Feminist Method and femina religiosa:
In Gratitude to Rita Gross and Her Contributions to Religious Studies,
and My, Scholarship
By Lisa Battaglia
“How many times has one read or heard the equivalent of the following statement: ‘the Egyptians allow (or don’t allow) women to…’? The structure is so commonplace that even today many of my students have no clue about what is wrong with such a statement” (Rita M. Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism, State University of New York Press, 1993, p. 294).
I must admit, I don’t think I immediately recognized what was wrong with “such a statement.” I didn’t wince until I read the follow-up: “For both those who make such statements and for those who hear them without wincing, ‘Egyptians’ are men. Egyptian women are objects acted upon by real Egyptians, but are not themselves ‘Egyptians’ (Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, p. 294). Wow. Rita Gross opened my eyes to the habitual, unconscious, and unnamed patterns of androcentrism in speech, thought, and scholarship. Gross was by no means the first to identify and critique the androcentric tendency of collapsing the male norm and the human norm as one and the same, and the concomitant designation of femaleness as “other” or exception to the norm (I am thinking, for example, of Simone de Beauvoir’s work here). However, Gross’ specification of how this plays out in scholarship in religion has forever changed the field of religious studies, and my own scholarship as well.
Rita wrote the first ever dissertation on Women and Religion to be accepted by a major graduate institution (Rita Gross, “Exclusion and Participation: The Role of Women in Australian Aboriginal Religion,” Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1975). What began as a paper on the role of women in Australian and Melanesian religion for a graduate course at the University of Chicago, turned into a doctoral dissertation on the subject, as well as a broader critique of the conventional history of religious studies methodology. While a difficult journey, it was surely a groundbreaking one. During these seminal graduate school years, the problem was less the subject of “women and religion” and more the methodology, that is, the feminist methodology that Rita was embracing: “why had women and religion not been studied very much or previously? That question led me to further methodological considerations and to the claim that, while the history of religions was quite concerned with homo religiosus, it did not seem to be much concerned with femina religiosa” (Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, p. 293).
Any feminist scholar of religion who is examining the roles, status, experiences, and history of women in a particular religion must work through a “quadruple androcentrism” to find an accurate and usable past (Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, p. 18). While Gross’ articulation of “quadruple androcentrism” is given within a Buddhist context, it can pertain to virtually any religious tradition. Gross describes the four levels of androcentrism that the Buddhist feminist scholar must navigate through to gain viable data about the female half of the population and to cultivate a women’s studies perspective:
“On the first level, when Buddhists chose which documents to keep and whose experience to preserve in their historical records, they usually operated with an androcentric consciousness and set of values. Stories about men and men’s statements were far more likely to be recorded than were stories about women or what women said. . . .
At the second level, even when Buddhists did preserve significant stories by or about women, later Buddhist traditions tend to ignore those stories in favor of stories about male heroes. . . .
Third, most Western scholarship on Buddhist is quite androcentric and often agrees with the biases of Buddhist records, to the point of further ignoring the few records about women . . . .
Finally, not only are the Buddhist past and Western scholarship on Buddhism thoroughly androcentric; contemporary Buddhist itself, both Asian and Western, is unrelenting in its ongoing androcentrism” (Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy, p. 18).
As an academic, as an academic that studies Asian religions, as an academic heavily informed by feminist methodology, and as an academic who is indebted to the women (and men) who have paved the way for “women and religion” and “feminist methodologies” to become part of the religious studies curriculum, I give my utmost respect and gratitude to Rita. I only met her in person briefly at a Sakyadhita Conference in Vietnam. While my personal interactions with Rita were almost nonexistent, my interactions with her repertoire of work have been pretty intense. I, and many others, have been tremendously influenced by her, and she has forever changed the field of religious studies.
Dr. Lisa Battaglia is a comparative religionist with scholarly interest in Asian religions, and especially contemporary Buddhist movements in Southeast Asia. Her research has focused on women’s ordination in Theravada Buddhism, women’s alternative renunciant communities in Buddhist Thailand, and, most recently, representations of beauty and the female body in Buddhism. Dr. Battaglia received her B.A. from Duke University, an M.A. from the University of Alabama, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, where she teaches World Religions, Cultural Perspectives, Asian religious traditions, Women and Religion and topical courses in the cross-cultural examination of religion.