Introduction and Background1,2
Evangelical women face a myriad of messages related to pastoral and teaching roles in the church and academy. Some evangelical churches open their doors to women leaders while others reject the ordination of women and endorse explicitly hierarchical models of gender relations, both in marriage relationships and also in church and church-focused institutional hierarchies.3 Others even extend male authority to secular arenas, excluding women from exercising leadership or authority over men that is direct and/or personal.4
Similarly, Christian higher education is a contested space for women. Women make up the majority of Christian college undergraduates, yet comprise between five and seventeen percent of senior leaders in Christian higher education.5 Women are thirty-four percent of graduate students at member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and approximately eighteen percent of full professors at ATS member schools.6
The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is the largest and most prominent evangelical academic society in the field of biblical studies/theology, with a membership of approximately 4,500 members (2,600 full, voting members) and 2014 conference attendance of just over 2,600.7 Women make up approximately six percent of ETS membership, with no breakdown distinguishing percentage of full, associate, or student members.8 The 2014 annual meeting attendance comprised seven percent women, which included all three levels of membership, exhibitors, and spouses.9 The ETS has no official policy on women in teaching or leadership roles, yet no women have ever served on the executive committee since the society’s founding in 1949 and it is unknown when women members joined the society. Additionally there are no women on the journal’s editorial board and few have been in regional leadership positions.10 However, for the 2015 annual meeting five women are chair or co-chair of a program unit and women are committee members for an additional seven program units (out of fifty-six).11
The 2015 annual meeting will feature a woman plenary speaker, Myrto Theocharous, professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greek Bible College. This will be the first time a woman has been a plenary speaker since 1986, when the topic was “Male and Female in Biblical and Theological Perspective” which included addresses from long-time ETS members Catherine Clark Kroeger and Aída Besançon Spencer.12,13
This article presents some of the findings of a qualitative case study of women academics at the 2014 ETS Annual Meeting. The “Women at ETS” qualitative case study was conducted during MDiv studies by the author, assisted by Jennifer L. Aycock and supervised by Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) president and ETS member and ETS Evangelicals and Gender Study Group co-chair Mimi Haddad.14,15 The case study did not have any overt policy goals at the beginning of the project other than to gain a better understanding of women who were ETS members. It was our goal to listen to the stories and perspectives of evangelical women academics specifically in the context of ETS, and to gain insights regarding how CBE—and others—could better support women at ETS. We also invited men to contribute their perspectives on the ETS.
Most participants defined themselves as either “egalitarian” or “complementarian,” although some did not identify with either.16 While many definitions can be put forward for both “egalitarian” and “complementarian,” and terms such as these often change over time, this article will attempt to use these terms in ways consistent with their gestalt meaning derived from the participants. Egalitarians saw no biblical restrictions on women teaching the Bible or theology to adult men in churches, colleges, and seminaries.17 Complementarians in this study differed widely on their restrictions for women. Some complementarians supported women teaching Bible and theology in colleges or seminaries, but observed restrictions focused on church preaching positions or pastoral leadership (such as elders). Others believe that women may serve communion, baptize, and be ordained, but should be restricted from preaching or pastoral leadership. Some believed that women may teach a Bible or theology Sunday school class as long as the church leadership (“headship”) remains within the domain of male elders or pastors. Others did not think women should teach a Sunday school class to adult men (but could teach Bible in college or seminary). The four Southern Baptist affiliated participants in this study saw restrictions on women teaching any adult male any amount of Bible or theology, in any setting—the church, colleges, or seminaries. They also restricted women’s leadership/pastoral roles (often using the term “male teacher” to indicate that men alone must teach Bible or theology to men, but women may teach Bible or theology to women).
Background: Evangelicalism, Women, and Social Science
Women in evangelicalism have not attained equal positions of leadership compared to women in similar fields in mainline churches and institutions or secular circles.18 This is consistent with the experience of women in multiple sectors, both religious and non-religious, which also includes the secular academy.19 In the present study, I sought to apply a holistic approach to gender and power that recognizes women’s agency as they define their own lives in addition to acknowledging the historical, theological, and cultural marginalization of women.20 This study also draws on social science’s engagement with evangelicalism’s history and culture, and evangelical Christians’ interaction with the non-evangelical world.21 While most of these researchers focus on the social construction of evangelicalism, they often evaluate only the practical outcomes of a particular theology instead of seeing theology as the study of God, which leads to religious beliefs and epistemologies.22 Thus, a theological investigation of gender and power within evangelicalism remains a significant oversight in much of the present literature on gender and evangelicalism.23 The biblical hermeneutics and theology of the participants undergird any discussion of gender, power, and agency. This article hopes to begin to fill in some of the gaps in the literature by first providing a detailed description of participants’ experiences.
A full understanding of the place of women in ETS requires a multi-disciplinary approach. There must be an engagement with theological epistemology and critical social science, situated in social and historical context.24 While it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore the nuances of evangelical theology and gender in relationship to the lived experiences of women, it is my goal throughout this study to bring the lived experiences of the research participants into a conversation that often remains at an abstract level of theology and philosophy. It is hoped that listening to the life stories of women will garner insights regarding their relationship to ETS and evangelicalism, in addition to their self-understandings while exploring their subjectivities.25
Methods and Methodology
This qualitative case study was conducted at the ETS annual conference in San Diego, California, Nov. 19–21, 2014, focusing on ethnographic participant-observation and semi-guided26 one-on-one interviews.27 A research assistant, Jennifer L. Aycock, and I conducted narrative based, life-history interviews, which were recorded and transcribed verbatim.
