“Oppressed, doesn’t show her ankles, only reads the Bible, is not edgy,” Amelia Dilworth ’23 lists off when I ask her about popular perspectives on Christian women. Amelia, who grew up in a Christian household and now serves as a campus ministry intern, laughs as her big gold hoop earrings sway. Amelia laughs because she, with her punchy one-liners and critical awareness, is the last person to be considered boring.
As a woman of color who grew up around Christianity and chose to follow the faith in college, I’ve always wondered why I turned to religion at Yale, among all places. On our left-leaning, cis-heteropatriarchy-smashing campus, the voices of Christian women do not necessarily strike as savory. Anti-abortion, anti-vaccination and Trumpism represent some of the movements Chrisitan women are associated with nationally, just to name a few. As a result, I’ve always been curious as to how Christian women practice their faith amidst this noise: a current cultural moment where the media portrays them as problematic typologies and a college campus placing immense pressures on students to perform socially and academically.
According to a Chaplain’s Office Survey analyzing religious affiliations in the 2010s, Christians represent the largest faith group on campus. However, from my own observations, Christian women also seem to be the most spread out not just physically, but ideologically.
What I find from my interviews with Christian women across various spaces is the immense breadth of opinion on core issues such as modesty, relationships and careers. But they all share a commitment to pursue what God has called them to do on campus. This steadfast love for God and for others is what roots them all — and what ultimately sets them apart.
Yale, Christianity and women
Christianity has indelibly shaped the foundation of Yale, and its traces persist and impact the experience of all women and gender minorities today.
In 1701, Congregationalist clergymen from the Connecticut Colony established The Collegiate School in Connecticut’s Branford. The third-oldest institution of higher education trained men in theology, classical languages, leadership and later on, in the sciences and humanities. It was from this highly male and Christian foundation that a new Yale began to form. As early as 1892, women matriculated into graduate-level programs, and in 1973, undergraduate women began sitting in the seats only male ministers once could.
To some degree, the historic exclusion of women from higher education can be attributed to Christian perspectives on motherhood and homemaking — or at least subjective interpretations of the Bible. In “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” historian Beth Allison Barr unpacks the socio-political construction of Biblical womanhood: the belief that God designed women to remain in the home and become virtuous wives and mothers. This idea has pervaded North American Christianity and emerged in particular social contexts throughout history. Hannah Turner ’24, who grew up in a Christian household and now leads a women’s bible study group, calls this “bad exegesis.”
“The idea of wearing gingham aprons and making muffins everyday — that’s not biblical,” points out Dilworth. “That’s highly popularized by the Industrial Revolution, as well as the 1960s during second wave feminism. Men would go out and work and women were expected to tend to the home, which is a race and class-based concept.”
Though the addition of women came relatively early, the transition to coeducation was not easy, and to some degree shapes the archetype of college women today. The culture of higher education bred a hyperfixation on professional or academic work and a devaluation of any other forms of labor; this was normal for men, but women had to assimilate to this environment. In proving their place in the Academy, women invested their full attention in school and also began to critique anything that did not relate to it.
This sentiment lingers today.
“College is still very much a man’s world,” Dilworth theorizes. “College makes everyone work in a culture where it’s impossible to be a homemaker and hold a job. It trains us to have all of our food prepared for us; there is no reproductive labor that Yale students have to do. The only thing is to take out the trash. And maybe even not.”
Lily Lawler ’23, who serves in the same internship as Dilworth, elaborates on the rise of the girlboss archetype. “In order to be successful in the world, you have to give up everything that is feminine. Anything that is feminine is bad. You need to be a girlboss.”
Alongside girlboss, the ideal college woman is at the same time cool girl. Turner explains: “she’s at the top of her clubs, goes to the gym everyday, shows up to all of the social events, eats healthy … she constantly gets something out of her body.” I think this is a sentiment that most female college students can identify with: the constant need to produce something, whether a material product or an immaterial feeling for others.
Overall, this complex of religious and political factors creates the ideal college woman archetypes that many Christian women battle.
