Reflections of an Anabaptist Historian on Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism

My formation was largely at University of Waterloo, in the seventies and eighties where I did all three of my degrees.1 I had barely arrived at Conrad Grebel University College, situated on the campus, when Frank H. Epp signed me up for his initial run at teaching the history of Mennonites in Canada.2 The course fed my desire for a deeper understanding of my Brethren in Christ roots, but I was also searching for knowledge that would enlighten my historical awareness from my perspective as a woman. I sought in vain, at that time, to find my experience represented in any classroom in course content, the texts that we were assigned, the profs in the podiums.

Several years before feminist scholarship began to influence Waterloo’s history department, Frank Epp’s approach opened the way for students to consider their own experience in their study of history. He encouraged us to delve into Mennonite history; he also mentored me as I explored my own Brethren in Christ roots, and came to some understanding of my experience as a young woman who had grown up in that church. Several articles coming out of that work would be published in the denominational paper, The Evangelical Visitor.3

My male profs did support me in my search, but it was really thanks to Wendy Mitchinson and Mary Malone, both who were hired in the 80s, that the potential for women in history became clear. As Professor Marlene Epp has explained, “Wendy was pivotal in my own turn towards women’s history as a transformative way to interpret the past. In her supportive and forthright manner, she gave me, and many other female graduate students, the confidence to pursue a career in academia.”4 This, along with Mary Malone’s forthright re-telling of the past, also opened up my relationship to history.

By the time I graduated with my doctorate in 1990, I dreamed of teaching faith and teaching feminism. I was fortunate with opportunities that opened up – on Waterloo campus, the neighbouring university’s Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and then in an academic position at Augustana University College. The teaching was varied, but each of these opportunities, in their own way, allowed me to explore what it meant to teach faith and teach feminism.

Fast-forwarding to the turn of the millennium, my vocation had expanded, taking me to ministry and bringing me from the rural setting of Camrose, Alberta, to pastor in the dynamic, multi-cultural and increasingly secularized city of Montreal. Shortly after arriving in Montreal, McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies (now School of Religious Studies) invited me to teach Canadian Church History and Women in the Christian Tradition. The differences from Waterloo in the seventies and eighties, and Camrose in the nineties, were enormous. My identity had also shifted. I was no longer a tenured professor. I was a minister and Adjunct professor teaching on contract.

As I have explained elsewhere, the Quaker scholar/community activist Parker Palmer has been instrumental in navigating my role in the academy, particularly through his Courage to Teach. Palmer insists that rather than being objective, knowledge is dynamic. The idea that knowledge is the relationship of the subject matter, the professor and the students in a particular classroom, fits my own academic understanding.5 I want to honour my own experiences and those of my students, at the same time generating excitement about the subject matter that we are exploring together.

Laura Swan’s revelation in Forgotten Desert Mothers resonates with me: “I was hardly prepared for the inner revolution that would result when I began to confront the possibility that my own experience had value and meaning,” she revealed.6 If this potential of inner revolution was true for Laura Swan and for me, I also desire it for my students.

The experience of teaching in an array of settings has taught me how important it is for me as professor, to know my environment. Meetings with the administration, careful study of class lists, and a variety of brief written assignments has always helped me get the lay of the land. For instance, in the first class I ask students to write a couple of paragraphs explaining why they are taking the class and what would be helpful for me to know about their learning preferences. I also ask them to read the syllabus carefully, then to tell me what they are most looking forward to, and to ask a couple of questions that they hope will be answered by the end of term.

Being the multicultural and ethnically diverse city that Montreal is, inter-sectionality is evident in a variety of ways. Classrooms include theological students from Montreal School of Theology, which has a century-old arrangement with the School of Religious Studies. Classes embrace Christian, Jewish and Muslim students. They include students who are agnostic or atheist and spiritual seekers.

Classes draw from a variety of disciplines. One term I counted 17 disciplinary perspectives including the sciences in the Women in the Christian Tradition class. That group usually has a large co-hort of students from the Institute of Gender, sexuality, feminism and justice. Indeed, students claim diverse sexual identities.

These classrooms represent a variety of hopes and expectations. Some are primarily concerned with issues of faith. Some simply need a course in Christianity or women’s studies. Some are intentionally studying women. Racialized students need their history to be told. Gay and transgendered students seek a history that represents their experience.

As a professor, it is difficult to meet the varied expectations. My hope is that students will see enough of their experience reflected, that they will be inspired to explore further. My university teaching has never been explicitly about teaching faith; it has been about stimulating curiosity, and increasing knowledge whether it be a “feminist consciousness,” or historical awareness of the variety of players in society and the church. The Jewish feminist historian Gerda Lerner’s Why History Matters and her identification of a feminist consciousness outlined in The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness have become central to my teaching of faith and feminism.7

In teaching faith, teaching feminism, I aim to assist students to see through the fog that has shrouded women’s experiences and women’s intellectual partnerships in our understandings of the past, to probe the silences. Lerner says that the major issue for women is their relationship with history, or to be clearer, women’s lack of a history. Teaching faith, teaching feminism means that there are times when it is essential to put women at the centre of enquiry. It is about finding and highlighting role models that can provide for a more balanced view of the past, women in history who can enlighten students on the complexities of the past as it relates to women’s experiences.

Key to this unveiling of history is the attempt to re-establish even if a little bit, the ancient severing of the feminine divine, to give glimpses of the feminine face of our understandings of God. Indeed, as Lerner has noted, women’s search for their connection with the Divine has been at the source of much of the struggle for a feminist consciousness. To come to an understanding of the connection between faith and feminism, it is essential to explore women’s experiences through two thousand years of struggle within an evolving patriarchal tradition, from Biblical times until the present. It is necessary to explore ideas of virginity, sexuality, marriage and motherhood, mysticism, European witch hunts, reform history including Anabaptism, missions and colonization, nineteenth-century reform, healers, the ordination debate and contemporary feminist theology. It is essential to study women’s own words throughout time, looking at what women themselves have said about their own experiences and their views of history, society and God.8

Finally, in teaching faith, and teaching feminism, it is essential for me as professor to insist that students practice putting women at the centre of inquiry, women from their own past and other women, all who have had their part in shaping the historical consciousness. In this way they, and I, can come to a deeper understanding of the relationship between faith and feminism.


1. This article is based on my presentation in “Teaching Faith, Teaching Feminism: Shaping Approaches for Analysis of Gender in Religious History at Public University, Private University, and Seminary Environments,” panel presented at Canadian Society of Church History, June 2021.

2. Three years later, he published Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920 : the history of a separate people (Toronto: MacMillan, 1974).

3. “Sisters and the Brethren,” Evangelical Visitor (September 25, 1975), 6; “Movements and Missions,” Evangelical Visitor (October 10, 1975), 6; “Social Awareness,” Evangelical Visitor (October 25, 1975), 6. E. Morris Sider’s Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Evangel Press, 1981) would feature “Sarah Hoover Bert,” 17-48 and “H. Frances Davidson,” 159-224.

4. https://uwaterloo.ca/arts/news/remembering-distinguished-professor-emerita-wendy-mitchinson

5. Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. See also my “My Anabaptist Heritage and the Classroom,” Anabaptist historians: bringing the Anabaptist past into a digital century https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2019/04/26/my-anabaptist-heritage-and-the-classroom/

6. Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 4.

7. Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997): 113-28. See also Lerner’s insightful and profound analysis in The Creation of Patriarchy (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.)

8. Amy Oden, editor, In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1994).

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