A Discussion with Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary

With: Serene Jones

May 9, 2014

Background: As the first woman president of the renowned Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Serene Jones is well positioned to reflect on women’s changing roles within both academic and practical religious worlds. She has been able to launch various initiatives that explore these evolving challenges. During her tenure at Union (which is an interdenominational seminary), she has established the Institute for Women, Religion and Globalization and the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice. During her 17 years at Yale University, where she was a professor of theology at the Divinity School, and chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, she also focused especially on an effort to reflect on how women live religion in their daily lives. During a conversation with Katherine Marshall and Crystal Corman on May 9, 2014, she explored what she has learned through the Women, Religion, and Globalization project that she launched at Yale, and the current experimental Interfaith Women’s Residency at Union. Jones emphasizes the importance of daily practices and the lived reality of women within society. She also reflects on the changing roles of women in religious leadership positions (and the special challenges) and on the religious roots of feminism and the socialization of gender within U.S. society.

How or when did the topics of gender, religion, and international relations come together in your life?

I think about the topics of gender, women, family, and religion all the time. As a single mom, I think about the subject personally and politically.

I was first able to translate this interest into a programmatic approach a little more than six years ago. I was teaching Theology at Yale Divinity School but also chairing the university’s Women’s Studies program. At the Divinity School, there was some talk about feminist theology, but by and large the two topics—theology and gender—were not in conversation with one another. I would, for example, go to theology conferences, and questions touching on issues for women, particularly about women in the developing world, were non-existent. In particular, when I went to an interfaith conversation, it was all men. Similarly, in women’s studies it was very hard to get any more than a deeply personal discussion of religion going.

I had two things that were like “aha” moments. One came when I went with a group of women from the Yale’s Women’s Studies Program to Cairo for a conference on women and violence. Others in our group came from fields such as history, computer studies, and anthropology. I was the only one coming with a religious perspective. In Cairo, we joined other North American women from four universities to converse with women from throughout the Middle East, mostly Egyptian. About half way through the first day, the conversation completely broke down. The Egyptian women were frustrated and wanted nothing to do with the Americans. The American women were baffled, because they came with the best of intentions. I was the only person in the group of Americans that was able to have a sustained conversation with the Egyptian women. The Egyptian women, most of whom were activists, were not deeply religious, yet religion mattered in their lives. The whole area of faith, moral life, the meaning of life, etc. affected everything they did, and that was lacking from the North American side of the conversation. From this experience, I realized that there was a huge gap here that affected any effort to work on and with women and global development. We need to find some way to come into that space and do some work.

The other realization is that the set of arguments that have historically kept women out of the world of reason and logic—that women are hysterical and irrational—can also be applied to religion. I began to think about religion as secularism’s “hysterical other.” The secular story required religion to be in that space, so that it could develop its notion of rationality.

How did the Yale University project on women, religion, and globalization get started?

The project grew out of these experiences. After the Cairo conference, a group of us who had attended got together and planned a two-year roundtable discussion at Yale where we looked at women religious practitioners in a global context. Beginning in 2005, we lifted up women religious practitioners as politically significant agents. How might these women who practice religion be mapped onto the map political scientists consider?

We were looking at the real, daily lives of women, asking them to talk about growing food, having children, educating themselves and their family, cooking, and dying. From these daily, lived experiences, we wanted women to reflect on and converse about whether, if, or how a religious framework infuses these different aspects of life. For example, we were very interested in how women think about the religious significance of how they dress. So often, the only actions that are viewed as politically significant are very big economic interactions, conflicts, or people who are elected to positions, but most people in the world focus on other things on a daily basis. These daily realities are rarely looked at closely. Also, most of this activity is undertaken by women who are doing what they are doing in the context of a religious set of beliefs.

What was your hope for this roundtable discussion on women, religion, and global issues?

My hope was that there could be a conversation at Yale, particularly in the social sciences, so we could contribute to categories for mapping conditions of a global exchange. We had a social-scientific hope.

What did you learn from the roundtable project? Were there any surprises?

