Women in Theology & Church History

As late as the mid-1970s, the American Society of Church History was still an “old boy’s club.” Although its members were rarely overtly discriminatory toward female scholars, the society was not a friendly environment for women. Women who came to meetings often felt very much alone. It was so difficult to locate other women that many women came once and never came back.

At the ASCH meeting in San Francisco in December 1983, the society recognized the scholarly work of Jane Dempsey Douglass by nominating her to become the first female president-elect of ASCH. One of her first actions was to convene an informal meeting of women members of the association. Only two women responded to this call (Barbara Brown Zikmund and Jan Shipps). However, it was a beginning.
The three women proposed holding breakfast meetings for women, which soon thereafter adopted the name Women in Theology and Church History (WITCH). These breakfasts have changed the experience of female scholars of church history by providing regular opportunities for women scholars to meet other women.

WITCH breakfast gatherings are always held on the morning of the first full day of the meeting. This timetable is followed for two reasons: First, it gives women a chance to meet each other early in any meeting, allowing time for informal follow up conversations, collaboration and gatherings. Second, it does not conflict with other regular events for women hosted by the American Historical Association.

The women’s breakfast is informal and inexpensive. Typically it is a continental breakfast that does not require reservations — this is intentional. Graduate students are encouraged to come and pay what they can. Regular members contribute a bit more to cover expenses. The Association itself partially subsidizes the event.

There is no formal program. Instead, after everyone is served and one on one conversations are underway, someone calls the gathering to order. For the rest of the time we go around the room. Each woman stands up and introduces herself — sharing basic information about where she is living, what she is doing, and her fields of scholarship. She may ask for help on her dissertation; she may show a recently published book; she may share her sabbatical plans. At the same time a clipboard is circulated and each woman signs her name and email address. After the meeting someone takes responsibility to email all email addresses to everyone who attended.

Over the years this simple networking event has been very successful. Women find each other and do things together. They report back on shared research projects. They develop panels for future ASCH programs. If they are graduate students they explain their research and senior scholars offer tips and encouragement. Everyone celebrates when someone “finishes” a degree, a book, a research project, etc.

There are no business meetings, no officers, no membership requirements for WITCH. Sometimes a particular breakfast gathering may have a concern and designate someone to carry the concern to the ASCH staff, officers or the Council. But most of the time WITCH simply invites women to come to breakfast and meet other women. That’s it, and that makes a difference.