Visionary Investment

January 15, 2014
Constance Buchanan, a former director of the WSRP who developed the program into a permanent part of the School and University, died September 16, 2020. / Photo: Steve Gilbert
Constance Buchanan, a former director of the WSRP who developed the program into a permanent part of the School and University, died September 16, 2020. / Photo: Steve Gilbert

The scholars of Harvard Divinity School's Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP) have helped change the way societies around the world look at women and faith.

Karen King, now Hollis Professor of Divinity at HDS, recovered the theological leadership of Mary Magdalene, an early disciple of Jesus; Nigerian attorney Hauwa Ibrahim provided tools for lawyers to defend the rights of women in her country's Islamic courts; Missouri State University professor Julia Watts Belser addressed the rhetoric surrounding climate change by bringing rabbinic narratives into dialogue with feminist environmental ethics.

These achievements—and many more like them—were made possible in large part thanks to the efforts of Constance H. Buchanan, the WSRP's visionary first director.

Buchanan, who was also an associate dean and member of the HDS faculty for 20 years, took the reins of the program in 1977. When she left to join the Ford Foundation in 1997, the WSRP was an internationally recognized center for research on faith, gender, race, and sexual orientation.

"There is no other body of critical theory that raises [gender] inequality as a moral problem, and points out that equality means gaining full moral stature as a human being, not just for women, but for everyone," said Buchanan speaking of the WSRP in 2012, shortly after her retirement.

Buchanan's legacy got a major boost earlier this year when a group of the WSRP's most dedicated supporters pledged nearly half a million dollars to establish the Constance H. Buchanan Endowment for the Women's Studies in Religion Program. The endowment recognizes the groundbreaking work of the WSRP's founding director by providing broad support for the program's activities and for its research associates.

"The WSRP puts women at the center of the dialogue on the forces that shape societies and cultures," says HDS Dean David N. Hempton. "It provides a pipeline of scholars whose work transforms the way that the world looks at gender and faith. The endowment not only honors Connie's remarkable vision, but will also help it to grow and thrive in the years ahead."

Michelle Clayman, a member of the HDS Dean's Council and the founder, managing partner, and chief investment officer of the New York money management firm New Amsterdam Partners, helped lead the effort to create the Buchanan endowment. She says that the WSRP has shaped an entire field of study and has helped to launch the careers of some of the country's leading scholars.

"If you look at the leaders in the field of women's studies in religion," Clayman says, "they're all influenced by the program: Elaine Pagels at Princeton; Susannah Heschel at Dartmouth; Anne Klein at Rice; and, of course, Karen King at HDS. The WSRP was a catalyst for their groundbreaking work."

Lynda Goldstein, founder of the Jewish Women's Fund of Colorado, says that she made the Buchanan endowment a part of her philanthropic portfolio because she believes that "the hope of the future is in the education of women, which benefits their children and their entire communities. The WSRP helps make that goal possible by creating a network of women who communicate across religious borders!"

"I consider this funding to be the 'venture' part of my philanthropic portfolio," she goes on. "There are so many unknown variables in global funding. If we don't invest with our philanthropy, this type of programming won't happen."

Alicia Kershaw, executive director of GallopNYC Therapeutic Horsemanship and cofounder of the Women's Foundation (Hong Kong), says that her support for the endowment is a way of commemorating Buchanan's breakthrough insights.

"The notion that religion was at the heart of the role of gender in public life was a unique and innovative thought," she says. "Connie was doing this work at the time that the women's movement was developing, but didn't really relate to how women are seen in the context of religion. It's easy today to lose sight of how much of a pathbreaker she was."

Another Dean's Council member and WSRP supporter, Arlene Hirschfeld, says that the endowment recognizes the impact that Buchanan had on academia, on the world outside the classroom, and on Hirschfeld's own life and work.

"Meeting Connie Buchanan in 1992 was one of the 'aha' moments in my life," she says. "Her lecture, 'Women and Motherhood: From Artistic Image to Public Value,' opened my eyes to the impact that faith has on women's roles. In all my involvement with women's causes, until I heard Connie speak, I hadn't realized that the understanding of religion was the missing piece to being as effective as I could be in my work."

The philanthropist Diane Troderman met Connie Buchanan in 2012 and was impressed by her determination and vision. She decided to support the endowment, however, in order to advance the work of the program's current director, Ann Braude, and its research associates.

"I gave to this fund because I wanted to support Ann Braude and her passion surrounding the WSRP," she says. "I am so impressed by the work of the scholars and their commitment not only to their research, but also to one another. These remarkable women learn from each other and develop whole new ways of seeing. Ultimately, the world benefits."

Braude, Buchanan's successor and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History at HDS, says that the new endowment will be crucial to the continued success of the program.

"Every year, WSRP brings to HDS five extraordinary scholars whose research makes a difference in the lives of women around the world," she says. "The sustained support of donors enables us to do more and to continue to push the limits of what we know about women and religion. I'm excited and deeply grateful for this gift, which is such a fitting tribute to Connie's visionary leadership. There's nobody like her."

Although the lead pledges of Clayman, Kershaw, Goldstein, and Troderman established the Buchanan Endowment, more gifts are needed to ensure that WSRP research associates are fully supported. Kershaw urges philanthropists to take advantage of a rare opportunity and to invest in the program.

"You don't often in life get a chance to do something that has the potential to change the way we think about women at a fundamental level," she says. "If we support the WSRP, our daughters and granddaughters will say it made a difference in their lives."

—by Paul Massari