About a month ago, Rebecca Scherm wrote an essay for The Hairpin about her time interning with a men’s magazine, a time where, though she tried to convince herself she was acting ironically, she really “just wanted to be the girl who got into the boys’ club.”
Scherm’s piece, simply titled “Manly Me,” hit me, hard. By which I mean, I felt like I could’ve written it, substitute men’s magazine with theological studies and change a few, mostly minor/logistical, details. So, with Rebecca’s permission, I’m going to do just that. Below is my attempt at a (far less brilliant and well written) theological academy spin-off of her essay. In some parts, I quote her piece directly/verbatim, both because I couldn’t find better or more appropriate words than hers, and also—more importantly—because I think doing so demonstrates the pervasiveness of the “Good Ol Boy’s club” far beyond the magazine context she’s referring to (lest one is tempted to think, ala Mad Men, that this is a trend that has continued only in advertising or media contexts). All direct quotes will be bolded (I am not placing them in quotes for ease of reading/cause I would have to use a lot of the square brackets to change some words in the middle of the quotes). And make sure to check out her original piece in full here!
When I was twenty-six, I started really getting serious about the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D. in theology, about pursuing a career in the field I flirted with in undergrad and fell in love with in Divinity School. One of my first strategic moves in this regard was to attend the main academic conference of the guild, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion—to not only get more of a pulse on current and up-and-coming research, but to also build some relationships: with professors as well as with some graduate students who were doing kinds of work that I (thought I) wanted to do.
After a four-hour drive, my friend Chris and I hit up a bar to meet with Chris’ friend, Nick, who coincidentally was a doctoral student at a university I was considering. Nick and his friends were at the conference early for another, smaller, scholarly meeting, so we were meeting a number of these folks at the bar: some grad students, but most of them professors, professors who’d written books that I’d read, and liked. I was nervous as hell going into the bar. Nevertheless, I knew that this was a hell of an opportunity (and that liquid courage would definitely help) so I got my shit together, took a deep breath, reapplied my lip gloss, and walked confidently into the bar.
I killed the little meet and greet. And AAR. I wore makeup and earrings and skirts, something I would rarely do at all, let alone for four days straight, and spent the vast majority of the long weekend with these men. Sitting around and across from them at the bar, I professed my love of Dr. A’s insightful research on the significance of Augustine’s Trinitarian thought for political theology, for Dr. L’s creative and compelling analysis of the theological import of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings, for P’s (he was too young to call professor, even though he was one) critique of normativity and reification of the status quo in much of natural theology. When they asked about me, I told them about a paper I’d written using Barth’s examination of the enhypostasis of Christ alongside feminist analyses of gender. When they asked about the different feminist theorists I used and which I aligned most with, I talked about Butler’s notion of performativity and the significance of deconstructing gender. They all nodded, intrigued. I took it as an opportunity to edge my way in even more.
“So, it’s interesting,” I mused. “Deconstruction aside, [I think I rambled something about eschatology and sin and living between the ‘already-and-the-not-yet’ ], I noticed there are no other females here. Are there any girls coming to any of y’all’s events [this scholarly meeting/group had some sessions sprinkled throughout official AAR activities]?
“Do you want to come?” P asked.
“Sure,” I said, trying to be as nonchalant as possible.
“Then yup, we’ll have one woman there.”
Woman. Not girl. I smiled to myself. My brief, beer-aided performance as my then-ideal, the girl who acts like a guy but doesn’t look like one, my Walter Matthau-in-a-miniskirt routine, had sold them.[i]
I continued the act throughout the conference, throughout my second masters, and a little bit into my first year as a doctoral student at Vanderbilt. But this wasn’t a performance I could sustain. No doubt that the professor who taught my first semester doctoral seminar on “The Doctrine of the Trinity: The Nicene Heritage”—a professor I had met at that AAR just shy of two years ago—and most of my male colleagues (at least those who had seen me in prior contexts) were confused when I began my work at Vanderbilt absent all chutzpah, nervous and anxious to please. I had presented, initially, as someone who pleased by not trying to: the cool girl. My colleagues, at Vanderbilt and elsewhere, were mostly men, older than I was, and far more versed in systematic theology. I liked them and envied their laid-back-yet-irascible attitudes, the ideal for budding theologians. Maybe they were naturally that way, or maybe I was so intimidated by my own inexperience that I only thought so.
