As Hillary Clinton prepares to accept the first-ever nomination of a woman on a major political ticket, Ellen Richard, 26, is preparing to vote for the first time.
In 2008 and 2012, Richard didn’t vote, following a principle common among some conservative Christians not to place their hope in earthly rulers. But Richard’s experience as she moved into the profession of theology has cemented her concern for gender parity — from the church sanctuary all the way to the White House.
“I’m voting for Clinton because I’m committed to seeing women gain greater levels of power,” says Richard, who was one of the only women to choose the Bible as an undergraduate major and then study it on the master’s level at evangelical schools. She is now a Bible editor at a Christian publisher in Chicago. “It not only balances what I consider to be a historical wrong . . . women have a perspective that hasn’t always been brought to the table.”
Richard represents a more visible segment of young evangelical women who believe that women’s leadership and equal representation— longtime concerns of the feminist movement — are important for society. Their mothers and grandmothers largely shied even from the word “feminist” — seeing it as wrongly challenging traditional gender roles as well as associated with abortion-rights support.
But today more young evangelical conservative women claim it. They have coined the term “Jesus Feminists” – there’s even a book with the moniker – and created new organizations including 4word and Propel Women encourage women’s leadership and influence in the workplace. As Clinton is nominated, young evangelical women are perhaps more primed than ever to celebrate a woman in the White House.
To be sure, Clinton’s enthusiastic support for abortion rights is a deal-breaker for many. Even so, Richard and others who support Clinton are not outliers in their drive for gender equity. In research for my new book on the value of work, I interviewed more than 120 young (aged approximately 25 to 40) women from conservative evangelical backgrounds, the vast majority of whom agreed that institutions need women in leadership. This may be a non-issue for most young American women, but white evangelical women in particular still wonder about the value of work outside the home.
Others said they were grateful for the gains of the feminist movement, even if they didn’t support all aspects of it. Still others praised Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg and her book “Lean In” and wished that more pastors would support more women leaders.
The reasons vary, but the majority of leaders in most U.S. evangelical churches are men. Sometimes they cite scriptural interpretation, sometimes not. In non-church life, a recent study by the 2014 Gender Parity Project found that among evangelical non-profits, just 16 percent of chief executive positions and 21 percent of board positions are held by women. In secular contexts, evangelicals are more open to women’s leadership.
Richard’s support for Clinton arises in part from her experience in a religious profession. As a student at Oklahoma Baptist University, she majored in biblical languages. It’s a major that attracts future pastors— which, in Southern Baptist circles, means men.
“Being a woman who chose to go into biblical studies was automatically going to be a moment where I had to confront my gender in a public place,” says Richard. In 2014, when she earned a Master’s degree in biblical exegesis, “gender equality became more visible in my life personally. I began to see it more generally in society.”
Before her academic experience, Richard thought the conversation about feminism was over. In church, she grew up understanding, men and women have different, but not unequal roles. Outside of church, she associated the word with the right to vote. In other words, she said “I thought of gender equity as something from the past.” Something that didn’t relate to her life.
Evangelicals make up perhaps the most consistently anti-Clinton group in the country. In a May 2016 survey by Barna Group, 81 percent of registered evangelical voters said they had an unfavorable view of Clinton, compared with 67 percent who had an unfavorable view of Donald Trump. Antipathy toward the Clintons animated leaders of the Religious Right in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Even amid concerns over Trump’s character, very few prominent evangelicals support Clinton, though there are exceptions, including D.C. pastor Thabiti Anyabwile and Deborah Fikes, who has been a leader in the World Evangelical Alliance.
But some are starting to say they are supporting Clinton precisely because of their faith. Among them is Karisa Johns Smith, who comes from a Pentecostal family. Pentacostalism is a branch of historical evangelicalism that includes diverse views on women’s leadership both in the church and outside.
“Gender equality is rooted in my religious beliefs,” says Smith, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school in Illinois. “God created man and woman in his image, and gender inequality emerged post-Fall. So the movements of gender equality are works of God.”
If Clinton becomes president, says Smith, “I will probably cry. There’s finally somebody for my daughters — that you grow up believing you can be what you see.”
Many evangelicals believe that men and women have different, God-given roles and that in general, men are to lead while women are to follow. Others stress the essential equality of the sexes and support women’s leadership in all contexts. But amid these differences, evangelicals in general would say they oppose the subjugation of women — they just disagree on whether disparity in leadership is or is not a kind of subjugation.
The question that seems to be erupting is the gap between evangelical women’s rising leadership outside the church, and their role as supporters — not leaders — inside it.
According to the Gender Parity Project, 93 percent of evangelical leaders surveyed agreed that “men and women should share leadership roles within society.”
Fikes, until recently a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, says she sees among evangelicals “much more openness to supporting female candidates and leaders in other parts of society” than in the church. She believes younger and minority evangelicals are “gender blind” and simply want a president who shares their values.
Fikes was one of the few evangelical leaders to publicly support Clinton after Trump met with more than 900 prominent Christian conservatives in June. “The contrast between Mr. Trump and Hillary on issues such as religious freedom, human rights, immigration, torture, poverty, education, equality, and racism can’t be ignored or rationalized,” said Fikes via e-mail. “My values as a follower of Christ fit much better with Hillary.”
Liz Aleman, an attorney at the East Bay Children’s Law Offices in San Francisco, says it’s Clinton’s previous work with the Children’s Defense Fund that secures her vote as a Christian. Clinton worked for the Fund, founded by Marian Wright Edelman to advocate for poor and minority children’s education, after graduating from Yale Law School.
“Clinton could have gone straight and worked for a firm . . . but the fact that she started out wanting to help people right away tells me her character,” said Aleman, who attends City Church San Francisco. Aleman says she has “never seen a presidential candidate actually care that much [as Clinton] about families and women and children.”
Yet Clinton’s policies affecting women and children for some are the problem, given their anti-abortion views. That’s causing many even young evangelicals to say they’ll vote Trump or consider abstaining in November.
Not all young evangelical women are motivated to vote for Clinton because of gender.
Ekemini Uwan, a recent graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, says she is voting for Clinton “for fear of the real and present threat the alternative poses to the republic, my livelihood, and that of other marginalized people.” She supports women’s leadership in both the church and the political sphere, but says true gender equality “must reject identity politics.”
“We should not vote for a woman simply because she is a woman,” says Uwan, who writes regularly about race and Christianity. “Gender equality in its truest sense requires us to evaluate the candidate based on the substance of her platform; not on her anatomy.”
Richard, for her part, is voting based on Clinton’s gender.
“I vote for Clinton less because she’s Hillary Clinton and honesty because she’s a woman,” says Richard. “We’ve reached a point in history where it’s time for this to happen. It’s time for white men to share the wealth.”
Katelyn Beaty is print managing editor of Christianity Today magazine and co-founder of the women’s site Her.meneutics. She’s the author of “A Womans Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World,” which is out this month.