The thirty-five participants28 included exhibitors with bachelor’s degrees and full professors with doctoral degrees, ranging from mid-twenties to early seventies. Of the married participants, most had children. Twenty-nine of the participants were women; seven were men. Twenty-one of the participants had earned doctoral degrees, with an additional six who were current PhD students. Two participants were not ETS members but worked in various publishing and exhibit booths. Participants came from all regions of the US and Australia, Canada, China, and Scandinavia. Most participants were white or of European descent with five individuals with Asian, Hispanic/Latin American, or Middle Eastern ancestry. No African Americans were interviewed, reflecting the current lack of African Americans in ETS.29
The most commonly represented institutions at the Annual Meeting 2014 included (in order of number of sessions) were Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), Wheaton College and Graduate School, Talbot School of Theology and Biola University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) and Trinity International University, and Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). About half of the participants were affiliated with these six institutions at the time of the interviews.
Most of the participants described their position as supportive of women teaching Bible and theology and preaching, some self-identifying as egalitarian. Ten participants self-identified as complementarian, and several participants did not identify with any position in their interviews.
The women participants were recruited using standard case study techniques,30 using contact information from CBE and individually emailing women whose names were listed as presenters in the Annual Meeting program book. A number of women then recommended others to contact, which resulted in snowball sampling. A few individuals heard about the project during the conference and specifically sought us out to participate. Six of the male officers of the Society were invited to participate, and three were interviewed. An additional four men were identified through personal contacts and were interviewed; two were former ETS executive committee members and two men had public track records of mentoring women students and working with women colleagues.
Informed consent was obtained, following standard qualitative methodology.31 Analysis of the data was conducted in accordance with standard qualitative methodologies.32
Analysis of the research data revealed three main themes, which the remainder of the article will explore in detail:
- Women’s experience of marginalization
- Institutional culture and structural sexism
- The role of men for the future
Women’s Experience of Marginalization
Women experienced ETS in multiple different ways. Most experienced the ETS annual meeting as negative, some as a mixture of good and bad, and a few as wholly positive.
While only three participants described mainly positive experiences at ETS, it seemed useful to start with their stories. The two most positive descriptions of ETS came from Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) affiliated women. Candi Finch, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at SWBTS, said,
My favorite work event of the year is ETS. I don’t feel weird because I’m a woman. To be honest, I teach just women, and in my PhD work and in my classes, I was the only woman. Never was anyone rude or questioned why I was there. I know some people have had that experience, but for me, it’s only been great.
Candi described the annual meeting as a way to connect with colleagues and expand her knowledge. She was unsure why more women do not attend: “In my setting, it’s only been encouraged. Never have I thought, ‘That’s not a place for women.’”
Dorothy Kelley Patterson, professor of theology in women’s studies at SWBTS and wife of SWBTS president Paige Patterson, described her experience in exclusively positive terms as well:
Well, I’ve never in all my years at ETS been treated in any way disrespectfully. I should say, I’ve always had very respectful treatment even when I read papers. . . . Now I will say this, I have been embarrassed to be in the room with some women in [ETS]. I remember a specific one . . . a woman in this conference disrespectfully33 attacked [George Knight] in a very inappropriate way. . . . And she had a degree in New Testament too, but I can absolutely assure you she was no George Knight.
. . . But that’s the only bad memory I have related to gender. . . . Now that’s not to say there haven’t been incidences like that for women presenting papers; I just haven’t observed them.
Other women spoke positively, but their stories suggested a low bar for a good experience. For example, Jessica, a doctoral student in her twenties, said she perceived people to be supportive and positive, because “I expect people to not want me there.” Cristina Richie, an adjunct professor of health care ethics at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and a doctoral student at Boston College in theological ethics, described her time as overall positive. She recounted arriving at her first regional ETS meeting (Northeast) with a “combination of righteous anger and ambition and serving, wanting to change things.” The thirty-three-year-old was surprised to meet a male egalitarian scholar who immediately made her feel welcome. Cristina nominated herself for the regional steering committee and was elected. “At every move it has been pretty easy for me to get in there, as long as I’ve had a certain amount of confidence and being willing to get heard.” She said that even the older “conservative Baptists” have been friendly, sensitive, and respectful.
The majority of women described assumptions of both men and women, and how these assumptions can lead to dismissive or even hostile actions. The treatment women experience leaves many women feeling unwanted, invisible, marginalized, or even excluded.
Men’s and Women’s Assumptions
Some of the assumptions women experienced were related to the legitimacy of their experience or their knowledge. Brittany, an exhibitor who works for a conservative publishing company, tried to explain to her male exhibitor colleagues her negative experiences related to gender at ETS: “If I bring them up, they laugh them off or just shrug, thinking I made them up.” Katherine, an egalitarian exhibitor, said, “I don’t have the time and energy to argue with these guys. They don’t really care. They are more interested in destroying my argument than actually engaging in the issue and its consequences.”
Erica, a single professor who is active in other academic societies,34 said ETS “is generally a hostile environment” which she related to the assumptions people make about her.
They have no idea how hurtful it is to make that assumption about me and they don’t even know me. . . . One of the first questions I got for many years coming to ETS, ‘So, where does your husband teach?’ That question has a lot of assumptions. The assumption that I couldn’t come to ETS on my own merits and that I couldn’t be one who teaches, because only a husband teaches. I’ve had it happen many times at ETS if I’m standing with a male, and another group of men comes up and start talking, they assume I am his wife and don’t even bother to find out my name . . . It’s very dismissive.
