Honoring our Foremothers

Address by Martha Stortz

March 10, 2010

Thanks so much for naming me as a Foremother. I am indeed honored.

There are a lot of people here with me. I think of foremothers in the Lutheran Church like Elizabeth Bettenhauser, Dorothy Marple, Kathryn Baerwald, Mary Pellauer, Karen Bloomquist, Jo Chadwick, and Phyllis Anderson, who now serves as president of this institution. I think of foremothers in the larger church, like Sheila Briggs and Lauree Hersch Meyer. I think of foremothers in the academy, like Margaret Miles—whenever I ran across one of her articles researching a topic of my own, I knew I was on the right path. I think of foremothers whom I’ve never met, but whose work has so deeply shaped my own: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, and Iris Murdoch.

And you all have people of your own, without whom you would not be here. So with high delight, happy noise, I invite you to shout at their names, because in naming them we remember them, literally, remember them and bring them here with us:

I’ll say “Presente!”

OK: so this is a crowded podium. And that feels real.

I have been in this wild and crazy business of theological education for almost three decades. And Three Decades gets you a lot of things, mostly the wages of age and gravity and a thicker skin—to match our thickening midriffs. But one of the benefits is this wonderful spirit of what-the-hellness: You know what you can do well, what you can’t do so well, and you do it the way a swimmer hits the wall. You don’t have to think about it, but only because years of practice went into that flawless turn.

Three decades also confer that wonderful spirit of what-the-hellness, if I can say that in a chapel. You don’t have to impress anyone anymore—including yourself. So every honor comes as a kind of wonderful surprise; every disappointment runs off, like water down a drain. T. S. Eliot put this spirit of what-the-hellness more elegantly:

“Teach us to care
And not to care.
Teach us to sit still.” (“Ash Wednesday”)

Maturity is know what to care about and what not to care about. Both roads lead to the future. So having honored our foremothers, I want to turn to the next generation. I guess that makes you our after-daughters? But I want to identify three questions that your foremothers are leaving you, questions that you’ll need to figure out how to care—and not care—about.

They are questions we’ve tried to address. And it’s not that we gave the wrong answer, but the response wasn’t exactly right. Or exactly right yet.

I have every confidence you’ll know what to do with these.

The first question is the question of experience, and the assumption that that’s where you’ve got to begin: in theology, in ethics, in analysis of any sort. Well, yes, but whose experience counts? I think of that wonderful speech by Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?!” and she pointed to ploughing and harvesting and planting, all things a man would have done. But if you read the conversation between the late womanist author and cultural critic Audre Lorde and white feminist Adrienne Rich, you will understand Lorde’s telling observation that most of the experience feminism began with was white, middle-class, college-educated women’s experience. And Lorde sharply observed: your experience doesn’t include mine!

I’ve been in classrooms where beginning from experience silences some experiences and valorizes others. And if experiences manage to get named, you have a set up for competitive suffering. I remember one class where a white male was arguing he’d suffered more because of classism than an Hispanic woman suffered because of racism.

So, to you, our younger sisters, or After-Daughters, here’s the question:

How do we acknowledge experience—and find common ground in, with, and under it?

Second question—and related: how did we lose track of advocacy? At some point, probably while we were on the picket lines or fighting for tenure, it got buried by the quota system and its presumption of representation. And that meant people in public places, on boards and in committees—particularly church-related committees—got appointed not because they could speak up on behalf of others, but because they could represent their own group well.

I serve on the Augsburg Fortress Board, the publishing ministry of the church, and nominating new board members is like playing three-dimensional chess. We are under mandate to have diversity in race, gender, regional location, and status—whether lay or clergy or rostered. Only then can we ask about professional expertise or cyber-savvy-ness. We never inquire into the ability to advocate for others. Finally, I am sure there are many kinds of diversity not even included in the church’s definition. It’s stunning.

