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Editor’s Note:  Dr. Reynolds’ post is part of a once a week series we have been doing on the recent book, Power Women: Stories of Faith, Motherhood, and the Academy. You can find previous posts here, here, here, here, and here.

The recent CSR series on the book Power Women, as well as the book itself, bring together the stories of diverse mothers who are serving in the academy – many in Christian college settings.  I appreciated the ways that many of the authors engage with the different markers that shape their experiences, whether it is their social class, race, marital status, or family structure.  I felt privileged to listen as women shared about the struggles and the benefits that have come with being a Christian mother in the academy.  In reading, I was particularly struck by the consistent attention authors gave to their networks and the people who have supported and come alongside them.

I also found myself thinking about those whose stories didn’t make it into the book – not because of an oversight of the editors, but because their hoped-for stories of being Christian academic mothers don’t exist.  We don’t see the narratives of women who were discouraged from pursuing professional vocations and those who left the workforce because of a lack of support.  We don’t read the stories of women who left the church and Christian communities because they didn’t have a place in such spaces. We don’t hear the women who wanted to be mothers but who felt forced to choose between a career and a child.

Why are there so many untold stories, and why are the stories that do exist ones of note? Do the Christian institutions that many of us inhabit, including our churches and workplaces, want to be places where the “power women” profiled in this book succeed and lead?  The answer for many readers is likely no, or not really. I recognize that women are a broader category than the focus on mothers profiled in this book, but part of the weight that Christian academic mothers bear deals with gendered realities associated with being a woman.  Some women, whether officially mothers or not, are engaged in family networks that require caregiving, or serve as “othermothers” (to use the term of Patricia Hill Collins) who care for those in their broader neighborhoods and communities.

In sociology, we often talk about gender not just existing at the individual level, but something that exists at the institutional level – that is, institutions themselves are gendered, and create gendered inequalities. In this volume, Pak notes the systemic failure of academic institutions to create equality and cautions us to pay attention to the existing inequalities in our institutions and how power and resources are managed in gendered and racialized ways. This brings me to two broad questions I suggest we should be asking of our organizations.

Do Our Institutions Want Women Teaching, Discipling, Leading?

With the growth of parachurch organizations and non-denominational colleges, many Christian institutions lack a clear statement about the roles of women and men, and the value of women’s voice and leadership. This has sometimes led to institutional desires to both see women lead, but not see them lead too much.  Creegan and Pohl (Living the Boundaries) and Ingersoll (Evangelical Christian Women) look at some of the mixed messages and complex environments this creates for women in Christian academic settings, where it’s often unclear what authority women should (and do) have.

Through the Women in Leadership National Study, Dr. Janel Curry and I found that there is often a lack of clarity within Christian nonprofits and colleges when it comes to the roles that women should hold within their organizations.   Leaders within Christian colleges often disagreed about whether their own leadership teams fully supported women’s leadership.  They evaluated the opportunities that existed for women in different ways. Given the wide variety of Christian theologies around gender, not having explicit and clear theological-based commitments can often lead to confusion.  We found that Christian colleges that perform the best as supporting female leaders and having high levels of female leadership often have clear theological commitments affirming the value and need for women’s leadership in all spaces.

Do our institutions merely want to allow mothers a chance to be in the classroom, or do they recognize the need to have increased levels of women teaching, discipling, and leading? Do our institutions think that diversity (around gender, race, family status, and other social markers) is critical to our mission, and to our life together as God’s people?  Without a strong conviction that we need women (and mothers) in these spaces, policies will have limited impacts.

Do Our Institutions Support Women Teaching, Discipling, and Leading?

Much has been written in general on how academic institutions are gendered and racialized, with men of color and women bearing disproportional service obligations when compared with white men. As Son notes in her chapter, mothers are often “doing more for less credit both at work and at home” (99). At most academic Christian institutions, while female students are a majority, female faculty, especially those at the highest ranks, are a minority.  Interacting with students is often more emotionally laden and time-consuming for female faculty in comparison with male faculty – and this is especially true for female faculty of color.  The qualitative demands in teaching and advising is often not measured by mere calculations of FTE.

Research can often be more difficult for women, compared to men, depending on the discipline. International collaborations may be more difficult for mothers and fathers and others with care obligations at home.  The global pandemic of violence against women makes traveling more-risky (and as a result, often more costly).  Women may face restrictions in their opportunities to share their research and speak with authority in religious institutions.

Institutions have to think about how women and men experience the institution with special attention to the ways class and racial identities intersect with those gendered experiences.  I appreciated that Power Women concludes with an Appendix that notes a number of ways that institutions can better support mothers in particular – thru strong parental leave policies, childcare, lactation policies, family-friendly accommodations, and professional development. All of these are important, alongside other policy changes to address increased (and often unrecognized) workloads that women often bear.

Despite the challenges that many of the mothers raise in this volume, it’s important to remember that mothers can thrive in these settings – and what a blessing that is when we see it happen. Many discuss the ways that institutional policies and networks have been a part of that story.  I love the visual of Chan’s chapter title, “The Synergy of Lullaby and Syllabi.”  May we, as Christian organizations, create spaces where people can weave together their commitments to families, churches, communities, and the workplace in ways that bring joy and help all of us to better pursue God and love God’s people.

Amy Reynolds

Wheaton College
Amy Reynolds is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Coordinator of the Gender Studies certificate program at Wheaton College.

One Comment

  • Jenell Paris says:

    I enjoyed reading about your work with Dr. Curry – I hope that yields good fruit for Christian higher ed. You raise an important issue that doesn’t have a simple answer – what do we really want? That’s hard to know, both institutionally and personally, as self-interest, self-deception, or ‘face-saving’ efforts all distract us from clear knowing. Seeing gender sociologically, as embedded in public and social life, is very helpful. When gender is personalized and domesticized, we miss so much of the broader structures that hold it in place.