WomenExplore Lecture and Discussion Forum (WE) began as the Theological Opportunities Program (TOP) of Harvard Divinity School in 1973. However its origins stretch back much further.
In 1896 Anna Parker Lowell founded the Society of Harvard Dames "with the object of promoting acquaintance and social fellowship among its members". Members met regularly on Thursdays to hear a lecture and share tea afterwards. The lectures were on topics of interest to the women and ranged from a talk by a previous president of Wellesley College on the "The Colorado Desert" illustrated with lantern slides to one on “Proportional Representation” featuring a mock election to "Palestine of Today in Moving Pictures" (in 1931). Membership of the Harvard Dames was restricted to “wives, mothers and sisters of Harvard students who are temporary residents of Cambridge or vicinity.” When Anna Lowell died in 1930 her husband, A. Lawrence Lowell, who was then president of Harvard, established a fund in her memory to ensure the continuation of the Society of Harvard Dames.
In the late 1950s, under the deanship of Douglas Horton, the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) resurrected the Society of Harvard Dames in the form of short series of Ladies' Lectures. These lectures were not restricted but open to the general public with most of the speakers coming from the HDS faculty. At the time women were beginning to be admitted to the HDS for the first time, with Emily Gage, the first woman, graduating in 1957. So the Ladies' Lectures provided a bridge to those seeking a "theological opportunity".
The Theological Opportunities Program was begun in 1973 by Brita Stendahl, wife of the then dean Krister Stendahl, and a small advisory committee of interested women as a reformulation of the Ladies Lectures. The lectures were redesigned as a spring and fall Thursday morning lecture series, to which were added mini-courses, taught by HDS faculty and only available to TOP participants, to provide for deeper and more intense theological reflection and inquiry. Through the years, the mini-courses faded away, but the lecture series have grown from the original four to the current ten sessions each fall and spring. TOP was a gateway for laywomen into the Divinity School, and numbers of women in the years since 1973 went through this gateway into regular enrollment as students at HDS and other theological colleges.
In the fall of 1978 Elizabeth Dodson Gray, eco-feminist scholar, theologian, and author, became coordinator of TOP. Under her leadership TOP underwent great changes. She opened the Advisory Committee to anyone who attended the lectures and was interested, and developed a feminist process of sharing lives and issues, and looking there for concerns from which to design future TOP conference series. This unique method of designing the series is what makes TOP so special. The planning of the lecture series is at the heart of the TOP program. The position of existential focuser, a second innovation, was introduced in 1983. This is a short (15 minute) autobiographical speech which precedes the major lecture, and its purpose is to ground the topic of the day in the life of one woman from the planning committee, who can speak about how that morning’s topic has been crucial, for good or ill, in her life. After the major lecture, there is a question period, and then a participatory discussion so that all who attend can have an opportunity to share their own point of view on this topic. Occasionally the subject of the morning is illuminated through two main speakers or even a panel of 3 or 4 speakers who can witness to the diversity of perspectives on this question. Each session is now described as a half-day conference.
Through the years the creativity of TOP has generated other manifestations of its life. Firstly there is the Caring and Sharing support group which now meets every Thursday morning before the lectures in the spring and the fall, and is open to all who attend the lectures. There is also a monthly Sunday afternoon discussion group, Conversations, which meets in a participant's home. This originated as a Conversations over 50 group. For a time the support group initiated a process of telling Spiritual Journeys to one another. There was also a smaller discussion group about End-of-Life Decisions.
With the theme of each series and its constituent topics being chosen using a collaborative planning method, the topics soon shifted from more conventional and traditional religious inquiries to questions that arise out of women’s life experience, for example, from The Dynamic God and the Transformation of Biblical Symbols to What Does Love-As-Self-Denial and Love-As-Sacrifice Do to Women? Over the first decade the women doing the planning - and also those attending - became increasingly feminist, and so did the topics for the lectures.
In 1988 TOP published its own book, Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, based upon the fall 1985 lecture series of the same name. Co-written with articles by 29 TOP women and friends, edited by coordinator Elizabeth Dodson Gray, and published by Roundtable Press, the book has been hailed as a significant milestone in feminist theology. The Very Rev. Dr. Lois Wilson, then one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches, wrote: "Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience is an important book. It is one of the few theological books I know that addresses the meaning of the sacred out of the experiences of women. I could hardly believe it when I went through the index and found ‘myself’ there, having experienced (along with other women) housework, falling in love, giving birth, caretaking, raising children, creating a home. Naming the sacred in our own experience is an absolutely essential theological task for women." On the book cover, as lushly vivid colors swirl around, the words of Rosemary Radford Ruether are quoted: ". . . we are engaged in a new revelational encounter with the divine in and through women’s experience. . . . "
During the deanship of George Rupp (1979-1985) the Theological Opportunities Program was encouraged to find its speakers from the wider Harvard community as well as the Greater Boston Area, looking for speakers to lawyers, legislators, authors, environmentalists, psychologists and psychotherapists as well as to academic professors and theologians. The concerns of the women in the advisory committee planning the series continued to broaden. TOP/ WomenExplore has been very fortunate to have such a wide range of excellent speakers to draw on in the Boston area and beyond. Since there are no honoraria, TOP/WomenExplore is grateful for the generosity of its speakers.
TOP became a valuable resource for the Divinity School. George Rupp, former dean of HDS and then president of Columbia University, wrote:
"I have always been struck with how deeply TOP has affected the lives of participants. I am sure the three paragraph ‘verbal snapshots’ that are being collected will bear moving testimony to this impact. But along with its role in shaping the lives of individual participants, TOP has also served as a significant stimulus in the Divinity School as an institution. "Preparing a talk for TOP has not infrequently provoked a process that in turn led to a new course or an article or even the germ of a book. . . . I am confident that the twenty-five year challenge to relate scholarly preoccupations to concrete experience has been salutary for the Divinity School community, and I hope and expect that this challenge will continue in the years ahead."