Sometimes the assumptions dealt with women’s marital status, but many participants also mentioned assumptions about sexual motives or their female embodiment. Sara Kim, a twenty-seven-year-old master’s in spiritual formation student at Talbot and ETS student scholarship recipient, said,
I really feel like a token Asian female here. That was my first feeling of being at ETS. Maybe it’s just me, but I felt like I was getting a lot of looks from older guys that said, ‘Oh, little girl, you’re out of place. What are you doing here?’ . . . I look young. I look very young. I know we Asians look younger than we are. But I’m not just Asian. I’m also a female. They didn’t say these things out loud, of course, but I just felt it, whether or not that’s what these looks said. But this is just how I interpreted these looks.
Louise, a professor, said that men look at her nametag, and they “pretend they don’t see it. It is the weirdest thing. . . . Is it because I’m a woman I’m a temptress on an elevator and you’re here without your wife? Or is it because you don’t want me here?”
Many of the women critiqued themselves or belittled their own experiences, yet attention needs to be paid to internalized scripts and the externalized but potentially unspoken messages that the women experience with regularity.35 Even as women admitted the above internal dialogue, they also did not wonder if they were projecting the correct message. Emma mentioned passing by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) booth and assuming that if the CBMW staff knew she had children at home, “they would immediately say, ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home.’” Emma was confident in what message CBMW projected, even if unconsciously or unintentionally.
Unwelcome or Hostile Actions
The marginalization and exclusion of women might not always occur explicitly, but these participants acutely felt it. The effect is to produce an atmosphere that feels hostile and unwelcoming and to produce uncertainty in women when interacting with men at ETS.
Isabelle, an adjunct professor who is currently working on a doctorate, has decided to focus her presenting at the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) and the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL). She reiterated that she had received a sustained message of unwelcome:
You’re never sure, should I speak, should I not speak? We have no idea if the guy standing next to us—if we should even bother starting a conversation with him because he may not even think we should be there. . . . Maybe that’s another reason we don’t go to ETS because at SBL we belong. At ETS we don’t always.
Christa McKirland, a ThM student at Talbot in her late twenties, like many women, described positive individual encounters that were colored by a culture of unwelcome.
I’m not asking every man I pass, ‘So do you think I should be here, do I have a right to be here? Do you want to hear my voice?’ . . . But for me, I’m a walking question mark. ‘Where do you stand? Are you an insider, an outsider? Who are you attached to? Why aren’t you attached to somebody?’ . . . I walk around with a question mark over my head. Friend? Enemy? Friend means you submit to this paradigm. Enemy—you question these things and you may not be safe.
However, more than one participant recounted specific stories of hostile actions or rude comments. Brooke, an egalitarian doctoral student, said by the second day of the conference she usually has heard a negative story of prominent complementarians36 doing “a specifically unkind thing to a person in a session,” to either a woman, a man who is an advocate of women, or some other male with what Brooke called “more moderate opinions.”
Feeling Invisible or Unequal
Even if women had not themselves experienced an unkind action, they absorbed a general feeling of being unequal, unnoticed, and even invisible. Karen, a professor and a woman of color, said she too felt like “an anomaly”:
As a woman and a person of color and single, it actually is a very, very difficult and painful place to be in many ways, because it tends to be a replay of being treated as if invisible, because of male privilege compounded by white privilege.
She recounted an informal conversation with a man, in which,
He made a point to say several times he was married. You realize that even just your very appearance makes other people uncomfortable in some way. They may not be aware of it, but they make you aware of it. You realize there are so many barriers there to see you as a peer or colleague or conversation partner. Sexuality intruding—there have been several of those kinds of odd interactions. . . . I can only conclude that men are so unaccustomed to women colleagues. . . Those kinds of incidents have been very, very painful, because they are telling about how I can be objectified and excluded simply in virtue of who I am, about the hidden but powerful barriers that others put up that militate against professional collegiality and collaboration.
Karen was interested in talking to the man about the session they both attended, but she felt that a host of barriers prevented them from actually communicating, leaving her feeling invisible. Karen was not the only person to refer to both male privilege and white privilege. She and others explained how privilege stems from unconscious power that marginalizes people that do not fit within conventional categories.37
Exclusion Resulting from Being an Outsider
Betsy works for one of the exhibitor companies but would prefer to use her doctorate in a teaching position.38 Her insights illustrate how she experienced outsider status:
When you come in as a woman, you’re automatically an outsider because you’re not in the majority . . . So I feel like an outsider gender-wise, and also feel because I don’t have a job in the academy, haven’t been able to get one, feel like an outsider professionally. It’s like the club you can’t quite get in . . . Couple of layers of being an outsider. . .
. . .In complementarian environments, I tend to feel like I’m a lesser person. . . . And I have a hard time separating what I perceive to be a statement on my value, which I don’t think the men would say that it is—they don’t perceive it that way—but that’s how it feels.
For Betsy, and other participants, their primary experience of ETS was one where they felt their very presence was too different and therefore too difficult to include.39 She and others often felt like outsiders “intruding into male territory,” in the words of Barbara, who has earned two master’s degrees from Liberty University but has continued to work in a secular industry. Additionally, Karen, the professor of color, mentioned several women doctoral students she knows who have come to ETS once and never come again. “They are incredibly gifted, but the demographics and the insider culture [are] so exclusionary.”
Institution and Structure at ETS
It is difficult to separate out the differing negative experiences of women because their quotes illustrate multiple components of their experiences. The women understood these overarching assumptions, experiences of dismissive or hostile actions, marginalization, and exclusion as coming from both individuals and also larger structural forces. The second broad theme emerging from the interviews relates to the concepts of institution and structure and institutionalized culture and how these factored into women’s experiences at ETS.
Institutional Male Leadership
Participants commented frequently on the leadership structure at ETS as emblematic of the institutional culture of ETS regarding women.
