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Professor Profile: From saints to survivors, Rhodes studies women's issues

Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013

Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 21:02

“It was a calling,” said Elizabeth Rhodes when asked why she chose her path of study. It’s a phrase that is often tossed around loosely to describe the reasoning behind one’s career choice or vocation, and over time it may have lost some significance. For Rhodes, however, a “calling” is probably the most accurate way to describe her academic pursuits in women’s studies and religious culture.

Rhodes, a professor of Hispanic studies at Boston College, currently teaches an undergraduate course called Texts of Reflection, which examines the time period in Spanish history when self-reflection became possible, as well as a graduate film class called Introduction to Visual Literacy. Although she studied at two women’s colleges—Westhampton College at the University of Richmond for her B.A. and Bryn Mawr for her master’s degree and Ph.D.—her interest in women’s writings was not fully realized until the end of grad school. She picked up the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature for the first time as she was finishing her master’s, and holding that book in her hands was a moment when she may have heard that “calling” for the first time.

“It felt like a terrible rude awakening, but it was wonderful on the other hand,” Rhodes said. After being served Sunday dinners by waitresses and living with a curfew of 11 p.m., it came as a shock to Rhodes that she had been surrounded by these women for a large period of her life and was never truly immersed in their literary history.

From a cultural perspective, Rhodes has quite a diverse background—she was born in New Brunswick, N.J., raised in Delaware, and traveled to locations such as Iowa, Seattle, Barcelona, and Madrid for work and research after finishing her Ph.D. She was in London when she received a call from BC asking her to join their faculty, and a very particular occurrence ultimately helped her make the decision to venture to Chestnut Hill.

“I was looking for feminist theology in a bookstore in London, and I found a book by Mary Daly, who is a very famous feminist theologian,” Rhodes said. “[She] taught at Boston College and was very badly treated at Boston College as a feminist. They refused to promote her on grounds that were a little problematic.” As a premier feminist theologian, Daly inspired Rhodes, and after recognizing that she taught at a religious school such as BC, she knew that she wanted to join the campus as well. “Since I do religious culture, it seemed like a good fit for me,” she added. “And it has been.”

Now, after teaching on campus for 25 years, Rhodes continues to travel throughout Europe to examine original documents as part of her ongoing research. She has traveled to libraries in England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy, and is currently invested in following the lives of saints as their images change from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. For example, Mary Magdalene, commonly regarded as a prostitute, was not viewed as such during the Middle Ages, explained Rhodes—she was considered a rich and free woman, spent time preaching in France, and had a contemplative life in the desert.

While Rhodes certainly enjoys delving into the historical aspect of women’s issues, she also became involved in helping young women today with unfortunate circumstances, right as she began teaching courses in women’s studies in the ’80s.

“Students who had unhappy stories to tell about their personal lives, especially rape survivors and domestic abuse survivors, would come to my office and talk about that,” Rhodes said. “And I didn’t know how to help them, and there wasn’t anything back then on campus to help them.” Due to the lack of resources for young women, Rhodes decided to educate herself about women’s issues, and eventually joined the Sexual Assault Network. In 2010, she was asked by two students to become a faculty advisor for a new program called HEAL (Heal, Empowerment, Acceptance, Listening), a support group for survivors of rape and sexual assault that continues to run through the Women’s Resource Center. Although she is no longer the supervisor for the group, Rhodes continues to meet with survivors individually and is still a member of the Sexual Assault Network.

“I get more educated on the psychology of survivorship and also the textuality of sexual violence against men and women,” Rhodes said, regarding her involvement in both historical writings and present-day stories. “One thing has fed into another.”

Rhodes hopes to step outside of the classroom and start a sailing program for teenage Latina survivors in east Boston—she is currently studying for her captain’s license along with her nighttime sails to islands in the harbor. She has a wide array of other hobbies and interests as well—she spent three years of a five-year apprenticeship learning to become a lace-maker in Barcelona, and continues to knit in her spare time. She also provides foster care for kittens, enjoys yoga and hip-hop dancing, and raises her two children—a 26-year-old daughter who currently works with Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan and a son who is a sophomore at BC.

With such a vast expanse of experiences and research background, Rhodes recognizes the importance of connecting these larger topics with students in a way that makes them resonate deeper with the texts, which continues to be the motivation behind her love for teaching.

“Once you’ve been teaching enough, and I certainly have, when I’m standing in class, I can see light bulbs over students’ heads,” she said. “And that is it for me.”

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