This is the “hiring season” for those of us in academia, the time of year when faculty search committees sift through piles of applications for teaching jobs for the coming academic year, and when Ph.D. candidates like me wait nervously for the telephone to ring with invitations for job interviews. The other day someone asked me a question familiar from past years: “So, does being a woman improve your chances in the job market?” The question brings with it echoes of the by-now familiar lines in job ads: “The college (or university, or seminary) is seeking to increase the diversity of its faculty. Applications from women and members of ethnic minorities are especially encouraged.” Clearly, the expectation of my questioner is that I will say, “Yes. Of course it is to my advantage to be a woman scholar and teacher. That is what institutions want these days.”
The reality is more complicated than that. I am a theologian, and when an institution decides it wants to hire a woman for its theology department, it is, in many cases, not just hiring another member of the department; it is hiring “the woman” for its department. Many departments of theology are still exclusively male, an increasingly embarrassing situation for many church-related institutions whose enrollments and religion majors are coming to include more and more women.
But precisely because hiring a woman theologian represents such a departure from previous practice, and because any woman hired will become the focus of a great deal of attention from students, faculty, administration, and alumni alike, it is extremely important to the institution that it hire a woman who represents properly the institution’s ideal of a woman scholar. That is, it is vitally important that the institution hire a woman who thinks what a woman ought to think.
What ought a woman to think? Well, it depends on the institution. Some theologically conservative institutions want to hire a woman who is just as conservative, in just the same ways, as all the male members of the department. That way, the department can evade charges of androcentrism or misogyny by pointing to the woman member of the department and saying, “See? She thinks just like we do. We don’t think as we do because we’re men; we think as we do because we’re right.”
Other theologically conservative institutions, beset increasingly by the feminist and minority concerns of students, want to hire a woman more liberal than the incumbent members of the department who will serve as a sop for everyone disaffected with the reigning orthodoxy of the institution. Students unhappy with the institution can be mollified by the presence on the faculty of a woman who feels their pain, and the other members of the department can go about their business as usual.
The situation is somewhat different at theologically liberal institutions. Liberal institutions have their own orthodoxies, of course, and many of them revolve around issues of sexuality and feminism: the goodness of using feminine language for God, of employing feminist approaches to biblical interpretation, of affirming nontraditional patterns of sexual behavior. All faculty members at such institutions are expected to be at least tolerant of such views, but female faculty members are expected to champion them at every available opportunity, whatever their own academic specialty might be.
It is thus highly unlikely that the faculty of a liberal theological institution would even consider hiring a woman more theologically conservative than they. Many of the women, and men, on such faculties justify their modification or rejection of traditional Christian orthodoxy on the grounds that traditional views are offensive to and demeaning of women and other marginalized groups. It would be most peculiar, then, to have as a member of the faculty a woman who holds those traditional views, and does so in the conviction that they are liberating and life-giving.
All this makes it very difficult for me to get a job. I am a garden-variety Presbyterian, traditionally orthodox in a way that would be utterly unremarkable in a man, but which, in a woman, is apparently quite disconcerting, at least to some. Orthodoxy, after all, is something that flows both wide and deep. It is resistant to the sectarianisms of the right and of the left, preferring rather to focus on the central truths and patterns of the faith that speak to the common humanity of men and women, whatever their circumstances, and that have thus bound Christians together throughout the life of the Church and throughout the world.
But when many institutions think about hiring a woman for their theological faculty, they are not looking for a woman who will speak to the center of the faith. If they want anyone to do that, they probably already have a man doing it. What they want a woman to do is to deal with the edges, with the particularities of late-twentieth-century American theological liberalism or conservatism. They want a woman who is happy with the lines of the debate as they are commonly drawn, and who is willing to be on a given side of that debate.
That is not what interests me. I want to teach the Christian tradition, in its fullness and integrity, even—and especially—where that tradition challenges and qualifies contemporary assumptions about what the issues are. This does not make me a very good partisan in a lot of contemporary wrangles, however. This is apparently evident to the search committee members who review my resume. They can tell that I would not likely be a cheerleader for whatever party line or special interests they would like to hire a woman to promote. Whatever it is they think a woman ought to think, I don’t think it.
I recognize that readers may take this as an extended classified ad for a job. I admit that I would not be disappointed if it worked as such. But I should point out that while I have here written specifically of myself, I am certainly not the only woman who wants to be engaged for what she thinks rather than for what others think she ought to think. And I am not the only woman to be thoroughly exasperated at being regarded first and only as a potential enemy or ally in an ongoing battle of sexual politics. There is more to me than that. There is more to any woman than that.
Ironically, it is in part my rather feminist upbringing that has landed me in my current position. My mother was impatient with the limits that society attempted to impose on young women of my generation, and encouraged me not to feel bound by those limits. I attended a nationally ranked women’s college, where I learned to think and behave like an independent, self-confident human being, without worrying about whether it was all right for a woman to think and behave in such a way. In the course of my graduate studies, I have exercised that independence and self-confidence, finding my home in the Presbyterian Church and my calling in the teaching of historical and systematic theology. In so doing, I have become who I am, rather than someone else’s idea of what a woman ought to be. But I wonder if I have also become unemployable.
Dorothy Sayers, in her essay Are Women Human?, remarks that men are typically considered both male and human, whereas women are just women—that is, men have both a human nature and a sex, but women are defined only by, and thus confined to, their sex. Ms. Sayers wrote her essay sixty years ago, but it still rings true today. It would be nice for the world to be a place in which I was regarded by everyone as a human being and a woman. Right now, though, I’d settle for one faculty search committee that decided I was the human being and the woman for their department.
Margaret Kim Peterson is finishing a Ph.D. in systematic and historical theology at Duke University.