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Religion as a Mover of Social Change: The Pronoun Envy Episode

A Deeper Dive Into Harvard’s Faith

Harvard Divinity School is located at 45 Francis Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Harvard Divinity School is located at 45 Francis Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By Julian J. Giordano
By Ellie H. Ashby, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Deeper Dive Into Harvard’s Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

The geographic epicenter of my classes has shifted through my time at Harvard.

Freshman year, the bright blue icon of Zoom was my Sever Hall. As classes transitioned to in-person, I found myself in the Science Center and William James Hall, with a class or two in Emerson Hall.

At the end of my four year tenure at this institution, however, my academic locale has shifted to the buildings perched alongside Divinity Avenue.

The Carriage House is one of the quaint buildings hidden within the blurry campus-neighborhood line on the outskirts of north campus, and it is where I spoke with Ann D. Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, for my previous article.

The conversation was electric. I listen back to the recording of the conversation and have to laugh at how many times I interjected with the elated exclamations of “wow” and “yeah” and “mm-hmm.”

I love learning new, obscure pieces of religious history. Mary Daly and Phyllis S. Schlafly were one piece of Harvard’s religious history puzzle that my conversation with Braude put into place. The “Pronoun Envy” incident was another.


In 1971, Harvey L. Cox taught the course Church 174: “Eschatology and Politics,” focused on the intersection of theology and radical movements.

But the class, according to its students Linda L. Barufaldi and Emily E. Culpepper, did not offer the perspectives that the topic of the class dictated it should.

Reflecting on this decades-old bit of Harvard’s religious history, Braude agreed.

“This was the class where women students came forward and challenged the use of the masculine pronoun for human beings and for God,” Braude said.

Barufaldi and Culpepper, repeatedly frustrated by the patriarchal nature of the Divinity School, took measures into their own hands. They proposed a series of revisions to the syllabus: First,read texts that were written by women, as the majority of the syllabus was white, male authors; second, abstain from using the generic pronoun “he”; and third, do not refer to God with male pronouns.

The class voted, and all revisions were passed almost unanimously.

The reaction of the class was fantastically absurd.

“Every time someone in the class used the word, a masculine pronoun to refer to human beings or to God, they blew their kazoos in the class,” Braude recalled.

E.J. Dionne Jr. ’73, a former Crimson editor and current Washington Post columnist, was one of the first reporters on the development. In the article “Two Women Liberate Church Course,” he highlights Culpepper’s self-identified “growing sense of rage” with the course and documents the positive reception by the class and Cox, the professor.

The article ends with a stunning quote from Cox: “SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] used take over of administration buildings. Women are smarter: they take over courses. Who needs administration?”

However, following the positive response of both students in the class and the professor himself, the larger Harvard community and world quickly found fault with this curricular change-making.

Around a week after the vote, a group of self-identified linguists, some of whom were employed by Harvard’s Linguistics department, penned the letter to the editor “Pronoun Envy,” which deemed Barufaldi and Culpepper’s call to abstain from “he” as a generic pronoun as a “proposal to recast part of the grammar of the English language,” extremely concerning to linguists as a whole.

The letter is patronizing — it makes it clear that the faculty believed that the activism by the two women and the consensus of the class were based on unnecessary and unwarranted “pronoun-envy,” a crude reference to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of penis envy.

Roughly a month later, a second piece entitled “Pronoun Envy” emerged in the headlines of Newsweek. Rife with scorn, the women were called “distaff theologians.”

Even so, no one in the class backed down.


I do not wish to comment on the theological argument behind Barufaldi and Culpepper’s proposal, nor do I want to interpret this event from a linguistic perspective.

Instead, I will provide three necessary provocations that we, as people in a world grappling with both social change and religion, must draw away from this obscured shard of campus history.

First: The fight for equitability and visibility in the canon, in syllabi, in course discussion, is much larger than single moments, spread sparsely through the past or present. This movement builds through our history. We carry the narratives of those who fight for change in our bodies, advancing their past fights alongside our current ones.

Second, in 1971, this course was referred to not as “HDS 174,” but as “Church 174” — a choice that centers the broad field of divinity studies on the narrow institution of the Christian church, with its intrinsic and historic ties to gender erasure. Under this focus, a class about “radical theology” can only go so far.

Third, and most importantly, religion is not synonymous with stagnation.

There appears to be a modern misconception associating religious belief with the staunch and unmoving maintenance of the past, without any bend towards the future; the convergence of “traditional family values” and the Republican religious right have only added fuel to this dangerous fire.

The story of Church 174 offers a refreshing use of religion to expand the circle of consideration, instead of limiting who could enter it.

The same week that “Two Women Liberate Church Course” was published, an occurrence this column has already touched on took place: Down the middle of Memorial Church, parting the pews like the Red Sea, Mary Daly, the first woman to ever speak at that colossal building in the Yard, led a walkout. The women of the Harvard Divinity School, Barufaldi and Culpepper included, followed her out into the bright light of day.

Religion can be more than its repressive associations, as the women of Harvard’s religious history have embodied. We must give religion the possibility to continue to become more.

Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Deeper Dive Into Harvard’s Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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