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Kay Higuera Smith Response to the Panel on “Recovering Female Interpreters of the Bible”

“Wherever power is at work, we should be ready to ask who or what is controlling whom, and why.”[1]

Consistent themes emerge in the essays in this volume, all involving reflections on women’s experiences in the Society of Biblical Literature. These themes offer a microcosmic history of how class status, Whiteness, proximity to male power, and affirmation of and assent to gendered social norms paved the way for women to gain access to the academic field of religious studies in general and the SBL in particular. After surveying the essays here, we can see that many of these regulatory norms are still functioning to maintain existing social power structures. Hence, a history of women in the SBL not only allows us to honor those women but also to examine the social power structures that these women encountered. It is appropriate, then, for any treatment of this topic to include both a critical disclosure of how these power structures work and also a program for change in the Society’s ethical norms.

Our contributors have rightly honored the groundbreaking and pioneering work of female archaeologists, linguists, and biblical and religious scholars. The legacy of these women needs to be recounted and their contributions acknowledged. In my response, however, while I want to affirm the risks taken and price paid by these women who paved the way for others, I also want to consider the extent to which the stories of these groundbreaking women highlight the gendered, racialized social structures and institutional barriers that required those women to endure so much in the first place.

The Society of Biblical Literature is itself a legacy institution. Part of the legacy that endures, even as its members labor to overcome it, is a history of discourse which is structured upon certain social and political epistemological assumptions. These assumptions involve class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability as categories for constructing a discursive social identity that is marked and bounded. The history of women in the SBL helps us to expose and critically examine these discursive and social structures, which continue to present obstacles, especially for women and men of color, queer scholars, international scholars outside of Europe, Canada, and Australia, and differently abled scholars.

The first observation noted in the contributors’ essays is that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, class status and Whiteness were necessary social identity markers in order for women to carve out a presence in the fields of religious studies and archaeology. The academic guild of biblical scholars, linguists, and archaeologists, as well as the women who aspired to join it during this period, was marked by its efforts to obscure the importance of these markers for establishing its own social identity. Given this, it is not surprising that women and men of color and from less privileged social classes have been invisible throughout most of the history of the Society.

The second is that male mentors were often the key players in women being able to gain access. The price of being mentored, however, was to endure indignities, humiliations, and patronizing behavior by those same mentors. Moreover, these mentors made their support conditional upon their female mentees internalizing and advancing the gendered, racialized norms that had emerged as salient in the Society’s own social identity. This changed as more women entered the guild. Female scholars became committed to mentoring younger female scholars without expecting them to endure the same indignities and demands to internalize the Society’s salient norms. Often it was their intervention that allowed younger scholars to flourish. But, as we will see, senior female scholars also exacted a price.

Third, many female scholars survived what Miranda Fricker has called “testimonial” or “hermeneutical injustice.”[2] Established scholars would fail either to grant them credibility as knowing agents or to provide epistemological resources for them as female scholars entering the guild to make sense of their experiences.[3]

Finally, in spite of their contributions, many senior female biblical scholars also constructed new sets of regulatory social norms that silenced and denied credibility to the testimony of queer, differently abled, or other minoritized scholars. They did this while making concerted efforts to open the door for up-and-coming White female scholars. These scholars had so internalized the norms of the academic guild that they were unable to perceive their own efforts to construct new social norms. These new norms did not take into account the urgent questions of women or men of color, international, or differently abled scholars. They constructed their salient identity markers as normative for all women and thus reproduced the same kind of epistemic injustices that they had inherited, merely shifting the sites of the discursive boundaries in the process.

