From Mastermind to SST: making space for the female voice

Society for the Study of Theology Conference
Nottingham University April 13th-16th 2015

Penny Cowell Doe

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I approached this, my first academic conference, with considerable trepidation. It didn’t matter that, as a mature student, I had a whole professional life behind me of leading teams and giving presentations; this was going to feel like my first day at ‘big’ school.

Besides the unfamiliar context there were three additional reasons for apprehension: I would know very few people there; I was giving a short paper at my first conference; and, since my MA is in biblical studies, someone might notice my borrowed theological plumage. Fortunately, on my way to the Halls of Residence the first person I met was a former PhD student from Exeter, Bethany Sollereder, now working for the Templeton Foundation in Oxford and so, heartened, I went to the first of three welcoming receptions: the women’s reception, where I was greeted by Susannah Cornwall (one of my two supervisors) and pointed in the direction of a glass of wine.

I had my doubts about the wisdom of SST hosting a ‘women’s’ reception, since I’ve always been just a little suspicious about laudable efforts to empower women which just end up ghettoising them. Having worked for the BBC (think W1A) and currently studying in a department in which women – indeed senior women – are well represented on the staff, I was, perhaps, complacent about the place of women in the academy. It was something of a revelation then to move from the room, in which a smallish group of women were gathered, to a second reception in the foyer and to be confronted by a sea of grey: men in suits. Although, since the theme of the Conference was ecclesiology, this was brightened by a few men in purple shirts. I realised that I had, perhaps, been a little too sanguine about gender equality in the academy and this was borne out by the plenary panel discussion on the last day: ‘Gender, sex and systematic theology: present realities, future aspirations’. Five panellists spoke passionately about the female voice in university and college theology departments and about how the academy is often inimical to that voice in systematic theology. There were impassioned voices from the floor too.

By then I had time to observe and reflect on the gender ‘politics’ of the Conference and to conclude that, just as there were more men attending the Conference, the male voice there was predominant. Only one of the five keynote speakers was a woman, of 88 short papers and seminars, just 24 were given by women, and, certainly, in the plenary sessions, the male voice prevailed at question time. Sometimes ostensible questions turned into mini papers, voicing the speaker’s own view of the topic rather than seeking further elucidation or clarification. Are women, generally, less competitive than men? Or are they motivated by different drivers? It was a question I was often asked – and often wondered myself – when I was the Producer of the TV quiz programme Mastermind. It was a struggle, always, to find enough female competitors to provide the ‘token’ one in a line-up of four. When they appeared, women took the whole thing seriously and tended to do well, but 1 in 4 reflected roughly the number of female applicants. I used to think that women, despite being ambitious, weren’t single-minded in the same way as men; maybe winning was not a goal. And that ‘the common round, the daily task’, probably prevented some from engaging in a pursuit as frivolous as an upmarket quiz show. Now systematic theology is not frivolous and women clearly do want to take part, but, perhaps, the academy has been more welcoming to the male voice than to the female. I met several young women over the course of the Conference who impressed me with their abilities and aspirations. Another innovation at SST was the responses by PhD students to two of the keynote speakers. Both were excellent, but I was particularly impressed by that given by Exeter’s Karen O’Donnell in response to Lieven Boeve’s paper on Vatican IIs Dei verbum, which distilled the essence of a dense paper into a short but illuminating and provocative response.

It was, in part, the subtext of the Conference’s theme, Ecclesiology – reflections on sexuality and gender in the Church – that elicited these thoughts. My own short paper, asking if the Anglicanism of Richard Hooker is reflected in recent Church of England reports on human sexuality was, despite my fears, well-received. It felt good to be able to tell people things they didn’t already know and to learn that they wanted to hear these things! If I have given the impression that SST is an unreconstructed bastion of patriarchy, then let me conclude by saying, emphatically, that it isn’t. These are observations on how male prevalent the academy still is and that academic conferences, naturally, reflect that imbalance. Nevertheless, I met some inspiring women (and men); it’s true that a lot of the important stuff goes on in the ‘social times’; and I am so looking forward to next year’s Conference (when Exeter’s Louise Lawrence will be one of the keynote speakers).