Why Women Shouldn’t Give Up on the ETS

Several months ago, I wrote a post called “Where is the Voice of the Evangelical Academic Woman?”  As of today, this post has generated more comments than anything I’ve ever written.

What I found was that while there were lots of different reasons why women who love thinking about theology didn’t spend their time writing and commenting about it, there were also a substantial number of women who simply felt unwelcome at the men’s-only theology club.

After reading through the comments, I began to wonder what I could do for these women, most of whom are probably smarter than I am, but may not be as unselfconsciously comfortable being the only woman in a room full of white men in suits.

What, besides continuing to tell these women that they’re not alone, could I do for them?

I found the answer in a post I had written back in November 2011 called “How Yentl, Tolkien, and Tom Petty Influenced my Decision to go to ETS.”

For anyone unfamiliar with the world of evangelical academics, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is the primary professional organization for “Biblical scholars, teachers, pastors, students, and others involved in evangelical scholarship.”  Unlike the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL), which has no doctrinal statement and includes scholars from every point on the theological continuum, the ETS requires its members to agree with the divine inspiration of Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Last fall, after I had decided to attend the national meeting, bought my plane ticket to San Francisco and booked my hotel, articles like this one from Michael Bird started to appear on the blogosphere. Apparently, the situation of women at ETS was dire, so I wrote a post expressing my angst:

According to Michael, women are such a rarity at ETS that many people will assume that any woman they meet is the spouse of an attendee and they will ask her where her husband teaches. And from the comments on other blogs, I’ve learned that there’s a small contingent of complementarians who think women shouldn’t even be allowed to present academic papers at the conference. At the time of the writing of this post, statistics and charts illustrating how severely the ETS lags behind almost every other religious/academic organization regarding female representation had been posted on several popular websites.

Finally, after much prayer and soul-searching, I decided that I was not going to let fear get the better of me and I ended the post on a positive note:

I am not tortured or persecuted for my faith. I have not been threatened with bodily harm for trying to join a segregated club. I think I can handle a few men pursing their lips at me in disapproval. I’m going to ETS. I’m going to take copious notes and listen to some of the most brilliant evangelical thinkers in the country. If you see me, I’ll be the woman that no one is talking to, but who just doesn’t care.

After re-reading this post, it dawned on me. Here was something I could do! I knew my friend Amanda MacInnis from Cheese-Wearing Theology was going to the national meeting in Milwaukee this year, so together we hatched a plan to blog about why more women should attend ETS.

At the same time, though, I also knew that the leadership of the ETS had, like several other organizations over the last ten years, begun to tilt more and more towards an overt complementarianism. If I was going to encourage other women to join me in entering what could possibly turn out to be the lion’s den, I wanted to do some research first.

So I contacted a few “insiders” who have been involved with ETS a lot longer than I have. What I found was that, yes, there are challenges for anyone within ETS who doesn’t sit on the complementarian side of the seesaw, but I also came away convinced that egalitarians cannot afford to walk away from the one of the most influential evangelical organizations in the country.

During the course of my research, I was asked by several people why I would choose to remain in ETS—and encourage other women to attend—when SBL was so much more supportive of women. Why remain in an organization that requires me to fight for a voice rather than simply go somewhere that welcomes me without reservation?

I thought long and hard about this question before I decided that, yes, I am not only still committed to the ETS, but I am also convinced that more female seminary students, scholars, and pastors need to join.

The FIRST reason I am still committed to ETS is that I want to be in an organization that holds me accountable for what I believe. I also know myself well-enough to know that I need an organization that keeps me grounded in the Bible. Yes, I’m an egalitarian, but I’m a follower of Jesus first. The complementarian sitting across the table may not agree with me, but he shares my respect for Scripture and love for Jesus. And he keeps me on my toes.

The SECOND reason I think it’s critical for women to remain committed to ETS is the oft-repeated accusation that egalitarians don’t take the Bible seriously, allow society’s values to inform their interpretation, and just plain pick and choose what they want to believe. I’ve heard this same accusation about issues like predestination as well. And frankly, it’s insulting. Most egalitarians have spent long hours in study and prayer working through everything the Bible has to say about the issue. (As, I’m sure, have most complementarians)

If and when the topic comes up in an environment like ETS (and believe me, I don’t go around the conference looking to engage in these types of conversations), the goal is not to change a person’s mind about the issue, but to demonstrate that egalitarianism is a viable, orthodox interpretation of Scripture. If egalitarians walk away from ETS, no one will be left to defend it as a respectable theological option.