A number of participants, both women and men, compared ETS leadership to IBR leadership. While women make up eleven percent of IBR members, the IBR leadership is currently twenty-five percent female.40 Jane, a professor, felt the “big difference is leadership and public face. . . . ETS is a male public face.” This public face is both symbolic and practical, she and others explained. “If you really want women to feel welcomed, then you need someone who is representing,” said Samantha, a professor. She explained that the public face of an organization models its values, so if the public face is only a male face then women are marginalized.41
Furthermore, participants mentioned that the male face was usually ideologically aligned with overtly complementarian entities, which will be addressed later in the article. This meant something to the participants. Emma expanded on how she understood the composition of the ETS executive committee, saying that when looking at potential schools for her children, “[My husband and I] would immediately go look at the board. If there were no women, we’d be like, ‘Nope.’ There’s a reason they made that decision.” Louise stated the problem succinctly: “I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the power structure at ETS . . . All I know is the end result, which is very white and very male.”
Institutional Lack of Women’s Voices
Participants also mentioned the lack of women plenary speakers.42 Anthea McCall, an ordained Anglican minister and lecturer of New Testament and dean of students at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia, said that organizations such as ETS try to keep people happy and if there are women on the platform, then it is assumed some people will not come. She said it goes the other way too: “But I also think, ‘Well, we’re not going to have some people come because they never see women on that platform.’ [Some people will say,] ‘This isn’t for me.’” Carmen Bryant, a career missionary in her seventies who is an adjunct professor at Multnomah University and the WorldView Center, said people have asked her why she’s attended what they call the “good ol’ white boys club.” She laughed as she spoke, explaining ETS wasn’t unusual compared to her decades of working primarily with men.
Louise talked about the “missing” voices43 of women and people of color. She noted that at a panel discussion on homosexuality all four presenters were middle-aged white men.
The conversation they did have was helpful. But I sat there the whole time thinking, are you kidding me? How can you call yourselves complementarian where you emphasize the complementary relationship between men and women and then don’t act like you believe that? If you really think we’re needed, our voices are needed, what are our voices needed for? It must not be theology.
Later in her interview, she explained how she would want us to present these interviews to men at ETS:
If a huge majority of ETS theologians hold to the view that women are complementary to men in God’s design, then they should be troubled at the prospect of looking at the text without female eyes. . . . This is the key word. You can’t have seven percent women and say [she started chuckling] we believe in the complementary relationship.
Institutional Lack of Women in Leadership
Participants frequently commented on the fact that women had never been in leadership or they did not know if there had ever been a woman in any leadership position.
“Until you allow women, even if they are just seven percent, into leadership, then you are not going to attract people. And I think they just need to care. I don’t think they care,” said Frances, a professor who recently joined a study group steering committee. Christa McKirland, a ThM student at Talbot, said it would be “powerful” if there were women in leadership. “What we model publically is what we value privately,” she said. Brooke, a doctoral student in her twenties, added the significant idea of safety to why women leaders were necessary,
If ETS were committed to improving and increasing female participation, there would be women in leadership and it wouldn’t be CBE or an affiliate of CBE that was asking this question. It would be ETS asking. . . . It would demonstrate that ETS has a commitment to female members feeling safe. . . . Until there is a female on the executive committee that’s not going to be the case.
It was clear that to women at ETS, having women in leadership is not about political correctness or imitating the secular academy with its emphasis on diversity. Women in leadership—or the lack of women in leadership—sends powerful messages on what is affirmed and allowed.
A counter-narrative on women in leadership was Dorothy Kelley Patterson’s. She said she wanted women to come and read papers: “I’d love to come back to where we were in the beginning where the women who attended . . . were really there not so much to push themselves forward as to learn.”
Contrary to the concerns of Dorothy Kelley Patterson regarding women pushing themselves forward for leadership roles in ETS, most female participants, when asked if they had ever considered a leadership role in ETS, said no. “It’s never entered my mind as a possibility,” Susan, a professor in her early sixties, said. Others said they didn’t think there would be widespread support for women in leadership, especially egalitarian women. Louise laughed and said, “Why put myself through it?” She explained that she didn’t think the general membership would vote for a woman and her sheer presence was already a “big deal.” Samantha reframed the question and said that people do not consider leadership roles for themselves but are “chosen.” She was not referring to the nominating process but more of a conceptual idea that people in power allow and select those who are invited to share power and authority. A few participants said they thought a complementarian, not an egalitarian, woman would be the first woman on the executive committee, though no one mentioned a specific one.
Only two or three participants mentioned the possibility of being on the ETS executive committee, though they used the language of “hoped and dreamed” rather than concrete plans or future reality.
The three current executive committee members interviewed (all self-identified complementarians) differed widely on the explanations of lack of women in leadership. Stuart said the membership of ETS and the executive committee “would be delighted” to have a woman in executive leadership.
I know we’re actively seeking women scholars to serve on the executive committee. . . . I could be wrong about this; we may have some old-school folks who wouldn’t go for that. But I’m not aware that they’re on the current board. . . . Everyone embraces that we’re behind [on allowing/promoting women in leadership]. . . . but it is just logistically figuring it out. It shouldn’t be that hard. . . . I think the primary issues now are just logistical ones.
DTS Senior Professor of New Testament Dan Wallace is the current president-elect and convened the 2015 Annual Meeting around the theme Marriage and Family. He is uncomfortable with the label complementarian because he has witnessed other complementarians use texts to “subjugate women and treat them as second-class Christians,” and said that there was “way too much backroom politicking that’s going on that is keeping women from having a place in this society.”
