Going to Seminary | Part 4

by Elouise

Fuller, Slessor Hall Residents 1959

Fuller Seminary’s Slessor Hall Residents in 1959;
Meeting place for our women’s support group in 1973.

It’s fall 1973. I’ve arrived at a propitious moment! The women’s movement is alive and well. Women are enrolling in seminary programs, many in the professional Master of Divinity (MDiv) program. For growing numbers of churches and denominations, an accredited MDiv degree is now required for ordination.

Seminaries must clarify where they stand on this issue. Do you accept women into your MDiv program? Do you actively support women in ordained ministry? Some do; some don’t. Some are vehemently opposed; others are confused.

More difficult, this demographic shift in student populations means each seminary must look at the way it delivers its programs, no matter what program a woman enters. Sadly, program evaluation that includes needed change isn’t easy to talk about, much less put into practice.

It’s relatively easy to publish catchy advertisements that target women, with photos of happy women in beautiful seminary settings. But are you walking the walk? Or just talking the talk? It isn’t enough to welcome us as seminarians, without offering support services, mentors or models.

Then there’s this: It is never easy for women seminarians, whether they’re officially welcome (as at Fuller) or not. In the 1970s, many seminaries do a great job discussing and debating the women’s movement and its impact on the church. These sessions are always lively. It’s a hot topic.

Yet all this talk, all this debate about women’s place in the universe overshadows and minimizes the urgent needs of women already enrolled in seminary. We need career guidance and vocational support now! Where is it? Is there a plan? What is it?

When I arrive at Fuller in 1973, women are providing their own support. Not by choice, but by default. About 15 to 20 of us (out of 30) meet regularly in Slessor Hall (above) to talk about what’s going on in our programs and classrooms. Not many in the group are married, and even fewer have young children at home.

Being part of this small group helped me cope with a sometimes overwhelmingly heady, data-heavy approach to teaching and learning. Lectures were the rule (sometimes read from a manuscript), along with regular content-oriented tests and exams, and major research papers.

There were exceptions to the rule. However, our lecture-dominated, performance-oriented classrooms didn’t encourage discussion between genders or across generations and cultures. Students with different learning and communication styles had to conform in order to succeed, including many women.

Seminary administrators didn’t seem prepared to address our needs and suggestions. They were thrilled to welcome us, but then what? Some professors didn’t know how to relate to us. They were awkward and uncertain, or seemed blind to our presence. Language about God and human beings was almost always about him, not her.

I was and still am a highly sensitive person. I feel what’s in the air. Change was in the air, along with uncertainty, resentment, hostility and kickback. I disliked listening to endless debates about the place and role of women in church, home and society.

Oh, Elouise, this isn’t about you personally!

Of course it is! My presence is at least a puzzle. If I would just stay home, things would be ‘simpler.’ Less distracting and disturbing. Even men of good will were sometimes reluctant to support women publicly.

I’m grateful for male students, professors and administrators who faithfully supported us. Most men weren’t openly hostile; they just didn’t know what to say or do. They were friendly, but not sure how to join us in efforts to normalize our presence.

Yet even if we’d had hundreds of male cheerleaders and allies lining up to support us, they couldn’t have done for us what we needed to do ourselves. We needed male support. We didn’t need men to rescue us or to take over what only we could do.

It was still up to us to step up to the bat and take the pitches as they came. How would we become our own best allies, grateful for male support but not dependent on them?

To be continued….

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 December 2015
Photo credit: Fuller Theological Seminary Alumni Magazine