CYBERJOURNAL FOR PENTECOSTAL-CHARISMATIC RESEARCH #16
Post-1960s Pentecostalism and the Promise of a Future For Pentecostal Holiness Women Preachers
by Kristen Welch
In the fall of 2004, I interviewed three women preachers from the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), namely Charlene West, Peggy Eby, and Debbie Whipple. I wanted to know how they were called to preach and what their ministries were like. As a result I learned about Charlene West’s missionary work in Costa Rica and Venezuela as well as her current work as pastor of a Hispanic church in Oklahoma City. I also learned about some of Peggy Eby’s spiritual life story and current ministry in Houston. She is probably best known for her work in Women’s Ministries in the IPHC. Finally, I learned about Debbie Whipple, her prayer walks for Evangelism USA, and her process for composing sermons. My time spent with each of these women left me full of admiration for them, as well as inspiration to continue doing the work in academia that I am called to do. Debbie Whipple’s death in January of this year has left me full of determination to see that at least some of her legacy will continue to influence others for good through my work on the relationship between women preachers and theories of generative ethos.
After I transcribed each one of their interviews and after they had gone through the final editing process each of them did for me, I noticed that something important was absent from our conversations: feminism. My focus on “ethos” and my reliance on using rhetorical analysis (used as a heuristics for forming a relationship between theories of generative ethos and the interviews) led me to ponder deeply what theological, social, political, and experiential contexts the women drew upon in order to communicate their spiritual identities in the interviews. Though all three women establish their authority through a call to preach narrative and evidence of the work they do, they do not call themselves feminists. However, feminists have established such a large political, academic, and social presence in our post-1960s society, perhaps the most significant question we can ask about how IPHC women preachers establish their ethos is: Why don’t they identify themselves as feminists? To avoid an identification with feminism means to choose to ignore a great source of cultural power.
My research into ethos has led me to the conclusion that the construction of a person’s identity within a particular autobiographical instantiation of their identity, such as occurred in the interviews I conducted, is partially intentional and partially unintentional. That is, the speaker both recognizes and speaks to her audience, in this case not only me but their vision of who would be reading the transcripts of their interviews, by intentionally putting in some statements that lead us to form a picture of them. However, the speaker also shares part of their identity through a sense of who they are no matter who the audience might be. Therefore the absence of feminism is particularly important since the West, Eby, and Whipple each left it out of their spoken vision of ethos which, as I have briefly explained, includes a vision of their audience since ethos is a construction of self for a particular audience.
My engagement with these questions and my speculation on possible answers is not a product of academic disinterest in the subject. In the spring of 2005, I was asked to rewrite one of my comprehensive exams because I did not describe women preachers and feminist theologians as part of a spectrum of believers; instead, I described them as dichotomous groups because the women preachers I studied for that exam specifically denied that they were feminists or seemed to ignore feminism all-together. As stated before, the IPHC women preachers I interviewed in 2004 never even said the word during the interviews. Ignoring feminism does not only occur at the local level but at the denominational level in the IPHC. The leaders and participants of the 1996 Solemn Assembly repented of seven major sins, one of which was male domination, but never used the term feminism. Finally, at the 2005 Conference on College Composition and Communication, the biggest national conference in my field, I felt some veneration when I attended a session and questioned two presenters who discussed the history of women preachers about why they did not mention feminism, and they explained that feminism had nothing to do with their topic.
The Shift From Women’s Rights to Feminism
Feminism embraces a wide range of ideological and theoretical perspectives today. Rosemarie Tong’s introductory reader on feminist thought lists several types of feminism, including but not limited to, liberal feminism, radical feminism with libertarian and cultural perspectives, Marxist and socialist feminism, psychoanalytic and gender feminism, existentialist feminism, postmodern feminism, multicultural and global feminism, and eco-feminism. Nancy Cott, in her 1987 book The Grounding of Modern Feminism, claims that the term “woman’s movement” was replaced by “Feminism” in the 1910s in America (13). Women’s rights in the early twentieth century were now about the awakening of conscience, or a social awakening, as opposed to a movement with clear political or social goals, such as the right to vote (14). Feminism changed women’s rights as it became an ideology held in the minds of different women who were united intellectually for the purposes of changing society instead of a group of women temporarily united toward a common goal for concrete social reform in working conditions or orphanages or other similar areas. Though women did not finally gain the right to vote in all of the states until August 26, 1920 after Tennessee was the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the term feminism represented a desire to change the way women were perceived as human beings, as individuals, as opposed to uniting to meet a goal, such as suffrage, and then disbanding with a loss of purpose or cohesion even before all of their political goals were realized (13-14).
