Sexist Professor

I had waited to go to seminary since I was thirteen years old.  It was my dream and I was ecstatic to start the journey towards ordained leadership. My candidacy committee was supportive and excited to see this journey unfold as well.

As I entered seminary though, I quickly knew something was off. I sat in a small peer group in which comments about me (the only female in the group) cooking them dinner or getting the chairs ready for them were commonplace. The professor leading the group would often initiate these “jokes” and loudly chuckle, as my male colleagues laughed along or silently avoided my eye contact.  I let it roll off for a while, thinking that maybe this is what seminary was like, thinking that maybe I was culture shocking to this new place and these new people.  I took courses from this professor, in hopes of seeing him in a different light, and creating opportunities be more than “the token estrogen” in our weekly small group.  In one course, the professor began to talk about female pastors.  He called them “alpha females” who were often controlling and harsh, and most likely making up for the power they didn’t have in their home lives in the congregation.  None of us stopped him. None of us called him out in that classroom. None of us called him out in the hallways as he leered at female students and staff members either.  None of us called him out as he manipulated fellow faculty members, and consistently cut down the female faculty with whom he worked.

One day, amidst our weekly small group meetings, after one too many “good little girl” comments, I snapped. I walked away, sobbing (once out of earshot) down a hallway, desperately searching for anyone who I could trust to protect me from the onslaught of sexism and harassment that this professor had publicly wielded for months, or even simply reassure me that I wasn’t crazy, and it was real.

Unfortunately, I found an upstanding seminary official who listened to me, quoted a verse from Matthew 18 about confronting the person whom I had the problem with first, and sent me on my way. A week later I did exactly that, I met with the professor, alone, in an empty seminary classroom. Over the next hour I explained my experience, and waited for his response.  In the end, I left again frazzled and tear-filled. He had stood above me, telling me I needed to take a joke, telling me that I needed to respect that he was from a different time, telling me that there would be consequences if anyone called him, an advocate for women in ministry, a sexist. I remember going home that day having no idea where to turn, and thinking maybe, just maybe, I was crazy after all.

In the next week or so I read the entire student handbook and rules of conduct for students, staff, and faculty at the seminary. After that I began talking to other women, beginning with students, moving to staff, then faculty, and finally local alumni.  Turns out, I wasn’t the only one struggling with this professor.  Dozens had witnessed blatant sexism over the years, and a select few opened up about their own harassment stories instigated by this man. Each conversation ended with a bit of a shrug and a comment about longstanding, tenured faculty members being glued into the seminary forever, with no hope for removal.

I spent the next 8 months of my life filing complaint reports at my seminary, being interviewed by outside “analysts” in connection to the reports, looping in my candidacy committee and bishop (whom were life-saving-ly supportive), hiring a lawyer, telling my story, and fighting with seminary administration. It took me three months, a kick-ass bishop, two trips to the churchwide offices, and a large scale community organizing effort until anyone took me seriously.  I had more Bible verses thrown in my face than I ever would have imagined, and heard more bureaucratic speeches about “allowing things to happen quietly” than I would ever care to.  The fact was, the reputation of the seminary meant more to the people who were preparing me to be a leader in God’s church than the safety of my body and personhood.  This is the kind of sexual ethic we are living out. Not one that is based on caring for one another in Godly ways, and striving for safe and loving relationships, but one that is concerned about the reputation of institutions in a society that holds white, cis-gendered, men above all else.

I have since left my original seminary. It scares me to my very core that the institution I had to fight for my body to be respected in was in the church, and in one of the places that we are training our church’s leaders. Fear and silence has not done me much good over the years though.  So now, as I walk into my new seminary each morning, I fight back the demons of what was, and push forward in hope that the generation of leaders being training in this place may be ones who call out their colleagues on their dangerous behaviors.  I push forward in confidence that I have no doubt of my own God-given worth in body, mind, and spirit, and that I can teach that to those whom I walk with as well. I push forward in hope that in our centers of theological education we will hold strong to the Gospel of Jesus. A Gospel in which the downtrodden and persecuted were listened to, and those who held power unjustly over others were questioned. I pray each day that we will continue work to create better sexual harassment policies, that we will revisit tenure and how it functions, and that we will learn to trust young women when they say they are being violated physically and emotionally in our communities of faith.

5 Comments

  1. Seminary for me was a “good old boys club”. They wanted straight out of college young men to sit at their feet and parrot back their wisdom. They did not know how to handle women who had been successful in other fields or had spent years on church councils and running all types of programs on local and synod levels. This was a few years ago but I have to think many other women had the same experience and do not support their seminaries now. I have never referred someone to that seminary nor sent money. Actually, I shook the dust from my sandals and have said, “it is a great place to be from.”

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  2. Such a well told and familiar story. I too was the ‘first woman’ at my theological college, an ecumenical consortium with two of the three participating denominations not ordaining women at the time. Sexist discrimination, harassment and inappropriate behaviour on the part of some faculty. If I hadn’t had some great supportive folk in the system and personally — I would have been mincemeat. Fast forward five years, and I walk into another theological college as the ‘first woman’ faculty member. Another journey made unnecessarily difficult by sexist attitudes, sometimes coming from male faculty who thought of themselves as feminists. I was actually invited to a faculty meeting at the local nude beach! An extra sadness was the lack of support of some of the women students who felt I capitulated simply by being in relationship with my colleagues. Those two experiences made my time as a pastor seem like a piece of cake even when dealing with individuals and leaders who were prepared not to be on my side. Times change, however, and much progress in both of those colleges and others and in churches has been made. Recently my church had a denomination wide survey in which most members of our local church participated. They indicated so many wonderful characteristics of openness, welcoming, inclusiveness and faith. The biggest surprise for me was that they rated having a male minister (66%) or two male ministers (64%) much lower than having a female minister (98%) or two female ministers (93%).

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  3. Powerful storytelling. I give thanks for the witness here, and, with the author, offer prayers of faith and action that we might continue to call out systems of unjust power in our own institutions, so that all might know the full humanity of the family of Christ.

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  4. The women who came to seminary before me fought these battles, so by the time I attended, women were respected. I had an affirming & supportive experience. And that was 33 years ago, in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am appalled that this is happening to women today. You & others in your position deserve to be recognized & affirmed in your call. Shame on that seminary!

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  5. What a strong, powerfully written account. I am so sorry that such sexism would still exist in a seminary, but it is still rampant in many occupations. Kudos for sharing this story!

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