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A Christian Woman in Academe

This article is based on a presentation at the Crossroads Conference, August 18,1994, hosted by Evangelicals for Social Action.

Perhaps some of you have heard or read of Luther’s theology on the Christian in the world and his idea of the dual kingdoms of church and state. I’ve come to believe that a Christian woman in academe is embedded in more than a duality of kingdoms, but a plurality. In this article, I would like to define these worlds or kingdoms as follows: 1) The Kingdom of the Evangelical Church, 2) The Kingdom of our Patriarchal Society, 3) The Kingdom of Feminist Culture and Theory: Those who “Get it”, and 4) The Kingdom of Academe.

The Kingdom Of The Evangelical Church

I was blessed to grow up in an evangelical tradition and family that did not judge me on the basis on my gender. I was always encouraged to use whatever talents I had, for whatever purpose God called me to use them.

My first real encounter with the Kingdom of the Evangelical Church was when, during my junior year, I transferred to Christian college. At one of my first dorm Bible studies I remember being asked what I wanted to be and saying I wanted to be President of the U. S., only to be told that I could not be President because I was a woman. That night my mother assured me over the phone that I could be whatever I wanted to be.

My love for critical thinking and learning led me to get responses (from my floor ILA. again) such as, “Oh, Jan, how will you ever get married?” The message from my R.A. and others was that you must choose between academe or the evangelical women’s subculture. It is a tension that does not go away.

While my husband attended an evangelical seminary and I finished my Ph.D., I was continually bombarded with requests to join the Sem Wives group — Woman Alive. Their main activities included finding their correct complexion and wardrobe “colors” and working on crafts to sell to make “pin money” for Christmas. Then, while teaching part-time at an evangelical college, I remember the relief on my female students’ faces when they found out I was engaged, as if that somehow legitimized my right to teach them or made me a real human being and less of an alien. But those of us who are women in academe can remain alien women within the evangelical community, regardless of marital status. Over the years, as I became more socialized into the academic world, the Evangelical Kingdom became more alien to me and I to it (at least to its women’s subculture). After I had children, my relationship with this culture did improve — we have something to talk about — but still, I am truly alien to most of its members. For example, a friend asked me what I was going to do one summer and with some excitement I said I was going to spend three days a week getting back to some research and writing. She quickly said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” And I’m sure all of us have stories like the following. The conversation went something like this:

“So you work at the college?”

“Yes.”

“Part-time?”

“No, full-time.”

“Freshman?”

“No, all classes.”

“Library Science?”

“No, geography and geology.”

Underlying these kinds of conversations and encounters is the lack of acknowledgement that, as a Christian, God has called me to my work in my chosen field.

Those of us women who also have the challenge of dual careers face another kind of alien characterization. Recently our church hired a new associate pastor — a woman who is married, who has three children, and who is going to have a fourth in October. Imagine the uproar! The most interesting part of the discussion leading up to the vote was that many members were very upset that her husband was going to stay home for a year. “A father is not the same as a mother!” rang the cries. In the midst of what seemed to me to be a pro-family choice on their part, both the wife and husband were characterized as aliens, an alien family. The hard part for me in listening to the debate was that I and a colleague of mine, also a member of that church, both have husbands who have done the same thing. We are alien families within the evangelical community.

The Kingdom Of Patriarchy

As I come to the close of my thirties, I believe I am just coming to terms with what it means to live in a patriarchal society where male is the norm. I spent the past three years in a dispute with my Dean over maternity/sabbatical related issues. He kept saying giving maternity leave was all so unusual, as if childbearing is something that occurs once a century, and forgetting that in the past nine years at my institution there have been more than ten births to faculty women. He insisted that having a baby was in the same category as having an appendix out, something men can also experience and for which men do not take extensive “leave.” The parallel was lost on me since I have never heard of anyone having to feed and take care of their appendix twenty-four hours a day once it was “extracted.”

