An Interview With Adrian Shirk
Growing up, I understood feminist history to be a specific, narrow genre of writing, concerned exclusively with the history of feminism: activists and abortionist and suffragettes. Adrian Shirk’s And Your Daughers Shall Prophesy: Stories from the Byways of American Women and Religion doesn’t fit that definition—it’s not even technically a historical work. But it manages to do something equally critical, which is to imagine, and begin to inscribe, history as feminine, which is to say, peopled by women living complicated, public, human lives, creating places for themselves on the pulpit as determinedly as they did so on the streets.
In the book, women seek space in the religious, rather than political, realm. The collection comprises (auto)biographical essays, tracing the stories of women’s contributions to various faiths and sects in American religion, including Shirk’s own complicated personal history in and out of the church. She writes about growing up going to Lakota shamanic ceremonies with her father, and then, as an adult, visiting Lily Dale, “the world’s largest center for the religion of Spiritualism.” She also writes about Linda Goodman popularizing astrology and creating her own theology with her books in the ’70s, and Aimee Semple Macpherson hanging out with Charlie Chaplin after preaching on stage to thousands in the ’20s.
Shirk’s book is a reminder that all history is storytelling, and that it matters very much who tells the story. Women have existed in history in every aspect of civic life; it’s just that they weren’t often acknowledged or recorded as being there. In the absence of record, writing feminist history still requires a certain amount of imagination—but it also then encourages us to imagine ourselves, our mundane lives, all the places we’ve made for ourselves— and to know that we deserve to be seen by history, too.
It’s clear in reading the book that religion has always kind of been a project and interest of yours; when did you start writing these essays, and thinking, you know, this could be a book?
I worked on the pieces initially while I was in graduate school; for the three or so years, it still kind of felt to me like a collection of discrete essays about different figures. That’s how I imagined it, as these separate planets that were drifting in the same universe.
I thought of them as these pieces that had a lot of thematic and conceptual things in common, but it was really hard for me to admit how autobiographical the project was, fundamentally. I had a really hard time facing the sort of personal narrative that strung a lot of these different pieces together— which is hilarious, because it’s not as though that’s a hidden or subtle element of the book.
After a while I realized that I was looking to the women’s biographies to make sense of their theologies, and then of course only at the 11th hour did I realize that in doing that, I had exacted a study of myself using the same approach. I had stitched together this autobiography as a means to figure out how my theology formed — or rather what it was. But it came as a surprise to me!
That makes a lot of sense, because the culture is already looking for ways to side-eye a woman’s writing, and one of the fastest and easiest ways is to be like, well, it’s not really a history, it’s not really an analytical work, she’s writing about her family, she’s writing about herself. To what extent had you done personal writing before this, or thought of yourself as a personal writer?
My orientation to writing has always been as a writer; at no point will I feel comfortable trying to pretend that what I was doing was American history work. First and foremost I’m approaching these subjects as a writer, which is to say my approach is aesthetic-driven: I’m driven by writing my way in to subjects.
And a couple of years ago, I started writing a column for Catapult. The column was about architectural oddities I was very drawn to, and which presented to me a really compelling, strange, layered history within their walls. [For that series,] I wrote a piece which is in the book about this 1970’s feminist takeover of an abandoned women’s welfare office on the Lower East Side.
Those columns were in some ways a lab for me to figure out what it is I’m interested in about fusing personal non-fiction and research. Because in all of these different pieces I’m present as narrator. I’m not objective.
I’d been writing this way for a while, but I especially started really trying to understand or refine my approach while I was doing this Catapult column. That also happened to align with the period I was finishing this book.
I’ve read a lot recently in this vein, not about women and religion but about women living in public: Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck and Alanna Massey’s All the Lives I Want and Lauren Elkin’s Flaneuse, to name a few. These books that are on the one hand about imagining the histories of women but at the same time, imagining what having those stories might mean for us as women now, constructing our own lives.
In the essay on Voudou (this is obviously specifically about the black experience, but it has some resonance, I think): “Suppression, erasure of culture, religion, relatives, entire family lines. You no longer work in linear narratives. Or you do, but only by imagining unbroken lines of connection wherever they’ve never explicitly been debunked. You have to.” Which to me feels like sort of the overarching project, in certain ways. Where you’re writing yourself into a historical narrative as a way of asking where and how you can belong in one. Do these women belong in history? Do you belong in history?
Do you belong in history? Who knows! What are the ethics of writing oneself into a historical narrative? A lot of that is still mysterious to me.
What I do know is that offering a subject-driven narrative of history, is, I think, undeniably of value. I am present in this stuff; I’m interested in this; I’m writing this. I have a personal stake in this, and now that I’ve revealed myself, I can’t avoid the next step, which is explaining why I’m here. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that I has to reveal her autobiography; there’s a lot of ways that could take place.
