Evangelical Feminism: A History

In addition to Sue Horner’s review essay on Pamela D. H. Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism, we’ve included commentaries by other EEWC members on the recent spate of writings about evangelical feminism and about Cochran’s book in particular. The first commentary addresses the topic in general. The next four (named by author on the tabs below) focus only on Pamela Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism: A History.

Herstory and Evangelicalism: A Review Essay

Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles
by Julie Ingersoll.
New York: New York University Press, 2003. 180 pages, paperback.

Evangelical Feminism: A History 
by Pamela D. H. Cochran. 
New York: New York University Press, 2005. 243 pages, paperback.

by S. Sue Horner

Who are those women who constitute the category called “evangelical Christian women”?  What is evangelical (or biblical) feminism? How has the contemporary feminist movement interacted with evangelicalism or conservative Protestantism? How has gender influenced religious historians’ and sociologists’ understanding of what evangelicalism is? These are the foci of two recently published books by New York University Press: Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles by Julie Ingersoll, and Evangelical Feminism: A History by Pamela D. H. Cochran. Their studies bring to light the role women play in creating new institutions such as EEWC and Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), and their research thus contributes to bigger or more nuanced understandings of conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism.

Research on Evangelical Feminism

It is exciting that research on women in conservative Protestantism is finding a place in the academy. These are important stories that need to be more widely understood. It seems to be the day for this research—a very good thing given the current state of ignorance on the helpful role of feminism in our culture. Ingersoll, Cochran, and I were all independently engaged in doctoral studies and doing research on evangelical feminism in the 1990s. Ingersoll completed her dissertation at the University of Santa Barbara in 1997, I finished at Northwestern University in 2000, and Cochran received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2001. All three of us have some measure of ”insider” perspectives—we have lived in the evangelical ethos—but differed in the methods and focus in our research. All three of us interviewed a range of members of both EEWC and CBE. As archivist for EEWC, I had primary source materials very close at hand for my research and was able to provide space and materials to Cochran for her research. Though Cochran’s and my work bear a close resemblance, we employed different methods.

Methods of Analysis: Intellectual History

Method does make a difference in the analysis of data. It is important that readers be aware of the diverse methodologies employed to analyze quite similar data—in this case, the events, stories, memories of women and some men associated with EEWC and CBE. A variety of methodologies are available to historians of religion. In the past, intellectual history was most common. That is a study of the ideas of the leaders or elites of the movement and a focus on constructing a “coherent narrative.” Often then, the story of evangelicalism was dominated by the idea-focus of Reformed/Calvinistic theology constructed out of white, male experience. The perspective of women or of Wesleyan theology—based more on experience than on theological concepts—has essentially been invisible. This single-focus or privileging of one tradition is being increasingly challenged. See, for example, Reta Finger’s fine explanation of the differences between “core” and “penumbra” evangelicalism in our forthcoming Encyclopedia entry. (See sidebar for more information.) Additionally, I believe that the desire for a coherent narrative often squashes the multiple, distinctive voices that constitute a movement like evangelicalism. What happens then is not a coherent narrative, but an “incomplete narrative.” Trying to capture the meanings of evangelicalism by only focusing on theological writings, typically the work of white men, loses the richness of diversity and multiplicities of a living evangelicalism. Women’s actions, thinking, and experiences have shaped and continue to shape evangelicalism.

Methods of Analysis: Enthnography and Culture Production Theory

Ingersoll’s study is innovative in the world of evangelical historiography. She uses ethnography and cultural production theory as expressed by noted religious sociologist Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton University. Cultural production theory sees the creation of culture as an on-going process characterized by negotiation, compromise, and conflict. Framing evangelicalism as a subculture widens the definition beyond a solely theology-based understanding. Categories like gender become powerfully relevant alongside ideas and theology when trying to answer the question, “What is evangelicalism?” Cultural production theory brings into focus how conflict and dialectical processes create and recreate religion.

Methods of Analysis: Theoretical Model of Accommodation

Cochran’s methodology is more traditional or “core.” She builds on the “accommodation model” of prominent sociologist of religion James Davison Hunter, her dissertation advisor. This theory sees changes within evangelicalism as the effects of increasing secularism. That is, evangelicalism is a fixed or normative reality that loses its authentic core in its interaction with secular culture—hence the behavior that Hunter describes as a “culture war.”

Many of us may be familiar with the evangelical lament of the destructive nature of “secular humanism.” This flows out of an “essentialist” or fixed view of evangelicalism. Cochran suggests that the center of evangelicalism is biblical authority. She admits that the historic view of the Bible as “inerrant” has shifted to what she calls a “hermeneutical” stance. That means that the Bible continues to be authoritative, but there is more recognition of the cultural context and the necessity of using interpretive methods—hermeneutics. However, determining what is culturally-conditioned truth and what is absolute truth has distinct boundaries. In other words, evangelicals are more open than they once were to biblical interpretive historical critical methods, but only to a point. Evangelicalism then has some openness to change, but it is the extent of changes that evangelical theologians debate. What becomes important here is defining the boundaries of who and what can be considered evangelical. Cochran suggests that evangelicalism functions as a community that establishes these constraints or boundaries.

My Own Perspective on the Study of Evangelical Feminism

To understand my perspective on all of this, it may be helpful to know how I analyzed the data of EEWC in my dissertation. My methodologies included social history, social movement theory, and feminist biography. My thesis is that the evangelical feminist movement is a significant and vital social reform movement within evangelicalism, that also drew resources from second wave feminism. Additionally, the evangelical feminist movement contributes to the ever-broadening understandings and definitions of feminism or feminisms, as well as expanding meanings of evangelicalism. Evangelical feminism then is a diverse movement. Priorities of evangelical feminist organizations are based on a range of commitments to evangelical biblical hermeneutics and feminist issues of equality. My method, like Ingersoll’s, focuses on the dialectical shaping and reshaping of evangelicalism rather than on an evangelicalism defined by theological and social boundaries, the framework used by Cochran.

