Professor Mary-Antoinette Smith believes that working for justice means finding a way to balance the professional, personal, and spiritual.
When someone names their dog after a saint, you know their faith is an important part of who they are. “I’m a Third Order Dominican working among Jesuits. The color of our order is black and white,” Mary-Antoinette Smith says. “So when I got a black and white dog, I named him after St. Dominic to razz the Jesuits.”
Smith, an associate professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at Seattle University and the executive director of the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education (NAWCHE), believes it is impossible for her to separate her professional career and personal life from her faith. This goes far beyond pet names to every aspect of her life and career. When Smith teaches a class, she gives herself two names on the syllabus: Dr. Mary-Antoinette Smith and Sister Scholastica Dominique, the name she adopted when she took vows to the Dominicans’ lay order.
Her faith is also what drives her work for justice and equality in her career as a professor. “I have no doubt that there is a very benevolent God that oversees our lives,” she says. “I am called to advocate for those in my program—students, faculty, or staff. It is my job and my responsibility to speak up and give voice to the voiceless.”
This sense of vocation led her to get involved with NAWCHE, an organization that aims to support and empower women working within Catholic higher education. Smith says, “It’s a safe, nurturing place where people in disciplines like women and gender studies can air our issues.”
What is NAWCHE?
NAWCHE is a professional organization made up of very active women in a number of different arenas. Some of us do social justice activism. Some of us do mission work. Some of us simply teach. Some of us are administrators. We have a broad range of women involved in a multiplicity of things.
Our mission statement includes the idea of us being sisters in solidarity; women in Catholic higher education need each other, whether just for support or to work for justice in academia.
As academics, it’s sometimes easy to simply be academics, to be up there in the ivory tower. Sometimes we need someone to shift us just slightly—it doesn’t have to be a lot, but just slightly enough that it opens the door for those broader conversations. NAWCHE doesn’t make everything that’s been done against women right, but it makes room for these kinds of conversations. At least, that’s been my experience.
When I became the executive director, the first conference I organized focused on the idea of making connections between women in Catholic higher education, the earth, and ourselves. I organized the conference around the belief that if we don’t sustain and cultivate ourselves as individuals, we don’t have a prayer for sustaining our communities within Catholic higher education.
And so I integrated self-care workshops throughout the conference. And no one had seen that done before; this was the first time something like this had happened at an academic conference. It wasn’t unusual for me, but it was for the participants at the conference. It was important to me to help women feel comfortable enough to be their fuller selves rather than simply, to use a phrase, bitch and moan. If we’re actually going to have the opportunity to be sisters in solidarity, we have to trust ourselves enough to be witness in all of our fullness. This is where the personal and the spiritual and the academic come together. In some ways, we always have to be given the permission to do that more vulnerable thing.
How did you get involved in NAWCHE?
I happened to hear about a conference they were having at St. John’s University in New York, and I applied to deliver a paper there. I was just devastated to hear some of the papers and the conversations that the women were having about how difficult it was to be women in academia, whether Catholic or otherwise.
Seattle University is a welcoming place, and I didn’t know much about the pain and challenges that other women were experiencing. My paper was titled “Poised at the Dawn of a Promising Future: Taking the Helm of Women’s Studies at Seattle University,” and when it was time to present, I delivered my paper with some nervousness. Because contextually it didn’t fit with the whole tone and tenor of the conference.
It was well received, and during the closing session, it turned out that the founder of NAWCHE was retiring and looking for a new home institution (NAWCHE was started by Sharlene Hesse-Biber at Boston College in 1992). Someone behind me pointed and said, “I think we just found our new director of NAWCHE.” We stood at the dawn of a promising future, and so they asked me how Seattle University would feel about possibly becoming the home institution. I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll certainly go back and ask.”
What issues do women in Catholic higher education deal with?
There might be a misunderstanding that because one is at a Catholic institution and, in particular, at a Jesuit institution, the university operates according to the principles laid out on a website, with a mission statement that says particular things.
But sometimes that’s not the case for faculty, staff, or students at those institutions.
That’s tough. That’s really hard. And I think that’s problematic. Because some women might have said yes to a job opportunity at a Catholic institution, believing in that mission statement. We’re having this challenge at Seattle University right now; the institution I joined 21 years ago is not the same institution that it is now.
We were closer to living out the principles of our mission statement two decades ago than we are now. Nowadays, we’re operating more like a corporation than a Jesuit and Catholic institution. It’s quite painful.
I don’t look it, but I’m actually close to retirement. I remember the colleagues that I had 20 years ago. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to be senior faculty and replicate the genuine goodwill and service to others that I was the recipient of 20 years ago.”