But then once you get there, you’re supposed to speak up for your “group”—and no other, particularly if you are a minority. Another story: I was at a LWF conference of feminist theologians in Karjaa, Finland about 15 years ago—Phyllis was there too. We ended by dancing the Finnish Tango. But somewhere in the middle of the conference a North American theologian took a Brazilian theologian to task because she didn’t identify her “context” in her talk: “Anyone could have given that talk—there was nothing particularly Latin American about what you said.”

I was absolutely baffled by the critique—and it was, until I realized what was going on: The Brazilian was only supposed to speak for Latin America. Her remarks had to fit in that box—and didn’t apply outside it. She couldn’t speak for anyone else. She could only represent, she couldn’t advocate.

Or an earlier conversation on this faculty with an earlier generation of my colleagues of color. We were talking about an earlier incarnation of “Ministry Across Cultures,” which Professor Vargas now teaches. The course was called “People of Color,” and I remember arguing that if this was a commitment of our entire faculty and the whole curriculum, then the course ought to be our common responsibility—not just the responsibility of the faculty of color, who then—as now!—had sole responsibility for teaching the course. I was new to the faculty, untenured, and stupid, so I kept talking, digging in deeper: “Moreover, shouldn’t our goal be to eliminate this course, because we have all integrated the concerns of this course into our core courses across the curriculum?” There was silence around the table. A long silence, and finally one of my colleagues of color said: “We simply don’t trust you to do that.”

Now I understand his mistrust, and I have loved being on a faculty that values that kind of candor. But I deeply worry about a state of affairs where you cannot speak up for anyone but yourself, where you will not be heard on anything but your own experience. Who speaks for the children, the elderly, those who have no voice? How do we commit ourselves to listening to the voices of others? How do we faithfully imagine ourselves into the lives of others?

So, to you, our After-Daughters: here’s the question: How do we restore advocacy to its rightful place, while confessing the limits of our own experience?

Third and final point: what’s the relationship between the personal and the political, and why does the political—or anything else—get so quickly so personalized?

I’m not denying that our Foremothers noticed something going on. They saw that the personal was political, and they became politically adept at addressing issues that overwhelmingly affected women’s and children’s bodies.

But too quickly the political got personalized. I remember vividly an annual faculty review where the dean in question—also a dear friend and trusted colleague—was getting a counseling and psychology degree. As I was talking, I was also reading the thought balloons coming out of his head—you get used to doing that as a junior faculty member, a woman, a minority person of any sort. And I realized: he was doing my DSM IV code. The point I was really trying to make was something far more mundane like, like addressing salary equity between lay faculty and ordained faculty. Or getting the chalkboards cleaned, maybe just once a year.

Now maybe he put that kind of effort into all my white male colleagues’ evaluations, but I doubt it. The political was personalized, psychologized even.

But it’s not just men who do this to us—we first and foremost to ourselves. Politics get overly personalized, and I have said to more than one brilliant feminist colleague, administrator, and friend: don’t take it personally. It will eat you up on the inside. You will wind up bearing inordinate responsibility for this, and it will paralyze your ability to respond. We need thick skins, appropriate detachment, and a consuming hobby, something that completely purges the last meeting from our brains and lets us see—really see—the beauty that surrounds us.

Sometimes the political is just—political.

So, to you, our After-Daughters: here’s the final question: How can you help us discern when the personal is political—without personalizing the merely political?

So these questions I leave you: the questions of experience, advocacy, and the right relationship between personal and political. Think of these as more of mom’s unfinished business. You can’t have it all—who said that in the first place?! Probably someone who just wanted to feed those feelings of inadequacy. But the truth is you can’t have it all—but you can have something, something real and precious.

And you certainly can’t take it all with you. You’ll figure out what you most need.

The rest you can leave by the side of the road.
Fashion it into a tiny shrine,
say a brief prayer—
and don’t look back.

And to you all, for being Family: thanks!

Martha Stortz