Rest in Feminist Power: In Memoriam for Constance Buchanan

January 13, 2021
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

Gathering with many others whose lives she touched, Bonnie J. Morris, PhD, (WRSP 1990-91), joined the November 23 online memorial for Connie Buchanan, beloved longtime director of the Women’s Studies and Religion Program at HDS.

At age 28, Bonnie joined a cohort of five women’s studies and religion research associates whom Connie brought to HDS for the 1990-91 year. Bonnie has written about the impact of that experience in several books and continues to be in touch with HDS colleagues and students shaped by Connie’s legacy.

Let me add my voice to the sum of voices paying homage to Constance Buchanan’s vision for the daring, ongoing Women’s Studies in Religion Program. Her legacy is both assured and has grown exponentially under Ann Braude’s competent direction. What struck me, during the moving online memorial service for Connie, is how many scholars she helped succeed as the first in their fields, their cultures, their faiths, or their home communities. She mentored a generation of groundbreaking research on every aspect of the sacred feminine.

Looking back, I know the unique burden of being a feminist “first” sorely tested our confidence in the 1980s and 90s. We research associates lost much valuable time advocating for our woman-centered subject matter, justifying why we should claim incremental space in the traditionally male academy. That era was loud with conservative policy voices, anxious to protect “the canon” in higher education, to which feminist scholarship and/or the inclusion of scholars of color posed an existential threat.

Even the mildest inroads of women’s history and/or African American history, as discrete or intersectional genres, were belittled by the new National Academy of Scholars as the distraction of special interest groups. If our content took up time in a classroom or curriculum, ostensibly there would be no time for real history, a concern I heard expressed at job interviews later. (One administrator greeted me with “Look, will we even need women’s history five years from now?”)

Listening to new and older voices at Connie’s memorial, I reflected that we may have finally reached a turning point where we are free to focus purely on what we know about women’s lives, and to pursue original research on the sacred feminine. What a relief! It’s now assumed that women, and women of color particularly, belong in the academy in more than marginal numbers, and that henceforth their absence will be as disturbing as their initial appearance was once upon a time.

As Frances Foster put it during Connie’s memorial, the research outlooks brought to the Women’s Studies in Religion Program are no longer regarded as “fringe or frivolous.” What Connie mentored for so many of us was a way of life where one should assume belonging, accept leadership, pursue nothing less than equality, and, most difficult to learn, leverage power without apology.           

I arrived at HDS one year out of graduate school, keenly aware I was anything but a “finished” scholar, but able to grasp from meetings with Connie and other WSRP faculty that HDS was not a finishing school—intellectually or socially. It was a site of rigorous contemplation within the relaxed boundaries of no fixed doctrine.

To use a Jewish metaphor (my work and teaching at HDS addressed Hasidic women), I experienced an immersion in scholarly pathways to narrating lived female experiences, which would yield a lifetime of insights that only began to formulate when I departed. The ultra-Orthodox community I studied maintained and guarded strict separations between men’s and women’s appointed roles, including separate physical spaces as well as public/private duties; similar to those writing about Islamic or Catholic feminism, I negotiated (outside HDS) feminists who wondered why anyone would ascribe cultural agency to seemingly oppressed women. 

It was during meetings in Connie’s office that I first heard others in the WSRP discuss ways that sex segregation permits and empowers a distinctive women’s culture that women expand and inscribe on their own terms: a phenomenon I thought I alone had been mapping. My notes from conversations in spring 1991 include Margaret Miles suggesting “We are leery of institutions because we have been excluded from them. Yet if we want a woman-friendly state, we need to gain control of, or in, its institutions.”

Irene Monroe, then an HDS divinity graduate student and not yet the Rev. Irene Monroe, added “The institutional construction of voice means that while everyone in the room may speak, not everyone is heard.” Irene warned against institutional access privileging only those scholars of color she called Afro-Saxons. We all wanted women, and research on women, to move to center stage, but without reproducing racist, sexist, or classist silences. We had lost ground by apologizing to men. Yet we owed certain historic apologies to one another.  

My notes from those seminars filled a hardbound journal. How much disturbance were any of us willing to stake our reputations to? I had cheerfully lived out and proud as a lesbian activist for a decade, barely pausing to think about or pay attention to the professional compromises made by older scholars in discreet partnerships with women. What I worried about was my work being impugned as inauthentic. This of course happened, especially when I expanded my work to the more radical women’s communities on the spectrum of sex-segregation, and paired Hasidic women’s gatherings with lesbian separatist events. Now I was operating on two cultural margins simultaneously, including working with students who had left Hasidic communities for lesbian communitiesand vice versa. That the Women’s Studies in Religion Program was its own community became clearer over time.  

It cannot be emphasized enough that Constance Buchanan helped clear pathways to knowledge by making short shrift of our internalized-sexist doubts. “Do I really belong here?” “Am I really contributing anything?” “Did Harvard make a mistake?” These doubts, experienced by Harvard undergrads, too, as well as male professors, were acute in many women at HDS; with Connie’s example, we unlearned self-deprecation lest it haunt us as faculty.

At Connie’s memorial, more than one woman noted Connie’s keen fashion sense and her generosity in sharing couture. I was surely a memorable offender in my unprofessional garb, notorious, as Ann Braude recalls, for attending HDS events in ski pants; but what Connie did as mentor was not to dress me up. Instead she threw a metaphorical academic robe over my work and my career. All of us were elevated, sternly as well as lovingly, as Constance Buchanan dressed us in the academic regalia of high expectation, a startling and appreciated change from the hesitancy we wore upon arrival.