would not walk hand in hand with the implicit knowledge that “man” is the normal standard for humanity, and “woman” needs to be considered only in exceptional circumstances. But such negative criteria leave open for discernment and development the ways real life could take shape to give positive expression to the world without those particular forms of suffering. So much remains to be seen.

But for that very reason, we believe, the project and mission of the Women’s Center that is the struggle to imagine and envision the concrete character of gender justice contributes to the ongoing project and mission of living into the Reign of Heaven. Because the challenges of vision are not, ultimately, unique to the Women’s Center or to the project of gender justice. They are problems core to the social, political, and economic mission of the church as a whole. We hope and trust that our lives and our work are moving in the direction of that just and peaceful world promised in scripture. But as we move, we learn, and change. We notice old sufferings as new problems, recognize hitherto marginalized people — sometimes, ourselves — as centrally important for an understanding of justice, and so come to realize that standards of justice we once thought expansive are still inadequate, even as we must acknowledge that the emerging standards are not yet fully clear.

So we are in the position of squinting at the justice we long to see: trying to make out the shape of something a little too distant to see clearly, while trying to move in its general direction. Of course we look forward to the time when we no longer see as through a glass, dimly and blurrily, but with perfect clarity. But in the meantime, it helps to know that from time to time we arrive at something like a scenic overlook, when the view becomes momentarily clear, even breathtaking. Then, the project, or mission, of the Women’s Center is to point, and shout, so that everyone can see what we see.


“for the building of community . . .”

The doctrine of the Trinity represents the effort to approach God as community in the depths of the divine being

Fourth in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally.”

What does it mean to work for the building of community locally, nationally and globally, and why would this task of building community be important — so important that it is one of the missions of the Women’s Center? How would we even begin to go about that mission?

“Community” is a word with many and contested meanings; sociologists, who presumably know something about what communities are, reportedly have over 90 different uses of the term. The difficulty seems to arise around what dimensions are critical for identifying “community.” Everyone knows it has something to do with a group of people, but does that group of people need to (1) occupy a shared space, like a village, a city, or a country; (2) share interests and ideas; (3) work and live together, in specific ways – for instance, cooperate on projects, with or without a specific “communal” quality of interaction; (4) have a sense of “belonging” to one another, a shared identity? Those are some of the more common identifiers of community. They may combine in various ways in real live groupings of people, giving rise to the question of whether any particular group constitutes a community.

Without being too doctrinaire, or identifying ourselves too closely with one or another sociological school, we might note that most of the activities of the Women’s Center have a community-building component, almost by definition, and usually by design. It has something to do with the fact that the programs and activities of the Women’s Center are built around assembling, gathering, communicating, often involving concerted action, or sharing food. Those are all fundamental community-creating activities, as we understand it.

So, the Women’s Center as a space provides a focal point for the building of a community that can identify itself by its relationship to that space: Friends of the Women’s Center, the people who have come to know themselves and one another in and through gathering, interacting, and working in that space, in the direction of a mission that we have come to understand better in the course of working for it.

As an educational space and program, the Women’s Center articulates and disseminates ideas, and identifies and cultivates interests — both in the sense of what people come to care about, and in the sense of what is beneficial or necessary for people. That is, we understand that it is in seminarians’ best interest to become more interested in gender issues, and to have opportunities to explore that developing interest. So building a community of interest focused on gender issues grows out of the other elements of the Women’s Center’s mission. And as an educational space and program focused on gender, it almost goes without saying, those gender-focused efforts tend to cultivate the community of interest, in both senses, that builds on shared experiences of gendered embodiment in our shared social contexts. We hope they also cultivate the wider community of interest that can build on shared awareness of and care for those experiences, however different our gendered embodiments.

As a collaborative organization, which accomplishes its activities by organizing planning groups and mobilizing wider participation in the execution of its activities and programs, the Women’s Center’s work tends towards the development of a community in the sense of a group of people who work together. Over time, the growing group of people drawn together by the experiences of having once worked on such projects, at different times, with different goals, becomes an inter-generational community as well. Members of that community may not have worked on the same project in the same year, but can recognize themselves as collaborators in a larger effort that reaches across the years.

