Are Women Human in Christian Academia?

Are Women Human in Christian Academia? April 19, 2017

baylor universityRecently, Karen Swallow Prior spoke out against the “Billy Graham rule”–married men distancing themselves from women to avoid temptation and the appearance of evil. For those of you who missed Prior’s article, she eloquently argued that good moral character is better than rigid behavioral rules. As she writes, “Virtue ethics relies on moral character that is developed through good habits rather than rules or consequences for the governing of behavior…Virtue ethics is better than the Billy Graham rule.”

I actually just learned about the Billy Graham rule a few years ago. I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two Baylor history graduate students and overheard the phrase. So I asked what the Billy Graham rule was (just FYI: advanced graduate students, especially graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams, can answer fluently almost any question within their given field of study). They briefly summarized for me what Billy Graham decided in 1948 and later articulated in his autobiography: “We all knew of evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife. We determined that the Apostle Paul’s mandate to the young pastor Timothy would be ours as well: ‘Flee…youthful lusts’ (2 Timothy 1:22, KJV).”

Suddenly, after hearing the Billy Graham rule explained for the first time, lots of things within my gendered evangelical world made sense. I felt, as my 8th grade self would have said, “Duh!”

It isn’t surprising that Karen Swallow Prior’s article, not to mention the criticism that followed it, caught my attention. It made me think about the implications of the Billy Graham rule for women in Christian academia. It also made me think about the words of another famous Christian who died just a few years after Billy Graham began his crusades: Dorothy L. Sayers.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dorothy Sayers, you should change that. I know as an educated Christian and medievalist, I should say that my favorite authors are C.S. Lewis and Augustine. But that wouldn’t be true (although I am a fan of both). My favorite authors are Homer (the Iliad) and Dorothy Sayers.  Medieval scholar, Christian theologian, mystery writer, contemporary of Tolkien and Lewis, and one of the first female graduates of Oxford University, Sayers was truly an exceptional woman. Her writing style reflects (at least what I consider) her personality: sensible, passionate, judicious.

In 1938 Sayers was asked to address a Woman’s Society. What she argued, in her essay “Are Women Human?”, was profound–that women should not be categorized by their biological difference from men but considered by their sameness as humans.

“A woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”

When we isolate and objectify women because of their sex, we deny women their humanity. As Sayers continued, “Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general.” When Dorothy Sayers was asked how she wrote male conversations so well, even though she was a woman, she responded that she simply wrote men like the ordinary human beings they were, quipping that “women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.” Women, for Dorothy Sayers, were simply human–just like men.

Yet women, simply because they are women, have found academia to be an unwelcoming world. In 2013, Stanford psychiatry professor Cheryl Gore-Felton launched a research study to examine why women are so underrepresented in senior faculty ranks at American universities. Preliminary research suggests that one reason female academics are marginalized is because they are excluded from male relationships (the “old boy” networks). As Gore-Felton writes, “If most of the senior ranks are still men, how are women able to. . .navigate that? Who will they network with? Who is going to guide them and mentor them?”

Gore-Felton, of course, is speaking about the gender gap throughout academia. What about the gender gap in Christian Colleges and Universities in which ideas like the Billy Graham rule are more likely to flourish? Research suggests that women are even more underrepresented in leadership roles and tenured faculty positions at the 105 institutions making up the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. In 2002, women held only 14% of leadership positions at CCCU schools; only 33% of CCCU faculty were women; only  1/3 of those female faculty were tenured (as compared to 50% of male faculty); and women faculty were paid 20% to 25% less than men. As the authors of the 2009 Women in Academic Leadership: Professional Strategies, Personal Choices have summarized: “Research has implicated a glass ceiling for women aspiring to academic leadership in CCCU institutions….[in 2005] there are only three women presidents out of CCCU’s 105 member colleges and universities.” There are probably a myriad of reasons that help explain the greater gender disparity within leadership and tenured faculty at CCCU schools. But perhaps it is time for Christian academics to seriously examine the implications of ideas like the Billy Graham rule on their female colleagues. As Women In Academic Leadership observes about faith-based institutions, “What a denomination believes about women and their role in society will be evident at every level of their college or university and thus shape the campus climate for women.”

As a female academic at a Christian university, I am so grateful that my male colleagues have not marginalized me. Indeed, my career has been significantly shaped by both my male and female colleagues who took the time to mentor me, to challenge me, to promote me, and to offer me publishing opportunities. Instead of keeping me at arm’s length, my male colleagues seem to have followed the advice of Dorothy Sayers; they have treated me as human.

While writing this post, I received word that my faith-based institution, Baylor University, has just named our first female president. I think Dorothy Sayers would have smiled. I certainly did!



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