Its presence there provided a new perspective to the HDS theologians. One participant, Priscilla Hinckley, has written: "The presence of such a lay group within a theological school—bringing to the seminary the existential concerns of people in the pews, in order to think together with students and teachers—is, we think, unique in the United States." As Dieter Georgi, former HDS theologian and long-time faculty advisor to TOP says: "All good professional theologians to this day depend on intensive dialogues with the laity".
For its 25th anniversary in 1998 TOP published a 120-page booklet, Weaving Communion Deep Within Life’s Grace. Eighty individuals wrote of their experiences with TOP over the years, and it is illustrated with their art and music. The booklet begins with these words: "We thought we were doing a lecture series. But we became a women’s faith community, a place of learning but also of transformation, a safe place that validated our feelings and encouraged our unfolding, a place for tears of pain and tears of gladness. We created this place for one another. Over the years all of us together created it, and it has given us gifts beyond measure. But perhaps the most precious of all gifts, it has given us the experience of ourselves—empowered, authentic, full-voiced—the selves we are becoming." Five years later a thirtieth anniversary edition was published, and a fortieth anniversary edition is being prepared in 2013.
In response to a change in university policy, Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and TOP separated in 2003, with TOP becoming an independent non-profit organization - which continued to meet, as it did in the previous thirty years, Thursdays fall and spring at HDS. This meant that the role of the advisory committee expanded beyond planning the series. Elizabeth Dodson Gray's role transformed from co-ordinating a lecture series to executive director of a non-profit. A board was appointed from members of the advisory committee. It was made clear that the major decisions remained in the hands of the large advisory committee. The board is responsible for overseeing the executive director as well as providing leadership on financial matters, fund-raising and marketing. Any processes considered by the board are submitted to the advisory committee for approval. Managing the finances and fund-raising became issues of major importance as the organization was now required to pay rent as well as cover the part-time salary of the coordinator/ executive director and the printing and mailing costs.
The conferences had taken place in the beautiful surroundings of the Braun Room at Andover Hall, with the planning sessions occurring after lunch in the adjacent Rockefeller Hall until the renovation of Rockefeller Hall planned to begin in fall 2007 required that they move elsewhere. The advisory committee took on the task of choosing an alternative location. The result was that the conferences moved to the light-filled lecture room of the University Lutheran Church with planning in the University Lutheran Fireside Room.
The advisory committee also started to consider the possibility of changing the name of the organization to reflect its broadened focus. A sub-committee of the advisory committee recommended a procedure for electing board members. Board members are now elected for two year terms. Two other committees developed a plan to manage the transition to a new executive director in preparation for the time that Elizabeth Dodson Gray would choose to retire. The advisory committee was implementing a unique feminist non-patriarchal structure. As Elizabeth Dodson Gray said, "Like a floating craps game, whoever shows up can play".
In 2007 TOP began to be archived at the Smith College's Sophia Smith Collection, one of the preeminent archives of women's history.
In 2010, scholar and author Elizabeth Dodson Gray retired, after thirty-two years as TOP’s coordinator and seven years as our first Executive Director. Muna Killingback, former Director of Communications and Financial Development Associate for the World YWCA in Geneva and advocate for women's and human rights, peace, and social and economic justice, became the second executive director.
Muna strengthened TOP’s standing in the nonprofit world by connecting us to other prominent nonprofits, updating administrative operations, and guiding us through major adjustments such as a name change. Under her leadership and in recognition of the broadened scope of our organization, the Advisory Committee voted to change our name to WomenExplore Lecture and Discussion Forum. In 2011, Muna accepted a full time position at UMASS Boston and resigned as Executive director. She was unanimously voted onto the WE Board and served there from 2011 to 2013.
Dr. Tracey Hurd, a scholar at Boston College, became WomenExplore’s third Executive Director. Recognizing the value of the WomenExplore lectures as an academic resource, Tracey piloted a CEU and lecture series-as-course program supported by a full syllabus as well as recruited student interns, and initiated on-line outreach. Tracey’s leadership ignited a new spirit of collaboration and volunteer participation within WomenExplore. Since finishing her tenure as Executive Director, Tracey has continued as an integral part of the organization, becoming Resident Scholar with the Rev. Dr. Emily K. Robertson in Fall 2012. Our Resident Scholars enrich the WomenExplore community with their research and recommendation of in-depth readings written by upcoming speakers as well as reaching out to local resources.
As WomenExplore entered its fifth decade in January 2013, Maria Behnke became its fourth executive director. Just completing a masters in philosophy with a women's studies focus, Maria brought a fresh perspective to WomenExplore through an increased application of technology, an updated website, and a targeted focus on contemporary, global themes.
In Fall 2014 after many years at the University Lutheran Church, WomenExplore found a new meeting place – the Democracy Center in Harvard Square. WE was very pleased to join the Center, which is home to several non-profits that share our mission and can support our efforts to extend the WomenExplore community.
When Maria Behnke ended her term at the end of June 2015 WomenExplore entered a new phase of its existence. Elizabeth Dodson Gray pioneered the feminist model of government by the Advisory Committee, which is open to all WomenExplore participants. This was particularly evident in the planning of the series, and in the choice of a new location and new times. Since 2010 the successive executive directors had been building the strength of volunteer involvement in the behind-the-scenes work which keeps WomenExplore running. Now, from July 2015, WomenExplore is completely dependent on its dedicated volunteers.