A woman runs across the stage dressed in a towel. She has been sexually assaulted in the shower.
A student receives a paper from her male instructor marked “B+ See me later.” The “later” session involves a tryst rather than an intellectual discussion.
The male behavior toward women in Kristine Holmgren’s new play, “God Girl,” seems reminiscent of the misogynistic advertising executives of “Mad Men” rather than “men of God.” Yet the play, which runs from Feb. 7 to March 1 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, depicts Holmgren’s real-life experience in the first large class of women seeking a master of divinity degree at an Ivy League seminary in the 1970s.
God’s little pillows
“All I ever wanted was to go into the ministry,” says Holmgren, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College in St. Paul. “I had all the same credentials as the men, so it never occurred to me that I would be seen as a child or as a sexual object.”
But the church was one of America’s last all-male bastions, a “brotherhood” that spoke in terms of “God the Father.” It was a place where women seminarians were told to strap down “God’s little pillows” so their breasts wouldn’t distract from their sermons.
“It’s astounding how badly the women were treated,” says Summer Hagen, the Twin Cities actress who portrays Holmgren in “God Girl.” “But historically, the church was a boys’ club more than most fields, so it’s not surprising women were so unwelcome.”
Under such circumstances, less-dedicated women would have packed up their prayer books and gone home. Yet, talking with Holmgren, one has the feeling that such challenges only fuel her determination. “Bring it on,” she says.
Holmgren attributes her scrappy attitude to her Swedish immigrant mother, whose character opens the play. Her mother provided a feisty model of tenacity for her daughter while she was growing up in St. Paul, tempered with the type of Scandinavian humor that also provides important comic relief in “God Girl.” Holmgren and her female seminary colleagues summoned those traits of tenacity and humor – and a whole lot of tolerance – to stick it out, graduate and go on to break the “stained-glass ceiling.”
A playwright’s purpose
Holmgren became a Presbyterian minister, and she traces her start as a playwright to those days at a church in Wisconsin when she helped Sunday schoolers write scripts for their Christmas pageants. Twin Citians may be most familiar with her work as a political columnist for the Star Tribune for more than a decade.
“I wrote about everything there,” she says. “I took so much flack and I’m still here.” That, she says, makes it less daunting to tackle a controversial topic such as harassment in the church.
As a means of shedding light on injustice, she sees playwriting as part of a progression in her goal of changing the world, leaving it a better place. “I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing,” she says. “There are a lot of faithful people who don’t change the world.”
Holmgren has been working on “God Girl” for five years, with assistance in its development from the History Theatre, its Raw Stages program and director Ron Peluso. “Only in revisiting that time of my life as I wrote the play have I come to realize what we accomplished,” she says.
The storyline in “God Girl” may seem shocking and a bit like ancient history, which attests to the dramatic changes that the feminists of the 1970s made and the legacy their struggle has left for future generations of women.
Holmgren’s message is that the freedom her generation fought for shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“This is my legacy,” she says, “my reminder to Minnesota that women’s freedom is frail. It’s a story of redemption, but with a warning.”
The message isn’t lost on Hagen. “That generation made giant changes for us,” she says. “God bless ’em.”