College Wants to Be in Vanguard of Bringing Feminism to Church

University in Costa Mesa plans to offer a minor in women’s studies, a rarity for Christian schools. ‘It can’t be extreme,’ says one student.

At Vanguard University, freshmen sprawl in the sun reading copies of “Mere Christianity.” Dancing on the grounds is forbidden, and students part ways with “God bless you.”

Yet, the university in Costa Mesa is about to become one of the few Christian schools nationwide to encourage feminists to walk its halls.

Well, Christian feminists.

Vanguard plans to offer a minor in women’s studies next spring, bringing into one program English, history and other humanities courses that focus on women. It should accompany the opening of a Center for Women’s Studies on campus that will focus on mentoring women and researching family violence.

Organizers acknowledge they walk a tightrope in bringing feminism to church. This, after all, is a small, evangelical Christian school.

“It can’t be extreme, like a woman could do anything a man could,” sophomore Jaclyn Lee, 18, said Thursday. “I think society has gone downhill because moms are out of the house working and kids are in day care.”

Experts say a marriage of religion and feminism can work, but programs must overcome images of bra-burning rebellion against patriarchal religion. And then there are button-pushing topics, such as abortion, birth control and homosexuality.

“You say feminism — some of us call it the f-word — and a lot of people think pro-abortion, anti-man,” said Markita Roberson, a Vanguard graduate student who is helping plan the minor.

“But when you say Christian, there’s the right-of-Rush-Limbaugh thinking. So the idea is to have a forum to hash it out. I want my students to be thinking Christians.”

Vanguard is one of only a few of the 107 members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the only Assemblies of God school to offer a women’s studies minor, officials from those groups said. The officials estimate that about 10 colleges offer such a minor.

Vanguard, which was called Southern California College until 1998, has about 1,200 undergraduate students. Nearly two-thirds are female. Professors are hired and students admitted, in part, based on their acceptance that biblical teachings will shape scholarly pursuits.

About 15 courses will address women in the Bible, in sociological studies and in literature, among other topics. Many of the courses were already offered, but planning the minor and the center, which still needs a campus home, took about two years, said Roberson, a 43-year-old Biblical studies student.

The coupling of Christianity and gender equality mirrors efforts by groups such as Christians for Biblical Equality and the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. The caucus even proclaims on its Web site, “We Are Christian Feminists.”

“Religious groups tend to have a disproportionate number of women in their ranks,” said Caryn McTighe Musil, a past director of the National Women’s Studies Assn. “Women are such a strong part of the faith community, having a program at a Christian college is a natural place for it to take root.”

By their nature, women’s studies are adaptable to a school’s character, said Musil, now with the Assn. of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.

At Vanguard, “They could learn a lot about the roles women play in sustaining communities,” Musil said. “The faith-based community is at the forefront of such work.” Professors could raise questions like, ‘What do you do if you’re a good Christian woman and your brother or sister is gay or lesbian?’ “

“They could explore competing values in difficult times,” she said.

Carol Blessing teaches a women writers course at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, which has about 2,300 undergraduate students and a women’s studies minor. Her hurdles in the classroom have come from students, not faculty or alumni, resistant to seeing divisive issues in a different light.

Blessing uses Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” and recalled a student who was angered that Blessing didn’t denounce a character’s lesbian relationship. When Blessing taught at another university, a student called her a heretic after she suggested God has no gender.

“But there was one student who said, ‘If you think about the New Testament, Jesus was a feminist,’ ” Blessing said. “That was great.”

At the Vanguard Dining Commons on Thursday, students said the minor might be another sign of the school’s coming of age, as when off-campus dancing became permissible.

“This can be like a glorified high school,” senior Mike Hale said. “You get a lot of kids sheltered by their parents in a Christian bubble. Then things you thought were set in stone forever start to crumble, and everyone’s still OK.”

Graduate student Jennaya Hicks, who has taken a course about women and the Bible, sat down across from Hale. “We have enough faith in our beliefs to acknowledge equality,” she said. “We’re not afraid, because it’s right.”

Likewise, organizer Roberson said strong feminism comes from strong faith.

As an example, she cited a biblical passage: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak.” She said it’s often misinterpreted as calling for women’s subservience.

If you read on, the apostle Paul does say women should be silent, she said. But only until they learn enough to speak.

Comments are closed.