From the Editor: “A Fuller Vision of the Whole People of God”

Ray Waddle

What happens when a male-centered religious institution – a divinity school, say – admits women into the fold, admits them into leadership, admits the truth of their life experiences and insights?

One answer is, the institution becomes a laboratory, an ongoing seminar, in the sharing of power. Also: The image of God is transformed, sending the faith on new trajectories of renewal. There’s no turning back.

When YDS started enrolling women in 1932, four women were admitted (total enrollment was nearly 200). By 1940, the number of women attending was 23 (total student body was more than 250).

The door was opening – slowly. Administrators were cautious: They pointed out that American churches weren’t ready for female ministers. Still, the numbers crept up – 40 women students were on the YDS rolls in 1955, or about 10 percent, according to YDS directories of the period. Then in the early 1970s came a historic escalation. By 1977, the number of women had risen to 175. Society’s rampages were pressing in – the world of the Bomb, the Pill, Vietnam, civil rights movement, women’s rights, gay rights. The church was changing. So was YDS. By the 1980s, some 200 women students were on campus, 50 percent of the student body. 

Witnesses from those times describe gradual revisions of campus culture and theology. Joan Bates Forsberg said the surge of women was bringing to YDS “a fuller, more accurate vision of the whole people of God, a heightened awareness of the partnership and equality of women and men in the service of God.”1

By the mid-70s, more women were pursuing the M.Div. degree, a sign that churches were embracing women’s ministry despite clamorous debate around women’s ordination. More mid-career women were enrolling – former nurses, social workers, homemakers – who brought gritty life experience to the classroom. Courses forged new points of view – lectures on human sexuality, family dynamics, the politics of contraception and abortion. Letty Russell and Margaret Farley regularly taught a renowned course on feminist theology and ethics.

“At long last there seems to be developing an awareness that if men and women are to be prepared adequately to serve churches made up of women and men there should be some conscious encounter in the classroom with the theological, psychological, and social implications of our feminine and masculine humanity,” Forsberg wrote in 1972.2 

The presence of women on campus changed conversations about the meaning of servanthood, leadership, and the irresistible will of God. Old hierarchies were tested. Second-wave feminism challenged inequality, sexist language, and retrograde social policy everywhere. Women brought new perspectives to matters of power – often a spirit of collaboration, an insistence on fairness – after being ignored or devalued for centuries. Their pain and wisdom ignited theology, hermeneutics, ethics, and Christian life.

By 2011, alumnae could envision a new church spirit based on the gains of past efforts and ordeals.

“As women in ministry we now have a generation of experience to draw on,” the Rev. Carol Pinkham Oak ’85 M.Div. wrote in Reflections that year.3 “I had to fight for maternity leave. I had to resist the culture that said you will be available every single moment. We are generating a new culture. Women of this generation will make their own contributions in as-yet-undefined ways, but they will discover their way. And they will give the next generation even more to build on.”

By now second-wave feminism has evolved into a third and fourth wave, with more attention on equality for women of color, sexual orientation, and gender in an era of postmodern pluralism, connectivity, continued racism, sexism, violence.

“Many of us in gender and sexuality studies have been trying to say that there’s a lot of complexity and messiness – a lot of contradiction – around sexual identity and ethics,” Linn Tonstad, associate professor of theology at YDS, stated in Reflections last year.4 “The way women get punished for being both too timid and too aggressive, for instance – it’s lose/lose. Queer and feminist theologies help us recognize patterns of contradiction and interlocking oppressions.”

One theme resounds across these eventful decades of women at YDS, as this Reflections issue argues: Tradition is absorbing and metabolizing what women have to say about themselves and the world. They are narrators and heroes of the story of faith. No gender has a monopoly on truth. As it turns out, everyone bears the image of God.

1 Joan Bates Forsberg, “‘Ye That are Men Now Serve Him …’ or Did We Really Sing that in Chapel This Morning,” Reflection, Yale Divinity School, November 1976, p. 2.

2 Joan Bates Forsberg, “Consciousness ’72,” Reflection, Yale Divinity School, May 1972, pp. 2-3.

3 Carol Pinkham Oak, “A New Culture Rising,” Reflections, Yale Divinity School, Spring 2011, p. 41.

4 Linn Tonstad, “Theology Thriving at the Margins,” Reflections, Yale Divinity School, Fall 2018, p. 33.