On the other hand, SBTS professor Tom Schreiner said he didn’t think ETS was making any decisions to prevent women from leadership, but that “ETS is more reflective [of colleges/seminaries/pastorates] than executive in the way it works.” Tom said the presence of more Southern Baptists, “given the Southern Baptist view,” could lead to the lack of women in leadership as a “practical consequence that is somewhat inevitable.” He explained that his “view of women” is that no woman should teach men the Bible or theology at a seminary. He said that most Southern Baptists “would agree that it would be a good thing to have women to be involved in ETS and present papers and so forth. But given our polity and our view of women, it isn’t surprising that that number is less.” It was unclear if “so forth” includes women in actual leadership.
It was evident from the interviews that ETS has a reputation throughout the theological academy for its predominant complementarianism. Emma heard during graduate school that ETS “is a bunch of men who don’t like women so you really wouldn’t want to go anyway.” She didn’t go to ETS until colleagues at the evangelical college she now teaches at invited her.
Western Seminary professor of theology Gerry Breshears, the 1993 ETS president who has been a member for forty years and continues to be in leadership as Program Units chair, said that in the 1980s it tended to be egalitarian, but “there was a kickback [toward complementarianism] in the mid-90s and it’s still true.” Gerry said that there have been both members and leadership who are egalitarian, but the majority of society members and most of the executive committee members have been and are complementarian.44
Samantha agreed, suggesting the institutional complementarianism has grown out of and been reinforced by ETS leadership. Recalling the election of a prominent complementarian to leadership in the past, she remarked, “That just sends a message. . . . I would look at who has been president the last fifteen years, and the executive committee the last fifteen years. Right now, that’s who controls and sets the environment.”
David Howard, a complementarian professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary and the 2003 ETS president, explained that the nominating committee process has become “somewhat of a coordinated effort” and “somewhat more politicized.”45 Dan Treier, a systematic theology professor at Wheaton who describes himself as egalitarian in some respects and soft complementarian in others, said, “Not only has there been an attempt to keep women off the board, but there has been an attempt to stack the board with complementarian males and to keep egalitarian males out of the picture.” Another male complementarian who has been in leadership explained what he saw at play: “There are very strong complementarian forces that prevent women from getting on the nominating committee. . . . This subculture, this machine, is working at full force. These people want to control it.”
Many participants pointed to the infusion of Southern Baptists46 at ETS in recent years as one reason for the concentrated and politicized complementarianism. Louise said, “I sense an increasingly strong, and Southern Baptist [presence]. There’s been a move toward a much more conservative evangelicalism, which has become a lot more male-dominant, male-dominated. They clearly have a plan to dominate what’s happening here.” Tom Schreiner confirmed the institutional culture of complementarianism, and pointed to a possible cause: “I think the Southern Baptist infusion has a conservative leavening effect on the organization.”
Nearly all of the participants assumed that the majority of ETS members and leaders were complementarian, but some wondered if that institutional complementarianism was going to be actually codified and officially mandated. Erica said, “If complementarianism is not part of the statement of faith at ETS, then we need to stop acting like it is. If it is de facto, then you need to put it on the statement of faith and there will be a lot of men [and women] who drop their membership.” Dan Treier echoed this, saying if complementarianism was made an official policy, then “some of us would need to take prophetic action to step out [of ETS].”
Women make up approximately six percent of all ETS members, including student and associate members.47 Going into the project, we were informed it was seven percent and thus used that number in our interviews, and most participants already knew the “seven percent” number before we said it.48
Not all were aware, however. When asked, “Why do you think female members make up seven percent?” one doctoral student interrupted the question to exclaim, “Let the record show that I was very astounded about that fact! That’s about a third of what I expected! . . . Wow. I am so thrown off.” After she stopped laughing, Brooke explained,
I expected more. . . . It does make me feel that there are a lot of women who have fallen by the wayside, a lot of evangelicals who have left along the way. I know some of them. And I know men who have stopped coming to ETS because of how women are treated.
Stuart, a current executive committee member, said it’s known as an “old white guys’ network,” but “I just never heard anything that would say this is not a welcoming place. I mean, I think if there were members who were not welcoming, I think they know they’re barking up the wrong tree.” However, it was unclear if he has asked his women colleagues or students about their experiences. When informed about some subsectors of ETS that do not allow women to teach any Bible or theology classes to men,49 Stuart appeared confused and said,
You keep bringing up all these folks that are ruining my thesis. I’m just dismayed. I guess I’d like to think that the primary evangelical traditions have moved on in education. You keep bringing up these folks that say that might not be as true as I’d like to think.
Louise and others, however, saw institutional sexism. When asked what role ETS should play in navigating conversations and differences on gender, Louise quickly replied,
I wouldn’t trust ETS to navigate it. . . . If women are here, [some would believe] it’s a failure of male leadership. If women were to thrive here, I think they would see it as more of a failure than a success. . . . The very thing we see as failure, or I see as failure, they see as a success. . . . Women haven’t taken charge.
Cristina Richie also said that ETS should not really take an active role, because “I know they are not going to promote equality. What they could do is not promote discrimination.”
Jane noted that the “status quo” of masculine, complementarian leadership hides “institutional or structural sexism.” She didn’t see many men who were “overtly sexist” which she explained as men “trying to take the vote away from women or have them quit their jobs.”50 However, she explained:
There’s a male privilege at ETS that is structural. . . . And that is why men who would be strong advocates for women feel they can do so at a personal level and maybe just haven’t thought about [the system].
Yet many participants talked at length about institution and systems and how attention cannot only be paid to individual action, speech, or experience.