In another recent struggle on my campus, many female faculty members were upset when the Women’s Task Force insisted that we follow our own published Affirmative Action Guidelines, because that would stop a departmental search in midstream. These women faculty members did not want to offend the men in that particular department. In addition, many of these same faculty said nothing about the offense to women when we discovered that our salaries were lower than men with the same experience.

In dealing with these tensions, the past few years have been perhaps some of the hardest years of my life. I realized the immensity of my pain, and the reasons behind it, when an older faculty member sat down with me a few months ago and asked about my mental attitude (which she perceived to have been negative as of late). I pointed out that my attitude was on the upswing, the Dean having recently resigned! But then it suddenly came to me that my pain originated in the failure of my Christian colleagues to come to my aid. They had remained silent. As a woman I had once again become alienated from my Christian community. And those who had become my support network were by and large non-Christian women and some men. They were the ones who “got it,” called to see how I was doing, and sent me orders of Starbucks coffee to ease the pain.

And so it is extremely difficult to think that the next kingdom I want to discuss, that of the feminist, is often the one within which I feel most comfortable as a Christian woman in academe embedded in a patriarchal society.

The Kingdom Of Feminism

There is much to criticized with the Feminist Kingdom, for example: an emphasis on self-realization, nature worship, and lesbian or man-hating subcultures. I have encountered all of these. But what I want to talk about are those aspects of feminism that have enriched my understanding of myself, and my Christian understanding of the world. These, by and large, have come of secular academic feminist thought and theorizing.

I have found feminist critiques of our present model of humanity—the Enlightenment Man—extremely helpful. These feminist critiques question views of society that portray humans as atomized, individualized, and competitive. Feminist scholars also question beliefs in objectivity and the assumption that rational thought is a common denominator among people.

One such thinker whom I have found helpful is Evelyn Fox Keller. She critiques science, characterizing it as reductionistic (looking at the individual parts and the whole as a sum of individual parts) and causational (all phenomena can be described as the result of cause and effect). This scientific view results in the simplification of the richness of relationships in nature, and in the end, leaves us with a view that does not truly represent what we see and experience. Other feminist writers have described the process of science and its perspective as based on the desire to control, have power over nature, and “torture” secrets out of the natural world. Keller’s alternative approach is to recognize the complexity of order surrounding us and also to emphasize interactive models rather than causational ones. Her approach requires more modesty and open attentiveness to the data. This search for order assumes an a priori complexity that exceeds our human imagination, an assumption that does not exclude from consideration any relationship, including human connections with the world.

Such a feminist approach to science applies to our understanding of society (and our own lives) as well. We are not autonomous individuals who relate to others and nature in. a causal fashion. We are relational human beings at the core of our humanity. For example, Elizabeth Wolgast calls for an alternative to the reductionistic model of society, much as Keller calls for one in the sciences. Wolgast states that the present model, born out of the scientific paradigm and Enlightenment philosophy,

“leads to the conceptual neglect of families and groups bound together by motives other than the combined self-interests of the members. It assumes that people always associate in a basically competitive way, each with his interests defined independently of the interests of others, and so assumes that society has its justification in the egoistic terms appropriate to an individual. To this one may object that we have no clear understanding of what an individual is apart from a human, social context” (Wolgast 1980,154).

Reading these works has helped me, as a woman, gain a better understanding of my situation within a patriarchal society: the problems of motherhood and work, dual careers, the need of time for friendships and extended families, and my frustration with faculty meetings at 6:30 P.M. which assume away all relationships. We are all embedded in relationships and in a social context. That embeddedness is our reality, but patriarchy operates on the basis of the myth that we are all autonomous individuals. This myth allows for only a shallow expression of what is means to be made in God’s image, which includes the relational aspect of our being. The title of Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s recent book says it well: Also A Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma (1994).