Ingersoll’s Book

Evangelical Christian Women book coverIngersoll’s study, Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles is intended to spotlight women’s contributions to conservative Protestantism and to enlarge or complicate a definition of evangelicalism. She wanted to look at actual women’s experiences within evangelicalism, not explaining them as empowering within that subculture as do some religious historians, but uncovering how these stories of conflict (or battle) constitute a significant role in shaping and reshaping the culture of evangelicalism. Her goal is to help historians (and all of us) nuance understandings of evangelical women and their role in shaping evangelicalism.

As noted before, Ingersoll brings both an insider and outsider perspective. As an insider, she draws from her former experience within the conservative evangelical/fundamentalist Orthodox Presbyterian church and graduate studies at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary. Though Ingersoll interviewed a number of EEWC members, she has not been part of EEWC. Her thinking clearly evolved in the process of research and feedback from some of our members. As an outsider, she admits that she no longer functions within an evangelical worldview and so can offer a more detached view.

She divides her book into two parts.  Part one encompasses 44 in-depth interviews with women in Christian higher education and the ministry, as well as institutional analysis of Christians for Biblical Equality (“relatively moderate feminists”) and the fight in the 1990s within the Southern Baptist Convention (“extreme fundamentalists”) over women’s leadership, specifically at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. These case studies bring to life Ingersoll’s use of the “new cultural” sociological methodology that is shaping research on American religion. Part two of the book fleshes out the methodological underpinnings and the meanings of the study.

In the chapter on Christians for Biblical Equality Ingersoll describes effectively how CBE (“relatively moderate feminists”) has both challenged traditional evangelical understanding of gender roles but also has stayed within the evangelical ethos. She suggests that CBE has maintained the evangelical focus on boundaries—that is, who is in and who is out. For example, CBE intentionally sought public support and participation from notable and influential evangelical leaders (e.g. John Stott, Richard Mouw) and, like most outspoken leaders and organizations that identify themselves as evangelical, CBE is opposed to homosexuality. But at the same time, CBE  pushes for change on the issue of egalitarian gender roles. The challenge on gender roles then is softened by using known evangelical resources. By intentionally staying within the evangelical conversation, CBE demonstrates a process of negotiation and conflict and consequently “shapes and reshapes” evangelicalism.

EWC is only briefly examined. It is noted as a “divergent feminism” which led to the 1986 split and the establishment of CBE. However, this point of conflict is not addressed as to how it effected the broader movement of evangelicalism or how it produced or reproduced evangelical or biblical feminism. It left me with the question, what subculture is EEWC part of, creating and recreating? In fact, this point was raised in my dissertation. What exactly does make one part of a community? Is it the community’s recognition of a person or group?  Or is it a person’s or group’s claiming identity with the community?  (I noted with some interest that in the spring, 2005 issue of  EEWC Update, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott identified herself as a member of the evangelical left. She defined evangelicals as people who have a personal relationship with God and take the Bible seriously, while at the same time allowing for a continuum of positions on social issues. This is a generous definition, but I fear that few evangelicals would consider either her Biblical interpretive methods or her positions on social issues as “evangelical” enough.)

Finally, I like Ingersoll’s conclusions that conservative Protestant attitudes towards gender are characterized by fluidity rather than a fixed norm. Culture is produced both explicitly and implicitly. Her study looked at conflict or battle stories, uncovered women’s voices and experiences and made implicit culture production visible. This is hugely important for women to understand themselves as players in the shaping of evangelicalism. Further, she expresses well the challenging tension that religious traditions are cultural systems always in the process of change and always in search of a coherent narrative. This tension perhaps forces the people on the margins out of the narrative. For example, EEWC is characterized as moving beyond evangelicalism given its engagement with a range of justice issues related to sexism. CBE, on the other hand, functions within evangelicalism given its focus on equality between women and men and justice defined narrowly or within acceptable evangelical boundaries.

Cochran’s Book

Evangelical Feminism book coverCochran’s book, Evangelical Feminism: A History, is both intellectual and social history. She analyzes both the theology of evangelical feminism in relation to evangelical theology and some of the social context of the movement. The book is organized historically. The birth of biblical feminism, 1973 to 1975; the early years, 1975 to 1983; the split over homosexuality, 1984 to 1986; the emergence of two streams—progressive evangelical feminism and traditional evangelical feminism; and 1986 to the present. Chapter five looks in depth at theological changes in biblical feminism from 1986 forward, comparing and contrasting the theological understandings espoused by various movement leaders. Cochran had noted in her book’s introduction that the “leading spokespersons” in CBE and EEWC do not speak for every person within their respective organizations but their ideas and positions “have filtered down to influence their organizations’ structure and membership, both socially and theologically”(9).  In chapter 3, Cochran discusses the biblical interpretations of Patricia Gundry (as “representative of ‘conservative’ evangelical feminists”) and Virginia Mollenkott (as “representative of ‘liberal’ evangelical feminists”). In chapter 5, Reta Finger’s perspective on core theological doctrines, such as the trinity and the atonement, is discussed as another example of a progressive biblical feminist point of view.

Cochran calls homosexuality the watershed issue in evangelical feminism that resulted in an institutional division (EEWC and CBE) and a theological division into progressive biblical feminists and traditional biblical feminists. She states, “Biblical feminists who advocate the evangelical acceptance of homosexuality and use the authority of reason and experience are thereby violating both the theological and the social norms of postwar evangelicalism” (108). She suggests that these norms are an alignment of a high view of biblical authority with strict standards of moral behavior.

