“I am an egalitarian.” I make this statement with pride, but my journey into egalitarianism was a long one. In fact, my students are often shocked to learn that my once-traditional view of men and women’s roles led to the biggest fight my husband and I had before we married. We argued over whether God approved of women preaching—with my husband trying to convince me that God calls women to be pastors.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My egalitarian journey didn’t begin with a debate with my fiancé. It began with my parents who, though holding to traditional roles, raised me to think for myself and to appreciate my headstrong temperament.
My parents worked as a team and had absolute respect for each other. They are two of the most unselfish people I know, always considering each other’s needs ahead of their own when making decisions.
They also expected both my brother and me to study the Bible for ourselves instead of blindly following what others told us about Scripture. My parents worked together agreeably, held similar expectations for my brother and me, and valued my strong will—all of which set the stage for my becoming an advocate for gender equality.
The church we attended, however, was more patriarchal. For example, this church would never have considered a woman for the position of pastor or deacon. It would only allow women to teach children or other women. Women didn’t pray publicly and didn’t ask questions in business meetings. Wives were to submit to their husbands in areas of disagreement.
It was confusing for me as a female, of which I had no choice or recourse, to be consigned to a lower status. Given my strong will, it is not surprising that I questioned rules which posed unnecessary restrictions on women who were capable of discerning right from wrong for themselves. I do not remember adequately resolving this paradox, but I did try to accept it.
Then, I met Dwayne as a first-year college student and by the end of our sophomore year, we were planning to spend our lives together. While his family was also fairly traditional, he had grown up in a church which was more open than mine.
He also knew women who were going into ministry. One of them, to my dismay at the time, wanted to preach! The issue became more pressing when, a few weeks before we married, Dwayne preached at a church that had been dis-fellowshipped from its Baptist association over the decision to ordain a woman.
Dwayne believed the church was right in ordaining her. I believed she could not have been called since women were not to pastor. This prompted such a fight that I questioned how we could be united in marriage when we disagreed about something that seemed so clear in Scripture. After much deliberation, I decided that, while continuing to hold to my beliefs, I would not make it a point of contention between us. That seemed enough at the time.
But working on the seminary campus where Dwayne was a student after we married, I got to know others who shared his view. I was surprised that even though they held the Bible in high regard, they believed Scripture supported equality for women in ministry. In the end, their obvious commitment to God convinced me to consider their viewpoint.
I came to believe that women could indeed share the gospel in whatever way God called them to. This was followed closely by the realization that if women could lead in the church, God wouldn’t expect us to put our abilities aside at the doors of our own homes! So my husband and I agreed that women were truly equal, in the church and in the home.
However, the final bit of egalitarian freedom came with a course I took for my graduate degree. The class explored different family systems throughout the world, from horticultural and agrarian societies to the modern cultures of the United States. I was fascinated to learn how the unique needs of these societies shaped the power allocation between husbands and wives.
While I knew that gender equality did not exist in many churches, this class opened my eyes to the gender disparity that also existed in the secular world. I was astounded! This was the final piece of the puzzle for me. Gender inequality transcended the church and was a reality in societies and families worldwide. I would never again see gender in the same way. I had been given a new pair of glasses and I could not take them off!
My husband was already a step ahead of me, so implementing our beliefs at home was not difficult. We made every decision with consideration of gender equality, from the career goals we each set to our division of labor at home. Likewise, when our children came along, our choices fit our belief system. We alternated nighttime cries for food and diaper changes. Dwayne stayed home for the first few months with our first born; I did the same with our second. We swapped school drop-offs and pick-ups and who took off work when one of them was sick.
But while our gender beliefs informed our family structure, I still did not have a way to take my conviction outside the home. Other than ranting and raving around friends and extended family—and oddly enough, that wasn’t always welcome—I didn’t yet know how to channel my passion. I didn’t know how to effect the changes I wanted to see happen in the world.
But early in my teaching career, the opportunity emerged. In the late 1990s, two of my colleagues suggested we develop and co-teach a new course to help our students develop a more informed view of gender. We then created a course that would explore the physical and environmental influences that impact gendered behavior, and their effects on societal institutions. In this new course, I found the vehicle for effecting change that I had been lacking.
Once each academic year, I have the privilege of leading a group of young adults through a journey of their own. It encourages me to see them open up to the possibility of women leading alongside men in ministry. I feel hopeful when many of them tell me they will do things differently in their own marriages and with their own children. I am excited that these students talk about what they are learning in class with boyfriends and girlfriends, roommates, spouses, and parents.
Typically, students come to me around the end of November saying, “Dr. Howell, you won’t believe what we talked about at Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house!” And, yes, I do believe it. I’ve been there. I remember the first glimpses I took through those new lenses. And each semester, I feel privileged to give my students the new pair of glasses I received as a student some thirty years ago—and hear them say that they will never again see the world in the same way.
My journey toward egalitarianism began when I was a child with parents who allowed me to have my own voice. I traveled further down that path when my fiancé introduced me to the idea that women could preach and lead. Educators led me down new roads of egalitarian thought and colleagues invited me to forge a new trail at a small, Baptist university. All of these experiences in navigating my own journey have led to a calling that allows me to guide others who are beginning their own.