Unlike a lot of my female peers, I did take a lot of women’s studies courses in Divinity School—mostly because that’s where I started to see the real impact and effects of sexism (as well as racism, heterosexism, etc… for that matter). I didn’t take any of these courses in college, cause, well, not only were those not offered at my evangelical Christian school, I didn’t see the need for them—at that point in my life, a big part of me still wanted to be a pastor’s wife (ahahahahahahhaahaha). In Divinity School, I did call myself a feminist, but I made sure to know just as much about “systematics” and to make sure that, whenever I talked feminism, I also talked Barth, or Bonhoeffer, or Aquinas, or Kierkegaard, because I thought that doing otherwise would make me less desirable. I am queer, and was in a relationship at the time, so this “desirability” was about my self-worth, not practical application. And yet, I was obsessed with the male gaze. At the time, my interests were a bouquet of kitsch-masculinity, with a tinge of feminism thrown in: the differences in the first and second edition of the Römerbrief, with a brief mention of Barth’s little thing (whatever the hell it was) with Charlotte; waxing poetically about the significance of Augustine’s phenomenology of the self in De Trinitate, while pointing out the very real misogynism he inherited from Aristotle. I loved this male world of theology, and I loved the fact that I loved it.
That year, I’d been reading a little about Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, about how drag can reveal the socially constructed aspects of gender, and in a way, subtly, subversively tweak it. I thought being a theology student, that pursuing work in theological studies (oh, it’s such a boys’ club, everyone said, which thrilled me) was a little like that—dressing in drag.
But I was never as ironic as I tried to be. Really, I just wanted to be the girl who got into the boys’ club.
At one point, in the first month of my doctoral program, I was talking with a group of my colleagues, most of them a few years my senior, in the graduate student lounge, and the conversation turned towards dissertation topics. They were discussing the merits of different projects, and were critiquing a recent graduate who had done work on feminism and ethnography. They mused that her work wasn’t “real theology,” and that she was going to have a hard time finding a good job, and if she got one, it would be because she’s a woman in theology, thus a minority, not because of the merits of her scholarship. I told that story to my friends later, excited at this little insider nugget (it really is just like trying to make theology queen of the sciences again!), but instead of, you know, freeing me from hopeless standards and all that, I started emphasizing the role of systematic theology in my work, foregrounding how I wanted to engage with Barth’s notion of revelation and Bonhoeffer’s christology, minimizing how I wanted to explore those things in serious conversation with feminist theory. Not even a month in, and I’d drunk the Kool-Aid.[ii]
When I was in Divinity School, not only were there few women in the program—the class after mine was over 70% male, and, I kid you not, I felt like I knew more women who were spouses of students who worked as administrative assistants than female students—but there were especially very few women who were interested in theology: many were interested in ministry, some in non-profit/social work type stuff, and a few in finding pastor husbands. There were two, in particular, that stood out to me—that were interested in theology, but who played the game very differently. [iii] To me, they represented a choice of types: one woman represented a sort of trophy wife, but a really cool and smart one. She was beautiful—model-like, really—but sweet and friendly and laid back. She dressed very well, a combo of J. Crew and H&M, of put-together and not trying hard at all. She was confident but down to earth. Her husband was a doctor, and they were Baptist, but there was just something she loved about studying theology. And she had serious theological chops and could hold her own in conversations. Her name was Kara. The second woman (I’ll call her Caroline) was a queer tomboy hippy who was always casual and unruffled, sexy but never made up. She had a husky voice and a kind of relaxed swagger, had tattoos and was just a general badass. She even worked at a bar. She too could hold her own in theological conversations, but always would insert her radical queer eco-feminist concerns, regardless of the conversation. It awed me—she’d find ways to talk about ecology in Hegel or queer concerns in Kant, it was damned impressive—but it was so often perceived as a distraction from the real theological stuff, a derailing of genuine theological conversation. Kara was in the boys’ club; Caroline was not. [iv] I definitely wanted to be a Kara, even though, if I was honest with myself, I was far, far more of a Caroline.