Cochran makes a strong case that progressive biblical feminists were influenced more by secular feminism than by evangelicalism. Part of this contention is based on the fact the EEWC is not engaged with traditional evangelical institutions the way CBE is. Another reason is that EEWC presents an “ecumenical” posture on biblical interpretation methods. She also cites EEWC’s inclusion of mainstream Christian feminist theologians like Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether as signs of EEWC’s being outside of evangelicalism. An example of this is the epigraph from the introduction. She begins her book with this quote: “Feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible.” (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Womanguides, p. ix (1985.) This is a classic evangelical signal—a demonstration of the boundary of what is “true biblical/evangelical religion” and what is “liberal” Christian theology.

Apparently, in order to be heard on women’s issues within evangelicalism it is necessary to clearly state that even if you embrace the equality of women and men, you do not align yourself with “liberal” theology. The exclusive nature of evangelicalism appears to fight the inclusive nature of feminism. Personally, I find it more helpful to conceptualize feminist theology as consisting of multiple streams. All feminist theologies have common ideas and distinctive positions. To present biblical/ evangelical feminism in opposition to liberal feminist theology actually masks the commonalities. This is why I find Cochran’s epigraph an unfair representation of Ruether’s approach to doing feminist theology. In Ruether’s writings she emphasizes that the Bible should not be a closed set of historical documents, but she clearly credits the Bible as the source of the “liberating prophetic tradition.” She does not dismiss the Bible. However, Ruether is clear on the point that to suggest that the Bible is the only authoritative word of God is to sacralize patriarchy and injustice—hence feminist theology cannot be done from the existing base of the Christian Bible. This sentence is a reminder that as the Bible exists it is encapsulated in patriarchal thinking that has at the very least resulted in women being excluded from ministry. Further, as a Catholic, Ruether views experience as integral to God’s revelation and not limited to the canonical biblical text. Evangelicals, on the other hand, typically understand the Bible as standing outside or above human experience. Unfortunately, I think Cochran’s epigraph reinforces the simplistic view that most liberal Christian feminists throw out the Bible, and only traditional evangelical feminists are biblical.

I recommend both books. I think they both show different angles on evangelical feminism. Ingersoll’s study is broader with more focus on CBE. EEWC members will find much of the Cochran book informative about the history of our organization. Originally, Cochran’s focus was on the theology of the movement, but I think the addition of social history has improved the book for the reader’s comprehension of this movement of evangelical feminists.

Although Cochran notes in the bibliography that I have a forthcoming book based on my dissertation—a more in-depth history of EEWC—this is no longer the case. Apart from my chapter in the Ruether book (see sidebar), I do not plan to publish my dissertation as is. At this point I am more interested in writing some type of historical fiction on feminism and religion. I think our movement needs a wider audience than the academy.

Though not referenced by Ingersoll in her informative discussion of the Southern Baptists, I strongly recommend the film, Battle for the Minds, a powerful documentary of the takeover of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY by conservatives in the mid 1990s. The story of the dismissal of dearly respected theology professor Molly Marshall is riveting. The film is an excellent visual presentation of conservative religion and the backward movement of the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years on women’s roles. My students at North Park University were often stunned by the behavior and reasoning presented in this documentary. There is nothing quite like seeing men quote scripture to support their views on male theological superiority. I became aware of this film at a National Women’s Studies Conference. A great example, I think, of how evangelical feminism has emerged in the contexts of both conservative religion and the contemporary secular feminist movement.

Finally, a note of correction is in order. Cochran notes that we in EEWC refer to ourselves as “Sisters of the Summer.” That is not exactly right; though I recall hearing Virginia Ramey Mollenkott use the phrase after reading my dissertation. I, in fact, created the phrase. In the dedication of my doctoral dissertation it reads:

For the sisters of summer
Struggling to become all they’re meant to be

There are two reasons for this dedication. First, I wanted to honor EEWC’s long history of summertime conferences. Second, it is a reference to a film shown at the 1988 conference in Chicago. This was a painful period in our history; the first conference after the split in the organization. The film, Women of Summer, was the story of a summer program run by Bryn Mawr University in the 1930s for working-class women. It was a poignant portrait of women in later life remembering and reliving their summer of college opportunity and new possibilities. The film was about becoming. It was a healing moment for many of us as we in EWC were living through the becoming of EWC into EEWC.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

It is important and necessary for all of us to look back. Over the last eighteen years, when I was teaching women’s studies at North Park University, I often began my classes with the following quote by artist Judy Chicago, a quote I had first read in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her. In the mid 1970s, Chicago created The Dinner Party, a collaborative multimedia exhibit symbolic of women’s presence and contributions from prehistory to the rise of feminism in the 20th century, now housed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Commenting on the significance of The Dinner Party Chicago said, “Sadly, most of the 1038 women included in The Dinner Party, are unfamiliar, their lives and achievement unknown to most of us.  To make people feel worthless, society robs them of their pride; this has happened to women.  All the institutions of our culture tell us—through words, deeds and even worse silence—that we are insignificant.  But our heritage is our power!” Ingersoll and Cochran’s books are a place to begin to know our “herstory.” I urge you to live into our herstory/history and experience the empowerment of action.

Sue Horner writes:

For those of you who are interested, the following will add further insight into the complexity of the biblical feminist movement discussed in Ingersoll’s and Cochran’s books:

•   See my doctoral dissertation, Becoming All We’re Meant to Be: A Social History of the Contemporary Evangelical Feminist Movement, A Case Study of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, 2000, and my chapter,  “Trying to be God in the World: The Story of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and the Crisis over Homosexuality” in Gender, Ethnicity and Religion: Views from the Other Side (Fortress Press, 2002), edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, my doctoral advisor.

