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.

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V is for Va-Voom!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

People came, saw, . . . concurred!

The events of V-Week frankly overwhelmed us here at the Women’s Center — but in a wonderful way! And not least with the climax (if you will) of the week, with Friday’s performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

We were completely taken by surprise at the demand for tickets. We had to shut down online sales by Wednesday, for fear of double bookings, and were apologetically telling people we would be selling standing room long before the end of the week. (Our apologies to everyone who turned away in discouragement! Next time we’ll plan more performances.)

As it turned out, we were able to squeeze in everyone who turned out for the packed-house performance, and what a performance it was! Thanks go to the talented cast of students and faculty, and to our incomparable director Christine Coy-Fohr, who along with the talents of art director aaron guldenschuh, lighting director Daniel Stillwell, and sound director Sonja Williams created a visually rich backdrop for the varied tones and voices that narrated Ensler’s sampling of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder, as well as experiences of violence.

Over the course of the next few days or so, we hope to sort out some of the highlights and insights of the week. For now, however, this first observation: that the narratives of women’s experiences around sexuality, embodiment, relationship, and wonder constitute a context for the narratives of experiences of violence.

As we know from exegesis class, context matters. Without it, the pericope floats, excised, in an abstract space of intellectual consideration, apart from the body of the text in which its fuller meaning becomes apparent.

People often consider “violence against women” in this decontextualized and recontextualized way — as something that shows up on a list (e.g., of “women’s issues” or “contemporary problems”) of things to think about or donate money to, as something “we’re against, obviously,” as something with its own awareness day and ribbon color and “focus on” Sunday. The sitz im leben of violence against women is not (or not only) the shelter, the flourescent agency lobby, the living room, the counseling session in the pastor’s study. It’s got to include women’s lives and experience, women’s embodied possibilities for pleasure, creative achievement, joy and exuberance.

That seems obvious enough. And it’s precisely a dramatization of [some of] those experiences, from women’s perspectives and in women’s words, that The Vagina Monologues presents. We will be reflecting on the new insight that’s given us all into the meaning of “violence against women” for some time, and trying to work out ways to respond to the renewed and even clearer call to end it.

/edited for content 2-18-09/