We Need to Keep Talking about Sexism by Sophia R.C. Johnson

I recently submitted my PhD thesis for examination to the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In celebration, I announced this on Twitter, including a reflection on how I had made it here despite being told I was not good enough at various times in my life. I specifically mentioned how multiple men during my undergraduate years had told me that graduate studies and academia were not for women. In the days leading up to my submission, I had remembered one particular instance, after I had already been accepted to Cambridge for my masters, when a fellow (male) biblical studies student asked me if graduate studies was really a prudent choice when I likely would not finish once I settled down to have a family.[1]

“Why waste the money [on graduate studies] when you could be saving up for your family’s future?”

To be honest, I never took these words to heart. From a young age, my parents had told me I could be anything I wanted to be, and even encouraged me to have a career before being getting married. As they helped me fund my graduate studies, they certainly did not think it was a waste of our family’s money. I knew many women from much more conservative backgrounds who had faced much worse pushback and stigma in their communities. So, if anything, this story became something I laughed about with my girlfriends while we set out to do amazing things in the world. I only brought it up in my submission announcement because it made the triumph that much sweeter to know I proved those who doubted me wrong.

What surprised me were so many comments shocked to hear this blatant sexism still alive and well in the world.[2]

“Do people still say graduate studies are not for women? Unbelievable.”

“Really?! Who said grad studies and academia aren’t for women…!!??”

“Can’t believe those attitudes [exist] in the 21st century.”

“I’m not sure who these days would tell a woman that women’s aspirations end at a certain age or qualification.”

One commentor found this so unbelievable that they, in fact, did not believe me.

“No one told you that. It’s a cheap ploy to get social media cred. Pathetic.”

However, there were a few comments voicing similar experiences.

“Our head technician said to me ‘I don’t know why they let you girls do phds. You just go off and have babies.’”

“My university careers advisor told me he wouldn’t recommend me for a post grad in English literature for exactly the same reason you were given.”[3]

The prevalence of sexism within biblical studies and adjacent fields was all too fresh for scholars active on social media, as just two months ago, a male academic claimed in a YouTube video that Francesca Stavrakopoulou, one of the most eminent Hebrew Bible scholars of our time, was only considered influential because of her looks, using the terms “theology by cupsize” and “theological windowdressing.”[4]

But many of those in disbelief were outside of academic theology and biblical studies. I think part of the disconnect stems from the assumption that universities are generally progressive spaces—as we can see from the last two comments, this is not necessarily the case. But because of their close connection to religious communities across the theological and social spectrum, the fields of theology and biblical studies attract students and scholars from equally varied backgrounds. This is for me part of the beauty of these fields, as we get to learn from a wide breadth of traditions and experiences, and I am thankful for initiatives like Logia which seek to amplify the diverse voices which are not heard enough. However, just as much as we benefit from this diversity, we are also met with challenges from the traditions and communities who have yet to embrace the equal academic gifting of women.

As many of my female colleagues can attest to, sexism in academia is not limited to religious or conservative spaces. In an adjacent sub-discipline to mine in Cambridge, none of my female colleagues’ spouses or partners were invited to an annual department dinner while all the male colleagues were granted a plus one.

But equally, support can come from any corner. At my first-ever Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Charlie Trimm, who taught me as an undergrad, arranged ahead of time to introduce me to a middle-career female scholar. “I know the field can be difficult for women, so I want to make sure you have female colleagues you can talk to who will support you.” He himself has supported me in countless ways but recognised that there may be experiences or issues I may not feel comfortable talking to him or other male colleagues about.

For similar reasons, my supervisor, Nathan MacDonald, ensured that my faculty advisor was a woman.[5] He also makes a pro-active effort to rectify the usual gender imbalance in the field by seeking out promising female undergraduates and encouraging them to pursue further study. In part thanks to these efforts, up until recently, the majority of graduate students in my own sub-discipline within the Cambridge Divinity Faculty were women.

The responses on my recent Twitter post reminded me we need to keep talking about experiences of sexism so that others know it is not an issue of the past. Zero formal complaints of sexist or misogynistic conduct were made to the SBL last year. “We solved sexism!” I heard a male colleague pronounce in jest. Even though I knew he was joking, my stomach clenched thinking this was the only narrative some would receive looking only at hard data.

But we also need to share our experiences, both positive and negative, so that other women in the field know they are not alone and that these issues can be overcome; so that they can know who to trust and where to find support.

I love Logia’s motto “You can be what you can see.” So here is part of the visibility I want to contribute: your complaints are never too small. Just because others may have faced “more” sexism than you does not invalidate your own experience or need for support.

Women in the field have come a long way, our predecessors fought many good fights. But there is still work to be done. I look forward to the day when the testimonies of sexism truly are “unbelievable.”

[1] This man knew nothing of my personal life, my relationship status, or my attitudes towards having a family—let alone my own desires or aspirations for my future—but it was clear from this and past conversations that he felt the main calling and priority of women should be having a family and being a stay-at-home mother if possible.

[2] These comments are taken from my Twitter post here: https://twitter.com/letsgosojo/status/1628086292801105932?s=20 .

[3] Triumphantly, the rest of the tweet is “So I went to law school instead”!

[4] You can find a summary of the ordeal here: https://amateurexegete.com/2023/01/26/the-falks-misogyny-and-solidarity-a-recap-guest-post-by-chrissy-h/.

[5] In the UK, a faculty advisor is a liaison to the department, complementary to the supervisor, who helps oversee the work of a PhD student, similar to a PhD committee member elsewhere in the world.

Sophia R.C. Johnson is finishing her PhD at the Faculty of Divinity, the University of Cambridge, where she is also an associated lecturer. She is currently a DAAD visiting scholar at the University of Göttingen and serves on the Society of Biblical Literature’s Committee for the Status of Women in the Profession. Sophia specialises in diachronic approaches to the conceptual history of the Hebrew Bible, especially the concept of covenant, and the reception history of Old Testament imaginaries in European political thought. She has recently published in the Journal of Biblical Literature and co-edited a special issue of the Journal of the Bible and Its Reception.