Candler alumnae recall triumphs and challenges of seminary life

Alumnae of the Candler School of Theology gathered in Cannon Chapel on Oct. 23 as part of Candler's Women's Week to tell their stories as theology students and discuss some of the challenges they encountered.

Four women involved in the ministry, all of whom attended Candler in the 1970s, detailed their individual experiences at Candler and beyond, highlighting some of the challenges and triumphs they encountered as women in a predominantly male student population at the time.

Claiburne Jones, who is currently a pastor, recalled how "the only women's room at Candler had a urinal in it." On a more serious note, she remembered one inspirational class called "Women and Ministry," taught by a Presbyterian minister named Nell Morton. "She blew a lot of my assumptions," Jones said. "She talked about Jesus and how he responded to women; she said she `wasn't sure that Jesus was a man.'" Overall, Jones said the professors at Candler were "supportive and wonderful," but pointed out that there were no tenured women on the faculty at Candler until 1978.

Toni White '74T, who was formerly the chaplain at Columbia College and is now on leave from Southern Methodist University to raise her granddaughter, said two things surprised her about her experience: "People would say to me, `You aren't going to preach, are you?' and `This must be a good place to find a good Christian husband.'" One of White's main issues in theology school was the sexist language used. One day, the female students in her class took apples to class "in honor of Eve, and every time a sexist phrase or word was used--say, mankind instead of humankind--we'd all take a bite."

Susan Bishop '75T, chaplain at Georgia's Metro State Prison for women, said her story dovetailed with White's because "she wasn't aware that she was stepping into a predominantly male environment." After the incident with the apples, she said "a good male friend of mine wouldn't talk to me for two weeks." A turning point in her life as a theology student came when she attended a conference in the winter of 1973 where all the attendees were women. "Something about the experience tapped into who I was," she said. "It was a turning point in my seminary career."

Martha Randall '81T, who is a pastor at a church in inner city Atlanta, said she "was surprised to run into female discrimination at Candler; before, I'd always been concerned with racism." She was also surprised at how difficult her courses were, but she "had a good time at Candler and took advantage of her experiences there." One of her most memorable encounters came with a professor who blatantly refused her ample presentation time; when she confronted the professor directly in front of the class, the students stood up and applauded.

Near the end of the semester, she was called in for a meeting with the dean, who said the professor had recommended that Randall receive an F in the course. After Randall told the dean about the confrontation, he called for a three-way meeting about the situation. When the professor angrily refused to the meeting, he said the dean could give Randall whatever grade he wanted. The dean promptly gave Randall an A and sent her on her way. "Though racism exists, it cannot rule us if we are willing to stand up for ourselves," Randall said.

--Danielle Service

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