In all of these ways, the history of women marks a history of knowing agents being forced first to perceive, then to identify, then to choose whether to overcome or internalize social norms that had regulated and policed the boundaries of the social group identified as biblical scholars and internalized as part of the development of the Society of Biblical Literature. Charles Mills has argued that this kind of epistemic injustice, which emerges from group norms that have been mystified and obfuscated, is to be expected rather than remarked on. “Structural social injustice,” he notes, that is supposedly precluded by the society’s founding principles will generate structural opacities that can be thought of as epistemic injustices on an industrial and institutional scale, since they are requisite for maintaining the existing order.”[4] The history of women in the SBL in this sense is not unique. Nevertheless, the ideological obfuscations that it brings to the fore are worth examining.

We turn now to examples of these obfuscations from the histories recounted in these essays. Kristine Henriksen Garroway, in her treatment of Gertrude Bell and Kathleen Kenyon – both early female archaeologists – demonstrates that, to the extent that women were able to make inroads into the Society, it was because they drew on their resources of class status and Whiteness. At the same time, these women ignored or failed to acknowledge the significant role played by such status markers in giving them entrée into traditionally male social spaces. That is not to say that these pioneering women did not display commendable independence, creativity, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a willingness to reject or to overcome these gendered norms which exerted powerful pressures on women of their era (late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries). It is to note, though, that Bell and Kenyon implicitly understood that in order to gain access, they must assent to the obfuscation.

Bell and Kenyon were upper class, wealthy British women and were afforded access and opportunities rare to those in other social groups. While these resources do not negate the intrepid nature of these early female archaeologists, they do explain why it was these women and not others whom we remember with honor. In that sense, we must acknowledge the complex social forces that made it possible for them to excel in the ways they did. Other excellent women of that era, not blessed with those resources, have gone into obscurity. The role played by their class and gender needs to be part of the record.

Henriksen Garroway also exposes us to the obfuscation of male hierarchical assumptions crucial to the mentoring offered by prominent male academics. Liz Bloch-Smith’s claim that Larry Stager “permitted” her to participate in an archaeological dig although pregnant highlights the extent to which male-defined norms of acceptable gendered behavior could only be crossed if a male “permitted it.” Hence, while Bloch-Smith made important inroads as a scholar, an important factor in her success was her willingness to assent to hierarchical gender norms and her “luck” in finding a male mentor who employed them to her benefit. as well as his. Bloch-Smith also had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues given the male-defined family expectations she encountered. While women in the early and mid-twentieth century made inroads, they were expected to labor silently, without complaint, and without the kinds of support systems enjoyed by their male colleagues, maintaining the fiction that the male colleagues achieved their accomplishments on their own. All of this was due to the normalization of certain gendered, hierarchical norms that shaped and policed behavior of members of the guild of biblical and archaeological scholars.

For many of these early women scholars, the cost of having doors open for them by men was to accept and endure indignities and injustices assumed by their mentors to be normative for social interactions. That is, if they had resisted those injustices, they would have been shut out forever. The price they paid for entrance was silent assent. An example of this is Henriksen Garroway’s recounting of Nancy Lapp’s story. Lapp had applied for a scholarship to study at ASOR but was told that, although she was deserving of the scholarship, they had decided to turn her down and offer it to her husband instead since he was the head of the household. In this way, Nancy’s commendable scholarship and presumably well-crafted application were not sufficient for her to overcome these social obstacles placed in her way. She would have known that the price to continue to maintain status within those circles was to accept the unjust verdict with grace and hope for future opportunities.

Susanne Scholz tells of the indignities that Judith McKinlay endured as late as 1990, when her nomination for a position as Chair in Old Testament Studies at Knox Theological Hall was disputed all the way to the Presbyterian Church’s highest court. To be sure, McKinlay ultimately was installed; however, the appointment had to have been bittersweet given her recognition of the role that entrenched gender hierarchies played in delaying the decision. She nevertheless graciously accepted the appointment.

Happily, once women did make inroads, other women stated that their paths were smoothed for them by female mentors. Nevertheless, the reality that the earlier generation of women could not have accomplished much that they did without “permission” must be part of the record of the barriers placed in the way of women’s attainment of discursive power within the academic world of religious studies. Moreover, as we have alluded, female mentorship itself constructed its own restrictive norms that merely reproduced the discursive models of power that already existed in the Society.

