Theologian, Token, Troublemaker: Casting Female Identity in Academic Career Development

This is a guest post from Kate Tomas, DPhil candidate in Theology at Oxford University. It continues the discussion opened by Marika in her post from yesterday. – APS

I read Marika’s post on the SST Gender, Feminism and Theology panel, and as the woman who raised the issue in the first place, (and subsequently had a bad experience as a consequence), I feel the need to respond.

The organizers of the panel, along with Dr Matthew Guest, who was one of the men on the panel, attempted to fix the PR problem I had raised. Their solution was to find a woman – any woman – to be physically present. As Marika knows, I think tokenism is bad, and that tokenism requires tokens, and tokens are actively formed, not simply found. Tokenism complicates women’s agency, and we have to be aware of this when being asked to be a token. 

Having said that, I really think Marika was put in a difficult situation by being asked to be the token. Those who asked her occupied (and occupy) positions of power. Like me, Marika was a graduate student (now a Dr following her viva) and like hundreds of other graduate students, we are both looking for jobs. The organizers of the panel have jobs. They are also potentially in positions to give jobs. As Marika wrote she has ‘often felt that subtle pressure to play nice in both academic and Christian contexts; and I have felt it at SST specifically.’ Asking a female graduate student to be the token woman on a previously all-male panel, just because you have been called out, is more than subtle pressure.

But beyond my issues with tokenism, I would like to share my personal experience of this whole debacle. The response I received from those participating in the joint session was inadequate and needs to be exposed. 

Initially, people were defensive. I was ignored when I pressed the issue and asked for a response. Dr Matthew Guest came to speak to me about these issues at the conference, some days after my last email to him, (to which he never responded, being ‘very busy’). However, he spoke only to inform me that Marika was now going to be on the panel. He implied that this solved the problem I had highlighted. Evidently, I do not think this solved the issue at all, and I told him so at the time.

Secondly, when I tried to engage constructively with the organizers of the Gender, Feminism, and Theology session, who happened to be two women, my concerns were initially swept aside in a collection of patronizing emails. When I proceeded to raise the issue again, people were actively hostile to me. 

This hostility culminated in a display of unprofessionalism, rudeness, and cruelty within the ’round table discussion on the themes of the conference’ within the Gender, Feminism and Theology session. In this discussion, those present were invited to bring up any issues relevant to the conference (the theme of the conference was, ironically, ‘Silence’). I raised the fact that the panel on Career development in Theology, under the session on Gender, Feminism and Theology, was made up of two men. I asked if anyone else present found this problematic. 

I was then actively silenced by the chair of the session, who told me – publically – that she had ‘had enough of this’ and that the other organizer of the session wasn’t present because she was ‘too ill’ due to the ‘stress’. Her clear implication was that I was a troublemaker and that my troublemaking had caused the illness of this other organizer.

The others present, along with myself, sat in a stunned silence (that concept, again) as the chair insisted the topic be changed, and that we ‘move on’. I have never encountered such inappropriate behavior in a conference. I was actively silenced in a direct attack from a senior female member of my profession, in an environment ostensibly aimed at discussing the ways in which women are marginalized in theology. Those present can attest to this. 

Since then, I have considered making a formal complaint about the way in which I was treated by this particular academic. But I decided against it when I reflected on how vulnerable I am at this early stage of my career. My reflection was tempered by the first-hand experience of the way in which ‘trouble makers’ are treated. After all, who am I: just a female graduate student, looking for a job. This person is a comfortably employed senior member of academic staff. Writing this post renders me vulnerable, perhaps, but it turns out that I cannot ignore these issues, despite trying to just ‘keep my head down’ since the SST. 

All male panels present real problems, even when academics are aware of them and make various efforts to excuse, or tokenize, the issue. (Perhaps especially when they do so.) An all-male panel on Career Development under a session of Gender, Feminism and Theology is not only painfully ironic, it is ridiculous, and sends a strongly negative message to junior female academics. Indeed, a self-aware all male panel implicitly intellectualises a problem that, explicitly, academics claim requires practical action. The only thing more ridiculous than not being able to see the fundamental problem with this, is the experience of being publically silenced by another ‘feminist’ theologian. When a jobless female graduate student tries to point out various inequalities in a forum about gender difficulties in the theological profession, the least people can do is avoid premature silencing of the issue.   

After the SST, I seriously considered leaving academia, and decided to leave theology. I have been told again and again by various good, well-meaning, and kind people that ‘Theology needs people like you’ but if the reality is, Theology and specifically academic theology treats ‘people like me’ very badly indeed. I’m out.

6 thoughts on “Theologian, Token, Troublemaker: Casting Female Identity in Academic Career Development

  1. Do you have any idea what you’ll do now that you’ve left theology? I’m not particularly concerned with “saving” the field, certainly not enough to ask anyone to suffer mistreatment — but I am concerned about the practical ramifications. Will you start your PhD over in another department, etc.?

  2. Hi Adam, I should have been more specific, sorry. I’m writing up as we speak and will submit a DPhil in Theology at Oxford in September. What I mean by leaving is that I’m giving up writing theology, calling myself a theologian, giving up ‘doing ‘theology” as a thing. I think it’s f*cked. And that ‘theology’ seems to = various incarnations (intentionally used) of White Male Christian, or of appealing to or prostrating before White Male Christians. I can’t pretend to care about any of those things. When I began the DPhil. I naively thought that writing an explicitly feminist liberation theology could be a positive contribution. Now I think the discipline is irredeemable. I’m no longer calling myself a theologian. I guess I see myself as a philosopher of religion. Or unemployed. :)

  3. Just wanted to say, though at this stage such words are thin comfort, so sorry to hear about this experience. Complete bullshit.

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