The greater goal of all of this community-building activity is precisely the formation of a community in the sense of mutual belonging, of shared identification — with the mission, the purposes, of the Women’s Center, which is to say, with the mission, the purpose, of justice for all people, and an understanding of justice as a project that requires attention to gender and the elimination of injustices based on gender. And while we believe that one day this community ought to be co-terminous with the Christian community, which ought to be fully committed to the promotion of social righteousness and the exhibition of the reign of heaven to the world, and then with the inter-faith community, which ought to be fully committed to global justice and peace, we recognize that the building of a community that shares this belief about what justice entails — respect for and celebration of women’s divinely-created humanity and a divinely-created humanity’s gendered diversity — is an indispensable step in that direction.

All of which helps to indicate why this mission is important. Community is that embodied form of life together that cultivates the goods of human life, and the recognition and appreciation of those goods, specifically in their location in one another and our relationships one to another. Community, then, is something more than expedient relations of exchange, or co-existence in space, such as might characterize anonymous transactional relations in our society. Community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people, with individuated gifts and strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities, stories and aspirations. For us, community involves recognition of ourselves and one another as people whose lives are equally the work of a God who is always already community in the depths of the divine being, and who has created us to be, become, and display the image of that community in our own lives.

So as we walk across the 2nd Street bridge in the Louisville AIDS Walk, as we communicate with friends in Wisconsin or Odessa, as we raise money and contribute to the healing of victims of violence in Kinshasa, as we gather to share conversation around a shared lunch or breakfast table in the shared space that is the Women’s Center, and come to share one another’s concerns, questions, stories, triumphs and dreams in the process, we are building community, and living towards the encompassing community for whose arrival we long, which is the real missio Dei.

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

We hope members of the extended community cultivated in and by the Women’s Center will contribute to the community-building work of the Women’s Center during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

“unveiling . . . continuing oppression . . .”

Workers in a New York Sweatshop, Shoshana, Oil on canvas, 1944

Third in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

The Women’s Center’s mission statement commits us to work “for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations.

The term “unveiling” suggests that this continuing oppression is hidden rather than obvious. Some readers may see a contradiction in the notion of unveiling for that reason. Oppression seems like something that would be obvious, rather than something hidden and in need of unveiling. It might be helpful to recall the definition of the verb “to oppress:”

  1. to burden or keep in subjugation by harsh and unjust use of force or authority; tyrannize;
  2. to lie heavy upon physically or mentally; weigh down; depress; dispirit.

As that definition makes more clear, a range of phenomena constitute oppression. The symbol of the dictator on the balcony, addressing the tank commanders about to crush the rebellious populace, captures one of its forms — not the most common. Oppression can be much less public, like the dictatorial control exercised by a violent and abusive husband. Oppression can be so subtle it blends into the background of ordinary daily life. It can include the persistent weight and dispiriting effect of never seeing a face like one’s own in a position of respect and admiration, or of references to one’s group apart from messages of its negativity, evil, incompetence, triviality, stupidity, or inconsequentiality. It can be as quiet as always being ignored. That private, subtle, silent oppression also demands exposure.

Unveiling is necessary, in part, because our culture is always too eager to announce the job of ending oppression accomplished. When it comes to women’s lives, many — especially including white middle class women — have been willing in recent decades to accept the assertion that the last century’s feminism achieved its goals and is now passé. The continuing challenges faced by working class women, women of color, and women in the two-thirds world become invisible in that outlook, as do the enduring structures of patriarchy. Similarly, our culture is always ready to ignore the multi-faceted character of gender-based oppression. The Women’s Center understands the mission of “unveiling continuing opression” to extend to all those who suffer injustice for reasons of gender. So we feel the need to call attention to, for example, the effects of bullying that targets LGBT inviduals, or that treats queer lives as “disposable,” just as much as we call attention to the oppressive patterns of violence against women and girls.