•   See also national EEWC secretary Alena Amato Ruggerio’s dissertation, How Interpretation Becomes Truth: Biblical Feminist and Evangelical Complementarian Hermeneutics (Indiana University, 2003).

•   Additionally, EEWC member and long-time editor of Daughters of Sarah Reta Finger and I have a forthcoming entry on evangelical feminism in theEncyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, edited by Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Indiana University Press).

Editor’s note: Readers may also wish to read or reread sociologist Joan Olson’s review of Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life by sociologist Sally K. Gallagher.

Sue HornerSue Horner has been involved with EEWC since 1978, serving in a variety of leadership roles. She is currently EEWC archivist and one of the Northeast representatives on the executive council. She formerly taught at North Park University in Chicago. Sue and her husband David now live in Boston and Harpswell, Maine and Sue reports that “both are envisioning new ways of being in the world.”

© 2005 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Volume 29, Number 3, Fall (October-December) 2005

Listening to Voices Long Silenced

by Alena Amato Ruggerio

Alena RuggerioEnheduanna, ancient Sumerian high priestess; Marjorie Kempe, British mystic; Christine de Pizan, fourteenth-century author.  These women practiced feminism before the word had been coined, and linked their feminism inextricably with their religious beliefs long before biblical feminism as we know it existed.  Given the systematic global silencing of women in history, it is a feminist act just to remember the handful of women like Enheduanna, Kempe, and de Pizan who have been recovered from patriarchal versions of history, for they represent the hundreds of thousands of women’s voices lost across the ages.  Books like Pamela D.H. Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism: A History ensure that another handful of feminist voices are committed to print so we cannot so easily be erased.

It is cause for celebration that we have reached a point of organizational maturity after our formation and struggle where we can now engage in reflection.  Yes, EEWC has had a dramatic history worth sharing.  But if we dwell on the past as Nancy Hardesty warned us against at the 2004 conference, we will condemn ourselves to obsolescence.  The recent upsurge in books and dissertations focusing on EEWC helps the upcoming generation of biblical feminists truly appreciate the gifts that have been won for us in the past, while also identifying the goals that have been set before us for the future.

When some historians tell the sweeping story of centuries of American feminism, they choose not to emphasize the contributions of Christian feminists.  Sometimes, they even go so far as to omit us entirely.  The academic study of EEWC helps to make certain that the story of biblical feminism will be included in the larger narrative of multivocal feminism in the United States.  Each book and each dissertation, however, offers only one version of how to tell the story of biblical feminism.  Cochran’s is not the final word or the definitive version, for there should be no such thing.  The more that is written by us and about us, the richer the diversity of perspectives and the more people who will hear the message of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

Alena Amato Ruggerio teaches communication at Southern Oregon University.  She wrote the cover story, “Texts of Truth,” for this issue of EEWC Update.

© 2005 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Vol. 29, No. 3 Fall (October–December) 2005

A Personal Reaction to Pamela Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism: A History

by Anne Linstatter (formerly Anne Eggebroten)

Anne EggebrotenReading this history, I am impressed by what an important role we in EEWC have played in theological and social developments larger than ourselves.  I am also grateful to Pam Cochran for reading so many of our newsletters from 1975 to 2003, both Update and Green Leaf, as well as everything published by and about us in Christian and evangelical journals, and putting it all together to make a coherent argument.

During most of our history, I felt we were a small group trying perhaps in vain to make an impact on the evangelical world, but Cochran’s analysis shows we really have been heard and have effected change.  The growth of our newsletter Update into a journal soon to be named Christian Feminism Today is an appropriate marker for EEWC’s impact historically and our centrality today.  With the end of Daughters of Sarah, we were left with the task of ministering to feminists who are still biblically rooted, want contact with women and issues beyond the denominational level, but may not fully relate to groups like the Women’s Alliance for Theology an Ethics in Religion (W.A.T.E.R.) or the Grail movement.  We in EEWC have really been “walking on water and making waves” (the theme of our Norfolk conference in 1996) all these years, and we will continue to do so in the future.

The introduction and first two chapters were an education for me on the history of the evangelical movement, both in the 20th century as founded by Carl F. H. Henry and others, and in earlier centuries.  Because I never went to seminary or took courses in things like evangelical history, I operated all these years like a traveler without a map.  I learned inerrancy as a young Christian in church, participated in groups like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity, and got my first job as a summer intern at Christianity Today, where I saw Harold Lindsell on a daily basis but never realized he had left Fuller Seminary over inerrancy issues.  Once he quizzed me on my view of Scripture, and later I heard about his book The Battle for the Bible, but I had no idea that he was a key player in the struggle between conservative and progressive evangelicals over the authority of Scripture.  I didn’t realize Evangelicals for Social Action was founded in response to “an ongoing struggle between liberalism and conservativism in American evangelicalism” (p. 17).  As EEWC struggled with writing and amending its statement of faith, I didn’t realize we were following in the footsteps of Bernard Ramm’s goal to “reform the concept of inerrancy, not to abandon biblical authority.”  For this new understanding of where EEWC fits into the larger picture, I am grateful.

Cochran talks about cultural influences on American evangelicals, particularly individualism and consumerism—the sense that we are entitled to choose what we will consume, from churches or parachurch organizations, rather than accept a package unthinkingly from a church to which we have unquestioning allegiance.  This point struck me as accurate in my own experience.  My allegiance has shifted from a denominational affiliation to EEWC and Women-Church Convergence.  Even the Protestant-Catholic boundary feels archaic to me because I worship with Catholic women and care about winning ordination in their church structure.  Perhaps the idea behind the label “cafeteria Catholic” applies to many evangelicals, especially those of us in EEWC.