The types themselves aren’t important. The thing that’s so discouraging to me now is that I was doing this typing, both to other women and to myself, and that the right answer was the one the boys liked more.
I became simultaneously worried about being pretty enough and being manly enough—or, perhaps, about being manly enough and being pretty enough. Some of my closest friends in Div School were guys, and I remember my friend Steve and I having one of those one of those fungal arguments (it started small, but oh, how it bloomed) about whether I was trying too hard to be one of the guys. That accusation has three stingers: that telling dirty jokes or playing beer pong or talking De Lubac or pneumatology equals “being a guy,” that “trying too hard” is actually the gravest error, and that whether I was trying or not, I was definitely, definitely locked out.
Soon after the first semester, I was facebook chatting with a friend, a guy in my program, a few years ahead of me. He knew I was struggling through the first semester, and asked how it was going. Then, he started telling me about a friend he talked to earlier that day, another student in the program, but in a different discipline. As the screenshot image on the left shows, the next thing I knew, he made a comment about my appearance.
Sometimes, your radar is working even if you can’t tell exactly what it’s telling you. In that environment, the line between gross and professional, or gross and chummy, could blur quickly, or else too slowly for you to realize, like a frog in hot water. In wanting to be “in” as a girl in the boy’s world of theology. I’d jumped in the pot. Of course I’d expected it to be a sexist environment, I just thought that wouldn’t bother me. You know: “She’s cool.”
A few weeks later, that friend asked me to babysit his daughter while he and his wife and another couple friend of theirs were going to a concert. I, being me, ever so eager to please—especially a super smart colleague that was farther along than I was—agreed. When he dropped his 7 month old daughter off at my place, he made a passing comment, something along the lines of “brains, beauty, boldness, and babysitting, who could ask for more?” It was meant as a joke, and perhaps as a compliment and/or as an odd way of saying thanks, but it struck me.
“Yep,” I laughed, “I’ve got it all,” I joked, too embarrassed to say anything else.
It was such a small moment, but it was the moment. No, I didn’t like his comment, but I was more upset about my own response, or rather, lack thereof. Despite trying so hard to be one of “them” I had failed. I wasn’t enough of a Kara or enough of a Caroline. I was definitely not in the boys’ club. It wasn’t until a bit later, when I wasn’t working there anymore, that I finally got that Kara was not “a Kara” and Caroline was not “a Caroline,” and that maybe my colleagues’ sexist typing of me wasn’t any worse than my own. I also realized then that Kara wasn’t in the boys club like I had thought she was. And that’s the moment I remember as the beginning not of my own feminism—like I said, I identified as a feminist throughout all of this—but as a feminist theologian (in training). It was then that I stopped trying to fit in to the theological “mainstream”—of what I perceived as the theological mainstream!—and just decided to do my own thing and care about what I cared about, regardless of what “box” it put me in, or what boxes it precluded me from. This realization, of course, took a while to jell: in fact, I think it is still quite…liquidy… still jelling, forming.
This isn’t to lump together all the men in theology—many are great—or to suggest that I was trampled in some hog-call of cigar-smoking pigs in velvet jackets.[v] What I learned in Divinity School and especially in my first year of my doctoral program is that I had so deeply internalized sexism that I didn’t see it even when it was looking right at me from all directions: that sometimes, those eyes were the only eyes that I’d see.
To want to break into the boys’ club because it is a boys’ club, you have to believe that it’s worth breaking into. Like the fantasy of taming a wild animal or having the meanest dog on the block or dating men who don’t like women very much, the promise of earned entrance to a boys’ club is that you will feel chosen, exceptional: you are not like the others. You have transcended your gender. And you have done this not because you think your gender shouldn’t matter as much as it does, but because you think the boys’ club must be better than any of the clubs that will have you. You know, like Groucho said.