The “unveiling” of continuing oppression that is the Women’s Center’s mission is of two main kinds. One is the unveiling of oppression that has its effects so far away, on women with whom we have so few direct ties that it might never come to our attention. The distance does not mean we have no connections with the situation, but it does mean those connections are difficult to see — perhaps as difficult as seeing the mineral content of a cell phone. The conflict for control of sources of that mineral content has been fueling the vicious violence against women and girls in Democratic Republic of Congo, much in the news in the past three years. Unveiling of this kind means bringing the news of these women and their experience, and of their hidden connections to this community, to awareness. This is the unveiling that happens when, for instance, we write postcards to the Secretary of State to encourage her to enforce existing U.S. commitments to protecting the bodily integrity of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or when we observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance with its focus on the past year’s incidents of anti-transperson violence.

A second kind of unveiling involves pointing out the oppressive impact of phenomena that may seem benign because they are familiar and accepted. An example here might be the relentless, exclusively masculine identification of God in Christian tradition, and its persistence into the 21st century. This prevalent usage reinforces the persistent, implicit claim that feminine forms are inadequate to represent or associate with the divine, the sense that they are not fully as imago Dei as masculine forms. This claim and feeling comes in spite of our sophisticated theological understandings that no gendered forms, male or female, would be fully adequate to represent the God whose own self-designated name, at least in one finite human language, is “I will be whoever I will be.” Our continued predilection for one set of inadequate forms over another, and our ongoing refusals to expand our linguistic possibilities does indeed have the heavy, down-weighing, depressing and dispiriting impact of oppression.

The commitment to unveiling may call for engagement with one or more of three main audiences: the audience of perpetrators, that of bystanders, and that of the oppressed themselves.

Unveiling for Perpetrators

We are infrequently called upon to play the role of Nathan before King David, or the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose task was to challenge a peron in authority, and in so doing open their eyes to the impact their actions had on others. Such unveiling sometimes means taking to the public square, detailing the harm of a public practice, or demanding corrective action. Calling for divestiture from businesses whose practices systematically disadvantage the poor and vulnerable would be an example.

More often, however, those who perpetuate oppression experience their own behavior as acceptable, excusable, and justifiable, especially to the extent that it is frankly unconscious, habitual and routine. The oppression that is built into the structures of normal, decent society is, tragically, still oppressive. It is the unintentional participation in oppression of well-intentioned people who don’t think of themselves as “oppressors.”

Unveiling — naming — thoughtless or habitual practices as oppressive in this way is thankless work. It regularly produces protests along the lines of “Well, I didn’t notice that” {which is why I’m bringing it up] or “I’m not sexist or racist” [which is why I’m pointing out that your behavior is, so you can stop] or “But it’s really hard to do anything else” [which is why we need to start finding and making alternatives now, so that it becomes easier sooner]. Everyone gets tired of it, the way a 12-year-old gets tired of being reminded to turn off the bathroom light or pick up her socks, and her mother gets tired of doing the reminding. It is also some of the most important work the Women’s Center does, because it is the work with the most potential for long-term, far-reaching impact.

Unveiling for Bystanders

Unveiling continuing oppression for bystanders is issuing a call to stand on the side of the oppressed, rather than to remain innocent and irresponsible. It is to call oppression to attention, for the purpose of motivating possible involvement with the hope of producing change. It is also to make possible an exit from complicity. So, in the case of domestic violence, unveiling here might involve pointing out to pastors and potential pastors that some preaching practices can leave domestic violence untouched by and in the life of the church, while others can lift it up for attention and intervention. Where domestic violence is never named as a problem, never voiced as a concern in prayer, and where theological concepts like sin, injustice, or liberation are never brought to bear on it, it is as if the church, like any other unhelpful bystander, is turning away and remaining uninvolved. Where, on the other hand, an end to domestic violence is asked for in prayer, where it is named as a wrong in proclamation and where it is made the explicit topic of theological reflection, hope is extended to victims and the climate is no longer one in which such violence flourishes unchecked.