Christian womanhood on campus is developed within this secular ideal.
“For Christian women, the connection between worth and success is severed,” Lawler explains. “You can be a hustler and work hard, but your value is not linked to that anymore. You are willing to sacrifice things about your career to care about the wellbeing of yourself and others. A Christian woman at Yale knows that the most important thing about being here is not me or Yale but what God is doing through me at Yale.”
Turner extends this idea of humility: the ideal Christian woman “makes Jesus’ desires her desires.” Why would a woman cede her agency to the desires of a man who lived 2,000 years ago? In seeking after Christ’s desires, does a woman not lose her freedom to make her own choices?
From a non-Christian perspective, Christianity is based on the practice of putting a man first: women are expected to place the desires of Jesus above their own. But, for the Christian woman this does not equate to a lack of agency. Understanding what compels Christian women to the discipline of faith requires a redefinition of freedom, maybe one that is unconventional to the secular eye.
The women I spoke to invoked the distinct Christian perspective on freedom.
“The central difference lies in what freedom means to you,” Turner explains. “Secular freedom is having endless choice, whereas Christian freedom is being free from something — whether sin, punishment, guilt or anxiety.”
When I asked a similar question to Kat Matsukawa ’23, who also serves as a campus ministry intern, she added something very similar: “Believers have a very different understanding of freedom. Secular people may look at my life and say, based on the way you live, you are not free. On the outside, I do have a lot more boundaries. But I know that I am free from sin and shame.”
Here, Matsukawa and Turner present the paradox of Christian freedom. By championing what their faith calls them to do rather than what the world, what men, what capitalism and what they instruct themselves to do, a woman experiences true freedom. This, to them, is the only passage through which women can free themselves from the oppressive past and the trappings of ideal college women.
It is important to note, though, that Christian women are not bound to a universal set of rules.
One of the central areas in which subjective rules form is modesty. Many of the women I spoke to have differing relationships with clothing. Some girls wore bikinis while others stuck to one-piece suits. Some found kissing before marriage okay because it did not provoke sexual thoughts for them, while others would only kiss at the altar.
“I still wear crop tops— with high-waisted jeans, yoga pants and oversized sweatshirts.” Hannah describes. “Modesty is not a moral standard, but something that we are figuring out now in this broken world. It is not universal.”
What matters seems to be intention. Are you dressing to provoke sexual desires and to commodify your body, or to honor God and express yourself creatively?
Another area in which rules are developed is relationships. While Christian women are often seen as husband-obsessed, the women I spoke to were comfortable being single.
A sophomore, who chose to remain anonymous, pointed out a distinction in how her non-Christian and Christian friends talk about dating. “My friends are all boy crazy, whereas conversations about guys in Christian spaces are a lot more intentional and also less frequent.” The sophomore could only point to one conversation she had about men, when her friend discussed the premarital counseling she and her fiance were undergoing. She said that most of her conversations with other Christian college students pass the Bechdel test.
An anonymous junior’s remarks were similar. While she grew up going to church, it was only until college that she learned to let God lead her relationships, which has made her more intentional about her interactions with non-Christian men. Christianity ultimately has encouraged her to embrace singlehood as a gift from God, a season of her life where she can focus on her faith and what God has called her to do as a student and in her career.
Finally, Christian women at Yale follow God’s calling throughout their careers. Some girls are called to ministry, others become full-time mothers or to CEOs. This is not an I Can Be Barbie fantasy, but one that is dictated by God’s sovereign plan and their God-given gifts.
“We live in a culture that celebrates novel things,” Kat reflects. “For Christians, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel, we are just trying to be obedient to Jesus. Sometimes that means he’s calling us to a path that has already been well-trekked. Do we have the humility to accept that?”
There are still infinite topics to discuss and perspectives to illuminate, particularly those of gender minorities in Christian spaces, worth another decade of articles. But I would like to posit a larger argument that maybe it is because of, not in spite of, the disjunctures between religion and college that draw women to faith.