Season 5 - Episode 510
The history of Baptist women in ministry has long gone untold, but Dr. Mandy McMichael, associate director and the J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in Baylor’s Department of Religion, is working to change that. In partnership with Baylor’s Institute for Oral History, she is curating an oral history on the struggles and joys of Baptist women leaders. She examines that topic, and her research on the cultural intersection of faith and beauty pageants, in this Baylor Connections.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are visiting with Mandy McMichael. Dr. McMichael serves as Associate Director and the J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in Baylor's Department of Religion. An ordained Baptist minister, Dr. McMichael's research examines gender and American religious culture, beauty and religion, women in ministry, and more. She's the author of the book, Miss America's God, Faith and Identity in America's Oldest Pageant. Among her research projects include an oral history project with the collection of interviews with Baptist Women in Ministry, through a project entitled Baptist Women in Ministry, In Their Own Words, in conjunction with the Baylor Institute for Oral History. A lot of exciting projects that you get to be a part of, and it's great to have you on the program to talk about it, today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Mandy McMichael:Thanks for having me.
Derek Smith:Well, let's see. It's great to visit. And I was looking through your work. I saw on your Twitter account, the about me section. It reads, "I write about religion and pageants. Yes, I know it sounds fun." So, tell us, is it fun, first, and then dive into a little about why it's meaningful for you to study that?
Mandy McMichael:Yes, it is fun, but to be quite honest, the tagline was added to my Twitter profile a bit tongue-in-cheek.
Mandy McMichael:Because I was tired of scholars and others responding to my description of my research with, oh, that sounds like fun. It always felt a little bit dismissive as if I wasn't engaged in serious scholarship. And I think this is something that many scholars who study popular culture face. So yes, my research and inquiry brought me joy, but just as any scholarship, it was also hard arduous work that sometimes required even more of me than what you think of as typical history. Since I was studying a moving target, things kept changing in the pageant and that was difficult. But yes, it was and is great fun. And it has been incredibly meaningful to investigate such a cultural icon that's going on 100 years strong now.
Derek Smith:Wow. What led you to study that? What questions were you asking in your mind that led you to say, I want to dive into this deeper?
Mandy McMichael:So, the short answer is that I grew up in Alabama and pageants were everywhere. They were infused with culture in Alabama. But the more personal answer is that I embarked on this journey to make sense of my own story and the story of so many Southern Christian women like myself who happen into pageants and don't see the disconnects that are there. And so I started kind of questioning my own tradition, and what had led me to participate, and wanted to understand. So, that's part of how I got into studying the Miss America Pageant.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Mandy McMichael here on Baylor Connections. I want to zoom out a bit before we dive back into this more and talk more about your research more broadly because you have a number of different threads that are all in some similar veins but different areas. So how would you describe the research that interests you, and what are the intersections of that are most interesting for you to study?
Mandy McMichael:Sure. So broadly speaking, I'm very interested in women's religious history and specifically Christian women's history in the United States. I'm interested in how women have lived out their religious experience, both inside the church and outside the church's walls. And so, most of my research has some kind of thread that has to do with women's stories and how they are living out their faith in their day-to-day lives.
Derek Smith:And as we talk about the work you do, you are a professor and a researcher, but being a historian is a big part of your work. What do you enjoy about documenting that and finding out what it can tell us about today?
Mandy McMichael:So I love the excitement that comes from sifting through sources, whether those are written sources or with some of my oral history interviews, hearing people's stories, and then trying to put them together in a way that helps bring meaning for everyday life of people beyond the particular stories that I'm kind of digging into. So that's one of the things I love the most about it is just getting into these sources and digging around to see what I find. I think that another thing that attracted me to history was just being able to interrogate it, in ways, to think about how history has been told. Who has been the people telling the history? What agendas did they bring to the ways that they told history? And how might shifting the lens, just a bit, from this particular set of characters to another, how does that change the narrative? And what happens then when we try to see across these narratives to understanding more broadly what has been taking place and what has shaped the world in which we live today?
Derek Smith:Well, you talk about getting to talk to different sources and find stories that might not have been told, and you're going to do that right now. The project we mentioned at the top of the show, Baptist Women in Ministry, In Their Own Words. The project we mentioned at the top of the show you're working on, right now, Baptist Women in Ministry, In Their Own Words. Give us a little bit of the pitch of this project, and what are you most excited about with it?
Mandy McMichael:Yeah. So one of the things I'm most excited about is getting to hear the stories of women who paved the way for me to be a Baptist woman in ministry. So I am an ordained Baptist minister. I did not grow up thinking that was a possibility, and getting to hear the stories of people who made this possible has been inspiring to me. It has brought hope for the future of the Church in thinking about now I'm one who is training future ministers. So, that's a piece of it that really drew me to this project.
Derek Smith:So what are some of the questions you're trying to answer? Their broad questions? You're trying to tell their story, but what most interests you to really delve into with them individually?
