This week I’m packing up my 18-year-old daughter as she heads off to college. In a twist of providence, I’m also returning to the classroom after 21 years away. While she’s navigating the firsts of freshman year, I’ll be navigating the firsts of a master of divinity.
These last few months of applying to schools, securing funding, and planning out our schedules have been a sweet time for us. In God’s wisdom, he’s decided that we’ll share these milestones. But this time has also made me wrestle with how the evangelical church both facilitates and impedes women’s academic development.
My education story doesn’t begin with me and my daughter. It starts with my maternal grandmother, who left home at 16 to attend college—not because she was drawn by academics or a career but because she felt called to a life of Christian service.
She came of age during the post–World War II years, when a great youth revival was sweeping the nation. As my grandmother’s best friends settled into lives of factory work and marriage, she moved 800 miles away to study for church work. There she eventually met my grandfather, who was funding his own ministerial training through the GI Bill.
Ironically, my grandmother never considered herself much of a student and even decades later carried a sense of “imposter syndrome,” despite her college degree. But her brave steps established a norm for her daughters, who all pursued higher education—at least higher Christian education.
The same evangelical culture that called my grandmother, mother, and aunts to higher education also reminded them of the importance of home and family, and the balancing act between both became increasingly difficult as the gender wars ramped up in the wake of second-wave feminism. So while my mother—one of the brainiest women I know—began graduate work after college, she soon set it aside to have a family and support my dad as he finished his own education.
Still, she always found a way to keep learning. When she was teaching in a Christian day school, she took distance education courses to improve her Latin. As a young girl, I watched her study with her textbooks and papers spread across the dining room table. But as I remember it, even those efforts had to be justified by her work in ministry.
While men’s education seemed almost self-validating, women had to explain how their pursuit of higher education would be used to “serve God.”
Baylor history professor Andrea Turpin, whose work focuses on gender and religious higher education, talks about an “evangelical pragmatism” that might explain this phenomenon.
Even schools and denominations that traditionally restricted women’s roles in society “were willing to bend cultural norms about appropriate activities for women in order to get more hands on deck for God,” she writes.
This unique combination of gender traditionalism and higher learning makes evangelical women something of an anomaly. Historically, they’ve been both ahead of and behind the curve of female advancement.
When my grandmother went off to college in the late 1940s, she was among only 5 percent of American women. And when my mother received her degree in 1975, that number had risen only 6 points to 11 percent. Both were in the clear minority of US women. But they were also part of a deeply traditional subculture that erected barriers to their ability to use their degrees outside the home or church.
These mixed signals are still in play today, I would argue. For evangelical women, pursuing higher education is or has to be deeply tied to their commitment to God.
This dynamic might help explain another curious trend: While higher education tends to correlate to lower degrees of religious commitment, data suggests that evangelicals with college degrees are among the most committed churchgoers. In my family’s anecdotal experience, education and religious commitment go hand in hand—especially for women.
But this also presents a unique set of questions for evangelical women who are pursuing ministry degrees like I am:
How much of the decision to pursue seminary is driven by the fact that “ministry” is one of the few ways we can justify higher education? And perhaps even more disconcertingly, what happens when women exit academia for a professional space that may not have available jobs for them? What happens when we study for ministry in a context that doesn’t always support women in ministry?
I once asked a college professor how she advises her students. After earning a doctorate in the male-dominated field of theology and after spending years in a Bible college setting, what does she say to evangelical women who believe they are called to seminary? How can they justify investing time, resources, and expense in a space that may not have positions for them when they finish?
She responded with wisdom that I believe serves men and women alike.
“You don’t go to seminary because a job or a career is waiting for you on the other side,” she said. “You go to seminary to study and learn. You go to seminary because God calls you there. And he will provide for whatever he calls you to.”
As I embark on my own seminary journey—middle-aged and uncertain of what lies ahead—I hold this insight close to my heart. Returning to school at this point in my life is a significant sacrifice and in many ways a risk. But it’s because I’ve had to wait 21 years that I value it all the more.
In her dissertation, “An Exploration of the Factors that Influence Women to Pursue a Master of Divinity at Evangelical Seminaries,” Sharon Hodde Miller notes that choosing to attend seminary is a significant decision for evangelical women precisely because of the barriers they face.
“None of the women,” she writes of those she interviewed, “woke up one morning and spontaneously decided to attend seminary. The decision was not made rashly or in haste. None of the participants entered seminary out of sheer gumption. On the contrary, most of the women attended seminary in spite of their fears. The participants weighed the cost—some with great anguish—and after much prayer and seeking counsel, decided to take the leap.”
As I return to school this fall, I know there are no guarantees. In many ways, I’m emerging from a complicated space that both advances and restricts women in higher education. I can see all the ways the system is broken and all the ways I’d like to be part of fixing it. But I can also see how God uses broken things to bring about goodness.
I see how he used my grandmother’s call to Christian ministry to set her on a path she would never have taken otherwise. I see how that call—although it never resulted in a career—changed the course of her life and the lives of her daughters, granddaughters, and, this fall, her great-granddaughter. I see how the obedience of her 16-year-old self meant more than she could have ever known.
And I can’t help but wonder how my obedience at 43 might do the same.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.