This is a Guest Post from my friend The Rev. Dr. Stephanie May, “Feminism, Wheaton and Defining an Institution”. It is a very interesting post. Please do share.
More than 20 years ago, I walked on to the campus of Wheaton College (IL) as an eager freshman. That I am a Wheaton alum surprises many people who know me as a scholar of feminist studies in religion or as a Unitarian Universalist minister. What may be even more surprising is that I first became a feminist at Wheaton. At Wheaton, I developed skills of critical thinking and close analysis through the exceptional teaching of Dr. Arthur Holmes and other faculty. When I joined the student club, “Students for Biblical Equality,” I learned about inclusive language as well as Biblical arguments for gender equality. In my freshman seminar, we read Henrik Ibsen’s “The Doll House” and in a course on Modern Women’s Literature I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Around cafeteria tables, through student media, and in dorm rooms, we students debated the role of women in the church, Christianity’s relationship to other religions, and the dynamic between culture and understandings of truth. In my last semester, a theology professor, Dr. Dennis Okholm, encouraged me to consider graduate school after commending my paper on “Women in the Reformation.” In short, Wheaton gave me both the intellectual tools and encouragement to pursue a path that led me to feminist studies in religion.
Yes, I mean that Wheaton. The Wheaton that placed Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the first African American tenured woman, on administrative leave in December after she expressed her solidarity with Muslims. Over the years, I have winced as Wheaton has again and again appeared in the news for various conservative social or religious positions I no longer hold. “Oh, that’s just Wheaton,” I would bemoan. But, not this time. Invited by professor and activist Peter Heltzel (a classmate from that freshman seminar) I joined in the call for Dr. Hawkins to be reinstated.
Fighting to preserve a diversity of faculty, students, and ideas at Christian colleges insures that the debates defining evangelical Christianity will continue. And there is a debate. While some evangelicals continue to defend male headship, others argue for gender equality. While some evangelicals may dismiss the earth as fallen, others argue the need to care for creation. While some reject all those who do not recognize the lordship of Jesus Christ, others, like Dr. Hawkins, stand in solidarity with those of other religions. The issue is not only the definition of Wheaton as a school, but also the boundaries of the wider evangelical Christian world.
In an interview with the school paper, Dr. Hawkins explained, “Because I am a woman of color, students on campus see me as a resource. My specialty is race, religion and politics. I realized early on in my career that gender has to be an area. All of a sudden, at Wheaton College, I get to be a person who speaks a lot into issues of gender or class or sexuality.” As a professor who spoke out about issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality, Dr. Hawkins was a threat to a Christianity whose norms have long assumed a white, heterosexual, married, middle-class citizenship with male leadership. Dr. Hawkins has been a voice at Wheaton who helped insure that important discussions and debates continued. Her departure from Wheaton will be a loss to the faculty and the students that risks reinforcing a narrower definition of Christianity and less open debate.
Although Dr. Hawkins is leaving Wheaton, the question remains what will become of the institution of Wheaton and the possibilities for evangelical Christianity. On Sunday, I participated in an interfaith panel of solidarity at the Islamic Center of Boston, Wayland, the town where I serve as a minister. Publicaly standing against Islamophobia is an important expression of my feminist, religious commitments—as is standing against a narrowing of evangelical Christianity that seeks to silence the voice of a black woman who challenges the white, heterosexual, patriarchal norms of Christianity. Rather than writing off Wheaton, I will continue to speak up for an institution where space remains for questioning students to find their way to deeper understandings of the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexuality that shape the social and religious landscape of our shared world.
The Rev. Stephanie May, ThD, is minister of the FIrst Parish in Wayland, MA, a Unitarian Universalist minister. Prior to becoming a minister, Stephanie completed a Doctorate in Theology from Harvard Divinity School in Religion, Gender, and Culture. For many years, Stephanie worked as managing editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She continues to serve as a part of the Feminist Studies in Religion Forum.