I’m in mourning for the fact that I actually can’t be who I had hoped I would be. Because our university is not set up that way anymore. We’re not going to go backward. We’re going to continue to go forward, and it’s very painful. But I haven’t given up on the belief in that different way of thinking about the Jesuit mission of our university, because I know it existed. I haven’t given up, but hope dwindles a bit on some days. Some days are darker than others.
Can you give an example?
When I moved to Seattle in 1994 as an assistant professor, housing prices were starting to rise. Several faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences wrote emails to the dean of our college, saying, “We’re noticing that housing prices are going up, and we’re concerned that these amazing new faculty members we’ve hired as assistant professors aren’t going to be able to buy homes in a couple of years. They’re going to be priced out of the market.
“What we would like to propose is that senior faculty forgo cost-of-living raises for the next couple of years. That pool of resources can go to assistant professors so that those who choose to buy homes can get in, can prequalify for loans, and can buy homes.”
The dean said, “You know, I think that’s a great idea.” This group solidarity kicked in. I was one of the new faculty members who benefited from those raises three years in a row, and I bought my house. I remember thinking, “This is exactly the institution that I said yes to when they made the job offer.”
It was such an endorsement. It was a resounding “yes” coming from them, which met my resounding “yes”—“Yes, I’m going to take a job there.”
Nowadays, that idea would not even be on the radar. It’s very painful to be in that space. There’s a new generation fighting for their rights, but they don’t have the same memories that my generation has. It’s so hard to explain, but I think you get a sense of what that tension is like.
It’s happening everywhere. Resources are shrinking. Ethnic studies, women and gender studies, those are the first programs and departments to lose funding. I think women and gender studies and ethnic studies historically have been the dispensable disciplines. Even though they’re the most important for a social justice-oriented institution.
Does this affect how you teach?
There’s a line of scripture that says each of us is given a multiplicity of gifts and that we should have faith in all those gifts, but one is primary. If it be teaching, teach. If it be preaching, preach. I make that into a bookmark for my students, and then I add other disciplines in brackets. If it be being a lawyer, be a lawyer. If it be doctoring, be a doctor. If it be nursing, be a nurse.
Then, I share with them that God has put each of us on earth with an idea in mind. He gave us each a gift so that we would live out a life where we use that gift to benefit the world.
My belief is if we follow that gift and we stay true to that gift, no human being and no circumstance in life can actually stop us from being successful. That’s the plan God has for us.
I’m so thrilled to teach in a Catholic institution where I can actually stand up in my class, read literary works, and then not just extract the similes and explicate the metaphors, but I get the religious allusions and
references, and I can actually point those out to students in a credible way. I can actually do that on campus. I can talk about God. I can go to Mass at noon if I’m not teaching.
As a professor at a Jesuit institution that espouses social justice issues, I have the opportunity to actually be a leader in terms of role-modeling inclusivity.
I’m always very excited about our young feminists. They’re the ones who I think are going to make a long-term difference. As a teacher, I just encourage them not to lose the faith. We talk a lot about this among ourselves as advocates and allies. It can be wearying to be on the front lines. It may seem like we’re not making progress, but it’s always a journey.
I use an environmental example: Some people will say, “Oh, what difference does it make if I don’t recycle this tin can or this aluminum can?” One can plus two cans plus three cans, each can makes a difference. That’s also the truth in terms of social justice advocacy.
Students oftentimes are so anxious to solve the problem that they miss the journey. Some of us are big activists, and some of us are just day-by-day, walking-our-way-through-it activists. Knowing this helps students understand where their place is on that trajectory, because it’s a long road. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
I’m a realist. Some students say, “When will we solve the gender divide?” or, “When will we solve the racism problem?” And I say, “Never.” The looks on their faces, they just look so devastated.
We tend to point at other people and say, “They’re wrong. I want to fix that.” In scripture, it’s what Christ says about pointing out the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I’ve got a two-by-four in my own eye. If I take care of myself and become the best human I can be, that’s my contribution to the world. That’s a huge, huge contribution to the world.
Otherwise, we end up recycling our way through the same complaints, anger, and bitterness. There has to be some level of self-ownership. We have to nurture the pain. We have to address it. The only way out is through, but that is an inward journey that ultimately takes us back out.
I tell my students, “If you think ending racism is the goal, no. The goal is for each of us to become the best, most virtuous human being we can be. If we do that in and of ourselves, and then the person next to us does it, and then the next person does it, and then the next person does it . . . There are 21 of us in this room. If 21 of us by the end of this quarter begin that journey, and it’s an authentic journey from the core, then that’s going to be 21 fewer jerks walking the planet.”
