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Presbyterian playwright addresses patriarchy at seminary

Play to open in Minnesota in February

July 16, 2014

Kristine Holmgren

Kristine Holmgren —courtesy of Kristine Holmgren

STATESVILLE, N.C.

What kind of person does it take to blaze a trail for those coming behind them?

In God Girl, a play by the Rev. Kristine Holmgren, the author tells her own story of doing just that when she attended Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1970s.

“Many of us went to seminary and those of us who were female met real strong resistance to that from the male-dominated church systems,” Holmgren said. “I think the story anchors a lot of common experiences for many people in my generation. Those of us who stood up for things that we believe to be common sense in terms of what we were capable of doing and what we should be able to do — in our personal missions and in our vocations — those of us who stood up for those things really took a lot of heat in the ’70s and in the ’60s as well.”

Holmgren didn’t go to Princeton naïve about the challenges she would face; in fact, she went intending to be an agent of change. That’s what God Girl is about.

The play focuses on the pressure for the seminary to see the damage of patriarchy while telling the stories of women who feel assaulted rather than nourished. Physical attacks, humiliation, sexual harassment and inappropriate use of power are a few of the realities Holmgren and her classmates experienced and which are portrayed in the play.

In the play, professors address students by saying, “Men, open your books … Remember, you are sons of God ... This is a brotherhood of man…” This male-centered language is intentionally used to belittle the female students in the room.

Holmgren and other female students at the time believed themselves to be on the front lines, challenging a system of theological education that saw no need to change and frequently pushed away people who insisted it should.

“I had people in my life who told me that it was important and … we knew we were making history. We knew we were changing things,” she said. “We actually said, ‘People who come behind us will say you did this for us. You broke through these things so that we could be free, so that we could have more opportunities.’”

Artistic directors from the History Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, attended a staged reading for Holmgren’s first play, Paper Daddy, which she wrote for an acting class she took in 2008. They approached her afterward and asked if she could write something that would meet the mission of the History Theatre to entertain, educate and inspire through works that “explore Minnesota’s past and the diverse American experience.” After some discussion about her personal background that included her days at Princeton, Holmgren and the directors agreed that her story begged to be told.

Her story still carries a lot of relevance today, not only as a reminder of the work done by those who came before to open the doors, but also of how precious that progress is, how easily it can be lost and of the struggles those coming along today still face, Holmgren said.

“One of the people in my cast is an ordained Lutheran pastor and she’s an actor and she’s also early 30s and she’s in this cast and she’s reading this script and her first reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you went through this. This is such an amazing experience that you had and I’m just honored to be a part of this project’ … and then her second reaction is, ‘Oh my gosh, I went through this too,’” Holmgren said.

God Girl opens at the History Theatre in February 2015 and will run into March. Tickets and cast information can be found on the theater’s website.

Holmgren would love to see the show produced somewhere on the East Coast as well so that some from Princeton could see it.

“I think [that] would be really fun because I think that some of the stories I tell will be very familiar to people who live in Princeton and know Princeton and understand the culture of that academic environment,” she said.

Although Holmgren has retired from active ministry, she still feels she is making a difference through her plays.  Her stories deal with people and circumstances and provoke thought.

“I hope to be having an impact. It’s what my life is about. I went into the ministry to change the world. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to try and inform myself on how to be a better person, how to make a difference wherever I am, and this playwriting has certainly been that way,” she said.

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church. 

  1. As a 1988 graduate of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities Area, I know I stood on the shoulders of women like Kristine Holmgren who, along with all the late 1970s female seminary graduates, braved a new reformation in Presbyterian politics. As a Student Pastor, I watched a church member rifling through a heap of Church Information Forms, removing all the female candidates before the CIF's were used to find a male minister. During that same period, I provided Pulpit Supply for a church in our Presbytery. The head of the Pastor Nominating Committee reported to the congregation that he'd heard of some grumbling about calling a woman pastor and explained, "All the CIF's coming in are from women, women!" In that moment I felt such joy and such shame about my call." I was right to feel the joy!

