It’s February in Southern California, and winter is decidedly over, with temperatures creeping in to the low 80’s. I make my way, coffee cup in hand, to the right side of the classroom, snagging a seat by the large windows overlooking the lawn, hoping to draw energy for this Saturday class from the sunshine. I’m taking a Historical Theology survey in an online format this semester, which has two required in person meetings, and today is the first.
Other non-traditional students like myself usually populate these online classes; those who work full time, and cannot attend class during the week. I’ve been going to seminary long enough to not be surprised by being one of the only women in the room, and I try not be anxious about it—instead channeling that energy into participating in the morning’s discussion.
My inner monologue goes a little something like this—Make sure you speak up, Sarah, but not too much. You don’t want to be seen as overly enthusiastic. But you don’t want be silent, either. Make sure you are dressed nice, but not too nice. Look professional and pretty, but not like you’re trying to be attractive. Be pleasant, but also fly under the radar. You have to let them know, without acting like you’re trying to let them know, that you belong here just as much as the male students do.
Everything that leaves your mouth today must be perfect—or so spins my mind as I try to navigate my space in a setting that does not seem to know what to do with me.
Gone are the days of my undergraduate experience, where I participated regularly in class discussions as one of my professor’s best and most engaged students, unhindered by fears of not belonging. I spent 16 years in Christian education before I began seminary, where on average women outnumbered men 3-1, but the moment I stepped into graduate school, my female peers all but disappeared.
As one mentor told me before I began my course work, “In this world, you’re going to have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously.” And so I do.
Soon, a professor I’ve never seen before arrives—he must be new, as I don’t recognize the name on the syllabus, either. After setting up his laptop, he opens our session by introducing himself—where he grew up, photos of his wife and kids, and as any good academic, where he received his degrees, and has taught in the past.
And it is precisely here, that, beneath the calm and competent persona I am working so very hard to project, my stomach starts doing somersaults.
I imagine that most students in the room, upon hearing the professor list off his alma maters, gave them no second thought—or if they did, simply noted that they were small, well respected, evangelical institutions. But I don’t have that luxury.
You see, when a professor says they did their undergraduate work at (insert university name here), I remember how when I was growing up, they refused one of my female mentors an interview for a pastoral care job, making her sit outside of the room while they interviewed her husband.
I think of another woman I know who majored in Theology at that school not too many years ago, whose department chair actively discouraged her from pursuing the field. I think of how if you were to step on campus today, you won’t find a single Biblical Studies course being taught by a female professor, because that would constitute a woman having spiritual influence or authority over men.
And when a professor says they got their masters degree here, at the school I attend, I think of all the courses I’ve sat through that have told me that women occupying the office of pastor or elder is deeply unbiblical, and nothing more than the church bending to culture—a true tragedy and compromise of the faith.
I think of how I’ve never taken a course from a woman, and how they probably didn’t either. Of how a particularly brilliant friend of mine was recently denied a teaching position here, solely on the basis of her belief that women can teach and lead in the body of Christ.
And when a professor names (insert other university here) as the school where they taught for close to a decade, my first thought is that the only reason I’m familiar with the name is because of the dust up a few years back where Bible classes taught by women were restricted to female students only, and the mass exodus of female staff and faculty that followed.
And while this professor seems kind and approachable, and I’m sure I will learn much from him in this course, I can’t help but wonder what he thinks when he looks out at the class and sees me, in all of my womanness, sitting there.
Claude Steele, in his brilliant book, Whistling Vivaldi, says this about the experience of underrepresented groups in academic settings, “In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation…you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group.”
I am trying to complete my masters program in Bible Exposition, yes, but the road there is littered with ghosts to slay.
Silently, I offer my own version of a petition from the Book of Common Prayer.
Lord, you have brought me to this new day: Preserve me now with your mighty power, that I may not be overcome by adversity, or convinced of my own lack of humanity—for I am your child, anointed, equipped, and beloved. In all that I do and say, dear Jesus, direct me to the fulfilling of your purposes. Amen.
Bring on the day.
Sarah grew up on a little farm in Oregon that her Mama’s family has called home for over a century. While her heart belongs to the northwest, these days you can find her in southern California trying to finish seminary, love a few people really well, and make her therapist laugh. Find out more at www.sarahchristineschwartz.com
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