I do have some questions about Cochran’s thesis in chapter 4, where she discusses the disagreement on homosexual issues among biblical feminists and other evangelicals and asserts that the real cause is “conflicting views of biblical authority” (p. 77).  Is the root of these disagreements really differing views of infallibility—or differing personal, experiential reactions to homosexuality?  Which is more powerful and unlikely to change, one’s view of Scripture or one’s deep feelings about sexuality?  In addition, each of us has differing levels of comfort with change, and this factor may be more deeply seated than our view of Scripture.  Cochran points out that “until the mid- to late-twentieth century, homosexuality was considered criminal behavior throughout the United States” (p. 107).  Psychological and personal factors are left out as she charts the choices of evangelical individuals and organizations in regard to forming a biblical approach to homosexuality.

Though I have many disagreements with statements in her last two chapters, one delightful detail is her naming of the two branches of evangelical feminism since 1986 as the “traditional biblical feminists” and the “progressive biblical feminists.”  In 1974 or earlier, the phrase “traditional biblical feminists” would have been some kind of three-headed oxymoron.  Having a group thus labeled today is progress.  If EEWC like the lead bird in a migrating flock can deflect some of the blustering wind from CBE, so be it.

One correction: in a footnote Cochran states, “Note, however, that traditional evangelicals are marginalized in the EEWC.  Ex-fundamentalists and Roman Catholics may be welcome, but CBE is disparaged” (p. 221).  She generalizes to the present after citing a report in the fall, 1994 issue of  Update [incorrectly listed in her footnote as 1993].  The report listed some of the 43 responses to a free-writing exercise at the general business meeting held during the EEWC conference that year.  Cochran is referring to one responder’s mention of  EEWC’s attitude of welcoming and inclusiveness. The writer had said, “marginalized are welcome—lesbians, Roman Catholics, African/Asian Americans, emerging ex-fundamentalists, Pentecostals. Inclusivity and diversity” (Update, Fall, 1994, p. 6).   Cochran does not give a source for her claim that “traditional evangelicals are marginalized in the EEWC.”  Nor did any of the 43 responses disparage CBE. Perhaps she was editorializing after noting that CBE members are not among those marginalized groups listed in this one woman’s free writing. But CBE members are not likely to come to mind as being among the “marginalized” who long for a spiritual home where the equality of women and men is affirmed.  In fact,  EEWC leaders individually and at conferences make a point of welcoming inquirers who are more traditional.  We thank God (sometimes publicly at our conferences) for the successful ministry CBE is having, and we occasionally exchange emails with CBE leaders to that effect. CBE has had literature tables at some EEWC conferences, and some EEWC members have held dual memberships as part of both organizations.

Many of Cochran’s conclusions are based on an unpublished essay by Kaye Cook reporting the results of surveys she did over ten years or more.  In the academic world, it’s not acceptable to depend on a source to which other scholars do not have access.  This study could have been an appendix to the book, but at this point it needs to be published as soon as possible so others can review the scholarship and respond.  It would also help if someone did a current survey and analysis of EEWC members.

Using Cook’s study, Cochran cites 31% of EEWC members as supporting some form of inerrancy, though in a footnote she admits that another 9% are probably in that camp.  She contrasts that figure with 86% for CBE members and makes generalizations aiming for maximum contrast.  She doesn’t highlight the 14% of CBE members who are outside the inerrancy boundary line nor the 40% of EEWC members who are inside it and probably very orthodox in the rest of their theology.  No one seems to understand what it means to be inclusive—that a large number of our members can be recognizably evangelical while others are not, yet all still choose to associate together for biblical feminist work.

Likewise, Cochran’s “Summary of Biblical Feminist Theology” is the weakest part of the book (pp. 146-7).  In it she leaps from the published statements of one or two prominent members to conclusions like, “they viewed Christ’s death as an exemplary model of selfless love or, as in Mollenkott’s case, as a regrettable model for women that should not be dwelt on overly much.  Sin also was redefined….”

In other places footnotes are missing, such as for Catherine Kroeger’s claims about pederasty in relation to understandings of homosexuality at the time of the Apostle Paul (p. 85).  Is her evidence unpublished and therefore unreviewed by other scholars?  If so, how can Cochran use Kroeger’s work here to make her case?

Here’s an example of where I have trouble with Cochran’s logic: she says “the issue of homosexuality and the progressive evangelical feminists have helped move American culture toward a declining acceptance of moral arguments, on any subject, that are founded primarily on the biblical witness” (p. 180).  But her only evidence for this shocking claim is, “Progressive biblical feminists have helped convince some people in the conservative Protestant community that rejecting someone because of her or his sexual orientation is unjust and therefore not Christian, regardless of the truth claims of scripture on this topic” (p. 179).  However, the point of the books on this topic by Scanzoni and Mollenkott1 and Myers and Scanzoni2 is that Scripture and its truth claims really lead them to conclude that this kind of discrimination is unjust and unchristian.  They work very hard to persuade evangelical and other Christian leaders to accept this moral argument based on the biblical witness.  So how does that add up to progressive evangelical feminists moving “American culture toward a declining acceptance of moral arguments”?  One can only conclude that certain parts of the biblical witness are privileged; peacemaking and working for social justice are not among them, despite the Sermon on the Mount and the witness of prophets such as Isaiah and Micah.