The FINAL reason why it’s essential that women remain engaged with the ETS is that what happens within the ETS influences not only evangelical academics, but churches as well. The consequence of not maintaining a female presence in one of the most influential Christian organizations in the country may be having to watch as complementarianism becomes the default position for evangelicals everywhere. And while this is happening to some extent already, getting up and leaving the table altogether will make it inevitable.

So here’s the plan. Over the next few months, Amanda and I will continue to blog about why more women should be involved with the ETS. We’ll talk honestly about the possibility of seeing a few disapproving looks and pursed lips when we stride through the door of a session on the sacrificial imagery in Hebrews. But we’ll also be telling tales about how much fun we’ve had at meetings over the years, how many amazing people we’ve met, and how our lives have been changed by being part of this unique group.

If we generate enough interest, we might even start a Facebook page…

The goal of all this, of course, is to get more women to the annual ETS meeting in Milwaukee in November.

Here’s a link to the first post in this series by Amanda MacInnis, “My experience with ETS.”

DISCLAIMER: For the purpose of keeping this post from being longer than 1500 words, it sounds like I am assuming that all female scholars and seminary students are egalitarians. I know this is not the case and that there is much diversity among women on this issue. The goal of the ETS Women’s Project is to get as many women as possible to ETS regardless of their views on gender, predestination, open theism, or the sacrificial imagery in Hebrews.

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  1. says

    “I think I can handle a few men pursing their lips at me in disapproval.”

    Best line I’ve read on a blog in a while, Leslie. Based on your description of the doctrinal tilt at ETS, it wouldn’t take them long to start pursing their lips at me either!


    P.S. Ellen Painter Dollar just posted today a guest piece I did in a series on money that she’s running this week (Connie Jakab and Jennifer Grant are contributing too). Hope you get a chance to give it a read: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2012/06/tim-fall-money-marriage/

  2. Susan says

    This post makes me want to be a full-time theologian! I hope you feel my support and prayers from the Northeast.

    • lckeeney says

      You can certainly help us out! You can blog about why more women should attend. You can link to the posts by Amanda & me. You can show up in Wilkwaukee and be a voice for egalitraianianism.

      Pretty much the only think you can’t do is get on the list of women who need a roommate.

  3. says

    After reading this, I actually want to go! I know I can’t go this year, but perhaps next year! I’ll keep researching and definitely keep you posted :)

    • lckeeney says


      Here’s hoping and praying. Maybe you’ll get there sooner than you think. And yes, keep us posted.

  4. says

    Hi Leslie,

    I was first “initiated” into ETS as an undergraduate student at Criswell College, a very conservative Baptist Bible college in Dallas, TX. One of my (complementarian) theology professors saw something in me and my work and invited me to write a paper with him and then present it at the meeting. It was quite a ride, I assure you, and I was hooked from then on (to the research, the writing, and the rigorous exchange of ideas). Through the conclusion of my B.A. and throughout my M.Div., I attended about four or five regional meetings and two national meetings. My mentor professor from Criswell was often my most vocal supporter (besides my husband, of course).

    Unfortunately, since I began my doctoral studies in theology (at U of Dayton in Dayton, OH) and had two children in rather close succession (they’re now 3 and 2), I haven’t had the money or the free time to travel to the national meetings. I would love to go in November, but I’ll be preparing for my qualifying exams and I just don’t think it’s in the cards.

    But, a big, heartfelt “Thank you!” for your campaign to encourage female attendees. I keep up my membership in ETS for some of the reasons you’ve specified. And, once things loosen up a bit, I hope to resume attending. I have OFTEN been the only woman in the room. And, I’ve often been the youngest in the room, as well. Still, my always-supportive egalitarian husband never tires of informing male inquirers that he teaches nothing–he’s with me.

    Thanks again for this post. As an aspiring female evangelical theologian, I support you and hope to meet you some day.

    Grace and peace,

    • lckeeney says


      Thanks for a lovely response. We’ll keep hoping and praying that you find a way there.

