Certainly there is overlap. Certainly to tell the whole story, there must be mention of men and women. But too often in overview courses, the focus remains on the men as if the women weren't and aren't a significant part of the shaping of Christianity. Women's religious practices and leadership tremendously shaped Christianity, and this course brings those women and their activities front and center.
I chose the name "Subversive Sisters and High-Heeled Holiness" for several reasons. One, I've learned that clever, alliterative titles result in higher enrollment. Two, I wanted to honor the spectrum on which women have acted. Some operated via gender norms, and others had to work outside of normal systems in order to follow their call. Either way, women have always found a way, no matter how cloistered or limited they have been, to honor God's call. If the church won't let the called serve, God will work outside of the church to build the Kingdom.
This is a phenomenally rewarding course to teach. The subject matter is inspiring, which makes course preparation feel like a privilege rather than a responsibility. In the classroom, I watch students' eyes be opened to a cloud of witnesses who have paved the way for them to answer God's call on their lives. I get to see their surprise at how much women were able to accomplish with so little. I have a front-row seat to witness them be astonished, inspired, and encouraged by the stories of women with whom they relate and from whom they feel solidarity and support for their work. By the second or third day of the course, I noticed the women standing up a little bit taller. Gumption. Confidence.
In a pleasant surprise, an equal number of male students enrolled in the course as female students. Each said that they enrolled to better understand the challenges women face in ministry and to cultivate their ability to be an ally for women. Some are married to ministers. Others work closely with women ministers.
Privilege is complex. If you're male, you have it, regardless of race. If you're white, you have it regardless of gender. If you're wealthy, you have it regardless of race or gender. This doesn't even tip the iceberg, though, because privilege also favors the able-bodied, cisgendered, and heterosexual. Thankfully, this class became a safe space to examine our collective privilege, on whose backs it has come, and what responsibility we have to divest ourselves of privilege.
Throughout the course, female students shared stories of sexism they've faced from churches and church leaders. Some have been asked to preach from the floor instead of the pulpit. Some have been stripped of their hard-earned credentials in church bulletins and introductions. Some have been cautioned against preaching when they might be on their periods. Some have been told they are too emotional, too serious, too fashionable, too frumpy, too maternal, too small, or too old to be ministers. Some have to fight for acceptance of their calling at church and at home. The male students listened to these testimonies, and, together, we discussed solutions to cultivate support and public advocacy for women in ministry. One started planning training programs he wants to pitch to his denomination to help prepare rural churches for women pastors. Several students are planning sermon series and articles for denominational publications.
On the last day of the course, students were asked to present their research on a woman with whom they particularly resonated. One chose Elizabeth, the slave preacher, because she said that she had often felt invisible in her ministry and wanted to bring Elizabeth out of invisibility. One chose Matushka Olga in admiration of her care for those who were being abused. One chose Julian of Norwich because she was drawn to imagining her own body as part of the image of God. One chose Teresa of Avila because she, too, accepted the call to ministry later in life. I could go on. One by one, my students excitedly shared their research, reading from worn and well-flagged copies of these women's writings. They found strength and life in those words from the past, as if they could hear these women in the cloud of witnesses cheering them on here and now to follow God's call in spite of whatever obstacles they might face.
For fun, I invited my students to wear the pair of shoes that best characterized their ministry. Male students wore everything from boots to dress shoes to house shoes. Female students wore everything from slip-ons to clogs to stilettos. We are many, yet we are one.
Each student has a unique style, sense of purpose, and preaching voice. Each has been formed by readings, experiences, relationships, and God's call on their lives. As they continue in their ministries after this class, their sisters in the cloud of witnesses will go with them: Perpetua, Marcella, Leoba, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christina of Markyate, Julian of Norwich, Hildegarde of Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Jane Chantal, Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, Elizabeth, Susanna Wesley, Jarena Lee, Antionette Brown Blackwell, Matushka Olga, Mother Theresa, Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vashti McKenzie, and thousands more.
Thanks be to God that feminist and womanist scholars are restoring these women to our history narratives because we cannot tell the real story without them. Thanks be to God that for centuries, women have made a way out of no way to follow God's call in spite of the obstacles that societies, and yes, churches, have put in their way. And thanks be to God for these students, who are making their way into the world to be prophets for equality and justice.