They love to do their homework

Times Staff Writer

Equal but different.

You hear that a lot on the lush green campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

God values men and women equally, any student here will tell you. It’s just that he’s given them different responsibilities in life: Men make decisions. Women make dinner.

This fall, the internationally known seminary -- a century-old training ground for Southern Baptists -- began reinforcing those traditional gender roles with college classes in homemaking. The academic program, open only to women, includes lectures on laundering stubborn stains and a lab in baking chocolate-chip cookies.

Philosophical courses such as “Biblical Model for the Home and Family” teach that God expects wives to graciously submit to their husbands’ leadership. A model house, to be completed by next fall, will allow women to get credit toward bachelor’s degrees by learning how to set tables, sew buttons and sustain lively dinnertime conversation.


It all sounds wonderful to sophomore Emily Felts, 19, who signed up as soon as she arrived on campus this fall.

Several relatives have told Felts that she’s selling herself short. They want her to become a lawyer, and she agrees she’d make a good one. But that’s not what she wants to do with her life.

More to the point, it’s not what she believes God wants of her.

“My created purpose as a woman is to be a helper,” Felts said firmly. “This is a college education that I can use.”

Seminary President Paige Patterson and his wife, Dorothy -- who goes by Mrs. Paige Patterson -- view the homemaking curriculum as a way to spread the Christian faith.

In their vision, graduates will create such gracious homes that strangers will take note. Their marriages will be so harmonious, other women will ask how they manage. By modeling traditional values, they will inspire friends and neighbors to read the Bible and then, perhaps, to follow the Lord.

“I’m personally going to teach the course in table manners,” Paige Patterson said, moments after sneaking scraps of poached chicken off his lunch plate for his black Labrador, Noche.


His wife shook her head affectionately.

“Oh my,” she said, in her gentle Southern lilt. “We’ll have to pray for some help with that.”

So far, just eight of the 300 students in the undergraduate program are enrolled in the homemaking concentration, which is similar to a major and counts toward a bachelor of arts in humanities. Many more women, including graduate students and wives of seminarians, study traditional gender roles in courses such as “Wife of the Equipping Minister.” On a recent evening, more than 50 women -- some in sloppy sweats, others in prim sweater sets -- pulled out notebooks as class opened with student presentations.

One woman talked about her hobby of cross-stitching. Another showed how she uses the Internet to track grocery coupons.

Laney Homan, 30, drew excited murmurs with her talk on meal planning, complete with a recipe for a surefire “freezer pleaser” -- a triple batch of meatloaf (secret ingredient: oatmeal). Thanks to a computerized system for generating grocery lists, Homan said, “I’ve actually trained my husband to shop for me.”

Laughing, she threw her palms toward the heavens and added: “Praise Jesus!”

For the rest of the nearly three-hour class, guest lecturer Ashley Smith, the wife of a theology professor, laid out the biblical basis for what she calls “the glorious inequalities of life.”

Smith, 30, confided that she sometimes resents her husband for advancing his career “while I’m changing diapers and getting poop all over me.”


But then she quoted from Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” And from Genesis: God created Eve to be a “suitable helper” for Adam.

“If we love the Scripture, we must do it,” said Smith, who gave up her dreams of a career when her husband said it was time to have children. “We must fit into this role. It’s so much more important than our own personal happiness.”


More moderate Southern Baptists disagree, and counter with their own biblical references. When Jesus dined at the home of two sisters, he praised Mary, who spent the evening studying his teachings, above Martha, who did chores. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes that “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ.”

“We’re confusing 1950s culture with the teaching of Scripture,” said Wade Burleson, a Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma. “I nowhere see where the Lord Jesus places limitations on the role of women in our culture.”

One of the largest Southern Baptist seminaries, Southwestern draws students from around the world to its 200-acre campus, fringed by trees that set it apart from a rundown neighborhood in south Fort Worth. Nearly three-quarters of the 3,000 students at this campus are men, and many are older, having felt a call to ministry in midlife. The seminary caters to their families, with shaded sidewalks for strollers and a duck pond much beloved by toddlers.

In the undergraduate college -- which opened two years ago -- every student must take Greek or Latin, plus seminars that explore works by Sophocles and Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Marx, Darwin and Dostoyevsky.


