WITCH: A Group with a Provocative Acronym

For nearly a century, the American Society of Church History was pretty much an “old boy’s club.” It was founded in 1888, and after all, who studied, taught, and wrote church history then and for decades after that? Men. When women began to show up at its meetings, they felt conspicuous and isolated.

Finally in 1983, Jane Dempsey Douglass became the first female president-elect of group. She invited women members to an informal meeting. Two came, and the three agreed on holding a breakfast on one morning during the meetings of the ASCH. Soon the group adopted the name Women in Theology and History, never announcing but leaving it to attendees to recognize the acronym.

It was only a few years later that I attended my first ASCH meeting. I stood nervously, feeling much very alone in the crowd, as people milled about, waiting for the doors to open for the official welcome to the event. Then I spotted a man I knew, and he came over to where I was standing. “I see you’ve become interested in church history, have you?” His condescending tone chilled me. I don’t remember what I answered, but I remember quite clearly what I wanted to reply but was too polite to say: “Well I do have a PhD in church history.” I knew he did not.

At no other time did I feel so coolly treated, but I did feel invisible. Thus it was with great pleasure that I learned of the women’s breakfast. My anticipation turned to relief when I attended: here was a place where I belonged.

The format was simple and so it has remained through the years. During a continental breakfast in a hotel meeting room, we are called to order and welcomed. Then, one by one, each of us stands and tells who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re working on. We put our name and e-mail address on a pad of paper so that we can receive the list later and make contact with others who share our interests.

And so I went again in January of 2015 to the women’s breakfast, this time in New York City. There were more than thirty of us present, the usual mix of senior scholars, young scholars, independent scholars, and graduate students. We reported on works in progress, dissertations completed, projects planned, books published or, like mine, accepted for publication. In past years, a few have reported on painfully difficult job searches, on unemployment and underemployment.

Nowhere could anyone find a more supportive group with which to share as we sympathize or rejoice together. Through connections made there, women have developed ideas for meeting sessions, shared tips about job openings, and cooperated on research. Most of all, however, we know that we belong. There are still many tweed jackets and dark flannel sports coats in the meeting sessions, a good number of dress shirts and ties, but among them we can spot colourful blazers, sweaters, blouses, and scarves. We recognize those wearing them and know that no longer is this an old boy’s club. Women in Theology and Church History have a place here, a place earned by our competence but boosted by the confidence we have gained as members of the coven.