The Groundbreaker

April 14, 2017
Constance Buchanan
2017 Gomes Honoree Constance H. Buchanan

Few changes have been more dramatic in the long history of Harvard Divinity School than the inclusion of women—both as scholars and the subject of scholarship.

In that context, 1973 was a milestone. That year, HDS established its Women's Studies in Religion Program (WSRP)—just as Caroline Walker Bynum became the first woman to hold a full-time teaching position at the School.

Since then, the WSRP has 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 scholar who guided and shaped the program during its formative years. This year, HDS alumni honored Buchanan’s impact on WSRP, on the School, and on the study of religion by naming her one of the 2017 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honorees.

"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. I’m delighted that HDS alumni have chosen to honor Connie's efforts to help the program grow and thrive."

Buchanan took the reins of the WSRP in 1977, four years after it was launched. She was a member of the faculty and associate dean of HDS for the next two decades, also serving six years as special assistant to Harvard President Derek Bok for his University-wide initiative on improving the quality of teaching and learning.

"You had the utmost confidence in her sincerity of purpose and the extent of her dedication to the improvement of education," Bok said. "It was a pleasure to work with someone who shared the same values as I did. Intelligence and knowledge are important, but that inner commitment and dedication to the ultimate goal of education makes a decisive difference."

Described by colleagues as pragmatic as well as visionary, Buchanan had the foresight to reach outside academia to find philanthropic women with passions and interests that intersected with the WSRP's mission, even though many of them had no direct Harvard connections.

Michelle Clayman, founder of the New York money management firm New Amsterdam Partners, says that she supports the program because it’s shaped an entire field of study and helped 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."

By the time Buchanan 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 program in 2012, shortly after her retirement.

Ann Braude, WSRP’s current director and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History at HDS, says that Buchanan was not only crucial to the establishment of the program, but also to its continued success.

"Connie’s leadership enabled WSRP to set down strong roots at HDS,” says Braude. “Because of that, we’ve been able to grow, bringing extraordinary scholars to campus each year to push the limits of what we know about women and religion. I'm thrilled to hear that Connie is a bicentennial Gomes honoree. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to her leadership."

by Paul Massari