When Female Leaders Stop Being the Exception
You can always find one. Whether it’s a particular industry or ministry context, there’s always an example of one woman who has bucked the system, paved her own path, cracked the glass ceiling, and found a place at the top.
These women are often touted as the pioneers leading the way in male-dominated fields, and it’s assumed that behind them will come a new era for women in their field. However, their stories can have the opposite effect. Instead of normalizing women in leadership, they paint a particular figure as the exception—she could make it work because she’s not like the rest of us.
Halee Gray Scott, who has researched for years on women’s leadership in Christianity as well as male-female relationships in ministry, calls it the “myth of the exceptional woman.”
“We view women leaders as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘anomalies’ to a paradigm. In recent decades, the myth that no Christian women can lead has given way to the myth that only ‘exceptional’ or ‘extraordinary’ women can lead,” she wrote. “As a result, we have entered a permanent phase of pioneering, where women continue to meet significant structural and organizational challenges. The myth of the exceptional woman has negative ramifications for female Christian leaders and for women in general.”
I kept thinking of this myth Halee described as I read the news last week that the Foursquare Church elected a male pastor as its next president over a female denominational leader who was up for the job. Tammy Dunahoo would have been the second woman to lead Foursquare since its founder, Aimee Semple McPherson, nearly a hundred years ago.
Scholar Leah Panye wrote for CT Women about why Foursquare—which celebrates Aimee Semple McPherson’s legacy, ordains women, and endorses female leaders—has yet to put another woman at the helm. Part of it has to do with seeing “Sister Aimee,” like so many other women throughout church history, as the exception—the gifted, Spirit-led leader who created a movement of her own.
At CT Women, we’ve featured many women from both camps, those who have built their own movements and ministries and those who worked their way up in existing ones. Either way, we’re happy to celebrate the ways God’s kingdom is going forth through the women of the church—and we trust that, despite the struggles they may face, his Word and will will prevail.
I think of what Natasha Sistrunk Robinson says in a recent post on godly advice for Christian graduates—which is really good advice for all of us—“I don’t wake up wondering whether my day is going to count or if my life matters because my confidence lies in the person and finished work of Christ. My identity rests in him, and for that reason, I have accepted the work he has assigned to me.”
Editor, CT Women