Notes from the Women's Conference Scene

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

So my mom’s not a big fan of women’s conferences.  

Okay, that’s an understatement. My mom pretty much hates women’s conferences. 

“Too many women in one place,” she says. 

Having inherited my mom’s aversion to estrogen overload, I completely understand.  I too struggle through bridal showers and pampered chef parties, often hiding out by the buffet table where I calm my nerves by inhaling a dozen or so pigs-in-the-blanket or pretending to get important messages on my phone.   

So I was a little surprised a couple of weeks ago when Mom volunteered to come to Kentucky with me to attend The W Conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Oh it will be fun!” she said. “Your dad’s at out-of-town and I need to get away…Plus, I don’t know if I trust your car to get you to Kentucky.”

Mary Kassian had generously invited me to attend the conference as her guest.  We had already spent two hours talking on the phone about my biblical womanhood project, and her accessibility and honesty impressed me.  Mary is a founder of The True Woman Movement, which hosts dozens of conferences throughout the year, attracting thousands of women.  

My research has revealed that there are various caveats of the” biblical womanhood “ movement within evangelicalism, just as there are various perspectives on women’s roles within Catholicism, Judaism, Protestantism, Mormonism, Mennonite/Amish communities, etc.   Most evangelical advocates of “biblical womanhood” seem to identify with one of two camps—mainstream complementarianism (as epitomized by The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and the new patriarchy movement (as epitomized by The Vision Forum). Not surprisingly, the two groups don't always have the nicest things to say about each other. I’ve been spending time with folks from both camps, but this conference was decidedly anchored in mainstream complementarianism.  

When we arrived in Louisville, we enjoyed a dinner of soup, salad, and sandwiches on the Southern Baptist Seminary Campus, and Mom immediately struck up a conversation with the ladies at the table.  What we found was that the conference was full of educated professionals. We met a public school administrator, a publishing house editor, an event planner, several college professors, women’s ministry leaders, and students. They were well-dressed, confident, and educated. “No jumpers and tennis shoes here,” one woman joked. 

There was some diversity, though the overwhelming majority of attendees were white and appeared to be upper-middle class . The cost of the conference was over $100, plus lodging.  I was reminded of the fact that the ability to consciously choose and discuss one’s role as a woman is a luxury unavailable to most women in the world. 

As is the case with most conferences, I resonated with some speakers more than others. One of my favorites was Joy Fagan, a professor from Cedarville University in Ohio who had recently sold most of her belongings to start a refuge house in downtown Springfield for victims of sex trafficking.  She led a breakout session on money management and “living simply so that others might simply live.”  

Mary Kassian was the keynote speaker and she had the entire room mesmerized. An energetic and effective communicator, she spent the first session critiquing the feminist movement.  Starting with June Cleaver as an example of the joyful homemaker, Kassian used entertainment icons to illustrate the decline of “true femininity” in the culture—from Mary Tyler Moore, to Murphy Brown, to the “Sex in the City” stars, to Ellen Degeneres.

(The audience consisted primarily of teenagers and young adults, so I suspect some of these figures were unfamiliar to them.)

Feminism is to blame for everything from promiscuity to cohabitation to juvenile delinquency to lesbianism, according to Kassian.  It  represents a rebellion against God’s design in that it encourages  women to name themselves, name the world, and ultimately to name God.  Mentions of Betty Friedan, bra-burnings, and women’s studies were met with sighs and eye-rolls from the audience. Feminism is “the world’s way,” according to Kassian.  Biblical womanhood is “God’s way.”

This is when Mom, (who just so happened to live through second-wave feminism herself), began to squirm a little bit. 

“I love Mary Tyler Moore,” she whispered. “And do you think we’d even be here if it weren’t for Betty Friedan?”   

Mom had identified the stunning irony of a roomful of professional, educated women critiquing the very movement that made their careers, their choices, and perhaps even this conference possible.  It was said at one point that women should not be defined by their husbands, but by God—an extraordinary statement that I doubt would have been made were it not for the so-called “navel-gazing” of the women who have gone before us. 

Now, I would never suggest that feminist ideology is perfect or that the feminist movement did not create some  problems, but just as the contemporary biblical womanhood movement deserves fair, nuanced treatment, so does the feminist movement. Neither should be painted with a broad brush. 

I for one am deeply thankful to my mother’s generation for the opportunities I’ve enjoyed as a college graduate, a newspaper reporter, a marketing consultant, an author, a speaker, and a church leader. It’s hard to say for sure what my life would be like were it not for Mary Tyler Moore, but I doubt that I would have had the courage to stand up to that school board the day they tried to unlawfully ban reporters from a meeting were it not for the calm assurance that I might just “make it after all.” 

“Thanks for coming with me, Mom,” I said as we took the winding highways of Kentucky back to Tennessee. “And thanks for paving the way back in the 70s and all.” 

“Oh I wasn’t really involved in all of that,” Mom replied. “No bra burnings for me.” 

It was quiet for a moment before she added, “But I sure was cheering them on.”

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