Similar critiques are coming out of the broader Christian community, rejecting an overemphasis on individual rights as opposed to the rights of groups, railing for more pluralism or emphasis on the rights of what are called mediating institutions. But I have found that few of these critics show an appreciation of the broad range of feminist thought, or apply a feminist understanding to the plight of women in our society. Rather, they generally remain hostile to all forms of feminism.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s interpretation of the Fall adds some further insight into these questions. She describes how, with the Fall, the sin of men became the desire for power and the lording over others and the sin of women became making relationships the end-all and excuse for not responding to other callings. The resulting patriarchal society has denied our embeddedness in relationships. Thus the evangelical community would have me believe that in order to be a scholar, I must choose relationships or scholarship. But are both these kingdoms cut out of the same mold? Has the image of the fallen male become the Patriarchal Kingdom’s view of all human beings ? And has the Evangelical Kingdom restricted our humanity along similar lines?

The book, Women of Academe describes the pitfalls of women in general within academia as including: the failure to choose a given path but rather muddling along attempting to meet everyone’s needs, intense relationships with our subject matter to the extent that pragmatism about its publication is not possible, and the failure to believe, against all the evidence to the contrary, that you cannot have it all. Are we Christian women in academe even more susceptible to these problems than others because of the evangelical subculture to which many of us also belong?

The Kingdom Of Academia

The academic world presents difficult challenges for women: demands on our time/lives throughout the tenure process, plus the tendency of women to take on too many tasks in an attempt to please everyone, thus not getting the work done that is needed for tenure. Academia has a way of demanding total allegiance.

For me, the increasing pain is from split allegiances. I am caught between the politically correct who value women, and evangelicals who share my faith. I find myself with split loyalties not because my faith does not direct me as a whole person, but because others’ faith commitments do not include supporting women.

For example, it has become increasingly painful to me to realize that several of the evangelical faculty members, with whom I most closely identify theologically, are active members of churches that deny women leadership roles, or consider feminism to be a non-issue. So while I share the basics of my faith with this group of colleagues, I find myself allied with secular feminists on other issues, such as the need for a woman academic dean at my institution. We have no women at the upper levels of administration, something that is trivialized by many of the Christian faculty on campus. Yet what we really need is a Christian woman as academic dean.

The group that meets at the intersection of women academics and Christianity is small and very often lonely. As a result, we are always left sharing only pieces of ourselves in our encounters with others: professional pieces or personal/relations pieces, feminist pieces or Christian faith pieces. While we see these pieces as part of the whole of our personhood and faith commitment, members of these different spheres or kingdoms demand that we choose our loyalties. Sadly enough, I have found the feminists (mild by most standards) on my campus more open to asking me questions about my faith than my evangelical brothers are to asking questions about my experience and understanding of being a woman.

Given the plurality of kingdoms in which Christian women in academe live, those of us in these roles must have strong, clear understandings of who we are and what we are about. In addition, we must have clear theological frameworks out of which we work. We cannot afford to muddle along or we will be fragmented as we are pulled into the different directions of the evangelical subculture, the feminist world, or the workaholic and politically correct academic community. We must remain whole persons, rejecting the model of human beings that portrays us as autonomous or even isolated individuals. We must insist on living lives that are fully human and include all aspects of our personhood — relationships, intellectual life, and faith commitments — truly reflecting the reality of beings made in God’s image.

In order to live out this holistic life, however, we need each other. We need our Christian brothers who serve with us in academic circles to break the silence and work with us in building institutions that address past injustices, and affirm and recognize the full range of aspects of personhood for both male and female. We need churches with pastors and members who understand and affirm our interest in the intellectual life. And we need fellowship with other women who share our faith commitments, our interest in matters of the mind, and our commitments to relationships. Women whom God has called to serve in the academic world need a context in which we can act as whole people.

Bibliography

Aisenberg, Nayda and Mona Harrington. 1988. Women Of Academe: Outsiders In The Sacred Grove. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. Berger, Peter and Richard Neuhaus. 1977. To Empower People: The Role Of Mediating Structures In Public Policy. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institution for Public Policy Research.

Keller, Ellen Fox. 1985. Reflections On Gender And Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J. 1994. Also A Mother: Work And Family As Theological Dilemma Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart 1990. Gender And Grace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wolgast, Elizabeth. 1980. Equality And The Rights Of Women. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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