Women Philanthropists, Activists Convene at HDS

February 22, 2012

The tragic impact of war and corruption in Afghanistan; developmental pediatrics in inner-city communities; the current state of philanthropy for organizations serving women and girls: If asked where at Harvard these subjects were recently discussed, one of the last places someone might suggest is Harvard Divinity School (HDS).

And yet all three were topics at HDS's National Leadership Conference of the Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP). Held February 3-5, this annual event convenes women leaders in business, law, the arts, philanthropy, and community activism to interact with the WSRP's five research associates about their scholarly work, and to discuss contemporary challenges that disproportionately impact the lives of women.

Participants praise the conference as a rare chance to receive "brain food," allowing them not only to "refuel" but to also "self-transform." This year, the weekend kicked off with a dinner to honor Constance Buchanan.

An associate dean of HDS from 1977 to 1997 and special assistant to Harvard President Derek Bok for his initiative in improving the quality of teaching and learning at the University, Buchanan was a "force of nature," in the words of current HDS Dean William A. Graham.

Her far-reaching vision and tireless fundraising efforts led the way for the WSRP to grow from an innovative but fledgling program focused on the interdisciplinary study of women, religion, and culture into an internationally recognized center for research and teaching on religion, gender, race, and sexual orientation. The WSRP brings five postdoctoral scholars to Harvard each year.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Buchanan delivered a rousing call to action, urging her audience to keep educating and inspiring others "to challenge this whole ideology of the moral inferiority of women." She stressed that "women are members of every vulnerable group, and also the vulnerable members of privileged groups," which means that working for women "automatically moves out to include the rest of humanity."

In the United States, Buchanan said, "women built the communities of this country," and yet women are still often assumed "not to have the status to speak with authority." Reminding her listeners that "the answers to these questions cannot depend on academia alone," she urged them to "keep at" the kind of work that reaches beyond the academy into the public arena.

Buchanan's rallying speech anchored the weekend's events, as the 26 participants engaged in substantive discussions with a diverse range of women leaders, each with an interest in the intersection of women, religion, and society.

Diane Troderman, the first chair of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute on Jewish women, discussed her journey from "acting as a dreamcatcher" for her own Jewish community, to championing educational efforts around "the place of women in conjunction with human rights."

Still deeply active in issues of Jewish day school education, Troderman expressed the privilege she feels "to belong to a faith that takes action seriously . . . Tikkun olam, repairing the world." She views women as being especially committed to the work of cultivating the spirit and caring for others, saying, "Our evolution from human to humane beings rests in our hands."

Denver pediatrician Marie Whiteside also sees the commitment "to use your humanity to spread humanity" to be "the religion of women." Working as a developmental and behavioral pediatrician on the front lines of inner-city and suburban hospitals enabled her to see "that the best pediatricians end up treating the entire family, not just individual children."

Whiteside continually draws on the "values and deep faith tradition of the Roman Catholic Church," which inform her belief that "every one of us is unique" and lead her to "pause, listen, and respond" to those she cares for. But as an adult, she has reached a more nuanced understanding about how faith traditions can operate in the world, saying, "When religion is used for the elevation of the individual, it is a wonder, but when used for the subjugation of a people, it is a terrible wrong."

Belief also drives philanthropist Jacki Zehner, the youngest woman and first female trader to be a partner at Goldman Sachs, who subsequently founded and co-chairs the organization Women Moving Millions.

"What drives me is my belief in gender equality and justice," Zehner said, stressing that "women's rights issues are global growth issues." She prodded the conference participants to think concretely about how the "power for social change" can be marshaled by women through their financial decisions.

Zehner cited discouraging research that as little as 3 percent of philanthropic funds go to organizations specifically serving women and girls, and among those donations, a disproportionate amount go to women's health issues such as breast cancer. These are worthy causes, she said, but the same enthusiasm and funding are required for economic justice; safety and freedom from violence; family and work issues; and power, civic, and legal rights. Zehner called upon the others to aim for "collective impact" to "create large-scale change" for women and girls.

Sarah Chayes, the former National Public Radio journalist who has been on the ground in some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world and advised the highest levels of the U.S. military, exemplified the kind of "real world" activism Buchanan and others hope to spur.

After deciding "it was time to stop talking about [conflict] and do something about it," Chayes settled in the former Taliban heartland, Kandahar, where she founded a soap manufacturing cooperative to promote sustainable development. Though she didn't have a business, botany, or chemistry background, Chayes learned as she went, describing "aha!" moments as she and her fellow workers learned to extract oils from pomegranate seeds and wild pistachios, all while living through the tragedies of "an active theater of war."

Chayes emphasized the urgent need for activism and advocacy among the most vulnerable members in societies such as Afghanistan, including unskilled women. Her business has been called a "woman's cooperative," though Chayes noted with pride that men and women both worked in the business, functioning "as a family." Her colleagues in Afghanistan shared their needs for concrete assistance and advice to support their own entrepreneurial efforts.

But Chayes is not optimistic about the current state of affairs, describing the level of corruption in Afghanistan as "state capture by a vertically integrated criminal syndicate." Such a system "rewards people who are opportunistic" and makes it "nearly impossible for regular, honest businesses to compete." She pointed out that U.S. actions have reinforced these perverse incentive structures.

Chayes underscored the irony that "we are spending a billion dollars every two weeks in Afghanistan," and yet there have been "no supplemental budget requests for the Arab Spring." This has led to the United States being "irrelevant" to the important struggles for democratic progress, rule of law, and opportunity in the Arab world. "They don't see us as a model, because we're not living up to our core values," she concluded.

Throughout the weekend, this year's five WSRP scholars reported on their work, ranging from a contemporary assessment, "Gender Justice and Islamic Reformation in Malaysia," to a personal memoir about humanizing Shari'a (Islamic law), to the discussion "Fashioning Catastrophe: Talmudic Disaster Narratives and Feminist Environmental Ethics."

Whether drawing on ancient or contemporary stories of political conflict, family division, famine, disease, and death, these discussions highlighted the harsh reality for many of the world's women, who face disproportionate risks from famine, drought, and security issues.

Before the close of the conference, participants offered some thoughtful reflections about what the weekend had meant to them and engaged in an energetic conversation about "moving forward," inspired by WSRP research associate Hauwa Ibrahim's words about "needing to re-create ourselves anew each day."

Ann Braude, director of the WSRP, stressed the diversity and depth of WSRP scholarship, saying, "more than 150 scholars from around the country and the world have gone through this program and produced groundbreaking work."

Another of this year's WSRP scholars, Rachel Adelman, told the women at the conference, "Thank you for being real to me and for making our scholarship possible." Braude commented later on the importance of this exchange, saying, "I have seen both scholars and philanthropists empowered by the unique relationships they have developed by coming together at this conference year after year."

Many participants referred back to Buchanan's stirring speech, and shared the profound influence she has had on their own journeys. Others commented that though there are "religious and political differences" among the women in the room, they manage to keep coming together around core values that involve a "joining of heart and head."

"We all have our own missions, but we have created a good society, holy ground [here]," which includes "kindness and intellectual quality," said Amy Post, a practicing interfaith minister in New York City.

—by Wendy McDowell