Unveiling for the Oppressed

There are times when the oppressed themselves would not dream of identifying their experience as one of “oppression.” Other people are oppressed, such a woman might say. I’m just depressed [or, feeling like a failure because I cannot work a full-time job, keep the house spotlessly clean at all times, wisely and nurturingly motivate polite behavior and good grades from my children while never losing control, keep my family off of fast food, work out and stay in my size 2 jeans, and always look forward to date night with my guy; or, feeling wrong because I don’t even get to have those problems because I don’t have a job, or I don’t have a house, or I don’t have children, or I don’t have a guy]. Other people are abused, some women say; I’m just incompetent and my boyfriend never lets me forget it. Other people have internalized the idea that they’re not worth as much; I keep my ideas to myself in class because the other students always seem to speak first, and better than I would anyway.

The mission of the Women’s Center includes the work of reminding ourselves and our friends that the continuing oppression of women seldom names itself as such. Instead, it names itself “reality” or “your personal situation,” names that obscure the operation of systemic power. One method in the operation of that systemic power is its taking up residence in women’s own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Women adopt these in response to the conditions and messages of the world around them, and then may energetically turn them on themselves, saving the rest of the system a good deal of trouble.

A Biblical Call to See and End Oppression

The commitment to unveiling oppression, which is part and parcel of ending it, derives its energy from our conviction that the God who frees us for life denounces oppression wherever it arises, and calls on us not to practice it, to bring it to an end where we see it, and to come to the aid and comfort of our neighbors who are enduring it. It is the Women’s Center’s ongoing mission to echo that prophetic call.

Is not this the fast that I choose,
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Isaiah 58:6

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

Readers can further the mission of the Women’s Center by making a contribution to the Women’s Center during our Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

“to work for dignity . . .”

. . . kindness that is justice in the face of such dignity.

Second in a series of reflections on the mission of the Women’s Center
by Heather Thiessen

“The Women’s Center at LPTS exists to work for the equality and dignity of all people, including in religious professions . . .”

The Women’s Center’s mission explicitly includes work for the dignity of all people. At first reading, this commitment seems straightforward and innocuous, if not somewhat banal. We contemporary readers are likely to skim over a word like dignity on our way to something juicier. We register its positive valence. We gather a vague impression that it evokes an amicable relation between well-behaved people who treat one another with respect. Our heads nod in easy agreement. All well and good, let’s move on.

Let’s not. As Giorgio Agamben has shown in Remnants of Auschwitz, “dignity” is a problematic concept. Worse, his critique of dignity, and of an ethics based on that concept, indicates that it ought to be an especially problematic notion for a Women’s Center. This mission of working for the dignity of all people calls for more thought.

Agamben’s critique of dignity begins with the history of the idea in Roman law and western philosophy. That history persists in dictionary definitions of “dignity” as “a high rank, title or office, especially in the church,” “one who holds high rank or position, a dignitary,” and “persons of high rank, collectively” (i.e., “the dignity,” a usage similar to that of “the clergy” or “the aristocracy”). Dignity in antiquity was an office or title, therefore something bestowed upon a person, separate from that person, and requiring a deference distinct from anything due to the person apart from the person’s dignity (office).

Much later, as the offices that were dignities passed into antiquity, the “stateliness and nobility of manner, serenity of demeanor, gravity” that had been required of their human bearers came to be valued for its own sake, and to be cultivated as a moral good. Aristocrats no longer in possession of economic or political power who made much of a dignity that took the form of refined manners, tastes and speech make a good example of this understanding of dignity. The notion of a dignity that takes the form of cleanliness, sobriety, discipline in work and rejection of unearned charity that 19th century progressives lauded as the virtue of the laboring class, which had never been in possession of economic or political power in the first place, makes another good example. Dignity in these cases is a way of appearing and behaving as respectable, despite lacking the cultural substance that commands respect.

Agamben’s problem with the traditional notion of dignity is precisely its dependance on a separation and distance between “life and norm.” This irreducible distance requires living people to shape themselves according to that norm in order to have dignity. That is, a life that coincides with its physical, embodied, biological processes must take on and keep up something additional, a specific form, to possess dignity as understood in this way.