That one took –is still taking?—a long time to unlearn.
Six months after that first AAR meeting where I was the lone woman trying to be “in” with the cool white boys, I was defending my Master’s thesis (on Bonhoeffer and Foucault on biopower). The defense happened in a building halfway across campus, and when I was done, I was walking back with my two thesis advisors/directors, two of the academic and theological mentors who have been amongst the most influential in my scholarly life. As we walked, we decided to take a circuitous route through Duke gardens, to just hang out and reflect on my (successful) defense and on my upcoming move to Nashville to start my Ph.D.. At one point during our walk, as we strolled casually through what was basically a winding field of tulips and other foliage (Duke has a thing for tulips, every spring they’re all over the place), me flanked on both sides by two very smart and wise and supportive black men clad in bow ties, the conversation turned to that AAR meeting, and how I loved—in some/many (though not all) respects—the kind of work that these white guys were doing, but how I was the only woman there most of that weekend. As they listened, I started to vent a little more, pointing out what I perceived to be inconsistencies in the theology many (though not all!) of these men espoused, ways that the practice didn’t line up with the theory…I think they heard the confusion and insecurity in my voice: the pride at being part of the Good Ol’ Boys club, however inadequate or microscopic that part was; the fear of never fitting in as a part of it, but the greater fear of never finding a place outside of it—of not succeeding or being taken seriously in the academy if I didn’t play their game and try to be a part of their club.
“Whooo-weee,” was the immediate, somewhat knee-jerk, response of the older, somewhat more ebullient of my two advisors, after which both of them laughed for a good while (whether it was over my angst or over his reaction was unclear to me). They soon realized that my attempt at laughing along was more about me trying to not be awkward—the way a person laughs at a joke that they’re supposed to get but don’t—and got just a little more serious, (though, somehow, no less joyful and exuberant). I don’t remember exactly what they said—it was one of those rare occasions that I didn’t journal after the day, mostly because I thought it was one of those conversations I’d never forget, not realizing how those kinds of things can blur together and that remembering the feelings associated with the experience and the broad advice and encouragement given is very different than remembering the details of it—but the gist of it was: You don’t need those guys to do the work you want to do. Just find your thing, and do it, and you’ll find people who get it and support it. Don’t let anyone put you into their box—fit the ways you fit and stick out the ways you stick out. You’ll do well, and you’ll do even more well the sooner you learn that. Yes, don’t ignore politics, don’t be dumb, but don’t let the game play you either. Be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. Be you.
I’m reminded of that conversation often, but as time goes on (as the lack of details indicates), a little less so, as I find myself with just a little bit less of a need to think of it…
[i] Jurgen Moltmann in a pencil skirt? Frederich Schleiermacher in heels? Hans van Balthassar in a miniskirt? Ok, I just said that last one cause it’s really, really amusing/fun to picture Balthassar in a miniskirt😉.
[ii] Ok, lets be honest. I’d drunk the Kool Aid already, four years prior, soon after starting Divinity School. This just ossified it for me.
[iii] Interestingly, this dynamic was reversed for Scherm—the tough/bad-ass woman being the desired ‘manly’ one. I think that what gets counted as ‘manly’ is obviously contextual, and while I think (and have seen) both these archetypes function in different theological contexts at different times, I definitely think there are ways in which much of the theological academy is especially is amenable to the nice, orthodox, married and mainstream iteration as the less bad of the two for candidacy to the boy’s club.
[iv] I am muddling some details to respect peoples’ privacy, and am definitely using pseudonyms, but other than that, these are real people and stories, narrated through the lens of my own experiences.
[v] I really can’t emphasize this enough. While my female friends in (and outside of) theology were and continue to be an incredibly important source of support and encouragement, there have been moments—when a voice of privilege took my side, when there weren’t any women around, etcetera—where my male friends’ support and solidarity not only sustained me, but empowered me.