Cott quotes Carrie Chapman Catt who defines feminism as a “world-wide revolt against all the artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom” in her 1914 speech (14). The woman’s movement was broader than the emerging feminist agenda because their goals were not limited to a concern with women (14-15). Feminism as an “ism” or an ideology, was about a set of principles that not everybody espoused. By the 1920s, the term was out of fashion and today no single definition of it exists (4). Cott defines feminism in the early 80s as:
Cott says there is no singular feminist viewpoint because of body, culture, gender identification, race, age and class. I would add religion and faith. However, feminism does not adhere to pure individualism because that would remove the basis for collective self-understanding or action (4-5).
In the 1920s feminism was characterized as trying to make women into men, as if women were against men, according to Cott. It threatened the unity of the family, social cohesion, and so on. Therefore, the 20s was a period of anti-feminism. The tendency to deny one was a feminist was tied to the belief that the ideology called for women’s solidarity and in actual practice, women must work with and not against men in order to accomplish goals (15). The women I interviewed leaned toward this perspective, though they defined themselves as equals to men.
So, Why Not Feminism?
Part of the answer to my earlier questions asking why the women I interviewed do not claim to be feminists may lie in the reductive and ever-changing definitions of feminism that are employed. For example, if we apply a simplified definition of feminism to mean every person who values the work of women, then we would have many, many people who could define themselves as feminist, but still only a small segment choosing to identify themselves as such. If we try to approach the topic of feminism by simply drawing upon definitions of radical feminists, as so many do, then we ignore the enormous diversity in scholarship that exists. The only thing way we can adequately define all forms of feminism is by describing the disunity that exists. Within that disunity, feminist theologians have defined a place that, if the women I interviewed chose to, enable conservative Christians to define themselves as feminists.
In my opinion, IPHC women preachers come closest to matching the definition of what Anne Clifford describes as “reformist” feminist theologians. She characterizes “reformist Christian feminist” theologians as those who look for “modest changes within existing church structures.” “In the Protestant denominations,” she writes, “the more conservative of the reformist feminists are the evangelicals or fundamentalists who are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible and to a literal interpretation of its texts, yet are also opposed to gender bias in the treatment of women in their families, churches, and civil societies.” These feminists advocate “better” biblical translations and “more emphasis on egalitarian passages in the Bible” (33). Reformist theologians are situated between Clifford’s description of radical feminist theologians as “post-Christian” and reconstructionist feminist theologians as those who fight for the liberation of women using the Bible as a way to access that freedom.
The Implications of Reductive Characterizations of Feminists
Even so, many Pentecostal women preachers are not looking to establish an identity as a feminist. A possible reason that IPHC women preachers do not identify with feminism, even if they recognize that feminists have had made some positive changes such as making the equality between men and women more visible, is that the political platform of post-1960s feminists make feminism unpalatable to many conservative Christians. In Dr. Janice Crouse’s speech on why feminism does not reflect the values of Christian women which was given at Princeton in 2003, she blames feminists for the sexual revolution and the resulting social problems suffered, such as a rise in abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, divorce, and infidelity (2). Lisa Bevere, author of Fight Like a Girl: The Power of Being a Woman, writes that feminism was once part of the drive for gender equality but has now become a drive for women to adopt chauvinistic attitudes toward men (29). Bevere points out that women who stayed at home raising their children were characterized by feminists as committing “professional suicide,” and each “pregnancy had the potential to enslave you to your offspring.” Further, women who stayed home were “dull” and “boring” in comparison to the exciting office life of working women (30). Neither of these women are entirely wrong in their objections to or characterization of feminism.
Furthermore, J. Lee Grady points out that “Modern feminism isn’t really feminism at all, since true feminism is the belief that women have God-given rights and human dignity. Many modern feminists have abandoned any mention of religious faith, and some have, in fact, embraced New Age spirituality and goddess worship” (163). It is small wonder, then, that feminism lacks appeal for Christian women. Yet, while it is important to be aware of the spiritual and social errors radical feminists make in their pursuit of equality or superiority, it is also important to view radical feminists as only a small segment of feminists today. When we become educated about the history of feminism and the contemporary views of feminist theologians, those who speak against the views of radical feminists will be able to do so without condemning all feminist ideologies derived from the belief that men and women were created equal.