Miranda Fricker argues that epistemic practices of any social group – the ways of knowing and the pre-assumptions about what makes a person a credible knower – are deeply political. In order to make her point, Fricker famously has coined the phrase “epistemic injustice” to identify two situations. The first is “testimonial injustice,” which she describes as “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.” It occurs when hearers or entire social groups set up pre-assumptions that impair the perception of hearers within those groups with the result that they are not likely to lend credibility to a speaker because of that speaker’s social situatedness. The second type of epistemic injustice that Fricker identifies is “hermeneutical injustice,” which she describes as resulting “when a gap in collective interpretive resources” creates an environment in which social agents cannot even come to speech or craft a theory to describe their social experiences.[5]

Fricker causes us to consider that social groups, in forming their identities, form epistemic norms as mechanisms to control people’s behavior and actions.[6] It is in the interests of the social custodians and high-status individuals at the center of social groups to obscure and mystify these mechanisms so that they are presented as self-evident and inevitable. Once members of the group have internalized these epistemic norms, this lessens the need to use overt coercive force to maintain the social power underwritten by those norms. Only those who test the norms – those on the social margins – experience the silencing and disenfranchising power of the norms as coercive. Others internalize them and assent to them as normative and just. It is the liminal figures – in the case of the guild of biblical scholars, women, scholars of color, international scholars, queer, and differently abled scholars – who experience the social violence and injustice of having their testimony deemed not credible simply based on either their social situatedness or the questions they bring to the guild.

José Medina argues that both forms of injustice – testimonial and hermeneutical – incapacitate not only the knower whose knowledge production has been deemed not credible but also the hearers who, because of the political power of the reigning epistemologies, do not have adequate resources to respond. Medina writes, “In the hermeneutical and testimonial injustices we encounter in our epistemic interactions, we find specific problems and obstacles that disadvantage subjects and limit their capacities to express concerns and demands, and they also limit their interlocutors’ capacities to register, process, and respond to those concerns and demands adequately.”[7] Epistemic injustice, then, produces what Medina calls “bodies of ignorance.” A social group normalizes certain epistemic assumptions by deeming certain “bodies of ignorance” to be as necessary as certain “bodies of knowledge.”[8] Charles Mills calls this phenomenon “strategic ‘ignorance.’”[9] These “bodies of ignorance” occur when dominant social agents in a particular social group determine that certain discursive realms, such as those explored by minoritized scholars, are unworthy of exploration or are illegitimate sources for scholarship.

Fricker and Medina describe the mechanisms by which discursive communities construct norms that affirm certain persons as credible knowing agents and others as non-credible and hence incapable of producing legitimate knowledge. One mechanism is to force would-be knowing agents into peripheral areas of research. Our contributors give several examples of how now-senior female biblical scholars were forced to carve out spaces, albeit liminal, in which they could participate in the discursive social group. They did so by researching topics male scholars were simply not interested in researching. Henriksen Garroway writes of Susan Ackerman describing how this process drove her own research. Susanne Scholz writes of Tikva Frymer-Kensky being told that if she explored feminist approaches in her research, her career would be ruined. The price paid by Ackerman, Frymer-Kensky, and others to gain access to the guild was to accept that their work would be marginalized and labeled as peripheral.

