Feminism in the evangelical Christian community often looks very different than in other communities; we have to let a few things slide that would normally be denounced instantly. This has been my experience at the conservative school Cincinnati Christian University in southern Ohio.
When I began as a freshman in the fall of 2010, I was shocked to learn that undergraduate female students were prohibited from enrolling in preaching ministry classes or from completing a preaching ministry degree. This is based on the theological belief that men and women have separate roles that are ordained by God; to some, this includes roles within marriage and society, and to others this includes only leadership roles within the church.
When I asked faculty members about this seemingly outdated rule, they told me, “Don’t worry, it will change soon.”
I heard “Don’t worry, it will change soon” during my freshman year, then my sophomore year, then my junior year. Finally, in my fourth and final year at CCU, I decided that I didn’t want to wait any longer. My worry had only increased as the rule remained unchanged, and I did not want to leave my University in the same state of misogyny that existed when I entered.
I circulated a survey among CCU students asking their opinion on the rule, and the results were not surprising: 82% of CCU students believe that women should be allowed to take preaching ministry classes.
With this knowledge in hand, I submitted a report to interim president Ken Tracey with the results of the survey, asking that the rule be changed before the start of the next school year. Within three weeks, the rule had been changed and female students are now allowed to take the preaching ministry classes as well as pursue preaching ministry degrees.
I learned later on that my report was not the only voice in the cry for change; several faculty and staff members had spoken up in support of gender equality in the classroom, and some had been pressuring leadership to make this change for years.
Internalized misogyny of evangelical Christianity
I learned early on that this was not the only example of sexism on campus; only one woman held a full-time faculty position in the Biblical Studies department, and she taught only Biblical Greek and Hebrew, not any exegetical classes. Female faculty were vastly under-represented in all other departments, as well, and there seemed to be no desire to change this.
Female leaders on campus encouraged female students not to make a fuss about the sexism they experienced. We were told, “Let the men take care of it. Their voices are more respected, and if we make trouble it could make things worse.”
We were given lessons on modesty to make it easier to work with male colleagues, because we did not want to “tempt them” or “lead them astray.” The dress code included eight prohibitions against clothing worn by women, and only four prohibitions against clothing worn by men, and these four rules for men were not enforced, while the rules against women were enforced with fines.
Ministry classes were often taught with a hyper-masculine slant. Most professors taught “God-ordained” gender roles with a benevolent sexism attitude, emphasizing that the “scientific differences” between men and women made these gender roles healthy for individuals and communities.
As my frustration grew, I contemplated transferring to another school; I was exhausted of constantly navigating discussions in class, weighing the risks of speaking up with my liberal, feminist ideas. I was scared to make enemies of my classmates and my professors.
I chose to stay not because of my own courage to enter the dialogue, but because of the courage I witnessed in others. I began to see my peers and my leaders speak out against the sexism at CCU and in our church movement at large; I heard lectures on the historic and contemporary misogyny of churches, on the damage of sexual purity obsession, and even the various Biblical passages that support homosexuality as spiritually valid.
I heard these messages in very small doses, and at times they did not seem to be enough to placate my anger. As I neared the end of my four years at CCU, however, I realized that much change had taken place during my time there, both on campus and in myself.
I had learned about feminism from professors who seemed at first to desire the perpetuation of the patriarchy. I had built a structure of support, where I could lean on feminist allies as we mourned the continuing sexism in our school. I had joined with my classmates to tell our leadership that we were done putting up with misogynistic prohibitions against female students, and we had won.
As I reflect on the past four years at Cincinnati Christian University, I recognize the various emotional stages that I experienced in the community.
At first, I felt the excitement and adrenaline of joining a place of higher education where I expected to be challenged.
I soon realized the deep-rooted problems within this community, and felt the despondency of helplessness.
I then felt the camaraderie of joining with fellow students to accomplish a change for the better.
Finally, I realize that every community contains various levels of problematic ideology, but that no community is hopeless. It is always worthwhile to work for increased equality, even if the steps taken are infinitesimal compared to society at large. The women in communities with institutionalized sexism need the efforts of feminism, despite and because of the greater levels of sexism present here.
Written by Becca Costello-Thomas