The biggest issue in the book is whether the EEWC is still evangelical.  Cochran considers various boundary definitions of evangelicalism, including whether EEWC leaders are “accepted members of the evangelical community” and comes up with the answer: no.  The EEWC doesn’t have enough members who espouse limited inerrancy, our hermeneutics are too flexible, we don’t associate with enough other evangelical organizations, and our adherence to evangelical “behavioral norms” is lacking.  By that, she means that we transgress the behavioral norm of heterosexuality—it’s not listed as a requirement in our affirmations, as it is in CBE’s.  It’s interesting that the only behavioral norm that matters is being heterosexual—having affairs, getting divorced, loving one’s enemy, or spending hours per day in praying or praising God don’t seem to count.

In recent years, as right-wing evangelicalism has come to be associated with militarism and bigotry, I have reflected on whether to continue to identify as an evangelical.  I’ve concluded, yes, I am an evangelical, based on the Greek roots of the word (eu-angelion “good news”) and based on my allegiance to Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible.  But apparently that reflection was a waste of time; others will examine me and EEWC and decide whether or not we are truly evangelical.  In Young Life, I used to sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love…” but now it appears they will judge whether we are their kind of Christian by a lot of other standards.

It is painful to be excluded by evangelicals from the kind of Christianity to which I still feel an allegiance.  It reminds me of how I felt in 1970 when I first cautiously expressed interest in women’s issues to other members of InterVarsity on my college campus (recorded in Our Struggle to Serve by Virginia Hearn).

If my careful analysis of the Bible leads me to the conclusion that gay and lesbian faithful partnerships are not forbidden, then suddenly I am outside the fence.  My commitment to biblical authority, my hermeneutics, and my behavioral norms are suddenly not good enough.  It’s like becoming a leper overnight.  If on top of that, I conclude that God is not male and that use of male language for God is idolatry, my ostracism from the evangelical community is cemented.  Never mind that I still love and serve Jesus the Christ in the kind of personal relationship typical of the early evangelical and revivalist movement.

For these reasons, reading Evangelical Feminism: A History was for me not only informative but also painful.


1. Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (HarperSanFrancisco, 1978, 1994).

2. David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

Anne Eggebroten is a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA. She has been a member of EEWC since its beginning and is presently one of EEWC’s Southwest representatives.

© 2005 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Vol. 29, No. 3 Fall (October–December) 2005

Nancy A. Hardesty comments:

Nancy HardestyAside from the thesis of Pamela Cochran’s book, which I would dispute, the volume includes a number of factual errors.  Below are some of the more egregious. (Page numbers are in parentheses.)

On page 11 Cochran says that I left Eternity magazine “to teach English at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.”  Seminaries normally do not have English faculties; I taught English at Trinity College (Deerfield, Illinois).

Cochran wrote that Lucille Sider Dayton was “one of the ‘uninvited’ wives to attend the first conference” of “Evangelicals for Social Action” (15).  Lucille, sister of convener Ron Sider and wife of participant Donald Dayton, did not attend any of the working sessions of the first conference, which was called “Evangelicals and Social Concern.”  Later, as a result of that first gathering, an organization was formed that took the name “Evangelicals for Social Action.”

“The Daytons and Hardesty were together in the Chicago area as colleagues at Trinity” (44).  Neither Don nor Lucille worked at Trinity.  I believe I met Don about the time I left Trinity College in 1973 in order to resume graduate work at the University of Chicago where Don was also a student.

Concerning the second Chicago Conference, Cochran says it “included a special seminar on the topic of women’s equality” (2).  No, there was no organized seminar at this gathering of Evangelicals for Social Action.  Rather, those present divided into working “caucuses” around major topics mentioned in the Chicago Declaration (a statement on Christians and social concern that emerged from the initial gathering the year before).  Among the topics the caucuses worked on were race, poverty, and women.  Hence our original name, the “Evangelical Women’s Caucus.”

Concerning EWC’s conference in Fresno in 1986, Cochran notes that I moderated a “session” (actually a workshop) in which “lesbians were able to share their struggles” (96).  She omits the fact that the panel included a young woman from Exodus, an “ex-gay ministry,” who shared the story of her deliverance from homosexual activity and her engagement to a fellow Exodus member.  Cochran also says that “when Virginia Mollenkott arrived,” she and I “discussed working on resolutions to introduce at the business meeting” (101). We did not.  She also says that several members had heard “rumors” that I and others might “introduce a social justice plank,” and they were prepared to speak out against it.  She appears less willing to believe the reports about closed doors meetings engineered to squelch passage of resolutions at the conference at Wellesley two years before, thus setting the table for what happened in Fresno.

On page 98, she writes of the Fresno conference that “a number of people agreed with Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s position in All We’re Meant to Be.” But Scanzoni and Mollenkott did not write All We’re Meant to Be; they wrote, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?  Letha Scanzoni and I wrote All We’re Meant to Be.

Cochran seems to want to lay much of the blame for EEWC’s presumed shift in biblical understanding on Virginia Mollenkott.  For example, she says that “Mollenkott suggests that many aspects of American society would be changed if Christians (a term she uses inclusively) embodied justice” (123).  Apparently Mollenkott’s inclusive usage is in contrast to “evangelical” usage that will only grant the label “Christian” to those who agree with them, despite the much more historically orthodox faith that others around the world affirm and practice. Cochran argues that Mollenkott holds a “universalist” view of salvation and then on page 136 attributes that view to EEWC as a whole without any further evidence, a tactic that she uses several times.