I was surprised by the reaction to the idea! I had been teaching at Yale for 15 years—long enough to know that the campus is quite secular. I invited 42 people on campus to be a part of this roundtable series, expecting to get maybe eight interested people. I got 36 people—maybe two-thirds women—who said they wanted to be a part of it! It was a huge group, and it was really lively. This response showed me that the number of people thinking of religion—outside of the realm of religious studies—is growing, opening new space. I found that people were interested in religion (beyond theology), politics, and gender. I got a sense, particularly in the social sciences, that there was an eagerness to have a fresh look at things. The categories we are using just are not working.

The second interesting aspect is that most of the people who got involved in the process, even people who were not “touchy-feely,” couldn’t talk about the subjects without becoming autobiographical. It’s such a self-involving conversation and therefore, lines get blurred.

We also had fellowships for international women to come as a part of the program. We had four fellowships and all four ended up being held by Muslim women from the Middle East and Africa. These conversations helped us push the boundaries of what was considered normal, or not, in daily life practices.

One surprise was around perceptions of “superstition” found in everyday life. One woman from Morocco, for example, talked very openly about practices that she did religiously that would be considered “superstition” in the North American context. In her own life, she regularly went to see soothsayers at critical points in her life. She would buy things from the “magical women” on the streets, such as potions to put a curse on someone or to do a blessing. At the same time, she had a long conversation with us about the rules against practicing soothsaying and superstition in Islam. Although there are very strong prohibitions, she could do both and viewed both as fine.

On the other hand, she thought that a lot of things that North American women did were very superstitious. She thought it was very interesting that all these American women read their horoscopes. She saw the world of women’s magazines and noticed how women try to pull from surveys and advice columns to put together these magical calculuses to guide decisions or reinforce self-esteem.

Both of these “superstitious” worlds never get politically theorized. No political scientists ever pay attention to what is going on in those spaces, but it affects and shapes people’s identities. We found it interesting that those who are feeling politically disenfranchised can go to horoscopes or soothsayers for an alternate sense of agency. You can find a story there that gives you a sense of possibility. This is not usually thought of as a political act. This is something particular about women.

The other interesting conversation was about hair and headscarves. There was a particularly interesting conversation between African American women who grew up in churches where they wore hats on special days as a sign of worshipping God, and Muslim women who talked about wearing headscarves as an act of glorifying God, not an act of patriarchal submission. It was interesting to look at meaning-making for these acts of praise and gratitude; this perspective changes how you attribute political significance to such acts. For example many women in North America will look at Muslim women wearing headscarves and think, “That is so patriarchal.” It would never occur to people to see this as a religious act, as something you can do to honor God. This is also tied to agency.

Since you’ve left Yale, how have you continued to focus on women and religion?

At Union Theological Seminary I started a program called the Interfaith Women’s Residency program. We used a part of our dorms, turning it into a communal living space for five women. We have two Christians, two Muslims, and one Jewish woman who came to live together for a year. The Union students are seeking master's of divinity and the JTS student was an M.Div. equivalent, becoming a rabbi. Both of the Muslim women were not training for the ministry but were graduate students at Columbia, one in math and one in engineering. These women applied to be a part of this program that includes interfaith conversation based on reflections of the women’s everyday religious lives. I clearly designed it to pay attention to daily practices. We’re just completing our first year, and it has been so interesting to talk to the women about what they learned through the experience.

What format has this group taken and what topics have been most important for the women?

The participants had to figure out several things on their own, because we didn’t impose a structure but instead asked them to come up with their own. They met for two hours each week on Sunday mornings. This time slot shows you how Christianized the work schedule is in the U.S. as it was the only time they could all not be working. We also ask them each to keep a journal. This group was very diverse; there was everything from the Union student who only wore short skirts and halter-tops, to the woman who wore a headscarf and was very traditional. It should not be surprising, but food was talked about all the time. It was a huge topic. The eating included kosher, hallal, gluten free, vegan, no-carb-high-protein diets. I hosted them for breakfast once a month, so I had to get three sets of dishes in my own apartment.