The Role of Men for the Future
The third major theme emerging from the research concerns power, authority, and the advocacy of men. Men, the vast majority of members and 100 percent of national leadership, greatly contribute to the negative and positive experiences of women at ETS. Even as they lamented the uneven distribution of power and uneven patronage system that makes it necessary, participants emphasized the importance of men advocating on behalf of women.
Samantha noted an absence of advocacy for women, but sees the male members and leadership as fairly neutral toward women’s presence. She believes they need to be more intentional in inviting more women into leadership:
Really it is people in positions of power, again I go back to privilege, those who have privilege need to advocate. Those who have privilege are the gatekeepers in a very real sense. So, there is a whole theory of the idea of power and access and the things won’t change unless that is part of their agenda.
. . . There is so much men can do positively to really advocate and bring women in, incorporate them into the networks. . . . You can use that privilege to advocate for diversity in the networks, to help incorporate those who are outside those networks.
Brooke echoed her sentiment:
I’m really only advocating for equality in a system where the male voice is valued over the female voice . . . Then it has to be the male voice that has to say, ‘Here is the female voice.’ It has to be the men who lament the lack of female participation and saying something that will make a difference. . . . But I don’t think the organization will change until the men are also advocating and speaking up.
A number of participants reported that some advocacy is taking place, especially in the form of individual mentorship and networking, by both complementarian and egalitarian men. Old Testament professor M. Daniel (Danny) Carroll R. (Rodas) at Denver Seminary volunteered to share his experiences mentoring women because he said he’d recently “starting paying attention” to how women have suffered and been humiliated. He explained that there are problems with what he called “male patronage, [because] it’s well-meaning and a certain form of advocacy, but in a sense it’s a shame that it has to be that way. . . . But ultimately, it has to be, at least at this stage in history, it has to be the men in a male-dominated society.”
Erica noted how men, like women, must negotiate a complex situation of power, authority, and responsibility at ETS:
I think you have to be very pragmatic and realistic about who has power. I think with power comes a responsibility. I don’t ultimately think if you are in a position of power you can honestly say, ‘I choose not to use my power in a way that can change a situation.’ . . . I’m not saying every single male who might pick up on this has to be called to it at the same level. But an individual man taking a stand on this at ETS is going to be marginalized, but if a large group of men says, ‘What is going on here? How can we encourage women in scholarship? How can we do this?’ that would be heard. If a woman does it, she’s going to be totally marginalized because ‘that’s just her agenda.’ . . . I don’t think every man . . . is ethically and biblically bound to make that [his] cause, but if there were some initiative or some movement, yeah, it’s time to stand up and be counted. I feel that [this is necessary] because ETS is still to a large extent a man’s world.
Erica was not alone in expressing mixed feelings about male advocacy. Many appreciated and recognized the need for men as mentors and advocates, but also expressed feelings of frustration that such advocacy was necessary. Isabelle is a doctoral student who occasionally guest teaches for a professor at a seminary that has no women faculty in any discipline.
[He] makes sure people don’t graduate from the seminary without me teaching them at least once, so that the men all had an experience of being taught by a woman. . . . So he makes a place for me and gives me a voice even though I don’t have an official voice. . . . He runs interference for me and protects me. You know, as a grown woman, I don’t really want someone doing that for me. Yet in that space, that’s the only way I can operate.
On the whole, women were not particularly optimistic that they themselves could make ETS a better experience. Many of the participants, both male and female, saw men’s advocacy on behalf of and in partnership with women as the best way forward for greater inclusion of women at all levels of ETS. However, some of the participants were unsure if the ETS leadership and the ETS general membership were fully supportive of women in ETS. Additionally, encouraging men’s advocacy has its risks. Men, like women, have many conflicting demands to negotiate. Some might see their calling as advocating for women at their own institutions rather than at the ETS society level. Other men who could be advocates might fail to give adequate support because of the high personal or professional costs. Finally, relying on men to bring about change has the potential to replicate the male power structures where women are non-actors and only “allowed” a voice or presence by the good will of men.
The quotes above show that the majority of women experienced an atmosphere of hostility, marginalization, and exclusion at ETS. They related this atmosphere to the institutional sexism and culture of complementarianism that permeates ETS. However, the participants noted that in spite of these discouraging forces, women continued to present papers, lead sessions, and produce solid scholarship. Only Isabelle and Karen talked about possibly not returning to ETS; the rest planned to keep coming because “presence is important,” as Anthea McCall said. Some women felt hopeful that their competent scholarship would continue to open doors, while others felt more change might come as men advocated for greater inclusion of diverse voices. Most participants saw the need for both aspects.
This project was initially about the experiences of women, but women and men participants called on men to act on behalf of and in partnership with women at ETS. Several participants referenced the New Testament cruciform community abdicating power for the benefit of the powerless.51,52 Without the intentional, sustained, and institutional welcome from men with power and authority, then the situation for women at ETS does not look like it will change.
In this limited study, egalitarian women seemed to have more negative experiences at ETS than complementarian or hierarchical women. A related narrative, which was unfortunately beyond the scope of this study, was that egalitarian men seem to have been silenced, have left ETS, or are very marginally involved and do not take on—or are perhaps prevented from—any leadership in the organization. What also appears to be missing in this case study are the voices of women who were fearful of participating, even anonymously.53 Finally, further research is especially needed to study the compounded marginalization of people of color in ETS.
Participants wondered if ETS’s current leadership and the broad consensus of ETS members wish for ETS to truly become the Evangelical Complementarian Society, or become open to shared leadership and voice legitimacy for egalitarian men and women. It remains to be seen if those affiliated with CBMW and/or the SBC will continue to dominate the nominating committee and the executive committee or if other voices will be allowed or invited in.