Later Cochran says that “Scanzoni also reexamined her stance on homosexuality and her biblical hermeneutic based on Mollenkott’s experiences as a Christian lesbian” (134).  Had Cochran checked Men, Women, and Change, the sociology textbook that Letha coauthored with John Scanzoni (McGraw-Hill, 1976), she would have known that Letha had already written on gay marriage (using that term long before it entered public discourse) and had also laid the groundwork for her later views in Sex Is a Parent Affair (1973), a book to help evangelical Christian parents educate their children about sexuality.  For these books, as well as for All We’re Meant to Be, Letha had been researching the subject, studying Scripture, theology, and the latest scientific scholarship through Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute well before she and Virginia Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978).  Letha’s views about homosexuality took shape long before Virginia or I shared any personal experience with her (indeed before I had any experience to share with her!).  To be fair, Cochran does indicate some awareness of Letha’s previous scholarship on homosexuality (76, 104) but minimizes its role by omitting any mention of it here.  She appears to want to give the impression that Mollenkott used the disclosure of her lesbian orientation to sway Scanzoni’s opinion on homosexuality and to urge her to change her biblical hermeneutic.  But what Virgina’s story did was simply to help Letha understand more fully the intense struggles and suffering of lesbians and gay men.  The issue was no longer a matter of sociological research or biblical debate.  She understood that lives were at stake, and this gave her the courage to take a public stand on this controversial topic in spite of its cost to her writing and speaking ministry in the evangelical climate of those times. She and Virginia both speak about that in the revised edition of Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1994).

On page 150 Cochran asserts that after Fresno, EWC “turned to liberation theology for a methodology.”  I would suggest that we simply continued to develop a biblical feminist theology in conversation with other Christian feminist and womanist theologians.  All theologians, male and female, ancient and modern, interpret scripture and formulate their theology out of their own experience.

Cochran says that “for a while, Nancy Hardesty joined the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.,” but that I “left when it, too, refused to ordain openly homosexual persons”(179).  I was an active member of the Episcopal Church for twenty-five years, from my confirmation in 1964 until I moved to Greenville in 1989.  Since South Carolina dioceses had been very reluctant to ordain women, I could not find a congregation with a woman on staff, and so I did not affiliate with a parish here.  I have never “left” the Episcopal Church.  And I was always aware of gay priests and bishops within the church, as well as lesbian priests after women were officially ordained in 1976.

Cochran also attributes the words of the “Doxology” to Psalm 100 (112).  One would have thought that “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” would have been a clue. (She was likely confused by the fact that the Doxology is sung to the tune Old Hundredth, the same tune used for the sixteenth-century paraphrasing of Psalm 100 in the hymn, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.”)

On 171 she refers to EWC as having a conference at “Northpark.”  Four lines later she calls it “North Park College and Theological Seminary.”  On 173 she calls it “North Park Theological College and Seminary” but again says we held “the 1994 conference at Northpark.”  We met at North Park College, which is now North Park University, in Chicago.  (Where were New York University Press’s copyeditors or proofreaders?)

On page 174 Cochran describes Update as primarily devoted to news of “when someone moved, was promoted, finished a program of study, or published a book. . . . obituaries, prayer requests for those who were ill, and retirement notices.”  Apparently she has missed all of the articles on timely subjects and book reviews of recent books.

These are a few of the errors and misinformation that stood out to me. In my opinion, Cochran’s arguments are no more carefully thought out than her facts are researched.   The biblical feminist movement still awaits a careful historical treatment that tells the story without trying to justify a preconceived thesis or reducing it to a theological catfight.

Nancy A. Hardesty, professor of religion at Clemson University, Clemson, SC, was one of the few women invited to the original Thanksgiving conference on “Evangelicals and Social Concern.”  She has attended every EWC and EEWC conference.  She and Letha Scanzoni are planning the next conference in Charlotte, NC, July 20-23, 2006.  Y’all come!

© 2005 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Vol. 29, No. 3 Fall (October–December) 2005

Cochran’s Evangelical Feminism—Yet Once More

by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

Virginia Ramey MollenkottWhat does it mean to say that the Bible is “inerrant” and therefore holds “transcendent authority” over our lives?  It is easy enough to make the fundamentalist declaration that the Bible was inerrant in its original autographs because that requires nothing from us: nobody has ever seen the original autographs, and after all these centuries it is doubtful that anyone ever will.

But how can it be true that “the more traditionalist evangelical feminists” (i.e., Christians for Biblical Equality [CBE]) have “based [their theory] on a ‘preestablished, external moral order’” (Cochran, p. 5)?  When lying closed on a shelf, the Bible could theoretically be described as “transcendent,” containing a “preestablished, external moral order.” But the minute anyone opens it, reads it, and expresses moral judgments based upon that reading, the “transcendence” becomes limited by a human point of view. The “preestablished” is modified by the reader’s life experience, and the “external” is channeled through the hopes and desires of the reader.

The more naïve the reader is about hermeneutics, the more likely that the resulting interpretation will be private, wildly divergent from the central themes of Scripture. The reason for consciously acknowledging respected principles of interpretation is to limit the human tendency toward eisegesis (reading one’s own preconceptions and biases into the text) and to facilitate exegesis (noticing the context and details of the text, including those that might force a person to change his or her assumptions).

So when Pamela Cochran speaks of “a shift from inerrancy to hermeneutics” (p. 2), she is writing nonsense. Whether or not one believes in inerrancy, and whether or not one acknowledges any particular hermeneutic strategy, everybody interprets what they read. The questions become, how accurate is this interpretation (does it accord with verifiable facts?), and how compassionate is it? If it ignores certain details of the text, such as the word therefore in Romans 2:1 that connects it firmly to Romans 1:18-32, the reader is in danger of falsifying the meaning. If the interpretation is harsh, when reading contextually would offer a kinder interpretation, the reader is violating the Golden Rule, which threads throughout the Hebrew and Christian Testaments as the most basic of hermeneutic principles.