Mandy McMichael:So as a group, I wanted to understand what can be learned about the nature and the shape of Christian vocation if we look specifically at Baptist women ministers? As I suggested earlier, many women in Baptist tradition are taught that they cannot be ordained and they should not be ordained. And so what happens when we look at this group of women who pursued ordination anyway? How does that shape our understanding of Christian vocation? How did this call to ministry prove so resilient and persistent for women when the cards of authority and legitimation were stacked against them, that they went after it anyway? So those are some of the primary questions, but then underneath that, kind of in the background, I'm also wanting to consider what is looking at this particular history of the national group, Baptist Women in Ministry, and those associated with this national group. What does it tell us about constructions of race and class and gender in American Protestantism? Because this is a very white story, white Southern story. And if we pay attention to that as well, how do we begin to understand how constructions of race are at play, even as struggles for gender equality are kind of the rallying cry.
Derek Smith:Yeah. What are those conversations like? How do they feel, and what's it mean to you to be in conversation with these women who help blaze trails?
Mandy McMichael:They feel sacred. There have been moments in our conversations where we've stopped the recorder, where a particular woman might not have felt they could revisit a painful experience just yet. There have been moments where things have been shared for the very first time, where tears are flowing from both me and the person I'm interviewing as we share in this sacred space together. And I count it such a privilege and an honor that these women are trusting me with their stories. Many of them have never been asked to share their stories before, and they feel a deep sense of obligation to share their stories for the recording of the history of Baptist Women in Ministry, but also for the future women ministers who come after them. So it has really just been a gift to share that space with them. But on a more data-driven note, perhaps, than how it makes me feel, I have found the stories of the leaders of Baptist Women in Ministry particularly meaningful to hear. I have been the recipient of what they built. This organization that they created helped encourage me and give me the tools that I needed to succeed in getting an education for ministry and then pursuing ministry. So hearing their struggles in those early days, and even the disagreements that arose in different factions of Baptist Women in Ministry have made me proud of how they have persisted in fighting for this cause and hopeful that my students will have this advocacy group for years to come.
Derek Smith:So you talk about the struggles, what are some of the themes that come up over and over again? And are there some stories that are especially meaningful to you?
Mandy McMichael:Calling, ordination, the service that they've done in the church, these are things we probably expect to hear when people are telling their stories of vocation. They've shared stories of obstacles they faced along the way, whether that was in the form of fellow seminary students who didn't believe they should be there or being shut out of particular conversations. It's also brought up stories that I didn't expect. I expected stories of obstacles. I did not expect that some of them would use the language of trauma. And so that has caused me to consider what other training I might need to be able to interview well and to hear and hold their stories in a way that honors their experience that they describe as trauma-filled. So those are some of the themes that are coming out in my interviews. But also just the creativity that women in ministry have had. Some of them, yes, have been pastors and counselors, and denominational leaders. But I interviewed one woman who started a craft cocktail company, and so that's what she considers her ministry of community now. And I've interviewed women who have been shut out of traditional spaces and made room in other places you might not think of. I've been consistently amazed by the creativity and the versatility of these women to live out their calling, whatever that might look like.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Mandy McMichael, Associate Director and the J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in Baylor's Department of Religion. You mentioned working in conjunction with the Institute for Oral History. They're going to be archiving these, but how do you plan, once the time comes, when you've either... I don't know if you're going to get to a point where you say, okay, we've done the interviews or if that's an ongoing project, but what does archival look like? And what are some of the ways you want to utilize this information for others?
Mandy McMichael:I do hope that people will use this resource. One of the reasons I started collecting these stories was because there was no one repository for these women's stories. Many people have published story collections of some of the main women, but everyday pastors, their stories had not been told. And since Baylor is often talked about as the biggest Baptist institution in the world, why not have Baptist Women in Ministry Archive housed here? So I received a grant from Baylor's Institute, from Oral History to begin work on this project and then received a Louisville Project Grant to continue and expand this project. And part of that involves not only archiving it here at Baylor, but beginning to think about, we'll have a finding guide. We're building a bibliography of books and articles and podcasts about women in ministry and making sure that as many of those resources are available at Baylor as possible, so that if a scholar comes here to research the topic of Baptist Women in Ministry, they have everything they could possibly need. But I also was able to benefit from Baylor's Data Research Fellows. I was a Data Research Fellow last summer and worked with Josh Been, in the library. And am beginning to imagine what it might look like to do data mining on this set of interviews and then data visualization. So that we can do some digital humanities work with that, to put the results and the overall themes of the project out on the web, so that people can have a visual of what this represents and kind of dig deep themselves with keyword searches and other things like that.
Derek Smith:That's neat. On a prior show, probably a little over a year ago, now. We had Dr. Stephen Reid from Truett Seminary on, and he worked with Josh Been in the library, too. Would you have ever imagined yourself as a historian, getting into data sciences, and utilizing that to accelerate your work?
Mandy McMichael:No. It was so hard. I'm thrilled, now that I know how to use these programs. NVivo is one that is going to be particularly useful to me in my work. But it was a struggle trying to learn this new way of thinking and interacting in these ways with codes and numbers. They were so patient with us through the library and the meetings, just incredibly useful. So if anyone is interested in this kind of work or wanting to make their research more broadly available, I highly recommend doing some of this work in digital humanities because I do think it will make my work more accessible to a wider public.