A disturbing trend today is the use of the term “feminist” to silence women. Grady writes that people are using the term to identify any woman who “aspires to a leadership position” or is “ambitious” in order to destroy her credibility as a Christian (162). In light of the range of feminist theologies and ideologies that I have briefly described in this paper, I would urge church members to become more educated about feminism and to discontinue the use of the term to silence women. Grady mentions what many scholars already know: feminism has Christian roots in the nineteenth-century woman’s movement in the U.S. (162). Furthermore, the complete disassociation with Christianity espoused by radical, vocal feminists does not represent the views of all feminists, male or female. To reduce the meanings of feminism to represent only the views of radical feminists and then to use the term to destroy the work of aspiring women who are not radical feminists is a wrong that must be redressed with a focus on educating the public.
Church members or leaders who use the term “feminist” to destroy the ministry of women preachers may not have looked beyond the gender to the person. For example, many women preachers are more interested in serving others than they are in displacing men as radical feminists might advise. The servant’s heart is what separates women preachers from those feminists who do hold to negative, radical, non-Christian ideologies. Lisa Bevere reflects that point of view, writing that “All authority, whether given to a man or a woman, is given to serve others for their benefit and growth” (122). ). Dr. Rev. Sheri Benvenuti writes that “authority was never the issue; rather, servanthood was always the focal point of one’s ministry calling” (3). For the Pentecostal, she says, “all authority is defined by the degree to which one serves” (3). It is not “derived through position alone…but rather is founding the individual who serves the body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit” (3). In A Paradigm Shift: Women in Leadership Joy Graetz points out that authority was given to both men and women in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1:26) and writes that when church leaders follow Boaz’s example and become the advocates, instead of the enemies, of women they help the church to grow (153). Men do not become advocates for women (when such advocates are needed) so that women can “flaunt some hideous power” or so that “men become suppressed shadows of their former ministries,” as some might believe (152-53). Equating the heart and goals of women preachers and leaders with that of radical feminists demonstrates both ignorance and fear on the part of the accuser.
Motherhood as the Dividing Line
At the heart of the debate on women is the controversy over whether a woman should stay at home or should go to work. Of course, women carry out home-based businesses, work part-time jobs, work-full time jobs at the daycares where they children attend, work full-time and devote an equal amount of time and care to their children in the evenings, work full-time and work out a schedule with their husbands so that one parent can be with the children all or most of the time—and the list goes on. These are just a few of the many different ways women try to balance parenting and work. An assumption often made is that it is the woman’s responsibility to rear the children, but perhaps married couples need to make it more clear how much parenting really is a joint effort and how one parent is not more “qualified” than the other. Yet it is undeniable that even if women share parenting responsibilities, they are still feel primarily responsible for making sure their children are well-cared for at all times.
For women preachers, the debate over work versus home is even more controversial since to believe that God called a woman to work—even if that work is preaching—undermines arguments based upon the presupposition that God wants all mothers to just stay home. Those who say women should not work outside of the home do not make an exception for preachers. Culturally-based pressure once resulted in what Harvey Cox describes a “call-refusal motif” that characterizes the call stories of nineteenth and early to middle twentieth century preachers. These women received the call to preach, but knowing that it was culturally unacceptable to do so, refused. Most then faced some sort of crisis and then felt compelled to accept the call as part of reconciling with God and allowing him to rescue them from their crisis (130-32). The Pentecostal women preachers interviewed by David Roebuck and later analyzed by Mary McClintock Fulkerson almost unanimously professed to a “struggle to accept God’s call” (261-62). One of these women claimed that God spoke to her every night until she accepted the call to preach, and another constructed her call paradoxically by outlining how she overcame her own prejudices against women preachers by experiencing the call herself (263, 65). The folklorist Elaine Lawless asserts that all of the Pentecostal women preachers she interviewed “resisted the call” with one even claiming she felt that a fall on the ice, which resulted in her hand being permanently crippled, was God’s way of making her “pay attention” to her call to preach (43). In Scanzoni and Setta’s collection of testimonies of women preachers in Evangelical, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions, the Nazarene Mary Cagle claims she felt called but tried to avoid it (237-38). When her husband became ill and his life hung in the balance, she tried to bargain with God: she would preach if He would allow her husband to live. She says that God replied, “Will you do what I want you to do whether I heal your husband or not?” She said she would, so after her husband’s death two months later, she began to preach (238).