Other program elements included them hosting a public gathering every month. They were also in charge of four chapel services. We decided to ask them to come up with a list of novels that they would read together over the year. They chose six pieces that were meaningful to them. Some of the things they did may seem hokey, but these things are also very telling in terms of what makes people function. For example, they renamed the space without hesitation, calling it “the womb.” And this was not necessarily a group of feminists! It was like going back to the ‘60s consciousness-raising group or something. It was very cool.

I met with them regularly and would ask them questions. At the end of the year, they told me that they wished they had talked even more about religion within the group and with me. They felt like they were just getting to the point where they were beginning to trust each other about things they found deeply offensive. It takes that long to get to places where there’s enough trust to engage in the deep issues. These topics included talking about hair and body size, how you think about weight. They could never have that discussion except in a surface feminist mode. Not in a real way. But the women have noted personal changes. For example one of the students said that this year has made her much more open to Christian women, who she formerly would have dismissed due to their religious differences. It’s made her more open to Christians. Though the year is ending, they have asked if they could go another year, but we decided to keep to our plan and begin a new group next academic year.

How has the student body reacted to this project?

They are very curious. Next year there will be a similar residential group at Jewish Theological Seminary across the street. Also, the guys on campus want one. We are considering it, but I think it will be very interesting to see how the men do it. There was a big discussion about what is a man, what is a woman, and why can’t men be in the women’s group.

As you can see, this experiment also raised issues about gender. We have a lot of transgender students, so gender identity became a part of the conversation around this type of model. It was interesting to see how different religious perspectives engaged on the topic of gender and transgender as a part of this. Even the question of trans—it read very differently in the context of religious practices. With some students, their religion was not an obstacle and they had no problem with accepting transgender persons. The Muslim women were both very clear that they didn’t want men to see their hair, and therefore they would only live with women. That’s why the space was remained women only. We couldn’t have men. You probably could if you were in a more secular environment, but we wanted people who were thinking religiously.

What about family issues? Do your students, including the women living together for a year, think about or talk about gender and family?

For some people, family is so loaded. There is so much pain for people. It’s a tricky space. How do you get at that really deep stuff? I think when you get people talking about everyday things like clothes, or food, then everyone can contribute. Everybody gets dressed, looks in the mirror to see what they look like; they eat. I also think that some of the most interesting conversations I have around gender, politics, and cross-conversations are when you can get people to talk about culture. Talking about music, television. For example, we had really interesting discussions about the TV show Homeland with this group of five. They talked about why Homeland shows this Muslim woman coming in during the third season and her role. It was interesting because they thought about it religiously! I was so surprised and in awe to hear them asking these questions.

Reflecting on women in the church and as students in seminary, what are some issues that you see young female clergy in the church dealing with today?

There are lingering challenges for women holding formal leadership roles in the church today. Dating can be hard for single female clergy. It is also hard when women have children. Being pregnant in a preaching robe is still something people are not used to. I face some issues too, as a woman president and as a woman faculty member teaching religion. It seems that we do not yet have enough women in very symbolic leadership roles, and so people have not yet figured out what it means internally or how to relate to these female leaders. This is true for both men and women. We have codes for how to react to male leaders, because you have a lifetime of experiences around them. You are taught to interact with a man in leadership. There is a physical reaction that is a part of being socialized. But with women in positions of power? Most of the women in power that people have had relationships with are our mothers, partners, lovers, and sisters. People interact with women clergy as if in one of those molds. That is why it gets so awkward; there is not an intuitive language. Is she my mother, or my sister, or my girlfriend? Who is this woman I’m talking to?

I’ve also noticed in my own outreach across denominational lines, that there are very few women holding leadership roles. For example, I’ve reached out to a Presbyterian offshoot called Redeemer by Tim Keller, a big evangelical theologian, located just down the street. I’ve befriended Tim, and we are getting a lot of students from that church. It’s so important to have conservations across denominational and ideological lines, conservative and progressive Christians, interreligious, etc. But when I’m asked to talk to an evangelical progressive, I always talk to a man. How do I find the partners—who are women—to have this conversation with? I think it would be a different kind of conversation, but we don’t have automatic ways of making it happen. I think that the yearning, the eagerness for it is strong.

