I am pleased to welcome fellow Yalie Melissa Proctor as the next participant in this series. Her academic journey has led her through the worlds of Near Eastern Studies, philosophy of religion, and Mormon women’s history. Her interview reflects her passionate pursuit of her interests as well as her significant contributions to the study of Mormon women.
B.A. BYU Near Eastern Studies (1998)
M.A. Yale Divinity School (2001)
visiting scholar Princeton (2005-2007)
visiting faculty Harvard Divinity School (2007-2008)
visiting faculty the college of the Holy Cross (2008-2009)
visiting fellow, Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah (spring, 2010)
Ph.D. candidate Brown University (2010)
Currently I’m a Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fellow through the Reed Foundation in New York City.
How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?
My academic journey has been circuitous with twists and turns I could never have imagined or anticipated. I actually began as a vocal performance major at BYU. During a study abroad in Jerusalem the fall of my junior year, however, I became so enamored with the ancient world that I switched my major to Near Eastern Studies so I could continue to study languages and history.
I always knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, but as late as the fall of my senior year of college, I was undecided about what direction to take. I remember requesting catalogs from a number of departments at Harvard, thinking I might continue with Near Eastern Studies or perhaps political science. I’d peruse each of these glossy books as they’d arrive, but nothing ever felt quite right. One afternoon, I decided to get online (the internet was still relatively new then and it had not been my initial go-to source). I remember looking at all of the different options on the Harvard homepage and having no clue what “divinity school” really was. I clicked on the site and began to read the course descriptions: advanced Biblical Hebrew, the poetry of Isaiah, Aramaic, the History of Biblical Interpretation . . . the descriptions alone had me salivating. I applied to a number of divinity schools, won a scholarship to Yale, and began my studies the next year.
While at YDS, I continued to study the languages of ancient scripture. When I left BYU I had many trusted professors warn me against studying certain kinds of things because of their “corrupting influence” and their potential to damage one’s testimony so I avoided some classes my first year that in retrospect I wish I’d taken. Luckily, I had the opportunity to TA in a variety of different departments for Yale College while I was there. My experience as a TA in the philosophy department for a class on the problem of evil was particularly transformative for me. So intent on pursuing my newfound passion, I declined an acceptance to do doctoral work at UPenn in Hebrew Bible so I could stay a third year at Yale and take some philosophy courses. To my delight, I got to take one of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s last seminars at Yale before he retired. If I recall correctly, the class was simply titled “God.” I was the only woman in the class and it absolutely blew me away.
Now I had a dilemma. By the middle of my third year, I’d already been accepted to the Hebrew Bible program at Brown University, but I had increasing interests in philosophy of religion. What to do? After my first semester at Brown, I petitioned the graduate school to let me switch my program focus. It was a big risk to take since I was one of only two students that had been accepted into the program that year, but I had become accustomed to following my intellectual bliss wherever it led. Luckily, I was accepted and I began exploring a new field. I loved taking classes in religious ethics, moral philosophy, theory and method, and other classes that fall broadly into the category of modern Western thought. This was one of the most wonderfully decadent seasons of my life. Brown is a small program so most of my classes were held in my advisor’s office with two or three other students. We’d choose a book or two to read every week and then spend Friday afternoons in John Reeder’s office discussing and debating. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
The summer of 2003 I was accepted as a Joseph Fielding Smith Institute fellow to work on contemporary LDS women under the fearless leadership of Claudia Bushman. I’d already read most of the important books in Mormon women’s history in my New Haven book group and had been doing a lot of reading in feminist theory, but up to that point, I had not pursued anything explicitly Mormon themed in my own work. That summer changed everything for me . . . yet again! I chose to study changing LDS policies regarding contraception but wanted my paper to trace more than just official church pronouncements because I was interested in understanding the choices that women actually made about birth control and why.
The experience that summer turned me on to larger theoretical questions in the study of women and religion in contemporary America. The next semester I traveled to Harvard to take a class on this topic with Ann Braude. When we got to the unit on Mormon women, there wasn’t anything comparable to the sociological studies we’d been reading for the other traditions so we read a personal memoir. When I asked her about this during community tea one afternoon, she suggested I fill the gap in the literature with a dissertation on the topic and that if I did, she’d be on my committee. However, the department at Brown had no Americanist on faculty. With my advisor’s blessing, I applied to be an exchange student at Princeton so I could work with Marie Griffith in the Religion Department and sociologist Bob Wuthnow at the Center for the Study of Religion. The two years I was at Princeton were formative for me. During this time I wrote my prospectus and conducted all the oral history interviews for my dissertation.
What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects?