Since Pamela Cochran seems to view me as the most non-evangelical member of EEWC, I would like for the record to assert that I agree with all of David Scholer’s guidelines for determining the cultural relativity of a Bible passage (summarized by Cochran on pp. 167-169). Furthermore, I practice them, and they are what led Letha Scanzoni and me to the interpretations we published in Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?  If these are, as Cochran suggests, the “Evangelical Principles of Interpretation” (p. 165), then I must be evangelical, whether or not the traditional evangelical community likes the conclusions I have reached. (I will not speak for Letha, because I know she is uncomfortable with some of my theological conclusions).

Despite Cochran’s implication that my thoughts govern the thoughts of everybody in EEWC, the truth is that EEWC members are very bright and perfectly capable of thinking for themselves—and that is what they do. I admit that I do my best to convince everybody of what I believe, because I have formed my convictions through serious Bible study. But I can enjoy sisterhood with people whose belief systems differ from my own, as long as they are committed to doing love and justice. Contrary to Cochran, I do not see love and justice as “a more abstract measure. . . [to] determine what is [morally] normative” than “following strictly outlined methods” that become abstract when they are applied to cultures and situations unknown to those who drew up these “strict outlines” in the first place. Having felt the pain of being forced into limited roles defined by “strict outlines” crafted by white men, we feminist women should not inflict such pain upon others.

Toward the end of her book, Cochran affirms some of what I’ve been saying: “Scripture may be called authoritative, but it is the individual reader, perhaps with the help of his or her favorite preacher or author, who determines what the scripture says and means” (p. 187). And the evangelical community’s “language emphasizes the authority of the scripture, but in practice, the individual has the authority to reject any interpretation or community with which he or she disagrees” (p. 188). But then she goes right back to asserting that “the strength of American evangelicalism lies in its adherence to exclusive truth claims and transcendent authority” (p. 189).

Ladies and gentlemen, this is doublespeak. And it is made all the more serious because Cochran’s major contrast between EEWC and CBE is based on EEWC’s “pluralism” and CBE’s greater adherence to “exclusive truth claims” and “transcendent authority.” According to Cochran, all of evangelicalism has experienced “inroads. . .of modern ideals of pluralism and individualism” (p. 189), but EEWC much more than CBE.  Does Cochran mean that EEWC acknowledges the truth about biblical interpretation, while CBE joins evangelicalism as a whole in maintaining a position of denial? I doubt that she meant any such thing, but doublespeak of these proportions can be very confusing. The only solid distinction Cochran makes is that EEWC welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, whereas CBE does not.

At the Harvard Conference on Religion and the Feminist Movement (2002), CBE leaders Roberta Hestenes and Catherine Kroeger individually went out of their way to tell me how much they appreciated my 1975 keynote speech at EWC’s first national conference.  The thing is, though, that I have continued to utilize the very same hermeneutical principles  ever since. Although Cochran claims that I have “switched” to liberationist hermeneutics, I see my progression as based on a gradually deepening grasp of what the Bible is all about. For instance, it is true that I am panentheistic (not to be confused with pantheistic), but not because of secular inroads. Ephesians 4:6 is not biblically unique in its statement that God is “above all, and through all, and in you all.” If that is true, and I believe it is, then the proper name for it is panentheism (although transcendence combined with immanence, or omnipresence, would also be accurate enough). 

When I have asked my evangelical critics what they make of such passages, they sidestep and refuse to answer me. Could that be the real reason “evangelical theologians no longer bother to discourse publicly with Mollenkott or other feminists in the  Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus” (p. 188)?

More doublespeak occurs when Cochran asserts that I said “some of Paul’s pronouncements were simply wrong” (p. 45), but ten pages later admits that I “did not like to call Paul’s contradictions ‘errors’” (p. 55).

I marvel that nobody at NYU Press helped Cochran achieve greater consistency!  She also asserts that I “had had very little exposure to institutional evangelicalism” because my “background was fundamentalism” (p. 72), as if she did not know that contemporary evangelicalism grew out of fundamentalism. Yet, on p. 17 she reports, accurately, that “In the early 1970s, evangelicals were not far removed from their fundamentalist heritage.” The Plymouth Brethren of my childhood and young adulthood, my Southern Presbyterian high school, my undergraduate college (Bob Jones), and the two Christian colleges where I taught for twelve years (Shelton and Nyack Missionary College) would be stunned to hear themselves dismissed from evangelicalism because they were fundamentalist in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And by the early 1970s, I was teaching at a state college and had authored my first three books, Adamant and Stone Chips, In Search of Balance, and Adam Among the Television Trees, all with Word, an evangelical publisher. I also had several articles published in Christianity Today. If this amounts to “little exposure to institutional evangelicalism,” make the most of it!

Nancy Hardesty did a good job of pointing out some of Cochran’s factual errors but there were plenty more that neither she nor I have mentioned. There were even several places where Cochran had changed her sentence structure, yet remnants of both choices were printed together, rendering the structure incoherent. (Example: “Descriptive passages should to be related to normative teaching in order to be authoritative” (p. 168 [italics supplied]). In fact, because I earned my Ph.D. at New York University, I am downright embarrassed that NYU Press would release such a sloppy publication.

To my sister Pamela Cochran I make this offer: if you decide to bring out a more accurate edition of  Evangelical Feminism and get in touch with me, I will read and correct the page-proofs for you free of charge.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is one of EEWC’s founding members and author or coauthor of 13 books. Her web site is http://virginiamollenkott.com.

© 2005 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, EEWC Update, Vol. 29, No. 3 Fall (October–December) 2005

The Christian Feminism Today website addresses topics of interest to Christian feminists. It features articles, opinion pieces, reviews of books and recordings (audio and video), interviews with Christian women and men who live according to Christian feminist principles and promote gender equality, love, and social justice among all people. We welcome submissions for consideration. Writer's guidelines are here.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.