The other day, Sarah Babler, an 18-year-old freshman enrolled in the homemaking program, was writing a paper on the Trojan War for one class. For another, she was parsing Proverbs 31 -- on the attributes of a godly woman.

She and others in the homemaking program devote about 20% of their classroom time over four years to courses such as “Clothing Construction,” “Meal Preparation,” and “Value of a Child.”

Such classes went out of style at most secular colleges half a century ago, but undergraduate Quincy A. Jones said he considered them essential in a world where too many families are fractured and unhappy. Jones, who is married with five children, said he would encourage his teenage daughter to study homemaking.

“It’s not limiting at all,” said Jones, 35. “It prepares women for a variety of roles.”

Paige Patterson agrees. His goal is to nurture well-rounded women who can do more than press a perfect crease: “We’re equipping them to do home-schooling.”

An avid hunter who wears cowboy boots to chapel, Patterson, 64, is a powerful -- and polarizing -- figure within the Southern Baptist Convention.

During his tenure as convention president in the late 1990s, Southern Baptists banned women from becoming pastors and called on every wife “to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Last year, Patterson fired a female professor of biblical languages; he interprets the Bible as prohibiting women from teaching men theology.


Many moderates have left the Southern Baptist convention in recent years -- including President Carter -- but it remains the largest Protestant denomination, claiming more than 16 million believers and 42,000 churches in the United States.

The conservative leadership plans to soon offer homemaking at other seminaries. Here at Southwestern, the classes are proving popular with a broad array of women.


Donella Cecrle, 36, spent years in the corporate world, traveling the nation to sell computer software -- and far out-earning her husband, Andy. Subservience wasn’t in her vocabulary. Neither was homemaking. Most days, dinner was takeout from the Mexican restaurant down the street, or a quick meal at IHOP.

But about six years ago, the couple worked through a low point in their marriage with prayer and Bible study. Slowly, Cecrle said, she began to realize that she needed to change. When Cecrle became pregnant, she left work for good and now stays home with their two preschool-age children.

In what time she can spare, Cecrle works toward a bachelor’s degree at the seminary. She started this semester with a homemaking course, which Dorothy Patterson, 63, teaches at her dining room table (artfully decorated with sprigs of autumnal berries and curls of pumpkin-hued ribbon).

Cecrle credits Dorothy Patterson’s lectures on God’s vision of womanhood with helping her embrace her role as helper -- and restrain her instincts to take charge. “I have to be able to shut my mouth,” she said.


Many male graduate students at Southwestern take a class in masculine leadership, where they are admonished to put their wives’ needs before their own even as they flex their authority. But there’s no broader curriculum on a husband’s role, leading Dusty Deevers, 30, to wonder what he and other male students might be missing. Labs on mowing the lawn? Trimming hedges? Balancing a checkbook? “Many, many men would be well-served by something like that,” Deevers said.

Andy Cecrle, 42, takes it one step further: He would like to see a homemaking class for men, or at least a survival boot camp. He happens to know his way around the house and is proud that he changes his children’s diapers. But he knows many guys don’t even have a clue how to start the washer.

“What if my wife is sick and my kids need clean clothes? It may not hurt to have some basic tips,” Cecrle said. Then he added cautiously: “A lot of people would take great exception to what I’m saying.”

Felts is one of them. The whole point of taking college-level homemaking, she said, is to ensure that her husband won’t ever feel that he has to darn a sock or do the laundry. Those are her jobs.

If she doesn’t marry, that’s fine, too; she’ll pursue a master’s in education -- and use it to teach homemaking.

“I’m not one of those out to rebel, out-to-be-my-own-woman types,” she said.

Home-schooled by her mother, Felts is poised, articulate and unfailingly polite; she calls her elders “ma’am” and expresses surprise with a genteel “goodness!” She commutes to college from her family’s Fort Worth home, so she has plenty of opportunity to work on her helper skills. She’s sewing a pink-and-brown polka-dot dress for herself. She dusts, mops and vacuums. She often makes dinner for her family: Noodles from scratch, or quiche with a homemade crust.


Does she enjoy these tasks? Except for vacuuming, absolutely, Felts said. And if she didn’t?

“It really doesn’t matter what I think,” Felts said. “It matters what the Bible says.”