After I recently saw the film RBG, my interaction with Dorothy Kelley Patterson years ago came to mind. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dr. Dorothy Kelley Patterson, in the same generation with Ruth a little older than Dorothy, both experienced sexism, but they responded in opposite ways. The film includes a photo of Ruth at Harvard Law School surrounded by men—she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. Dorothy was among the few women theology students in her class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and in the Doctor of Ministry program at Luther Rice Seminary at that time.
Justice Ginsburg’s experiences of discrimination led her to work tirelessly for justice and equality for women throughout her career. Dr. Patterson’s experiences led her to work tirelessly to fit traditional subordinate roles for women and to teach other women to fit into these roles. What made the difference?
Both Ruth and Dorothy drew guidance from their conservative religious traditions. Ruth grew up in Orthodox Judaism. But when she saw up close the second-class status of women in her religion, she chose to focus on the demand for justice in Jewish history and tradition. She has a large sign in her chambers inscribed with Hebrew words from Deuteronomy, translated “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (16:20). When Dorothy from her conservative Southern Baptist religion also received messages that God intended only men to be leaders in church, home, and society, she chose to focus on passages in the Bible used to place limits on women.
My religious background, like Dorothy’s, is Southern Baptist, but I resonate more with Ruth. My Baptist roots run deep. My father and grandfather were Baptist preachers. My mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, my husband, David, and I all graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But instead of messages of restriction based on my gender, from my Baptist heritage I got messages of freedom to follow God’s call wherever that leads.
So, when I debated Dorothy in 1988 at the Southern Baptist Historical Society, I had a hard time understanding how she could defend putting limits on God’s call to women. The debate took place in a large meeting room in one of the imposing buildings of the national Southern Baptist headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. David, who had come to cheer me on, and I arrived early to learn the order for the debate. I was scheduled first to read my paper “Why I Believe Southern Baptist Churches Should Ordain Women,” and then Dorothy would read her paper, “Why I Believe Southern Baptist Churches Should Not Ordain Women.” (These papers were later published in Baptist History and Heritage.) We had twelve minutes each. Although Dorothy and I had read each other’s papers prior to the debate, we were to make no rebuttal of each other’s points until both of us had finished. Then the audience could direct questions to us, and we could respond to them and to each other.
I sat on the platform beside Dorothy, wife of Paige Patterson, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and one of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dorothy wore a hat as a sign that she submitted to male authority, just as the Bible told her to do, she said. I felt weak and shaky as I listened to the moderator introduce me.
When I stood at the pulpit and looked out at the sea of male faces, my knees shook so hard I felt I might collapse. My voice began softly and tentatively but gained power as I referred to the biblical story of Gamaliel, who counseled religious leaders not to hinder the apostles’ work because “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:39). I swiftly drew the parallel, “Southern Baptists cannot overthrow the ordination of women because it is of God.” I then moved confidently into my theological arguments, heavily supported with scriptural passages including Acts 2:17, which records Peter’s announcement that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (The Greek word translated “prophesy” also means “preach.”) Also, claiming Baptist history, I commented on women preachers in England as far back as 1646 and told of a leading Presbyterian minister at that time who accused Baptists of having “she-preachers.” I cited well-known Baptist women preachers in eighteenth-century America such as Martha Marshall, Eunice Marshall, Margaret Clay, and Hannah Lee. Inflamed by my passionate conviction, I delivered my concluding call to action:
As in the issue of equality of the races, Southern Baptists have failed to take a prophetic stand on the equality of men and women. Not only have we failed to be a redemptive force in society, but also we have impoverished our churches by placing restrictions on the ministry of women. The pressing spiritual, emotional, and physical needs in our world demand that Southern Baptists cease to limit the ministry of more than half our members. If we follow the steps of Christ and of our Baptists forebears, we will repent of past sins and ordain all women, along with men, whom God calls to ministry.
Dorothy clapped along with the audience as I sat back down beside her. She then rose and walked slowly to the pulpit. Instead of beginning with her paper, according to the agreed-upon procedure, she began a rebuttal of my points. She questioned the legitimacy of my biblical interpretation and the orthodoxy of the theologians I referenced. And then in the midst of her paper, she made a comment about “women whose need for power led them to seek positions in denominations other than Baptist.” It was obvious that she wanted to discredit me by implying that I was not a true and loyal Baptist because I had taken a pastoral appointment in a Methodist church. Sweat started trickling down my back, but I tried to sit there on the platform looking pleasant and professional. Dorothy proceeded to muster all the biblical passages traditionally interpreted to exclude women from ordained ministry. She spent the longest time on a few verses in 1 Timothy that state that women should “learn in silence with full submission” and should not “teach or have authority over a man.” In my paper I had commented on this passage in 1 Timothy: “Those who take the statement concerning women’s silence in church as an eternal principle must also take as a literal command for all time the preceding statement forbidding women to wear braided hair, gold, pearls, or costly attire. Those arguing against ordination of women on the basis of this passage practice selective literalism, violating contextual and historical hermeneutical principles.”
After reading our papers, the moderator invited questions and comments. An earnest young man in the audience directed the first question to Dorothy: “Dr. Patterson, if you believe, as you stated so strongly, that women are not to teach or to have authority over a man, why is it that you have come here today to teach us, an audience of mostly men?”
“That’s a good question,” she said. “I’ve come here only by the permission and under the authority of my husband, Dr. Paige Patterson. By the way, he regrets very much that he could not be here today, but he gave me permission to speak to you. As you probably know, I wear this hat as a symbol of my submission to the authority of my husband.”
One man asked me why I had taken a position in a Methodist church, but I could tell by his tone that his question was not so much a challenge as an invitation to defend myself against Dorothy’s charge. I answered that although I’d like to have had an opportunity to pastor in my Baptist tradition, my call to ministry took precedence over denominations. He responded by lamenting the loss of talent Baptists suffered by excluding women from ministry.
After the program, Dorothy and I exchanged polite compliments. Then she opened her Bible to Genesis and redoubled her efforts to prove to me that, from the beginning of creation, God had ordained women’s subordinate role. I countered that hers was only one interpretation of the passage and proceeded to reiterate mine. Pointing adamantly at the verses, she insisted, “But this is what God says, right here! Can’t you see?”
Later when David asked what Dorothy and I had been talking about so long, I said, “She kept trying to persuade me that her interpretation was not an interpretation at all, but the literal, inerrant word of God, and that’s scary!”
Now 30 years later, as I reflect on my interactions with Dorothy, I find it sad that a woman with so much intelligence, leadership ability, and theological education would spend her gifts and energy advocating and teaching limitations on the exercise of women’s gifts. And I find myself asking what made the difference in Dorothy Kelley Patterson’s becoming a strong defender of restrictions on women and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s becoming a strong advocate for women’s equal rights. I find it tragic that Dorothy’s biblical interpretation still limits women’s gifts and calling in so many churches. Also, I find it scary that this theology so often leads to and condones abuse of women.
Theology and biblical interpretation have consequences, as Dr. Molly T. Marshall so powerfully articulates in her article, “The Peril of Selective Inerrancy,” in Baptist News Global.