Social groups construct collective norms as a way of forming social identity. There arises a consensus among the custodians of the epistemic norms as to which questions are legitimate to be asked. The SBL, developing in a period in which Enlightenment era norms were salient, offered an environment in which only certain questions, based on Enlightenment assumptions, were considered worth researching. Not surprisingly, those questions arose out of the urgent issues faced by those who constructed the norms. Women thus were faced with a difficult decision, and this epistemic demand is still placed on women and minoritized scholars. On the one hand, the message we still often receive is that, in order to gain entrée into the guild, we must internalize and assent to the urgent questions produced by the ways of knowing that flow out of the historic, social, group norms. Yet, at the same time, if we do so, we often experience Fricker’s testimonial injustice as we present the fruits of our research. We sometimes are not granted credibility as knowing agents. Therefore, we explore other urgent questions that flow out of our own social situatedness – questions in which traditional members of the guild simply have not been interested. This results in our marginalization and compartmentalization into sub-genres of knowing that guild members at large do not feel compelled to explore. Gender and Queer Studies and critical race theory were compartmentalized and not granted epistemic legitimacy until very recently.

On the other hand, if promising young scholars choose to explore the urgent questions that arise out of their social situatedness, like Frymer-Kensky, they are warned by their male mentors that they will be ruining their careers. Our contributor, Sara Parks, calls this “niche” work that is expected to be optional and a “side-gig.”

The real scholarship, it is still assumed in many circles, is the work that addresses the urgent questions and accepts the pre-assumptions of those who define and assent to the discursive social center. Henriksen Garroway notes that in her interviews, the pressure to internalize Anglo-European, masculinizing and colonizing epistemic norms was a common trope among women scholars who are now in their sixties and seventies. Parks argues that this divide continues, referring to “an impermeable conceptual wall between them and what is perceived as ‘regular scholarship.’” She gives several examples from Bernadette Brooten’s illustrious career to demonstrate this divide, including her efforts to challenge the “unargued assumption” present among her peers that there were no female Jewish priestesses during the Second Temple period. Parks points out that Brooten studied the same inscriptions that male scholars had studied; however, the male colleagues had dismissed evidence even though it was based on a prevailing plain-sense reading of the inscriptions. Ally Kateusz, who is currently writing on women priests in early Christianity, finds the same kind of dismissal of her research, even though she has identified countless artifacts and ancient Christian iconography to support her claims.[10] Carly Daniel-Hughes remarks on the verbal attacks, threats of harm, and tenuous status within her university that Jane Schaberg received in response to her publication, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives. Female and minoritized scholars, despite carrying out painstaking and thorough research, consistently have had to overcome such epistemic suspicion in challenging the pre-assumptions of the guild.

In many cases, the senior White female scholars who had carved out places in which they had gained epistemic testimonial credibility, were careful and intentional in ensuring that younger female scholars be given much more credibility. Scholz writes of Judith McKinlay, a White New Zealander, who has made explicit the claim that social location drives the questions we ask. McKinlay has openly acknowledged that she is a member of a social group that colonized and displaced Maoris. Scholz also gives a nod to Phyllis Trible, who sought to bring readerly attention not just to gender but also to race. Parks recounts that Brooten and Frymer-Kensky both acknowledged the significance of womanist readings and the key roles that race plays in meaning construction. Happily, we could recount many such examples of senior White women scholars working to shift the epistemic norms.

Nevertheless, just as often, women of color have found that White feminist senior scholars create environments not unlike those of the larger guild in their efforts to control the epistemic norms that they themselves had forged. Daniel-Hughes notes how black female scholars recognized quickly that the claims of female solidarity among White feminists was based on an assumption of an essentialized category called “woman,” unchanged across time and geographic space. This norm, produced in scholarly feminist circles, effectively masked the key differences observed by minoritized women—young women, women of color, and queer women. This new epistemic social space changed the boundaries of the norms for testimonial credibility but not the silencing and cloaking of power that marked those norms nor the racialized nature of those discursive strategies. Daniel-Hughes notes that, while minoritized feminists have brought this testimonial injustice to the fore, the “fantasy of feminist solidarity” remains to this day. Because of these abuses of discursive power, she claims, the academy, even when female voices are granted testimonial credibility, often becomes a place of pain and self-doubt rather than a place of healing as suggested by its dominant voices.