The famous Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson’s call story tells how she strongly resisted the call to preach until she almost died and felt she had to accept (Scanzoni and Setta 244-45). “Oh, don’t you ever tell me that a woman cannot be called to preach!” she writes (245). Likewise, early-to-middle twentieth century IPHC preacher Grace Hope Curtis strongly resisted the call to preach but ended with a passionate embrace of it after her trial. I will briefly recount it for you: She tells of praying for her daughter, only a year old, who was very ill (16). She says she prayed for days and days but finally could do no more than watch her life ebb away (16). “We trusted God fully in those days,” she writes, “and we prayed and prayed for her healing, but she continued to lay lifeless for days” (16). She says at that point God reminded her of her call to preach and she tearfully accepted it (16). She writes, “As I surrendered I looked down at the baby. She had ceased her death rattle breathing and had fallen into a deep natural sleep” (17). Later she writes, “I thank God for the ministry He gave me although some fifty years ago; it was not as easy as it is today” (18).
Curtis indirectly addresses the stay-at-home versus go-to-work/preach dilemma in her autobiography when she describes leaving her two school-aged children behind so she could go to preach. She wrote,
While I was telling them goodbye with tears running down my face, a dear old Indian preacher patted me on the back and said, ‘Hannah must have been an awful good woman.’ The thought of Hannah taking little Samuel to the temple and leaving him there dried my tears, for I knew Hannah only saw her little Samuel once a year, and it would be only a few weeks until I could hold my baby in my arms again. (19)
Contemporary IPHC Women Preachers as Mothers
Motherhood, of course, comes up in all three of my interviews with contemporary Pentecostal Holiness women preachers. For example, Charlene West describes her difficulties as a widow with four children and a call to preach, but does not describe her any sort of tension between her calling and motherhood. She describes making occasional arrangements for the care of one of her children while she took Spanish classes in a matter-of-fact way as she tells how she followed the path God laid out for her. Debbie Whipple describes her children leaving home as “very, very difficult.” Her relationship with her children relates to her relationship with God. She made a connection between her efforts to limit non-Christian influences on her children to God’s jealousy over non-Christian influences in our lives. “Whenever we let something influence us more than Him,” then we have allowed something of less value to direct us on our paths (4).
Unlike West and Whipple, Peggy Eby poignantly describes a tension between her call to preach and motherhood when her children were small and her husband traveled a lot so she had to spend most of her time at home. Her feelings of resentment were resolved one day when she was complaining about the situation:
I said, “Lord, why did you call me to preach? I’m doing nothing but changing dirty diapers and wiping runny noses.” I felt His response in my spirit: “If you do nothing else in life, give me three disciples that are totally committed to me and your life will not be in vain.” At that point I laid down my driving desire to be an evangelist and saw the value of raising my children to know God and to serve Him. (3)
Perhaps Eby’s interview provides the insight needed to see the way that being a mother does not cancel out the work a woman is called to do outside the home, but that work outside the home is sometimes temporarily less important than the types of efforts she makes to raise her children in the faith. Notice that she was enjoying a partnership-type of marriage and only felt that she was limited when her husband had to travel extensively.
Debbie Whipple incorporated her calling into the fullness of her life. She says, “So it’s in the car, doing the dishes, fixing the bed, at night, first thing in the morning, at work” when describing how she constructs a sermon (3). In the same way, as a mother, scholar, university instructor, wife, friend, and so on, I never really lay my work to the side. I get up early, read throughout the day, write when possible, discuss topics of interest when in contact with my friends in the field, mull things over while I’m driving. My work is not divided from the rest of my life. The rest of my life, which includes two young children right now, is not divided from the fabric of my days and nights either. Perhaps the segmented work versus home approach is not an accurate representation of the ways women work. Women work in ways that utilize connections, even when separated from their work when they are at home or from their home lives when they are at work. Further, they utilize all of those times in between to work on those things occupying their minds.
The battle between working and stay-at-home mothers in the church has had a poisonous effect. The drive to stay home, espoused by many conservative Christians such as Janice Crouse who has published several articles on the Concerned Women for America website, makes many Christian working women into the enemies of women who stay home because they feel judged by them. Many stay-at-home mothers defend what has become an economic luxury for them by characterizing their choice to stay home as more “Christian” than the choice to work. The belief that women who stay home are better mothers than those who work emerged gradually over the twentieth century. In his chapter on how Pentecostals in the Church of God have risen to power during the twentieth century, David Roebuck writes that:
As Church of God women increasingly saw themselves as part of the middle class, they desired the accouterments of the middle class. For those who came from backgrounds in which women previously had little choice but to work outside the home, a stay-at-home wife and mother was an important symbol—whether grounded in reality or not—that Pentecostals had arrived. Women had a new place based on economic power rather than spiritual power. (57)
However, some redress is coming about from a new focus on the Proverbs thirty-one woman, though many carefully focused interpretations of that passage still conveniently ignore many of the implications a fuller interpretation reveal. In verses 10-31, King Lemuel of Massa repeats his mother’s description of a godly woman who has servants (read maids and babysitters into this), who has two businesses outside of the home (a vineyard and she sells sashes that she makes), and who is a mother whose children grow up to call her “blessed” for all she did to benefit them inside and outside of the home. Her value is found in what she does for her family and in her inner spiritual beauty exemplified by her devotion to God, not in her refusal to work outside the home.