Women and the Future of ETS
Many of the participants explained why the situation of women in ETS matters for much more than just the few hundred women ETS members. Frances said, “I think it is a problem because the majority of evangelicals are women, so if you have this thinking body, and the primary people doing the thinking are men, you are not representing the Body.” The Southern Baptist women, who did not report any sexism at ETS, also emphasized the need for women to be active in ETS and contributing scholarship. Katie McCoy, SWBTS doctoral student and editor of the site BiblicalWoman.org, said,
Obviously we need to see more women in academic scholarly thought. . . . We need women to be thinking through not only women’s issues, but we need women to be voices in the echo chamber, so to speak, of current issues and theological questions.
As we heard in the interviews, there were multiple layers of institutional culture and structural hurdles for women to overcome at ETS. While women planned to keep returning to ETS, many wondered about the future and if the ultra-conservative complementarians would make the space so hostile and inhospitable that they themselves could not keep returning, or if younger women would opt out and head to more welcoming environments like IBR or SBL/AAR. Cristina Richie said,
It can be too difficult and depressing and unhealthy, if you just constantly have to go over why a woman can teach, why you can even be there and be hired—it’s exhausting. . . . I hope ETS makes some changes, because I think women are going to keep leaving and finding someplace where they are appreciated.
As the participants noted, women’s inclusion or exclusion at ETS has much broader implications for the wider evangelical academy and the evangelical church than simply the comfort and welcome of a few hundred women presenting papers at an academic conference. The status and experience of women in ETS can provide a useful, albeit limited, case study of women’s experiences in evangelical biblical studies and theology. It is hoped that these findings will enable ETS members and leadership to better understand the experience of women at ETS. With greater understanding, ETS individual members, both women and men, and ETS leadership, can better determine what the future of women at ETS could or should look like.
- The phrase “a question mark over my head” comes from Christa McKirland, whose quote is provided in greater context later in the article.
- Special thanks to the assistance of Jennifer L. Aycock in this project.
- Multiple sources address these differences including organizations and books. A starting place is: Christians for Biblical Equality at http://www.cbeinternational.org/; The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood at http://cbmw.org/; Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee, ed., Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (2nd ed., Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005); John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991). A short historical overview can be found in Sally K. Gallagher, “The Marginalization of Evangelical Feminism,” Sociology of Religion 65, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 215–237, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
- John Piper, “Should Women be Police Officers?” Desiring God (blog), August 13, 2015 http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-women-be-police-officers.
- The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) has addressed aspects of gender and leadership. The research is vast, but a sample includes Samuel Joeckel and Thomas Chesnes, “The Challenge of Gender Equity Within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities,” Christian Higher Education 8, no. 2 (April 2009): 115–131, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost; Karen A. Longman and Shawna L. Lafreniere, “Moving Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Preparing Women for Leadership in Faith-Based Higher Education,” Advances in Developing Human Resources, 14, no. 1 (2011): 45–61; Karen Longman, “Leadership Literature: Implications for Christian Higher Education,” in Thriving in Leadership: Strategies for Making a Difference in Christian Higher Education (ed. Karen Longman; Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian, 2012), 26; Amy Reynolds, “Gender Dynamics in Evangelical Institutions: Women and Men Leading in Higher Education and the Nonprofit Sector,” Women in Leadership National Study Report (Wenham, MA: Gordon College, 2014), http://www.gordon.edu/womeninleadership/report, 11. In full disclosure, Imago Dei Fund funded the Women in Leadership National Study and is a financial supporter of Christians for Biblical Equality, which provided the author’s travel expenses for the Women at ETS case study.
- Individuals, not institutions, are members of ETS, thus ETS does not compile information on institutions. Therefore, it is impossible to surmise the full institutional pictures of women related to ETS. The Association of Theological Schools (ATS) accredits most of the institutions represented at ETS. Thus these numbers are derived from Association of Theological Schools, 2013–2014 Annual Data Tables, table 3.1-A and table 2.12-A, http://www.ats.edu/uploads/resources/institutional-data/annual-data-tabl....
- J. Michael Thigpen, email message to author, September 17, 2015.
- J. Michael Thigpen, email message to author, September 17, 2015.
- J. Michael Thigpen, email message to author, September 17, 2015.
- Cristina Richie, “The Present and Future of the ETS: Women’s Involvement with the Society, the Journal, and Membership,” Missing Voices (Minneapolis: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2014). Also presented as a paper at the ETS Annual Meeting, 2013, Baltimore. For 2015, there appears to be three women in regional leadership positions, according to the ETS Regions page, accessed September 14, 2015 http://www.etsjets.org/region/regions_overview.
- J. Michael Thigpen, email message to author, September 17, 2015: “There are 56 units this year, so 21% of the units have women in leadership and 9% have women as chairs or co-chairs.”
- The 1986 ETS Annual Meeting with the “theme ‘Male and Female in Biblical and Theological Perspective’ drew a record attendance of approximately 350 registered members.” Organized by Program Chairman Walter M. Dunnett. The first plenary session was Richard G. Lee, senior pastor of Rehoboth Baptist Church. “Other plenary speakers were Catherine Kroeger, Gilbert Bilezikian, Wayne Grudem, Walter Liefeld, David Scholer and Aída Spencer. President Gleason Archer delivered his presidential address.” “Thirty-Eighth Annual Meeting,” JETS 30/1 (March 1987) 121, http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/30/30-1/30-1-pp121-124_JETS.pdf.
