Research Project: Women in Evangelical Churches in the USA
This is an introduction to a research project on female gender identity negotiation in North American evangelical churches.
My research project is on evangelical women in the New Haven, CT, USA area where I was working at Yale University for over two years, which gave me the opportunity to do extensive field work at the time. I have been back for more material quite a few times since.
Various studies on women in church have for a long period neglected to actually include the women and their issues themselves, conduct interviews and find out more about the actual construction and negotiation of believing women`s identity within the framework of church, family and American culture. Over the past six years, however, some – mostly female – researchers started to take a closer look at the real situation and position that is ascribed to women in conservative evangelical or so-called “Bible-believing” churches in the USA. Studies by women like Gallagher, Porter, Creegan, Porter, Ingersoll, Bendroth show some of that new trend. However, they mostly focused on either women in the academia or on certain specific topics like family life. A broader look at different denominations and women of all walks of life has been neglected so far.
The goal of my study is therefore to give women of various backgrounds and settings a voice and to find out about their definition and evaluation of certain boundary markers within the evangelical community like “male headship”, “spiritual authority”, “leadership” as well as their stance on concepts like “feminism” vs. “evangelicalism” and the application or adaptation of these concepts in every day life. In this respect, the current debate on the topic is dealing a lot with concepts like the so-called “pragmatic feminism” or “biblical feminism” that are suggesting feminist currents within the conservative evangelical subculture that are often denied or neglected. However, negotiating traditional gender roles and biblical teachings on gender and reconciling them with postmodern gender-egalitarian concepts within the mainstream American culture usually remains with the individual woman alone, which can very well lead to conflicts of identity and faith.
Leading questions and issues
By looking into the three sample churches in New Haven, I am trying to find out how women define themselves as “godly women” within their individual framework of church, family, the Bible and “the world”. How do they deal with contradictory facts of their spiritual life? What is their view on their faith and their role as a woman? What are they questioning? Where do feminist concepts come in? Why is that so often denied? Where is the place for conflicts and criticism? How do they negotiate their “biblical” gender role and position at home or at their job?
Issues of exegesis and hermeneutics obviously play a decisive role in all of that. The whole debate, both within the church and in evangelical literature on the topic, circles around certain passage in Scripture such as Gen. 1 or Paul`s teachings on women. Depending on the position adopted in view of these Bible verses, women are often quickly labeled, in the worst case as “not really evangelical”. Quite a few women therefore mentioned a lack of Bible teaching and learning as a main restriction for them to actually find a solid understanding of women`s role in the church and in comparison – or contrast – to men.
I have conducted in-depth interviews with over 40 women belonging to three different denominations (Baptist, Free Evangelical, non-denominational Pentecostal) asking about their life and faith stories as well as their views and judgment on various gender-related issues in view of the “Bible-believing” church, family and society. In addition, I talked to the pastors and their wives, participated in as many church events as possible, gathered written materials like pamphlets or Statements of Faith, and attended various women`s conferences. I have also spoken to various professors of the evangelical academia and to members belonging to the two leading organizations within the discourse of gender and the Bible, i.e. CBMW (Christians for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality).
Doing research on this topic in an area (the North-East) that is often seen as the “spiritual graveyard” of the nation, I chose congregations that still showed a very clear-cut traditional understanding of gender roles both in their “statement of faith” as well as in their practices.
Nevertheless, I have found a great variety of negotiation strategies in order to deal with the dilemma of contradicting images of women in church and society. Surprisingly, there were not that many women who were actually dealing with a high level of pressure or conflict. These findings could, however, be quite dependent on the fact that the pastors tend to avoid sensitive gender issues since women do actually feel left out or neglected by the pastors or elders from time to time.
A selected list of relevant publications can be found in my bibliography.