Sunday, November 13, 2011

on being a woman in a man's world

I've always wondered how it feels to be Louisa May Alcott in a whole deck of male authors.  Like it or not, I'm getting a taste of it myself.

Perhaps you're not aware that the field of Biblical Studies and Theology is male-dominated.  It is.  Things are changing, but the demographics are a long way from being gender balanced.  That's nice for someone like me (i.e. a female) when it comes to applying to schools or applying for jobs.  There is a genuine desire to invite women to the table, but for various reasons we are still a minority.

You may have noticed this in my recent Blockhead lunch photo. Our Associate Dean did. When I was getting a cup of coffee he approached me with a knowing smile. "I couldn't help but notice that you are the only woman at that table," he said. Indeed. He expressed how glad he was to have me as part of the program. I'm glad to be here, too, but I do feel out of place sometimes.
  • There are 27 people in the room for Dr. Block's Exegesis of Deuteronomy class.  Six of us are women.  (As long as we're counting noses, I might mention that only 2 of the students are Asian and only 1 brave soul is African-American!)
  • Seven new students were admitted to Wheaton's PhD program this year.  Two of us are women. Last year, though a woman was offered admission to the program, only men ended up coming.
  • Of the 30+ doctoral students in the program right now, six are women. In spite of Wheaton's best efforts to diversify the program, there simply aren't enough women or international applicants to balance things out. (Last year only 12 of the 82 applicants were women and even fewer were from other cultures.)
  • In the Isaiah seminar I'm taking this semester with Dr. Schultz, I'm the only woman.
  • None of Wheaton's faculty supervisors for PhD students are women.
  • At last year's annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, women made up about 10% of the crowd of 2500. Probably half of those women were there as spouses of scholars, not scholars themselves.
Why? I can see several reasons.
  • Conservative interpretation of certain Bible passages has determined that certain roles in the church (such as teaching adult men) be restricted to men. Since the teaching jobs that require a doctorate usually have mixed groups of students, there has been little reason for a conservative woman to get a doctorate.
  • Women are naturally preoccupied with bearing and raising children, making graduate work especially challenging. Few husbands are as willing as Danny is to share household tasks so equally and make it possible for their wives to study. It goes against the grain to do so.
  • In spite of the relative equality that women now enjoy in society at large, deep-seated cultural perceptions of what is "feminine" push women away from academia. I suspect this is stronger inside the church than outside.
What's the big deal?  Why do we need more women in this field?
  • Women need role models.  We need to see women who are using their intellectual gifts in service of the church and the academy.  Gifted young women need to know that they can use their minds for God's glory as well as their hands and heart.  Children's ministry is a high calling, but it's not the only way women can contribute to the body of Christ.  Neither is cooking for potlucks!
  • Humans naturally have blind spots.  Generations of white men have set the agenda for biblical studies, and as a result things have sometimes become lopsided.  These men have made very valuable contributions to biblical scholarship, but their work can be strengthened though conversations with others who bring different perspectives to the table.
I'm excited. It feels like I'm in the right place at the right time. A hundred years ago it would have been impossible. Even ten years ago it would have been a much lonelier journey. Today I am invited, welcomed, valued, and embraced. And I am not alone. Other women have gone before me, and others walk beside me (even if only a few). I'm delighted to have Dr. Karen Jobes as my second reader for my dissertation. Not only is she a great scholar, but she's walked this road as a woman and has so much to offer.

A special treat awaits me this week. Last spring I started asking around to see if other women might want to room together at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature. The group just grew and grew! One room turned into three. Now fourteen other women from all across the country will be joining me in San Francisco for these meetings. What a joy it will be to share the experience together!


  1. Carmen,

    This was the right post at the right time. I can't wait to meet all of you!


  2. Hello, Carmen! My name is Selina and I really enjoyed this post! I was an intern for this great organization called Christians for Biblical Equality( and they are a really great resource for topics dealing with gender in ministry and the church. Thank you very much for your post, Carmen!

  3. Carmen: This is an excellent post. I'm glad that you feel supported - I was a bit nauseas when I read that only 1% of the presenters at ETS were female. I'm still shocked that SBL's number is only 26%.

    You are awesome. You are going to do great work for the Kingdom. I'm excited for your first book!

  4. Carmen,

    When I was looking for a woman to room with at the ETS I came up empty-handed, but I went anyway. While women were only about 8% of the attendees (including spouses), I still felt welcomed by most of the men there. It may make a difference that I belong to the Evangelical Philosophical Society, rather than the ETS itself, but I agree with you that things seem to be changing.

    Since I only attended the ETS and not the SBL, I would be interested in what you think the differences are between the two groups?

  5. Hi Carmen, I stumbled across this post when googling female PhD students at Wheaton. I am currently completing my Masters in Biblical Languages at HBU and I am considering Wheaton for my next step. I enjoyed this post and now look forward to following your blog and hearing about your time at Wheaton. Just wanted to say hello!

  6. Jessica,

    Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you found my blog and I hope we get to meet. I'm happy to report that the incoming class for fall 2012 has two women (of six total), both of whom are great gals.

    I hope you also found the 'Academic Resources' link on the upper right side of my blog. You might find it helpful in some way as you prepare to apply. I also recommend checking out the Wheaton PhD students' blog: It's an outlet for those of us in the program to reflect on what we're learning (book reviews, lecture summaries, personal discoveries) and you might enjoy "meeting" some of the other students in the program.