- In the spirit of full disclosure, Catherine Clark Kroeger was the first president of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) and one of the founders, and Aída Besançon Spencer has long been active in CBE and was awarded the CBE Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
- I am grateful for the research participants who were willing to share their stories. Thank you to those who are both named and unnamed. I also wish to thank others who assisted in this project: Tim Krueger, for editing; Jennifer L. Aycock, for research assistance, transcriptions, analytic brainstorming, and editing; Dorothy and Grant Zimbrick, for transcriptions and childcare; and Charles Zimbrick-Rogers, for qualitative methodology sources and frameworks, conceptual and analytical discussions, and editing. Any errors are fully mine.
- When I presented the idea of a case study of women at ETS to Mimi Haddad, Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) president and ETS Evangelicals and Gender Study Group co-chair, she found financial support for my and my research assistant’s travel and ETS expenses and provided me mentorship and oversight to conduct the project as part of my Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) internship at CBE. The Women at ETS case study was the main component of an MDiv long-distance, yearlong internship at CBE, for which I received field education credit at PTS. This article is the final product of this research study. In addition to being an MDiv student at Princeton, I am an alumna of Wheaton College and self-identify as egalitarian, evangelical, and feminist. I have been a member of CBE for approximately a decade.
- Some of the participants did not self-identify with either label, although these individuals described their beliefs in ways that usually, but not always, fell more within an “egalitarian” position rather than a “complementarian” position.
- Normally, I would also identify people’s beliefs on marriage and family and how they differed from one group to another, but for the purpose of this study, the focus is on women’s gifts, abilities, calling, and roles of teaching and leadership in the academy and a small amount how that relates to the church, and thus this article will not engage with people’s beliefs on marriage headship or equality.
- Reynolds, “Gender Dynamics in Evangelical Institutions.” See note 4.
- Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2012); Cynthia Liefer, “Let’s Face It: Gender Bias in Academia is For Real,” Elsevier SciTech Connect, August 19, 2015, http://scitechconnect.elsevier.com/gender-bias-in-academia/; Karen Longman and Susan R. Madsen, Women and Leadership in Higher Education, Women and Leadership: Research, Theory, and Practice (Charlotte: Information Age, 2014).
- Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 2013); Mary Field Belenky, et al., Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (10th anniversary ed., New York: Basic Books, 1997); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Thinking Gender (New York: Routledge, 1990); Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl, Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism, and the Theological Academy (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005); Faye D. Ginsburg, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community (updated edition; Berkeley: University of California, 1998); Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Boulder, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2012); Donna Jeanne Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991); Sherry B. Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject (Durham, NC: Duke, 2006); Mary Romero and Abigail J. Stewart, Women’s Untold Stories (New York: Routledge, 1999).
- 21.Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1987); Jackson W. Carroll, et al., Being There: Culture and Formation in Two Theological Schools, Religion in America Series (New York: Oxford University, 1997); Vincent Crapanzano, Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench (New York: New Press, 2000); R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: University of California, 1997); Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Knopf, 2012); Joseph B. Tamney, The Resilience of Conservative Religion: The Case of Popular, Conservative Protestant Congregations (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge, 2002); R. Stephen Warner, New Wine in Old Wineskins: Evangelicals and Liberals in a Small-Town Church (Berkeley: University of California, 1988).
- See Sarah Coakley, Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender, Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).
- Living on the Boundaries, by Hoggard Creegan and Pohl, is a notable exception.
- Cannell, Fenella, ed., The Anthropology of Christianity (Durham: Duke, 2006); Allyson Julé and Bettina Tate Pedersen, eds., Being Feminist, Being Christian: Essays from Academia (1st ed., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
- Belenky et al., Women’s Ways of Knowing; Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps, Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling (Boston: Harvard, 2001); Kenneth Plummer, Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2001); Romero and Stewart, Women’s Untold Stories.
- The interview guide included 12 basic questions, such as “Walk me through your personal and professional trajectory that has led to your participation in ETS”; “What is your experience of ETS as a woman?”; “What is your perspective on the women who make up the 7 percent of ETS membership?”; “What scriptural passages shape your understanding of gender and vocation?”
- John W. Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing among Five Approaches (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2012); Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice (3rd ed., London: Routledge, 2007); Ochs and Capps, Living Narratives.
- Participants were given the option to use their real names or to choose a pseudonym. Half of the participants choose their own first-name pseudonym (e.g., “Erica”), and the other half chose to go by their full names (e.g., “Anthea McCall”). Descriptive details have been left vague to protect participants’ anonymity.
- Unfortunately ETS membership breakdown by race/ethnicity could not be determined. Many of the participants pointed to lack of non-white voices, especially African American, Hispanic/Latino/a, and non-Western Christians. Asian-American males seem to be better presented in ETS, as seen in a consultation on Asian/Asian-American Theology. However, Edwin Yamauchi, the Japanese-American former president of ETS, and others, have highlighted the lack of minority voices. For 2015, there were two additional program units that focused on non-white/non-American voices: Other Voices in Interpretation and Scripture and Theology in Global Context.
- Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design; Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research: Design and Methods (4th ed., Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2009)
- Creswell, Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design.
- Hammersley and Atkinson, Ethnography; Matthew B. Miles, A. Michael Huberman, and Johnny Saldana, Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook (3rd ed., Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2013);.Yin, Case Study Research.
- Italics mark emphasis in participants’ original quotes.
- Some participants made comments comparing and contrasting experiences at other academic societies, namely Institute for Biblical Research (IBR) and Society for Biblical Literature (SBL). Not all participants were involved in IBR or SBL, though many were. Some of the participants had been in the past or were currently in leadership in these organizations. A few participants had participated in the American Academy of Religion (AAR).
- Belenky et al., Women’s Ways of Knowing; Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970); Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent.
- One prominent complementarian was cited more than 16 times by combined participant comments.
- Multiple essays in Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., Presumed Incompetent, illustrate the compounded oppressions on racial minorities in the