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On October 5, 1984, thirteen women, predominantly Asian graduate students in theological institutions and several working in ministry in the United States, gathered at the home of Professor Letty Russell. The meeting was convened by the Women's Theological Center in Boston and the Ad Hoc Group on Racism, Sexism, and Classism in New York. Out of this small gathering the network called Asian Women Theologians, Northeast U.S. Group, was formed. Within a year, a small group of Asian American women were added to the group from the West Coast, who had been affiliated with PACTS (the Pacific and Asian Center for Theology and Strategy). The first annual conference of the Asian Women Theologians, Northeast U.S. Group, was held February 22-23, 1985, in Madison, Connecticut. During the initial years, local small groups would meet in Boston; New Haven; New York; Princeton; Madison, New Jersey; and Claremont, and the annual conferences were held in the Northeast. To connect with theological movements spearheaded by women of color, representatives from womanist and mujerista theology were invited to early meetings. The support of Katie Cannon, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, and Elsa Tamez was invaluable. As the network expanded, seminarians, faculty, graduate students, and clergywomen in other cities, including Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, and Berkeley, took turns to host the conferences. The name of the network has undergone several changes; the group adopted its current name, Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM), in 1996.
As a grassroots movement, PANAAWTM has grown from a primarily academic supportive network for theological students to include issues and concerns of those preparing for church and social ministries. Letty Russell and Shannon Clarkson assumed the tasks of fund-raising and managing the business side of the network for many years. When a significant number of the early members had earned their doctorates and become faculties and administrators in theological education and religious studies, they assumed the responsibilities of faculty advisers, raising funds and working with local groups to host the annual conference. As new advisers have been added periodically, the board of faculty advisers has grown to consist of women from a wide range of denominations and academic backgrounds, including biblical studies, theology, religious education, Asian traditions, Asian American religion, ethnic studies, and sociology of religion. To make the network more visible, a Web site was created in the summer of 2004 (http://www.panaawtm.org/).
What Is in a Name?
After the group's inception, as the membership and concerns of the network broadened, its name became longer and more inclusive to recognize and call attention to the complex historical, cultural, linguistic, and class backgrounds of members. Early on, we became keenly aware that the issues and struggles of Asian and Asian American women are very different, though we may look similar from the outside. (1) Consequently, the name of the group was expanded to become Asian and Asian American Women Theologians in 1986. We have found that whereas Asian women identify primarily with their countries of origin, nationalities, languages, and cultural backgrounds, Asian American women speak of their hyphenated identities and their marginal positions situated on the boundaries of different groups. Though both groups have to fight sexism and classism, Asian American women are concerned about racism and issues of peace and social justice, whereas their Asian counterparts point to colonialism, neocolonialism, dictatorship, violence, and militarism as root causes for their marginalization. Their divergent social locations and sets of priorities were clearly reflected in the essays in a special section on Asian and Asian American women and religion in an early issue of JFSR. (2)
In an essay in that special section, Naomi Southard and Rita Nakashima Brock point out that Asian women who have a home in Asian countries have a community to speak with and for; but "Asian American women live in tension between several 'worlds'--between Asia and the United States, between tradition and contemporary life, between religious institutions and secular society.... Our perspectives place each of us on the boundaries between these and other 'worlds,' reflecting our efforts to balance pressures created by living in several worlds at once." (3) Furthermore, Southard and Brock articulate the different responses toward feminism between the two groups. Most of the Asian group, they surmise, are more recently educated and benefit from the surge in feminist scholarship, which has much to offer in raising the consciousness of Asian women when critically adapted to the Asian contexts. Asian American women, however, maintain a more ambivalent attitude toward feminism because of the experiences of racism by and cultural insensitivity of many white feminists and of the invisibility of Asian American women in feminist dialogues. (4)
The distinct experience of the two groups is further compounded by the …