Being a feminist at a conservative Christian college
Attending a conservative Christian college has been a special kind of hell for me as a feminist. In my four years at this school, which will remain unnamed, I've experienced intolerance from both teachers and classmates, and have observed bigotry and hatred in every facet of the administration. But my experience has also shown me how important it is to stand up for your beliefs in the face of those who oppose you.
My parents are very staunch Christians and raised me to be as well. My father also taught me the importance of feminism. He explained that while there are some people in our faith who believe that, as a woman, my sole purpose in life is to raise good Christian children, I should always remember that I have the right to choose what I do with my life and that women everywhere deserve that same choice.
Coming to this college, however, put me face to face with the Christians my father warned me about. Since the dean of this school is an older woman, I expected that the college would be as accepting of feminist students as they were of the powerful woman who leads them. I was wrong. From day one at school, I was constantly asked why I studied so hard since I would probably “be engaged soon and Christian guys don’t want working girls” and couldn’t help but notice that the student body was male-dominated, as was the staff and faculty — for example, the cafeteria was staffed only by men.
Nearly every other female student I met had come from small, backwoods towns and/or abusive families. Many of them hoped college would be an escape from those environments, but they, like me, had come to realize they had enrolled in the wrong school to accomplish that goal. One student told me that her grades had gradually declined over her two years at school because, she said, she put “more of herself” into her schoolwork. She explained that an essay about gender inequality in the workplace had been returned to her marked with notes in red ink, noting that her words were "blasphemous" and "immoral," and that they went "against God's plan."
My own grades suffered the same fate when I wrote about the sexist remarks Donald Trump made during the 2016 election. The piece was returned to me with a giant "F" on the front page. I was sure that it was adequately written, as I adhered to all the criteria of the project, so I asked my teacher why I had received such a bad grade. Without looking up from his desk, he shook his head and replied, "This is the kind of work God frowns upon. You should learn your place."
Eventually, I met with the dean to express my concerns, hoping to find refuge from the antifeminist storm in which I found myself. The dean, who wore a long, navy-blue dress, showed me around the school. I inquired about the lopsided demographics of the student body, to which the dean responded, "Normally, women aren't supposed to attend college." Although I thought her response strange and offensive, I said nothing.
The dean then ushered me to the school's massive chapel in the middle of campus. I had looked forward to spending days reading scriptures and humming hymns there, but my walk with the dean made it clear that I could not do so unless I conformed to their ideals and accepted my supposed place in the campus’ society.
Later, I approached the deacon of the school's chapel for advice. The tiny, old priest berated me for articulating my concerns with the school's blatant disregard for social and gender equality. I was told to "leave matters be," and to be a "good little school girl." He actually had the nerve to deem my degree useless, assuming that unless I got married I would end up working in a nursing home or roadside diner, anyway.
I continued to let the dean know about my problems with sexism on campus, which, given how small the college is, began to be the subject of gossip. I was starting to get stares, and an account of my opposition actually made the front page of the student-run newspaper. That day, I decided to clear my mind with a latte and some peace and quiet. The barista from whom I ordered the latte didn’t take my order, which, he explained when I finally approached him, that he didn’t because he assumed I was with the guy ahead of me in line — a guy who had left long ago with his small coffee. When I gave him my name for the order, he scoffed. Apparently, he recognized my name from a conversation he had with his father, the deacon, and my picture from the paper.
I tried to brush off his rudeness, but when I sat down to sip my drink, the deacon’s son followed me and sat across from me at the same table.
"Don't you get it?" he said. "God made Eve from Adam's rib. Without us, you wouldn't exist. Men are superior, in every way, to women."
Instead of sinking to his level, exchanging insults or escalating the altercation, I drew upon wisdom bequeathed to me by my grandmother, who had been a civil rights activist in the 1970s. She always taught me to listen to all sides of an argument before making assumptions and mouthing off. I unclenched my fists and tried to reason with the man. We spoke about our respective beliefs at length. At first, he was rude, constantly interrupting me, but I finally broke through. The man realized, at last, that I was not blindly trying to oppose him but was actually interested in hearing his perspective.
Giving this oppressor the space to express his thoughts — no matter how offensive or, ultimately, unconvincing — was ultimately a power move. A true alpha must choose her battles and, when she does choose them, understand that polarized combat rarely leads to changed hearts or minds. The deacon’s son and I went on to debate our points of view from time to time, and it steadily evolved into what I hope has been a productive conversation. That interaction taught me that instead of staunchly denouncing the problematic perspectives of and comments made by my peers, I might instead actually help those students progress by starting conversations with them.
Now, four years after I arrived on campus, I have not only completed my degree but feel like I accomplished much more on campus by opening a dialogue about the problems with the campus’ sexist culture and helping others to continue that conversation. Every step was a battle, but now I have hope that maybe things really will change on that campus.
If you, like me, have struggled with a similar situation, here are some resources that may help.
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