God has a plan
How did your faith influence your academic career?
I grew up Catholic. My parents were Baptist and they converted to Catholicism right after they got married, before we kids were even thought of. They converted so that we’d be born into a Catholic family and would gain easy admittance into parochial schools. It wasn’t about faith for them; it was a very practical decision. But I didn’t just go the academic route. I’m the one in my family for whom the faith really resonated.
I was a quiet, contemplative child. Every week, my mom would give me a dollar for my allowance, and we’d go to Daniel Freeman Thrift Store. I’d spend my dollar on novels. They were 10 cents each, no tax, and I’d get 10 books a week.
When I got to high school, my sophomore English teacher said, “Mary, I know you’re reading at home. What do you read?” I went home, made a list of the books I had in my personal library, and gave her the list. She looked it over, and she said, “Do you know that 90 percent of the novels on this list are Victorian?”
From that day forward, I was a self-proclaimed Victorianist. When I went to college at the University of Southern California (USC), I majored in Victorian literature. I loved it so much. My senior year I ended up studying abroad in England and I finished my bachelor’s degree at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham. It was part of the University of London, and the school was run by the Vincentian fathers.
So, it happened that while USC was secular, my final year of my bachelor’s degree was at a Catholic college in London. I’ve always believed that my faith, whether it was Catholic or not, my relationship with God, put all those individuals in my life so that these opportunities would show up. I call these people my angels. They’re my angels that manifested in human flesh and then facilitated these opportunities.
It was always in an academic arena. My high school teacher introduced me to Victorian literature. My undergraduate professor encouraged me to study abroad in England. After I graduated college I went out in the “real world” and worked in advertising for eight years. During that time, I happened to see one of my USC professors on Oprah—Jay Martin. He had gone back to school to get a degree in psychoanalysis, because he had gotten bored with teaching American literature all the time, and he was the resident psychologist on Oprah that day.
I wrote him a letter; I told him I was unhappy in advertising and wondered if he might have a client with a smaller agency who he might introduce me to. It was a networking letter.
He called me, and he said, “I understand you want to come back to USC to do your doctorate.”
I said, “Jay, that’s not what my letter said.” He said, “No, I psychoanalyzed it, and that’s what you want.” Eight days later, I was back at USC starting my doctoral program. They put my file together as if I had applied right after I graduated 10 years before.
The same thing happened when I got my job at Seattle University. When I was in graduate school, I went up to Seattle to deliver my first paper at a conference. It was during the time that the Rodney King riots were going on in Los Angeles, my hometown, and I was so inspired by the way that people in Seattle were responding and the empathy I saw. Father Leigh, a professor in the English department, met with me and asked, “Are you on the job market yet? You’re exactly what we want in our department.” I said, “No, I still have four, five years to go.”
When I was finally applying for jobs, I went on 20 interviews. You talk about depressed. I even started interviewing for jobs in African American literature thinking, “Maybe I can’t be an 18th- and 19th-century British literature scholar, but I can at least teach the literature of my people.” I was really down and out, and Father Leigh called out of nowhere. He said, “Hi, this is Dave Leigh from the English department at Seattle University. You may not remember me, but I’m now chair of the English department, and I wanted to let you know that I’ve had an unexpected retirement. It has created a tenure-track line for an English professor.”
So I came up for the interview. I got the job. It turns out I was the only candidate. Father Leigh wrote the job description to fit my background. That was another one of those angel moments. I had no job, I had no prospects, I had no opportunity. I was as down and out as one could be and pretty depressed. Then, the next thing I knew, he called out of nowhere.
That’s how my faith has followed me. I’ve always seen this faith-driven, God-inspired intervention that has followed me throughout my life. That part of my own personal faith has been realized in my life, and I hope it inspires others to search, from their core, what their own true gift is and then to follow it.
I’m evenly possessed of my academic side and my spiritual side. God has made that consistent throughout my life. The week I got my doctorate and became Dr. Mary-Antoinette Smith was the same week that I took my vows as Dominican laity and became Sister Scholastica Dominique. When I became the director of the Women and Gender Studies program at Seattle University, within three months, I became the executive director of the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education (NAWCHE).
NAWCHE is a professional organization, but it’s about women in Catholic higher education, which has a spiritual element. It’s almost as if God said, “OK, if you’re going to direct this program, which is secular, you’ve got to direct a program that is spiritual in some way.”
This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 2, page 26–31).