After leaving Princeton, I accepted a full-time visiting position at Harvard Divinity School one year and then at the college of the Holy Cross the next. I won a fellowship from the Reed Foundation this year that has afforded me the luxury of being able to get back to my writing. I’m currently revising my dissertation, which explores the strategies that LDS women use to negotiate their identity as moral agents in a patriarchal church. I’m happy to discuss my teaching and/or research in greater detail in the comments if folks are interested. My next project will be a comparative look at Catholic women and others. I’m spending three months in Italy next spring for the initial research.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?
This question as it stands is a little difficult for me to answer because my experience in the academy has been shaped not only by the fact that I’m a woman, but also by the perception of me as Mormon woman. I think that some of my experiences might be translatable to other academic women, but others might not be. I think a woman in chemistry has a different experience from a woman in English, from a woman who is perceived as personally religious in the field of religious studies. I’m not saying that it’s harder or easier, but it’s important to note the differences. For instance, I am often asked about my personal religious beliefs in professional settings. I’ve had students ask me hoping that I’m one sort of Mormon or wary that I might be another sort. Of course, colleagues always want to know where I stand, and I’ve had divinity school deans ask me during job interviews. It’s challenging to have one’s professional work be tied to one’s religious beliefs (or lack of belief) whether positively or negatively. This is a problem that I think is largely unique to religious studies, however.
Speaking to the question of women in the academy more generally, most structural challenges that women have faced in the past have been removed. For example, most universities now have terrific maternity leave policies, even allowing women to stop the tenure clock when they have a child. The gender-specific challenges that remain are largely cultural, but that’s not to say they are trivial. Some fields are still largely dominated by men, and the professional culture that gets created can be alienating to women. The men who dominate these fields are usually conscious (even self-conscious) about it, and some go out of their way to include women. These efforts at inclusion can backfire, however, and sometimes come across as patronizing or insincere. If the men get together after a conference panel to go to a cigar bar, the women might tacitly be invited to come, but no one really expects them to show up. Within the study of religion, there is also a rather striking divide between those who do historical work and those who do normative work. There are relatively few women who do constructive, theoretical and/or philosophical work compared to other subfields (like history) in the field of religious studies. I’ve heard some people say that that is simply a reflection of women’s interests, but I’m not convinced it’s quite as simple as that. That said, my primary advisor and some of my dearest friends through graduate school were men.
In your field who are some women you admire? Why?
This is another difficult question partly because I work in a number of fields. Ann Braude has been incredibly supportive to me as a teacher and mentor. Her work on contemporary American women is both broad and deep, which is always a difficult combination to achieve. Marie Griffith’s ethnographically informed work has been an important influence methodologically on my own. In the field of religious ethics, I think that Jean Bethke Elshtain’s tremendously prolific output is admirable. Sally Gordon has always been a wonderful example to me both as a scholar and a friend. I think her work in law and religion is among the very best.
For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books you would recommend on the subject?
Since I work in a number of areas, I’m going to break my list up into subfields. To keep the length manageable, I’m also only going to mention authors and not titles as that should be sufficient. This is only a sampling, of course, and some of the authors could be included in more than one list. Also, given the audience, I’ve left off Christian Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, and Hebrew Bible as categories because I’m not working in them at this very moment. I am happy to provide recommendations in these subfields too if there’s interest. Being a sort of walking religious studies department is one of the good things about having such an intellectually promiscuous past, I suppose.
Women and Religion
Ann Braude, Marie Griffith, Saba Mahmood, Carolyn Rouse, Lynn Davidman, Michelle Dillon, Marla Frederick, Leila Ahmed
Feminist Theory/Feminist Ethics /Feminist Theology
Carol Gilligan, Valerie Saiving, Mary Daly, Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Virginia Held, Margaret Farley, Diana Meyers, Nel Noddings, Sara Ruddick, Marilyn Friedman, Nancy Chodorow, Judith Plaskow, bell hooks, Sally McFague, Emilie Townes, Rosemary Ruether
Religion and American Public Life/ Religion and Politics
John Rawls, Michael Sandel, Jeff Stout, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer, Stephen Carter, Charles Taylor, Nancy Rosenblum, Martha Nussbaum, Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Wuthnow, Paul Weithman, Christopher Eberle, Michael Perry, Alan Wolfe
American Religious History
Sally Gordon, Leigh Schmidt, Ann Taves, Jon Butler, David Hall, Harry Stout, Robert Orsi, Mark Noll, Al Raboteau, Judith Weisenfeld, Wallace Best, (Ann and Marie belong here too)
Theory and Method
Durkheim, Freud, Weber, Talal Asad, Clifford Geertz, Jonathan Smith, Catherine Bell, Peter Berger, Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade, William James, Nancy Jay, Russell McCutcheon, Wayne Proudfoot, Pascal Boyer, Pierre Bourdieu
Mormon Studies (mostly historians and sociologists)
Richard Bushman, Armand Mauss, Jan Shipps, Philip Barlow, Kathleen Flake, Terryl Givens, Marie Cornwall, Kathryn Daynes, Mike Quinn, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Brian Birch