Daniel-Hughes recommends that the most important feature of feminist-critical scholarship is its location within critical theory. She argues that, rather than defining ourselves as all being feminist, we define ourselves as all being committed to a critical hermeneutic. Her argument is that we will better be able to address testimonial injustice if our commitment is not just to some essentialized notion of “woman.” Rather, it must be to a hermeneutic centered on critical evaluation of how discursive power becomes normalized and how it becomes reified into boundary-creating mechanisms that result in injustice toward those whose questions are not considered normative or whose voices are not granted legitimacy. Claiming to be feminist alone does not exempt us from the impulse to construct discursive spaces that support our interests in a way that silences and disenfranchises others.

Shively Smith offers us resources that advanced this kind of critical challenge even before Foucault and Fricker offered the terminologies of “discipline and punish” or “testimonial” and “epistemic injustice.”[11] Smith describes Anna Julia Cooper, writing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who argued for the necessity of listening to, and attending to “those rendered most neglected, exploited, disenfranchised, invisible, and silenced by our Western-contrived societies,” in Smith’s words. While not employing the same semantic field, Cooper was arguing for the need in education to create space for those who had not been rendered credible because of race, gender, or class. Smith also cites Clarice Martin, who wrote openly about the constraints imposed by the White-dominated interests of the academy. While these scholars may not have been employing the same philosophical categories as Foucault and Fricker, they recognized the social violence that occurred when questions that arise from spaces situated outside of the academic social center get marked as not credible or, worse, not even worthy of coming to speech or expression to describe them.

Shively Smith, like Carly Daniel-Hughes, also argues for an ongoing commitment to a critical gaze. She adds the importance of engaging in this critical work together. She draws on Martin and the late Toni Morrison to call us to imagine otherwise. Smith calls us to engage critically the unspoken yet oppressive epistemic injustices that we women – especially we White women – are just as capable of fostering as our male colleagues. It is as important to turn this critical gaze on ourselves as it is to turn it on others. Like Daniel-Hughes, Shively Smith calls on us to designate this critical gaze as central to our task as scholars and educators.

José Medina shares these concerns. He suggests that we engage in “epistemic resistance,” “resistant imaginations,” taking into account our “sensibilities” as well as our practices, and actively seeking out dissenting viewpoints, as ways to maintain critical social stances and practices.[12] We have a long way to go. Shively Smith, as an African American female scholar, asks, “Do people who look like me successfully pursue and earn doctoral degrees in biblical studies?” Too often, the answer is no. This concern is even more urgent among Latina scholars, who make up an even more miniscule fraction of biblical scholars in the U.S. While we celebrate, honor, and treasure our female innovators who carved out the epistemic space to see ourselves as contributors, we nevertheless recognize that the task of critically evaluating discursive power moves must be consistently at the center of our academic endeavors.


[1] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), 14.

[2] In responses to Fricker, these two categories have been developed in much more complex ways; however, for our purposes, they suffice as is.

[3] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[4] Charles W. Mills, “Through a Glass Whitely: Ideal Theory as Epistemic Injustice,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 92 (2018): 58–59.

[5] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[6] Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 4.

[7] José Medina, The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations, Studies in Feminist Philosophy Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 10.

[8] José Medina, Epistemology, 14.

[9] Mills, “Through a Glass Whitely,” 59.

[10] Ally Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[11] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (London: Allen Lane, 1977; Vancouver, WA: Vintage Books, 2nd ed., 1995); Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice.

[12] José Medina, Epistemology, 3, 7, 10.

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Kay Higuera Smith Ph.D.,

is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies and Program Director of the Religious Studies Minor program at Azusa Pacific University. She writes about social justice issues as they relate to Critical Gender Theory, and Postcoloniality. In her most recent publication, she was Editor-in-Chief of Postcolonial Evangelical Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014). She currently has two books under contract, one on the historical figure of Mary of Nazareth, and another on Latinx Biblical Hermeneutics.

© Kay Higuera Smith, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317