What was really moving to me about bringing up that line is that when we’re working with material about marginalized people—women, people of color, poor people— we’re working often with an absence of record, an insufficient record. So in that absence, in those gaps, there seems to be some necessity— and some historian is going to murder me!— but there is the necessity for some imagination.
Not imagination as an end, or as a replacement for what may later be corroborated by archival evidence. But there seems to be a real need for a space to broaden one’s historical imagination, to blast open space to think in.
At one point in the essay about the women taking over the welfare office in New York, you write of them, “Feminism became a spiritual journey of presence and transcendence, both, where religion had failed to offer any substantive recourse.”
I thought that was such an interesting way of situating feminism—with all of the various valences that word has to various people. In a way that I feel like this book is doing the same thing for history: offering history as a narrative that can be inhabited when other cultural narratives have failed to include us. Do you think about this as “a feminist book,” whatever those words mean to you?
It’s a feminist text inasmuch as it is about me kind of working through this material bearing on strange and powerful— sometimes both— women. It’s a feminist text inasmuch as I am working through that material as I proceed with my own questions about what it means to be a woman in the church. It’s a feminist text inasmuch as it charts my own experiential feminist education on a bunch of different front as I grew up.
The reason I kind of stutter at whether it’s a feminist text is because I am by no means making any claims, except for Sojourner Truth, and that collective, about any of these figures [personal beliefs]. I don’t want any of these figures to be read in a kind of clickbait, look at this amazing woman! Look at this trailblazer! way. They’re so much more complicated than that. And a lot of them don’t even have a political framework where it would make sense to call them feminists.
I try to present each of the figures in the text not as one thing, not as just a trailblazer or a wild theological thinker, but as a human.
So what does “the feminist project” mean to you?
It’s about gender parity. It’s about egalitarianism. It’s about disrupting in ways that are radical, avant-garde, subtle, and institutional, oppressive forces and institutions. It’s about building a much deeper, wider imagination, not just about women, but about gender and the way in which gendered things are ordered and organized. Understanding the way these things impact everything from reproductive justice to climate justice.
This is a real crazy thing to say next, but in many ways I see the base aims of the feminist project as being really deeply tied to what I understand to be Christian theology. One of the big things about Christianity both as a theology and as a historical phenomenon… is that a profoundly strange counter-cultural movement was being proposed, where all of these divisions that have existed in Roman society are being disrupted by this strange dude who’s walking around and touching people you’re not supposed to touch, and making jokes with divorcees, and getting people to organize themselves and share their food, and publicly admonishing power brokers left and right.
And so I see Christianity as a religion and a theology that’s against empire. I see it as a theology that’s trying erode the kinds of binaries that have governed our lives. And I see feminism as being so involved and engaged with a similar kind of debate. Like yes, it’s about gender, but it’s also about a deeper intervention into all kinds of binaries: the binary of good and evil, the binary of what is sacred and profane, pure and impure.
There’s a necessity in Christianity in particular to be inventing, because where we don’t have invention and a sense of the avant-garde, of the constantly changing, what you get is an accumulation of power, which will function and behave in the same way that accumulated power always does.
But I’m not writing about these women because I ascribe to their particular theology. What I am moved by and interested in in all of them is the way in which they are able to both draw from tradition, and also their gift of invention and creativity. They modeled for me that constant necessity of reaching back, and then prophecy and invention and interpretation looking forward.
I hear so often people saying, “well, religion is fucked up and it’s fucked up people’s lives, and we should just let it go.” And I’m like, yes, and. Yes and, traditions are important. Yes and, religion is meaningful to so many people. And I’m curious if you have a line on why some of us can’t just seem to say no, fuck it, those power structures are terrible, I’m going to let them go forever, we’re going to do something else. Why do we keep trying to reckon with and build on them?
I think religious literacy is really important, both for secular and for religious people, because the vast majority of people still live in a theological world. And a lack of religious literacy gives power to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism flourishes in a culture where religious literacy is not valued, because fundamentalism and religious power brokering requires a certain amount of blind adherence, and dissuades people from taking any kind of interpretive authority. A little religious literacy, no matter how you feel about it or what your beliefs are, can go a long way in diminishing the power of fundamentalism and authoritarianism, and especially theocratic authoritarianism.
And you have to be able to build alliances. When I submitted the manuscript, I was like, it just feels so important for there to be a progressive secular and religious collaboration and resistance. There certainly have been instances: the sanctuary movement, to provide sanctuary to people fleeing from Central America; there are huge efforts especially in the Southwest. And the Civil Rights Movement [was one].
I was thinking about what it all meant, and then the election happened, and I was like, it’s something that I would hope that people could do. Open up our imaginations about what religious alliances could exist, and why that might be important.
What [the women in the book] do model, again, is this constant kind of probing and attention, and new models of, what would this theology look like if we tried this? What would this reality look like if it came into contact with this? What if we go out into the streets?
And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy is out today from Counterpoint Press.