Derek Smith:That's great. That's exciting. We'll look forward to seeing that as we visit with Dr. Mandy McMichael. And let's shift back to some of what we talked about at the top of the program, your research on American religious culture, beauty and religion, particularly, as it relates to pageants. Then the Miss America Pageant, you wrote the book, Miss America's God, Faith and Identity in America's oldest pageant. So I want to ask you about that. Just starting off with that again, are there aspects of your work or reactions to it even that have been either meaningful, surprising, both? What stands out to you about that journey?
Mandy McMichael:I was surprised to find that it wasn't just Christians that are typically labeled evangelical, who were finding faith and identity in the pageant. There were Methodists and Catholics and any, you name it, Christian Orthodox, so there's all these different Christian's groups, and that was surprising to me. It was still predominantly a conservative evangelical story, but there were other Christians who were also finding faith and meaning in the pageant. It's been meaningful to me to have so many friends and family read my work. That was important to me that I write something that the women I was working with and seeking to understand, could see and understand themselves in what I produced. And this has meant over and over again, having to just own what I've written and how I've told the story. I knew going in that probably both those participating in pageants and religious study scholars would not love what I was doing because I was seeking to do something kind of in the middle. I wanted to be charitable to the people that I was studying and trying to understand them, even as I was turning a critical eye. So I kind of tried to hit that nuanced balance, and I'm not sure I did. But naming why I did the things I did, has been important along the way.
Derek Smith:So, if people check out the book, what are some things they might find if they dive into that?
Mandy McMichael:So I strive to understand why does this pageant still exist, 100 years? Why we still have this thing? And I explore several of the reasons why I think it has persisted, sex, entertainment, and competition before I turn to engage the idea that faith and religion played a role in Miss America. And I argue that religion kind of capitalizes on everything that made Miss America, Miss America, and that the women themselves lived out their faith and found community and identity through their pageant participation.
Derek Smith:So earlier, you said that people found faith and meaning in these pageants. Is it community? Does it go beyond that?
Mandy McMichael:It is community. That's a piece of it, but it's also about a chance to live out this call to action that they feel in their faith. So there's an evangelization aspect of it. Some of them even use the language of calling, that they feel called to pageants. And that pageants provide, for them, an opportunity to be a minister for Christ in the world and to live out their gifts. And for a particular cause, to go and speak at youth groups, it opens doors for them to be in pulpits, even, at times, to share their testimonies. And so, this testimony language is interlaced in their discussion of their pageant participation.
Derek Smith:A lot of your studies talk about women in ministry, the intersection of gender, culture, beauty, and religion. As people read your book, whether it's long-held notions of what a woman is supposed to be, or how that impacts women in that culture. What stands out to you about the impact that has? Does that have an impact even on women and others who are not involved in the pageants?
Mandy McMichael:Yes. I think it does. By women, in the pageant, living into the roles of what women are supposed to be and embodying that in very particular ways to be successful in the pageant, they are earning access to power that is available to them and setting them up to make this difference in the world. But by going in that direction, it also perpetuates the cycle of other women seeing this as the way to access power as a woman, instead of joining together and fighting for access to more traditional forms of power.
Derek Smith:We are visiting with Dr. Mandy McMichael here on Baylor Connections. As you talk about this, are there ways you see your work even going broadly beyond pageants, beyond gender, and talking about broader religious culture in America?
Mandy McMichael:Yes. I think that a lot of my work reminds us as a way that American culture and the Christian Church have been more connected than we want to believe. We want to imagine that our faith is kind of set apart from culture and that it's this pure reality in which we live, where we believe the Bible, and that we apply it in very strict and literal ways. And that's our faith, and it's not culture. It's our faith. But the reality is that faith is contextual and that all of us are trying to figure out what parts of our faith are culturally specific and how our culture is sometimes informing our faith in ways that we might need to be more critical about. So that's the other part of the story of the pageant, is how churches were boycotting the pageant in the earlier years. They actually got it shut down, religious groups did, for a couple of years, to promoting it and celebrating it in more recent decades.
Derek Smith:So the book is called Miss America's God, Faith and Identity in America's oldest pageant. And we were talking earlier about your project as well, Baptist Women in Ministry, In Their Own Words. Well, Dr. McMichael, as we wind down, are there any other projects about, which you're excited to begin or working on right now?
Mandy McMichael:Yes, I'm very excited to be co-authoring a book with Dr. Alicia Myers, who is a New Testament scholar at Campbell Divinity School. We are working on a book to titled Helen Barrett Montgomery's Bible, Victorian America and Competing Constructions of Womanhood. That is set to be out with Oxford University Press in 2024.
Derek Smith:2024. All right. Well, we'll be looking forward to that. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us and to take us inside your research, and open that world to us. I appreciate that.
Mandy McMichael:Thanks for having me.
Derek Smith:Thank you, so much. Dr. Mandy McMichael, Associate Director and the J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance in Baylor's Department of Religion, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections. You can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.