    by Theresa Roos

    July 25, 2014

  2. I graduated in 1978 and have to agree with Dr. Spencer. My experience of PTS, even coming over from undergrad at Princeton University, was that the seminary was an oasis of feminism compared to most of the world--and certainly when compared to the churches. I think a lot of us white males already were made to feel very defensive about our privilege and my sense of things through my 3 years was that in classrooms and Chapel the women generally had the upper hand. I know each of us experiences the same setting differently, but I felt that the Presbyterian women were doubly privileged while those of us who were males from other denominations (I was Southern Baptist at the time) were looked down upon. Of course I haven't read Kristine's play, but my initial reaction when I first read about it on Facebook was that she went to a different school than I did. To me at the time, Kristine was a beautiful, poised, articulate woman--way above my paygrade--who with her friends called most of the shots in the late 70's.

    by Steve Hollaway

    July 20, 2014

  3. Thanks! :-) And enjoy the comments!! I hope we see more.

    by Kristine Holmgren

    July 18, 2014

  4. Following these comments, as a classmate of Kristine and Jim who (like them) was a single student living on campus, the dynamics of on-campus student life at PTS in the late 1970s was very much as they said. It was a time of transition and for many individuals, it was an uneasy transition. In that process, a number of male students and staff behaved poorly toward the female students during this time when, for the first time in the Seminary's history, there were comparatively large percentages of women at PTS.

    by Bob Faser

    July 18, 2014

  5. With all due respect to the Rev. Dr. Spencer, as he was counselor to students and their spouses, if he lived on campus he would have been more likely to live in married housing at what called "PW. (Charlotte Rachel Wilson Apts.)" I won't say that there was not a married woman in the MDiv. program living in PW but the overwhelming majority of the students were male. Also, the class entering in the fall of 1975 (after Spencer had left) had over 100 students, of all genders and preferences. We were the Baby Boom Bump of all Entering Classes. PTS was not entirely ready for all of us, especially when one-third of our numbers were women. I am aware of one other woman seminarian who was inappropriately approached by a faculty member. While drama necessarily heightens conflict, the political climate of those days needed no exaggeration. I would be more comfortable with the Rev. Dr. Spencer noting that his experiences were very different and not dismissing the Rev. Ms. Holmgren's comments before seeing the play, or at least talking to someone he trusts who was an unmarried PTS seminarian at the time.

    by Jim Brazell

    July 17, 2014

  6. Deborah Hollifield is able to enjoy harassment from clergy women because Kristine Holmgren and her colleagues suffered it from seminary faculty, administrators and clergymen in the 1970's. In my opinion, nobody's free 'til we're all free - to be as obnoxious and opinionated as "the church" encourages.

    by Marge Gunther

    July 17, 2014

  7. "Physical attacks, humiliation, sexual harassment and inappropriate use of power are a few of the realities Holmgren and her classmates experienced and which are portrayed in the play." My experience from the late 1990's in a presbytery polity class was exactly the same. As a ruling elder in the church, I was humiliated to the point of tears in front of a classroom full of other elders and seminary students along with a smirking instructor, when I used the heart-language of my context to speak of God as "Father." The attack, however, came from a row of obnoxious and arrogant recent seminary grads - who were female.

    by Deborah Hollifield

    July 17, 2014

  8. As a classmate of Ms. Holmgren, I can witness to the tremendous upheaval at PTS. She helped many of her male colleagues to see institutional and theological sexism in our environment. Kristine Holmgren and alumnae deserve medals for their courage and perseverance.

    by Jim Brazell

    July 17, 2014

  9. Great article! I know Kristine and was a student at PTS at the same time as she was. Life at the seminary at the time reflected a combination of "evangelical macho" and "Ivy League uptight" influences, which led to the situations described by Kristine.

    by Bob Faser

    July 17, 2014

  10. I, too, am a Princeton Seminary Alum (B.D. 1965 and Ph.D. (ethics) 1973. During my doctoral studies I was a counselor to students and their spouses ("Master in Residence"). I believe that Holmgren's claims are, at best, exaggerated and unfair. I suspect that she has hyped her experience in order to raise interest in her play. Not fair to Princeton Seminary and certainly not fair to its faculty.

    by Richard Spencer

    July 16, 2014

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