Our interviewee today is Erin K. Bartuska, whose homepage is sauntering vaguely upward. Erin’s newly a resident of San Francisco, having recently moved from New York City. She is writerly, fannish, queer, and all about disability rights, and is therefore my people. She’s also an Episcopalian, hence her hereness. Check out the Feminists of Faith tag for the rest of this series.
1. Tell us about the formation and constitution of your feminist identity, and your faith one.
I do not honestly remember when I first heard the word “feminist.” My parents are both from several generations of families headed by strong women on pretty much every branch of the family tree. I was raised in a pretty not-gender-normative way because that’s how my parents were raised. My parents were definitely aware of sexism in the broader world, though they were not particularly politically conscious when I was growing up – they plastered my room with posters about awesome women in history. My dad made me read a biography of Ida Tarbell in second grade; he also built me a model of a wing to explain Bernoulli’s principle. My mom worked and my dad was a stay-at-home dad for a few years. My feminist identity is pretty much my identity.
My faith identity is more complicated. My mom is from a big Irish Catholic family that is more into being Irish and sometimes going to church and hanging out a lot and baking cookies than being capital-C Catholic. I was raised Catholic, faked sick to get out of Sunday School frequently, and actually tied myself to furniture to attempt to get out of going to youth group. Correspondingly, I never got confirmed. In high school, I read a lot about Buddhism – I was definitely curious about spirituality, and Buddhism was what most closely aligned with my own beliefs about the world. Then, during orientation week of college, I went to the Episcopal Campus Ministry’s grill out (advertised quite falsely as “barbeque,” pfff, it was burgers and hot dogs), because I had made a list of all the events with free food. And everyone was awesome.
I spent the following four years discerning my faith, eventually feeling not totally awful about identifying as lowercase-c christian and subsequently getting confirmed as an Episcopalian during my senior year. (I was also a youth group leader at a UCC church for a year. Good times.) I feel much more comfortable calling myself an Episcopalian than a christian. I am oh so very aware that I am part of a religion which, despite being founded upon anti-oppressive principles, continues to oppress the very people it should be liberating. And, frankly, it embarrasses me. I have been very involved with the Episcopal Church as an adult, and I love the national church, so – that’s not weird at all. So, unless I am in a liberal environment where I feel the need to represent for theological that is radical and welcoming, or in a conservative environment where I need to pull out my Jesus card so what I’m saying isn’t immediately dismissed – I don’t use “christian.”
2. How is your feminism tied to your faith? Perhaps aspects of your faith inspire your feminism?
I was a feminist first and ALWAYS. Then I became part of an amazing faith community and had an experience where I felt very close with God, and all of the sudden… everything was connected. We are all children of God and deserving of love. We are all God’s creation and should care for that creation. God destroys earthly hierarchies and lifts us up to oneness. Suddenly, my environmentalist and feminist and antiracist beliefs all rolled up into one giant KYRIARCHY SMASH (WITH LOVE)!
It was fabulous.
3. Have you experienced conflicts between your faith and your feminism? Have you had to make compromises? If so, from where did the pressure come, and was one aspect more difficult to compromise on than another?
Well, yes and no. I’ve definitely experienced conflict with atheist friends with liberal values, especially those who knew me before I got Jesus (the dread disease!). Honestly, it doesn’t bother me if folks don’t share my beliefs as long as we share similar values, those that my parents raised me to consider “good manners,” forever dooming me to become inarticulate in the face of oppression and sob “BUT THAT’S JUST BAD MANNERS!” when I can’t handle anymore. However, others do not always have the same feelings. One former partner was really uncomfortable with me teaching Sunday School because he felt it was brainwashing. This was a Montessori-based Sunday school curriculum during which I supervised small children doing things like pouring water from one pitcher into another; they taught the older kids that God’s creation began with evolution. Let’s just say that conflict was never going to get resolved on my end.
I have experienced conflict with religious folks about my particular beliefs. If it doesn’t past the KYRIARCHY SMASH litmus test for me, the holy spirit is not hanging out there. However, conflict with fellow religious people doesn’t bother me too much. We’re usually able to find some common ground to talk about things, even when we don’t agree. I had amazing conversations about feminism, bodily autonomy, and consent with my beloved and much-missed Mormon roommates when I lived in NYC.
It’s much more painful to me to disagree with other people who are committed to ending oppression. I’m not sure how my faith is such a big problem if we have the same ultimate goals, you know?
4. What kinds of responses to your being a feminist of faith have you received? From feminists, your faith community, or others?
From my immediate faith community, love and support. From feminist, responses are mixed, but almost always inspire good discussion. In the wider world, I get met with disbelief and ridicule from time to time – usually from self-identified “liberals,” as I am a city gal – but more often with curiosity.
5. What are the challenges you encounter as a feminist in your faith community and/or tradition, and vice versa?
Well, I recently moved to a diocese where churches have a lot of freedom in terms of liturgy… which means they’re not using the standard literature in the Book of Common Prayer… and somehow it’s magically okay not to provide a written copy! HAHAHAHA OR NOT. But aside from my quest to make the Diocese of California magically realize its complete accessibility fail IN ITS OWN CATHEDRAL, I generally find that my views as a feminist are welcomed and heard. Women have been able to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church since 1976; our current Presiding Bishop, the head of the Episcopal Church, is the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, our first female Presiding Bishop. Not all of the Anglican Communion (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) is as progressive as the church in the US, and there has been a lot of conflict within the church at home over the ordination of women and the inclusion of GLBT folks as clergy. But, overall, the Episcopal Church in 2012 is a pretty awesome place to be a queer lady like me.
6. How can feminism and faith usefully work together?
I feel like my faith and my secular social justice work go together like peanut butter and jelly: liberation theology is a wonderful thing. There are a lot of people of faith who might struggle to call their work “feminism” even when they work to serve women in developing countries as part of their religious life, but that’s totally what that work is. I think that feminists can serve well as mediators in charity and social justice work, in making sure that everyone is serving and meeting God in each other rather than one group of people being “helpers” and the others “helpee”s. True social justice work should be empowering and healing for all.