I was a Master of Divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1973 to 1975. As regularly occurred with women students, I had been admitted to the School of Religious Education. Yet, I enrolled in all M.Div. courses because I had some burning theological questions.
I then had to talk my way into the School of Theology with the dean of the RE school. He was not easy to persuade; however, he approved the transfer. I was one of only a handful of women, even though in the early ’70s mainline seminaries were beginning to welcome many women.
One day I was in the library looking for resources to assist in my quest to learn about what the Bible really teaches about the role of women in ministry. I stumbled across the nefarious concoction of an over-achieving fundamentalist, John R. Rice. I was incensed at the title: Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers. Of course, I had experienced gender discrimination all my life as a Southern Baptist – at my home church, in college, in churches I had served as youth minister – but the sheer contempt of this book startled me.
I did what any self-respecting woman called to ministry would do: I flung it into the Ohio River as I crossed the big bridge heading into Indiana. (You recall that throwing things into the river has a venerable history in Louisville; that is where Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic medals in protest of the racism of America.) I considered it an act of prophetic resistance (of course, I would not sanction destruction of seminary property now).
My maternal family had a long history at Southern. My great aunt Clema Wiley had attended the WMU Training School, graduating in 1920. Women were allowed to attend classes if they sat at the back and kept silent. She told of sitting in classes taught by the great New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson and his not so subtle indignation that women were even present. A little family irony was that I was allowed to stand at the front of the class 63 years later and say nearly all I wanted to – at least for a season!
Rice asked three questions: (1) Is it a sin for women to cut their hair? (2) Must a wife be subject to, obedient to her husband, ruled by him? (3) Does God ever call or consent for women to be preachers, pastors or evangelists? You can imagine how he answered these: Yes, Yes, and NO! Definitively settled by the Bible, of course. A woman with bobbed hair could never have dried the feet of Jesus with her hair, truly.
So where do we find ourselves now less than 75 years since the third re-printing of Rice’s signature volume? It depends upon which Baptist pathway you have followed, of course, yet the patriarchal bias of national and ecclesial culture remains deeply entrenched. In my judgment, our present political climate has given license for many to voice their just-below-the surface misogyny.
We continue to hear new forms of Rice’s arguments, clothed now in the dress of the “dignity of women.” We hear male projections of how an attractive female pastor would simply be a distraction in the pulpit; how an ungainly pregnancy would be awkward when doing sacramental things like baptizing (I think such buoyancy would ensure that the pastor never drown); how women’s voices do not sound authoritative, ad nauseum.
The unwavering accent on the submission of women results in a tacit understanding of fundamental inequality between male and female. Rice argued that as God is to Christ, so is the man to the woman. This not only underscores the eternal subordination of women, but is heretical in Trinitarian construction.
The endemic devaluing of women shows up when men talk over women, talk for women (mansplaining), talk down to women or simply do not talk to them at all. When churches say, “We are not quite ready for a woman pastor,” we can bet what larger traditional script is operative. Neither American Baptists nor Cooperative Baptists have much to brag about.
Apparently women’s leadership is still feared – in both higher education and churches. Recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education speak about the feminization of the college experience, and many evangelical writers warn of the reticence of men to attend congregations where women are prominent leaders.
Women preachers are coming into their own, even if Baylor does not put them on its “most effective preachers” list, yet. Their theology, their life experience, and yes, their voices, offer a different portal into the being of God and the life of faith. As fitting vehicles to bear the divine, women offer sermons of grace and challenge. Their embodiment of wisdom, prophetic fire, and empowering leadership shapes congregations in transformative ways.
I have engaged an old text, yet its arguments are still around. The fear of strong women remains a toxic part of Baptist culture and the wider social landscape. We still have much work to do. It is time to sharpen our hermeneutical skills and forthrightly confront the lingering misogyny among those of Rice’s ilk. He has many kin.