      Regarding finances, one thing we may be doing is gathering names of women who will be coming and giving them the option of rooming with someone. Splitting the cost of the hotel room can help a lot.

      And even if I don’t see you there this year, there’ always next

  5. says

    I literally wouldn’t be allowed into an ETS conference if they indeed require signing a doctrinal statement. I’ve moved so far from most of Evangelical theology (where I was once deeply rooted) that I’m not sure there would be much point. So my desire for the reform of Evangelical (or all “orthodox”) theology goes way beyond where most of them can imagine ever going (like clear to Process Theology, beyond “Open Theism”).

    However, I do love the idea of you and other interested women making a point to show up there, seek to present papers also, and be a vital part of things as much as you can, and I support you in it! I happen to think that the greater input of women would move theology in positive directions that may be just too threatening to the status quo… on a number of levels in addition to male dominance (which is certainly part of the problem.

    So, “You GO, girls!” (in the vernacular egalitarian sense).

    But I might point out that women also seem to be pretty scarce in the world of “higher critical,” “lower critical” (textual) and other scholarship and related disciplines involving early Christian history and the source material for theology.

    • lckeeney says


      I haven’t done any research into the status, but it does seem that while women are beginning to outnumber (or at least catch up to) men in seminary and “ministry” related programs, they are still woefully underpresented in higher biblical scholarship.

      I don’t know why this is (oh, there are so many things I don’t know the “whys” of), but thanks for the support.

      • says

        Thanks for the reply! I haven’t looked into the issue enough to say much with confidence. It is so complex about pushing egalitarianism. I frankly don’t think, trying to be as objective and “feminist” as possible, that parity in all fields is the ideal end-point. Both family, cultural, biological realities and the interests of males and females seem to mitigate against that. However, better balance I DO consider a valid and important goal. I the case of true “biblical scholarship,” with multiple ancient language-learning and detailed analytical emphasis, etc., I do think that the brains of men may find that (and maybe the competitive nature of scholarship as well) more appealing and natural than the brains of most (not all) women. The work of Carol Gilligan (and probably others I can’t name) would seem to suggest that, to me. Do you agree?

        It is certainly NOT intellectual inferiority for females, just a different WAY of looking at issues and processessing data, etc., that may not be as close a fit for at least current academia (after all, its categories and methods have been evolved almost completely by males!). Can I get away with such a suggestion without sounding sexist? (I hope.)

        • Adeliq says

          And that is exactly why women should be part of the discussion – there are aspects that a woman can bring to the table specifically because of her biological wiring and experience. Apart from it, however, I take equality to mean open doors for any of those female brains of high analytical thinking and ansceint language-learning, etc. etc.

  6. Alicia Jackson says

    Hi Leslie,

    I presented my first paper at a regional ETS conference this year, and out of about 200 attendees, there were only a handful of women. I didn’t even see any wives! :) It was a bit intimidating to say the least, especially since one of the first people I met informed me that he was a complementarian after I told him I would be presenting a paper. It was a bit awkward.

    However, those who attended my session were respectful, interactive and inquisitive. It was a rewarding experience, and while I cannot afford to attend the national meetings, I hope to stay involved at the local level. Thank you for being a voice for women scholars and theologians!


  7. says

    A hearty amen to a great post! Those of us on the Evangelicals and Gender study group committee have been very concerned about this problem. I have managed to get some of my female students to attend and ETS has been a great experience for them. ETS very badly needs more female voices. There is still plenty of room for egalitarians and we are not going away. Be sure to come by the CBE table in Milwaukee.

    • lckeeney says

      Thanks Alan,

      Since you’re on the committee, can you think of any other ways we can get the word out? Any suggestions?

      • says

        That is a topic of continued discussion; discussions you are welcome to join, BTW. One thing you can do is use your social media connections to get the word out. Post on Twitter and Facebook and anywhere else your academically minded friends hang out. See if you can get your professors to encourage it, maybe even offering credit towards fulfilling course requirements for student who attend and write a research report afterwards. We are open for other ideas as well.

  8. Cynthia Long Westfall says

    Great topic! One of my students who attended ETS with me in Atlanta said, “Attending ETS is like going into the men’s room!” And it’s the only convention I attend where the women’s room is deserted. No lines.

