An ‘emerging voice’ on gender, identity, and religion

Brianne Painia, a Southern Baptist, discusses how you adopt the identities taught in biblical texts while also living something that is at odds with it.
Brianne Painia
Brianne Painia

Brianne Painia was always interested in how the strong women who helped raise her were able to reconcile a self-assured independence with a Southern Baptist faith that sometimes suppressed it. In that religious tradition, which has historically adhered to a biblical view that men are the heads of their households, women are expected to submit to male decision making on family and other matters, relegating them to roles as supporters rather than leaders.

But while she was a young girl growing up in New Orleans, the Southern Baptist women in Painia’s orbit were often leaders in the workplace, believed in gender equality, and were mutual partners in most family decisions and familial responsibilities.

Painia — who is now at Yale as an American Council of Learned Societies’ (ACLS) Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow — decided to study this incongruence between the women’s religious belief and personal practice while studying for her Ph.D. at Louisiana State University. She finished her dissertation, “Feminism and The Black Church: A Qualitative Analysis Among Black Women in a Southern Baptist Church,” in 2018.

The fellowship, which was created last May in response to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has enabled Painia to continue that work. “Brianne’s research explains some of the toughest quagmires in the sociological interpretation of religion,” said Kathryn Lofton, the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies and dean of the humanities for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who is mentoring Painia. “Her work presses us to think differently about the kind of freedom expressed through intimate relationships developed within conservative religious paradigms.”

Painia, who spent part of the fall semester preparing for her academic job search with Lofton’s guidance, recently spoke with YaleNews about how her time at Yale as a fellow has strengthened her confidence as a teacher and researcher, and how she wants to share her work with public readers. The interview is edited and condensed.

What inspired your research of the intersection of religion and gender?

Having grown up in a Baptist church in the South, I was interested in how that culture impacts our lives and different axes of identity. In graduate school, I started to ask questions about my own religious and spiritual identity. When working toward my master’s degree, I read Patricia Hill Collins’ book “Black Feminist Thought,” and thought that the women she described aligned with the women I knew in church. Even though they don’t identify as feminists, they displayed the same independence and were seekers of gender equality, if nothing else.

I thought the question of how women practice a kind of feminism but are Southern Baptist was an interesting one. How do you adopt the identities taught in biblical texts while also living something that is at odds with it? The people I interviewed were brought up with that submissive identity, but in practice were more subversive. They might say, “Yes, my husband makes the final decisions, but he’s not going to make a decision that I’m not happy with.” Or they would say, “We follow church teaching because it’s good for our marriage, but ultimately we are equals.”

This is not unique to the church at all, particularly within African-American traditions historically. [During the time of] chattel slavery, everyone had to work, so the structure of the family system has always been pretty egalitarian. I knew what I lived and what I saw: The women and even the men who raised me were all pretty gender egalitarian about the big issues — about equal pay, domestic responsibilities, and the way they believed people should be treated. So that has been a core interest: How do people rectify their religious practice and their roles outside of church, where they practice something a little different?

What are some of the ways women rectified this?

In the workplace, a lot of the women are managers or run companies and businesses, and they also take care of the kids. One interesting thing that women told me is that they felt it was sometimes nice to offload the decision making on someone else, such as their partner. And while a lot of the women believe in gender equality, sometimes it didn’t cross their mind that the submissive identity prescribed for them by the church had anything to do with the workplace; in fact, they said it would be an issue for them if women were paid less than men. What they believed about marriage and relationships didn’t translate outside of those domains for them. In spaces outside of the church, they felt that whatever was due them, they were going to get.

How have you been spending your time as an Emerging Voices Postdoctoral Fellow?

I worked during the fall semester on preparing a public piece about Black women in the church and how they do not see their submissive identity as oppressive or gender unequal. An important part to me about being a researcher is to be able to share what I learn with the public in a relatable way. I’m now reaching out to various outlets for its publication.

This semester, I am teaching remotely a course, called “Religion & Identity,” which I developed. It is the first course I have taught that I have built myself from scratch. It has been very exciting but also a challenge because the points of reference are different for some of the students here. When I’m talking about the South, or a Southern Baptist church, for example, I have to be clear and intentional about what I am trying to convey. Some students have never been to a Baptist church. It’s a good challenge, to think through some of that very foundational stuff while I am teaching.

Have you grown in confidence as an academic?

Unequivocally. To be selected by Yale for this fellowship — to have Yale say, essentially, that it will invest in me for a year, is a confidence boost in itself. In addition, to receive affirmation from Katie Lofton and other members of the religious studies department about the quality of my work has also helped to reaffirm that life as an academic and teacher is probably something that I’m good at and should continue to pursue.

There’s an expression, “Shoot your shot.” That’s what this process has been for me. I saw an opportunity, and when the opportunity is presented, you take it! I’m glad I did.

What do you want to do next?

I’m trying to secure a tenure-track assistant professor role. Beyond that, I just want to continue to grow in my craft as a researcher and as a teacher. I’m also committed to public research. I feel that if my work doesn’t translate to the people who raised me, that’s a failure on my part. I don’t plan on letting that happen. 

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