How do you react to some of the assumptions or observations made about gender in the church, such as the idea that women are naturally more spiritual or that pews are filled predominantly by women?

I used to hear the claim all the time that women are more spiritual. I don’t hear about it as much any more—since many people don’t want to make an essentialist claim about women—but I do still hear it. At one level I agree, because that is how the whole socialization process has happened. When you are raised and formed as a women, there are different aspects of the experience that encourage an overt spirituality. But the older I get the more I think that there is something about the experience of embodiment, that makes a difference. It’s very hard to talk about that, however, with judging or categorizing in false ways.

As for women outnumbering men in church activities, it’s true of most of the religions. A majority of religious practitioners are women, and yet the vast majority of religious leaders are men. It seems to be a universal truth about religious communities.

I think that one of the things that is hard to talk about, particularly in the U.S., is acknowledging the positive things that religious community brings women. This is difficult in the U.S. because secularism is so strong and feminism has taken on a secularist discourse, attaching itself to critiques of religion. But people forget that feminism came out of religious communities. One of the first major texts around feminism in the United States in the academic context was Beyond God the Father by Mary Daley. That crashed into the academy in all the different categories, not just religion. When you think about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, they were all very religious. So many major social movements in the U.S. around social reform have religious roots.

When did secularism and feminism start to become so closely associated?

It was during the 1960s. Most Americans remember that the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was able to hold on to its religious roots. When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, we are very aware of the role that the church played in it. When Americans think about the women’s movement, it’s as if we have amnesia regarding the fact that it was church women doing it. Why we have forgotten that link is a great question.

Some strong feminists continue to attack religion. To this day Gloria Steinem is hostile to religion. You bring up religion, and she thinks it’s the worst thing in the world. But interestingly, I recently attended an event where the keynote was given by Gloria Steinem. The event attracted some of the most active feminists in New York City. Yet late in the evening, there was an announcement by the hosts that they would start a project on women, faith, and the new economy in an effort to try to get the questions of spirituality and gender in economic arrangements. It’s the first time in the history of that organization that they’ve taken on specifically religiously focused initiative. I realized things were shifting when the reaction was excitement and applause. I think there is openness to thinking about the fact that spirituality is there, in a way that it hasn’t been there for a while.

What do you see as the challenges for women to be viewed equally in American society?

The socialization process in our country so strongly sets up and maintains gender lines. I see it all the time in our society, and even my daughter picks it up. She told me recently, “Mom, we are talking about Game of Thrones in class today. What do you think about [the TV show]?” There is so much rape and violence in Game of Thrones, practically every other scene. Some people are saying that rape shouldn’t be shown at all in the show. Others think the violence shows people that, until recently, that was the reality for most women. But in my opinion, if you’re going to show women being raped, then you need to show the effects that it had on women.

I feel that we have not scratched the surface of gender. I see the unexplored issues in our news and in our pop-culture. And to be honest, I myself, as a woman, haven’t gotten to the deepest stuff about my own reactions to my own gender. I can hardly access it or begin to think outside the norms. I also think there is some really deep exploration to do around what Mary Daley ascribed to the physical differences that involve the stunning thing that women can do. Most—though not all—women make babies. Living in a body that can do that, versus a body that cannot, makes a difference. It is hugely iportant. And this issue largely dominates women’s lives, including the constant reminder, thanks to menstruation.

In order for us to think about changing things around issues of gender, we need to reflect and learn from those moments in our history when new ideas became normative. For example, think of the Reformation, the whole notion of justice, and the Enlightenment. I think we are moving into a time where the theme of “love” is central. We are trying to figure out what love is and the forms it takes. And really, love is so often at the heart of our concerns and fears. Love is more than justice, more than economic or resource distribution. Those are part of love, but it’s bigger. Gender is a justice issue, but that doesn’t get at the complexity of the issue. When you get to the deep levels, it’s about how we are structured, how we deal with our bonds to other people, and about our differences. I think today we are really grappling with love—and the opposite of love.

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