But dignified upkeep is not always possible. In certain extreme situations no separation or distance between life and its norm, its “what must be done,” obtains. Recall that Agamben develops his critique in the context of a reflection on the catastrophic extremity of the Nazi death camps. He notes, however, that in the very different, every day extremity of the relations of lovers, dignity also becomes untenable. The maintenance of dignity as distance and decorum is incompatible with that physical, biological, incarnate love that is inseparable from its abandon in and to the beloved.

In fact, a dignity measured as distance from what Agamben calls bare life is arguably least available in the very situations in which the protection that it might afford is most sorely needed. If people who aim to be good must aim for dignity, those people suffering the worst indignities of injustice and violence are precisely those most excluded from the consolation of goodness; and if dignity in that sense is held to be the condition for deferential treatment, that holding leaves the most abused lives the most exposed to further abuse.

Further, the distance from physical, embodied, biological processes wrapped up in this sense of dignity has been particularly denied to women, along with others identified by their embodiment, by the long tradition of western thought. The identification of “woman” at every point with an intrusively female body, the paradigmatic site of undignified sexuality, animal reproduction, and vulnerability to victimization, long made “woman” a pregnant symbol of the opposite of dignity. Real live women could only pursue the social goods that accrued to such dignity by “rising above” their womanly station in the direction of man’s [sic] invulnerable spirituality. Feminists, in opposition to this disastrous denigration of women’s embodied lives, have sought to reappraise precisely these physical, biological processes that take place as flesh-and-blood women.

Dignity as distance, then, cannot be what the Women’s Center exists and calls its friends to work for. That notion, which a cursory reading would leave unchallenged, must be rejected in favor of a more possible and promising understanding of dignity.

That more possible and promising understanding begins with the sense of dignity as “the state or quality of being excellent, worthy, or honorable,” along with a clear understanding that this state or quality cannot rest on anything that would be separable from life, whatever its circumstances. Instead, this state or quality must be understood to coincide with that life, as created by God, embodying the image of God, and beloved of God. Dignity understood in this way does not depend on an irreducible distance between life and life’s conformity to a particular dignified standard. It is, rather, a life’s innate and intrinsic claim to deferential regard, to honor in the face of its constitutive excellence and worth. This dignity is not something that can be gained or lost. Its presence is no protection or guarantee. It can be ignored or recognized, violated or respected. It is, however, the ineluctable posing of a choice, against or for the radical kindness that constitutes justice in the face of such dignity.

The Women’s Center exists to work for this dignity for all people — women as well as men, alternatively as well as customarily gendered, of whatever specific qualities and qualifiers. That mission is, in actuality, our most radical, and religious, commitment.

Click here to help fill the Women's Center's cup.

Please consider making a contribution to the Women’s Center during Summer Donation Days!

You can go to OUR ONLINE DONATION SITE, the LPTS Online Donation Site (designate your gift to the Women’s Center), or send your check payable to LPTS – WOMEN’S CENTER FUND to The Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary, 1044 Alta Vista Rd., Louisville, KY 40205.

Thank you!

Mission – ‘to work for equality’

Equality is a necessary, relevant, and desirable goal

The Women’s Center has a mission statement. It comes in longer and shorter versions, something it has in common with the Westminster Catechism. In its briefer, condensed form, it reads:

The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions, for the unveiling of the continuing oppression of women of all races and nations, and for the building of community locally, nationally and globally. To this end we seek to:

  1. Discern new ways of being and living into these realities by support and advocacy for women and other disenfranchised groups;
  2. Supplement the academic program of the Seminary and provide a prophetic voice on the Seminary campus;
  3. Celebrate and affirm the gifts and contributions of women in all spheres of life in past and present;
  4. Provide a safe space to discuss and hear one another’s stories and supply resources for information and edification.

[Read the longer Statement of the Purpose and Mission of the Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary]

Periodically reviewing and reflecting on that mission, which articulates the reasons we do what we do, seems helpful. It reminds us of our historical roots, and helps us recognize the persistent relevance of this work in the present. Just as important, it acquaints or reacquaints members of the communities we serve with the Women’s Center’s vision and goals, and with their connections to the common enterprise of reconciliation in the church and the world. Summer, when the work of the Women’s Center focuses on planning for the coming academic year, seems like a good time for this review and reflection. Devoting some close attention to this mission, which drives the activities and events we are so absorbed in planning, seems likely to focus our efforts on what matters most. To this end, during the coming weeks Wimminwise will devote a series of entries to reflecting on key elements of the Women’s Center’s mission statement.