    When you enter that session on sacrificial imagery in Hebrews, I’ll be the woman who’s on the steering committee of the Hebrews section.

    OK…I’ll admit, I’m one of the women that Mike Bird knows.

    I started attending ETS in 2001–I joined to vote in favor of my friend Clark Pinnock (what a loss). I present a paper about every other year. I presented two papers at ETS in San Francisco this year (both by invitation), and co-chaired the section on Genders and Evangelicals with Alan Myatt (above). At the breakfast for the section chairs, there were three women in the room at least 50 men. There was me, Linda Belleville and a woman who wasn’t a chair.

    I’ve never been asked where my husband is once. I fear that it means that I’ve been on the radar of those who purse their lips from the beginning. I’ve survived.

    I agree with your campaign to encourage more women to join and to present papers at ETS. We also need more women to earn Ph.D.s in biblical studies.

    Meanwhile, as Alan said, we’re not going away.

  9. says

    Thanks so much for your post! I’m an enthusiastic (female) member of ETS, too. I’ve been to 3 annual meetings and 2 regional meetings now, and it’s one of the highlights of my year. I can’t imagine a more exciting few days of learning, networking, and reconnecting with like-minded scholars from all over the world. A year ago I set out to find a couple of roomates and ended up with 14 (for ETS and/or SBL)! Yes, we are by far the minority (even at SBL), but we are not alone.

    I’m working on a PhD in Old Testament at Wheaton under Daniel Block. I wouldn’t be here without the encouragement of a long list of male professors over the years (Alan Myatt among them — Hi, Dr. Myatt!). In my experience those who feel women should not be at ETS are a small minority. Many more are delighted to see women attend and get involved.

    I’ve blogged about my experiences at ETS as a woman several times: http://www.seminarymom.blogspot.com/search/label/ETS. Come by and visit, and I hope to meet you this year in Milwaukee!

    • lckeeney says

      Hi Carmen,

      I often check out your blog (and especially loved your ideas for teaching kids about Advent last year). I also tried to find a roommate last year, but unfortunately couldn’t. Hopefully, this year I’ll have a larger network of women to interact with.

      It’s also been my experience that the number of men who are uncomfortable with women at ETS are a minority, however I also know women who have had different experiences.

      But the only way to make people comfortable with a minority is to keep showing up! Thanks for your comments.

    • says

      Hi Carmen,

      Glad to see you chimed in. We need to encourage as many women as possible to join us at ETS. BTW, Ph.D. students don’t need to call me “Dr.” :-).


  10. Erin Heim says

    I just stumbled across your blog while searching for something else ETS-related and I also want to say a heartfelt “thank you” for this post. I’m a PhD student and I’m presenting my first paper at ETS this year in the Romans section. It’s such an encouragement to know that there is a contingent of people within ETS who strongly support female presenters! What a great idea for a blog series :-)

      • Erin Heim says

        Yep, I’ll be the woman shaking in my boots waiting to present after Tom Schreiner on Friday afternoon. The title of the paper is “An Apocalyptic Reading of the Adoption Metaphor in Romans 8.”

  11. Kelly says

    I am new to your blog and am so happy to have found it. I have always wanted to study theology but as a mom of five young kids, going to college/seminary is not an option at this moment. It does my heart good to see what you ladies are doing in going to these conferences and writing these posts.

    • lckeeney says


      I went back and forth on having a gathering. I decided against it this year, but I think next year we will. Philosophically, I’m always concerned that if women keep having “women’s groups,” we’ll never get fully-integrated into the primary (read: male) group. But in hindsight, we should have had a gathering.

      I agree with the assessment on your blog, there is a dearth of both women AND non-whites, and while you do occasionally run across a grouchy traditionalist, most of the men there are happy to meet you.

      One more question: Are you going to blog more? The title of your blog is great and we’d love to have you in the blogosphere?

  12. says

    I agree with your philosophical concern and struggle with it as well, both in the church and in the seminary. In fact, I said the same thing to my husband after ETS: “I’m disappointed that there wasn’t a gathering of women, but I also don’t want to see women shuffled off into ‘women’s groups’.”
    And, thanks for the encouragement! I’ve been toying with the idea–I’m going to be using Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine as the basis for a young adult class at church. That might be the perfect entrée and definitely an example of making the academic practical.

What do you think?