On Being a Woman, & a Bible Major (A Guest Post) / by Sarah Schwartz

A while back, I asked my friend Julie to put her experience as a female Biblical Studies major at a conservative evangelical university into words. Julie is one of the most fiercely intelligent people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and her description of her undergraduate journey is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.

“So, what’s your major?” they would ask for the millionth time, because that’s what college students do when they meet each other.

“Biblical and Theological studies,” I would reply with enthusiasm.

“Oh,” they would say, their eyebrows shooting up in surprise. “I never would’ve expected it. Well, what do you want to do with your major, then? Do you want to be a children’s pastor, or something?”

I’d cringe internally, momentarily debating whether to give the nice answer (“Actually, I hope to be a college Bible professor”) or the sarcastic answer (“Trust me, you don’t want me taking care of your kids”).

The nice answer typically won out.

Having now graduated from my alma mater and recently begun my journey of going to seminary in another state, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences in undergrad, primarily those that happened because I was a female Bible major. It’s always difficult to be part of a department where those of your own identity are scant, and I had plenty of incidents that, despite my professors’ and peers’ good intentions, left me at best taken aback or, at worst, hurt. The vast majority of the hurtful encounters were unintentional, but the ignorance involved doesn’t diminish or excuse the pain of the experience. As a new seminary student, I’ve recounted some of these stories with my new friends, listing them off very matter-of-factly, almost not realizing what I’m saying – that is, until I get wide eyes and shocked expressions.

“You were the only girl in your class?”

“They said that to you?”

“I’ve never had to go through that, I can’t imagine!”

Their reactions have jolted me out of the passive acceptance of those negative encounters. In fact, they’ve moved me beyond it.

Reflecting on these experiences has made me angry at the injustice of having to go through them in the first place, at the knowledge that other women have and still continue to have to deal with them. My experiences reveal the larger cultural climate of my alma mater, with which many are still, unknowingly or not, complicit.

I once visited the commentary section of the library and pulled more than 300 books off the shelves, only to find 14 women’s names amongst them. I also made it through significant portions of semesters before I ever heard a female theologian’s name mentioned in class. When they were mentioned, more than half were qualified (or, more often, disqualified) with the term “liberal” or “feminist” – a term I eventually coined “the other f-word” because of its negative connotation in so many of my Bible classes.

I had multiple Bible classes where I was the only woman in the room. And even in the classes where women made up a quarter of the class, there were still times when they took up less than a tenth of the conversation.

I listened to the stories of my fellow female Bible majors, who likewise felt the struggle to overcome the intimidation factor that comes from trying to speak up in a male-dominated classroom. I once sat in horror as a professor, in the middle of a lecture, joked that my friend shouldn’t speak up in class, not knowing the amount of courage that it took her to voice her comment in the first place. Even I would occasionally bite my tongue in class discussions regarding issues I was passionate about, simply because I was afraid my answer wouldn’t be taken seriously because it was being voiced by a girl.

I constantly struggled over whether I needed to act like “one of the guys” just to feel part of the group. And I grew jealous of how easily my male peers could develop mentor relationships with my professors simply because they were men and there was such a strong emphasis on guy-to-guy/girl-to-girl relationships.

It took me until my junior year to take a Bible class with a female professor – and that’s because I intentionally planned to take the course with her. Had I chosen to do so, I could have navigated every class required for my major without ever studying under a female member of the Bible faculty.

When people asked about my calling, their response was always filtered through what they believed to be “appropriate” for women to pursue. Since I feel called to be a Bible professor, I had it easier than some women, who felt called to be pastors and were subsequently called “wrong,” “unbiblical,” or “sinful” for their desire to preach the Word of God from behind a pulpit.

When I began to develop a more egalitarian theology of gender, I was accused of choosing it because I was a woman and it was “convenient” for me (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). Not once did they consider the questions, research, dialogue, and prayer I had poured into my study on the topic.

After all of this, I had to wonder: How much does a girl have to endure before she starts to internalize the idea that her voice matters less simply because she is female?

By the grace of God, my overall undergraduate experience was a positive one, thanks to the army of friends, professors, and mentors who surrounded me and spoke life into me on a constant basis. I am beyond grateful for every word of encouragement, every affirmation on God’s call for me to be a Bible professor, every practical piece of advice, every smile of encouragement. They are a significant portion of the reason why the last four years of my life were some of best that I’ve been fortunate to live on this earth.

That being said, I worry for the women still in the biblical studies department at my alma mater, afraid that they’ll have the same experiences I had.

So to my former professors who know women studying the Bible, I make this plea: Advocate for your female students. Provide space for them to speak up in class. Stand up for them outside of class. Develop mentoring relationships with them. Pour into them, even if you disagree with their theology, whatever it may be. Speak life into them; they need it.

To those of you who know women studying the Bible, I make this plea: Stand beside those women. Provide safe places for them to pursue their calling. Listen to their stories when things get tough. Acknowledge that it’s wrong that they should have to deal with these negative encounters. Encourage them to keep going. Speak life into them; they need it.

And to those of you women who are studying the Bible, I make this plea: Look after one another. Help one another succeed in class. Have the courage to speak out about your experiences, good and bad. Provide the space for yourselves to acknowledge that it’s hard sometimes. Encourage one another to keep going. And when people oppose you, continue to speak life around them; they need it.

One day, Lord willing, I will be able to return and speak life into these women myself as their professor. Until then, I’ll continue to pray for these incredible, brave women of God.

Keep studying, ladies. Keep diving into the Word and engaging in discussions about it. Keep asking questions. Keep fighting. The church needs you.