The Promise of a Future for Women Preachers
A future for women preachers rests upon the continued critique of epistemological differences and resulting ideologies that determine the ways in which truth is located or generated. For Pentecostals who lean toward fundamentalism, understanding the nature and practice of theology would lead toward a better understanding of how hermeneutics affects exegesis. Feminist theologians such as Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza may not reflect the doctrinal position of a Christian college or university, but using her theology as a way to create resistance to alternative ideas as well as to find surprising levels of similarity between one’s position and hers makes the reasons for and the implications of the tenets of one’s own ideology more visible. Furthermore, the work of feminist theologians often unmasks the processes used by theologians who determine how spiritual truths are determined and explained in order to show how they are, to varying degrees, grounded in culturally-biased subjectivity. Therefore, the future of education in Christian colleges should incorporate teaching critical thinking skills that allow students to see how doctrinal arguments are situated within larger contexts, if such learning objectives are not already in place. In other words, doctrinal arguments should be put into a dialectical conversation with alternative beliefs and students should not be allowed to simply line their ideas up against straw man arguments. The result is not only a blindness to the variety of arguments that exist but also a weakened ability to produce a strong response when proponents of alternative ideologies confront them, as Saint Augustine pointed out several centuries ago in De Doctrina Christiana.
Furthermore, change must occur in the hearts and minds of the members of the IPHC as well as in other Christian denominations. Practices must begin to line up with professed theologies. Although Debbie Whipple was educated at an IPHC college and ordained by the IPHC, she did not feel that she could begin her ministry. She felt that she had to overcome very real sense of male domination that she felt while working at the IPHC Headquarters (now known as the Resource Development Center) in Bethany. In response to her dilemma, she says that her husband told her to just stay at her job because God was going to open up something there. She goes on:
And I remember being on the steps to the Bishop’s office and I thought, no, nothing’s going to happen to me [I’m not going to be able to be a preacher] because the men won’t let it happen to me. And just when I got to the top step, God asked me: “Am I not bigger than these men in this building?” And I had to stop. My answer was not immediate because I didn’t know. I knew He was bigger. I didn’t know if He would do it—I knew He had enough power to do it—but I didn’t know. Then I thought, of course you’re bigger. So, at that point things changed and doors started to open. (4-5)
Continued change in the IPHC as well as in other Christian denominations rests upon continued efforts to draw upon the talents of women in all leadership positions. The key to changing an atmosphere of male domination at the IPHC headquarters is to make women leaders a real presence. At the time of our interview in 2004, Eby felt that the IPHC needed
to include women in positions of leadership, not just as preachers. Eby says,
When the Bible talks about the creation of mankind in His own image, it says “male and female he created them.” It takes men and women together to express the image of God to the church and to the world. I believe that church leadership will be lacking a powerful expression of God’s character if women are excluded. (4)
Fortunately, since the 2005 convention, new efforts have been made to include women in these roles. My mother, LaDonna Scott, who has been working at the IPHC Headquarters for the past twenty-seven years and who has now served three bishops as a secretary, writes that for the first time a woman was elected to the second highest board in the IPHC at the 2005 convention. Trish Weedn, a layperson from Oklahoma who also serves as a State Representative from her district in Oklahoma, is a member of the General Executive Board. Two women, one a preacher and the other a Hispanic layperson, were elected to the highest board, the General Board of Administration. Even so, none of these women work full-time at the headquarters and the norm is not to place women in administrative positions; in fact, Scott only recalls three such women. To date, no woman has served at the executive level at headquarters (9).
Yet there is hope. There is hope for a future where ambitious, working women will not be denigrated by the misuse of the term “feminist.” There is hope for a future where church leaders will become educated more about the reach and the range of the term “feminist” so they will not make the mistake of reducing all feminists to a characterization of radical feminism. There is hope for a future that includes cooperation and support between working and stay-at-home Christian mothers in place of competition and attitudes of superiority. To reach such destinations, we must continue to put Christ first, others next, and ourselves last. We must embrace a servant’s heart.
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