“The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary exists to work for equality and dignity of women in all communities, including religious professions . . .”

The word “equality” in the context of the Women’s Center’s mission statement is a sign of the Women’s Center’s historic roots in the women’s movement of the 1970s and 80s. The women who made that movement move used the language of women’s rights unselfconsciously. They diagnosed the persistent problems women faced, and had faced historically, in every society as those of profound inequities around gender. Inequalities in division of labor, income and wealth, education, mobility, access to critical resources like health care and nutrition, power and privilege, formed a vicious cycle with an entrenched ideology of women’s inferiority and men’s superiority. That pervasive ideology of male superiority allowed most people most places to take for granted that women were “for” a restricted set of social functions, typically silent ones; that women were, “just saying,” deficient in key areas (strength, intelligence, competence — all, one might note, legitimators of the power women were reaching for in society); that not only was it “a man’s world,” but that the world was going to stay that way, either because it could not or should not change.

The face of that world has changed, to a degree, in the intervening three or four decades. One index of that change is available in looking at media from the 1960s, in which the classified ads list help wanted – men and help wanted – women, and images of the public world — a press conference, a political convention, a business meeting, a seminary graduating class — reflect a world without women.

Some of those changes raise the question of whether working for equality is still necessary. It is now easier for some women, in some places, to take for granted that all the equality people need or desire has been achieved. Some women, in some areas of social life, in some groups, in some countries of the world, are on visibly more equal footing with men. The mission of working for equality now includes articulating the continuing necessity of that work, reminding those of us who might be tempted to privileged denial not to focus exclusively on the areas of greatest achievement while ignoring the manifestations of perduring inequality elsewhere.

Some may wonder whether work for equality is relevant to the demands of the present. Sexual difference theorists, for instance, have argued that liberal egalitarian language obscures the important and under-theorized dimension of sexual difference. Womanist thinkers and other intersectional theorists point out that multiple determinants of structural patterns of domination — race, class, and sexuality pre-eminent among them — complicate accounts of and demands for equality. The language of “women’s experience” is an over-simplification, and calls for “non-discrimination” or “equal opportunity” are inattentive to the asymmetries inscribed in male and female embodied subjectivity. But against those who might jettison the language of equality, we would maintain that the word “equality” always pointed towards and is now capable of accommodating these more complex, nuanced, and attentive accounts of human happiness and flourishing.

Because, as has been said repeatedly, “equality” in this context does not mean “identical” or “the same.” The concern that it does is a perennial red herring, raising the diversionary question of whether equality is really desirable. The problem of sameness is really more the problem of the persistent androcentrism that is challenged by work for equality. The androcentric understanding of “man” as the human norm is profoundly unaware of the gendered particularity of the word “he;” it accepts without question the premise that “humanity” has one essential and fully acceptable way of appearing and being in the world, a male way, and that difference from that way represents a falling-away from ideal humanity. This androcentrism contributes to resistance to inclusive and expansive language in liturgy, hymnody, and scriptural translation, since it cannot fail to register “Father” as a more honorific title than “Mother,” or “Lord” as a more authoritative position than “Teacher.”

What equality means, among other things, is that when we say “a person,” we can mean “a woman” fully as well as “a man,” and that when we say “people,” we consciously understand ourselves to include both men and women, of all descriptions, in that designation. It means that we do not in fact presuppose that “the real prople” are all men, or that women are deficient, “lite” or honorary people. It means that we do not imagine women to be people insofar as they are like men, but something different from people — women, actually — in all the ways women differ from men. Work for equality anticipates a day when that consciousness is simply and actually practical common sense, because it is consciousness formed in a world in which equality is a reality.

