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Religion at the Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference | Righting America

by William Trollinger

The 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference here at the University of Dayton was a huge success, with approximately 475 attendees, and with – by our count – 188 separate sessions over four days.

Not surprisingly, we gravitated toward sessions that dealt with religion.  Here are four highlights:

  • Ashleigh Petts (North Dakota State University), “Writing and (Re)Reading Julian of Norwich into the Rhetorical Tradition”: Julian was a late 14th-century/early 15th-century anchorite who is best known for her 1395 collection of mystical visions, Revelations of Divine Love (which happens to be the first English-language book published by a woman). As Petts pointed out, Julian articulated a notion of God the Father and Mother, and – more provocatively – the idea of Jesus as our divine Mother. All of this was perfect for the feminisms and rhetorics conference, as was Petts’ argument that, when it comes to Julian’s rhetoric, it is past time for scholars of rhetoric to let it stand on its own, as a woman’s voice, as opposed to evaluating it on the basis of comparison with the male rhetoric of, say, Augustine.
    • From chapter 60 of Revelations of Divine Love, here’s Julian on “Mother Jesus”: “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and doeth it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious feed of my life.”
  • Rebekah Trollinger (Earlham College), “Religious Rhetoric and Alternative Feminisms: Rebecca Cox Jackson and Black Womanhood in a Shaker Community”: Jackson was an African-American woman who in 1830 had a very dramatic conversion experience during a thunderstorm, an experience that led her to commit to obeying her inner voice/God’s voice – which came to her in dreams and visions – for the rest of her life. Obeying God’s voice meant preaching, leaving her husband and committing to celibacy, joining the Shakers (and then challenging the Shakers regarding their racial discrimination). For Trollinger, Jackson’s story highlights the challenge that religious women may pose to the idea of “agency”: while Jackson was all about obedience to God (a notion that seems to work against agency), this obedience actually led her to challenge racial and gendered inequalities.
    • In this regard, when it comes to both Jackson and Julian (not to mention Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers), it is interesting to consider the ways in which direct revelations from God have liberated women from aspects of patriarchy.
  • William FitzGerald (Rutgers University-Camden), “Erasure and Authority: Recovering a Feminist History of the Serenity Prayer”: The Serenity Prayer is a commonplace in devotional writings and various twelve-step recovery programs. It is also commonplace to attribute the prayer to Reinhold Niebuhr, especially after Fred Shapiro – who in 2008 suggested, as Laurie Goodstein reported in a front-page New York Times article, that Niebuhr did not write the prayer – affirmed in 2014 that the author was indeed Niebuhr. But now here comes FitzGerald, who after exhaustive research argues that credit for the prayer should be given to Winnifred Wygal, a long-time YWCA official and student of Niebuhr’s at Union Theological Seminary. As FitzGerald noted at the end of his paper, this is certainly not the first time a woman’s voice has been silenced by a man’s voice.
    • Here’s the most popular form of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), “’Hell Hath No Fury’: Gendered Bodies in Ancient Medicine and Early Christian Hellscapes”: In this paper (which is part of a larger book project) Henning, who is the author of Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, discussed how, in early Christian apocalyptic literature, the bodies in hell were “feminized,” in keeping with how ancient medical texts described the ‘weaker’ and more problematic bodies of women. For example, just as Galen and others posited that the uterus produced worms, so some of the Christian hellscapes made much of the fact that bodies in hell were often covered with worms.
    • An academic paper that featured a graphic description of worm-covered bodies?

So it was at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference! In the next post we will talk about our conference presentation, which, sad to say, did not include worms (but did include waste removal).