It’s 1971 at the Harvard Divinity School and someone has just referred to God as a man. In response, several dozen students pick party noisemakers off their desks and blow. They fill the room with high-pitched, fart-like squawks.
It was Linda L. Barufaldi’s and Emily E. Culpepper’s idea. The two were M.Div students in Professor Harvey L. Cox’s Church 174 course, titled “Eschatology and Politics” and focused on the intersection of radical movements and theology. Barufaldi and Culpepper were frustrated by the default “he” used to refer to God — a precedent that ensured classroom conversation about religion remained male-centric. To fight this norm, they instituted a new rule: When someone used a male pronoun to refer to God, the class of roughly 70 students would toot noisemakers distributed by the two women.
Though Barufaldi and Culpepper didn’t know each other at the start of the semester, they soon began to realize that they shared similar feelings about the course. The curriculum dealt with Latin American movements, the American civil rights movement, and the women’s rights movement — but it failed to represent the voices of the people behind these movements, Barufaldi says,because the syllabus consisted exclusively of texts by white men. “I wrote a paper about how sick and tired I was of reading white men [writing] about everybody,” Barufaldi recalled in an interview. For one assignment, Professor Cox — who could not be reached for comment — asked students to critique the class in an essay. He noticed parallel ideas in Barufaldi’s and Culpepper’s papers and thought to introduce the two. “Maybe [he thought] we would sit off in a corner and be mad together or something, I don’t know,” Barufaldi says.
But Barufaldi and Culpepper did not sit silent. Barufaldi recounts being just one of 12 women in a class of about 500 when she enrolled. And M. Brinton Lykes, a Divinity School classmate of Barufaldi’s, remembers male students assuming that the female students “were there for social activities, rather than activism, rather than [for our] studies.” In other words, the school needed radicalization. Barufaldi and Culpepper elected to give their peers a hard, fast introduction to the 1970s women’s liberation movement.
The women brought their grievances to Cox, who encouraged them to draft modifications the entire class could vote on. They proposed three revisions: reading more texts by women, avoiding a generic “he,” and ceasing to use male pronouns to describe God. These changes were voted into classroom law nearly unanimously. Once the resolutions passed, students continued to blow their noisemakers if someone referred to God as male.
The noisemakers were Culpepper’s idea. They weren’t kazoos — as has been mistakenly claimed in the past — but the kind of party favor noisemakers that unfurl and make a loud, wet sound when you blow into them. These devices were a conscious choice. As Barufaldi states, “radical, anti-war, Constitution-loving lefties that we were, freedom of speech was on our minds. We wanted to have a light touch.” They didn’t want to censor their peers, so they purchased generic, party-store noisemakers in order to playfully make a point. Then they gave the receipt to Harvard for reimbursement. The cited reason for the purchase read: “Devices to impede the use of sexist language.”
Though they had support in the classroom, there was pushback from the Harvard community at large. On Nov. 11, 1971, a Crimson staff writer wrote an article entitled “Two Women Liberate Church Course” detailing the movement. In response, a Harvard linguistics professor, Calvert W. Watkins, snubbed their activism. He wrote a Crimson editorial titled “Pronoun Envy” — an allusion to Freud’s “penis envy” — arguing that the generic “he” pronoun was simply grammatically accurate and therefore not worth arguing over. Many linguistics professors signed the letter to show their support. But Barufaldi says she did not think much of Watkins’ missive. “It was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re trying to change. Kind of missing the point,’” she says. Watkins was reinforcing the rules of language created by men — precisely the rules that these women were trying to break.
The duo’s activism incited controversy beyond Harvard’s campus. In early December, Newsweek ran a piece titled “Pronoun Envy” about the Divinity School women. The piece oozed with condescension, calling the women “distaff theologians.” Nevertheless, students in Church 174 stuck to their guns. Several men in the course penned their own opinion letters to the editor of Newsweek to defend the class’s decision. Barufaldi says that her male peers felt their intellect had been undermined: “These men were like, ‘What do you mean, we’re serious scholars, how can you act like this?’” Instead of writing their own letter, Barufaldi and Culpepper sent a single-word telegram to the Newsweek religion editor from an organization they made up called Women’s Inspirational Theology Conspiracy from Harvard (WITCH). The telegram read: “Hex!”
Despite the backlash, the pronoun controversy helped initiate a period of change for women in Harvard academia. The same week that The Crimson published “Two Women Liberate Church Course,” the school invited the first woman who ever spoke at Memorial Church, feminist theologian Mary Daly. Daly led an exodus out of the church, with Barufaldi, Culpepper, and the women of the Divinity School in tow. After two years of ceaseless activism, the Divinity School in 1973 established the Women Studies in Religion Program — the first women’s studies program in Harvard history.