In 2002 Rosaline Wiseman published a book decoding the secret hierarchy of teenage girls. It became a popular read among parents because Wiseman’s research consisted of inviting young girls across the country to describe their social ecosystem. From that research, she developed a taxonomy of the mysterious habitat of teenage girls. Although Queen Bees and Wannabes aimed at helping parents, it gained a much wider readership and even inspired the fictional movie Mean Girls. I read the book as a teenager, not as a parent, and found myself easily thrilled by categorizing every girl I knew. Suddenly I had a map for the land I’d wandered in for years.
I had a similar experience between the pages of Kate Bowler’s new book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. As a preacher’s wife myself, I did not read it as a spectator, but as an insider. I immediately recognized the opportunities and frustrations Bowler describes. I, too, have wrestled with my own ambition and uncertainty over the roles I’m supposed to play in the conservative spiritual tradition I love.
Bowler begins her book with two questions that frame its aim: “How do women (in the church) learn their spiritual roles? What parts are they allowed to play?” To hear from the women themselves, they describe their rise to celebrity as one of effortless ease, but Bowler deconstructs five repeated themes that allowed for their platforms as evangelical women. She devotes a chapter to each in the form of roles: preacher, homemaker, talent, counselor, and beauty. Her research shows that even in denominations that prohibit ordination for women—perhaps especially in those denominations—women find alternative ways to get on stage. The women Bowler studies created their own opportunities by appealing to both evangelical expectations for women and taking advantage of marketplace demand. If a woman is willing to become what evangelical consumers want, she can gain prestige, brand power, and even wealth.
Is there a place for ambitious women in the church?
In a way, Bowler uses the “preacher’s wife” as an archetype: a sanctioned female evangelical who—through her beauty, talent, homemaking skills, or proximity to power—has influence. Preacher’s wives possess an intrinsically elevated status. They have a built-in audience and often embody what women can aspire to without subverting the authority of their denomination. Michelle Van Loon acknowledges the crux of the issue for many evangelical women: “As ambitious evangelical women haven’t had a clear ladder to climb, those with leadership desires have had to figure out how to vault themselves onto the rungs in American Christian-acceptable ways.” The preacher’s wife offers a vision for the roles available to other women in the congregation, showing the way toward the main stage.
Yet success in the evangelical marketplace comes at the cost of higher expectations, a pitfall noted by several women in their interviews with Bowler. Most notable for me was the story of Jennifer Knapp, a singer-songwriter who became an instant evangelical celebrity—one of my personal favorites—not long after her conversion in college. She found it surprising how her fans expected her to become a poster child for purity culture, so much so that a committee of record studio executives once debated whether a guitar strap across her chest would be too suggestive for an album cover. Such conversations shed light on the unique demands placed on women in the evangelical marketplace.
Bowler packs her book with vividly captured characters, from her detailed portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker looking “like a scoop of pink sherbet in her matching rose dress and heels” to the unnamed woman who makes a dark joke about conference attendees “just wishing they could get a life-threatening disease right now and write about it.” Evangelical women may not personally relate to all of the chapters, but a contemporary audience is sure to recognize “The Counselor” types—women who “instead of standing on their credentials” choose to “justify their authority on the grounds that they stood on the ultimate foundation of psychological insight—experience.”
Bowler deserves credit for introducing the differing ways these roles play out in diverse congregations, specifically noting how expectations vary for preacher’s wives in historically black churches. Surely her work marks the beginning of exploring how expectations on evangelical women influence a variety of church and parachurch settings. But readers should be aware that she tends to lump together trends across various denominations that may not consider themselves as having much in common, like prosperity churches, evangelical churches, and mainline traditions.
Success with Something to Say
It’s tempting for a researcher to stand at a distance from her subjects, but Bowler gently inserts herself into the narrative. Rather than making dismissive asides about the plight of other women, she recognizes that she is not immune to her categories. Her own experience is a testament to how a personal tragedy can become a boon for a speaking career, as her popular book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved detailing her stage four cancer diagnosis prompted a flood of speaking invitations. In fact, she begins her book with “A Personal Note” recalling an event where a fellow speaker said, “You’re only famous because you’re dying, right?” Bowler responded, “Actually, it’s because I have something to say.” A woman with any amount of influence may find it uncomfortable to see herself as a beneficiary of the trends Bowler dissects, instead preferring to believe that she, too, is here because she has something to say.
And yet, can any woman really know what factors led to her success? Can any researcher fully determine the strange brew of circumstances that create a following? Surely no woman wants her career reduced to a category, but Bowler asks her readers to acknowledge truths that have perhaps gone unspoken: attributes like musical talent and beauty often provide women with opportunities to be on stage; that spilling secrets about personal tragedies or confessing from the stage can evoke an audience’s trust and build a brand; that women can, and have, leveraged an idealized femininity to increase their status. Perhaps from her own experience, Bowler describes “the great juggling act of female celebrity” as “the double act of perfection and relatability.” There are serious personal costs to public ministry and women would be wise to consider her insight.
What Bowler does not offer are solutions. In fact, she isn’t even clear on which trends she sees as problematic. Instead, she offers a broad, historical interpretation of the ecosystem inhabited by evangelical women across denominational boundaries, one that should spark a great deal of reflection and conversation among women who consume and create content through the evangelical marketplace.
Like my young adult self, I have found Bowler’s categories transforming how I see the culture I both inhabit and observe. I can look around and recognize women who have charted these pre-approved paths to gain a following. But instead of using these labels to dissect the motives of others like I did in high school, I’ve found them instructing me to consider how such pathways to credibility have tempted me. They are less a criticism of ambitious women in the church as they are a warning to ensure that any successful platforms are coupled with actually having something to say.
Cover image by Scott Webb.