The mission of the Women’s Center is to work for equality for all people. That means that we advocate for the difficult, necessary, relevant, and desirable goal of coming to terms with the meaning of a humanity created in the image of God in its diversity. We believe this is consonant with a scriptural and religious tradition that looks forward to a time when God’s spirit is poured out equally liberally on all flesh, and sons and daughters alike prophesy with equal voice.

Continuing Conversation

The Women's Center hosts breakfast for alumnae Tuesday, May 3, 8:00 a.m. as part of the Festival of Theology and Reunion

One of the central tasks of the Women’s Center is to foster conversation. Most of the programs we undertake have conversation as their central element. The recent Margaret Hopper Taylor seminars challenging domestic violence revolved around conversation. The regular lunch hour presentations by local or visiting experts on subjects relating to women and their lives always include conversation on topics flagged as important by the presenters, or raised as issues by the attendees. Observances of occasions as diverse as Pay Equity Day and the Transgender Day of Remembrance involve participation in a larger public conversation, and incorporate more private conversations around and about the events afterwards. The Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture is about recognizing and honoring the prophetic challenge raised by a woman scholar of racial-ethnic minority heritage, by listening to her words, and entering into conversation with her.

Such conversation is central because it matters. Conversation is the mother technology — technology in the sense of a way of making something, of bringing something about — for conveying our experiences and our ideas, our meanings, to one another. When conversation is real, that is, when it is a give and take of experiences and ideas, of meanings, of selves, it becomes part of the stuff that we are. That matter-ing makes conversation a vital vehicle for change – change in understanding, change in belief (the only form of knowledge we really have), change in attitude, and change in practice. In fact, it may be the only vehicle we have that can make change a matter of desire, something to be worked for and welcomed together with our conversation partners, rather than something imposed mysteriously by circumstances or imperiously from above.

Thus, although people sometimes insist that the Women’s Center is continually engaged in “preaching,” the souls associated with the Center hope something else is going on. We hope that what we are doing is calling people into deeper conversation, centrally around issues having to do with gender, and repeatedly around issues that have gender as one of their dimensions (most issues, it seems to us). We hope that, because we understand that when conversation dries up, becomes a matter of talking at or displaying images at people, the mattering that conversation can do ceases. We hope that, in particular, because we believe our church needs to pursue the change-making, self-re-forming conversation around gender, as does our world.

Some people may have formed the impression that such conversation must always focus on problems, and must always be carried on in a loud and angry voice — maybe because that is almost the only form of conversation around gender that has been allowed to surface in the spectacular arena we sometimes call “public consciousness.” Why that might be, in turn, is a topic for another time. What matters here is recognizing that the conversation has many registers, many of them far less audible in the public arena. That arena accords little space to most conversation, in fact, signifying it as of little value. Unless the words we exchange are formally therapeutic or official or commercial, that arena has no metric for them, and less space. That is all the more true when such seemingly unprofitable conversation occurs among women.

The point of having a space (WE LOVE IT!) that could be called a Women’s Center was and still is that it makes possible the conversation that women need and want to have. That conversation includes gathering up and giving voice to the human experiences women have weathered and are weathering, relaying the messages women have absorbed in the course of their work, and detailing the consequences, whether positive, negative or neutral, along with the impacts on self-worth, physical well-being, and spiritual vigor, that all this living in and with the condition of womanhood has entailed. There is a place in that conversation for women to lift up their own work, to celebrate their achievements in one another’s presence and tell the stories of how they came about, for women to recognize one another and themselves as whole human beings.

An event like the alumnae brunch is a small thing in itself, a simple gathering of friends and acquaintances over a meal. From the vantage point of the public arena, it might seem hardly worth mentioning. As part of this ongoing program of fostering conversation, however, it takes on greater significance. It takes its place as part of the ongoing program of making spce and time for certain conversations, vital ones, for which there is no space or time elsewhere. It constitutes a deliberate making of space and time for women to share what they have experienced, identify in that what they have learned, to draw on that learning to encourage and sustain one another, and to affirm one another’s continuing value. The celebration of the gifts and accomplishments of women sometimes takes place most vitally in the more intimate space between two or three, where the act of conversation leads to the joyously clear realization of what there is to celebrate.