Telling Her Story

Pepperdine scholars and alumnae reveal how stories told by women, about women, validate both women’s experiences and their authority in their respective fields

October 25, 2019  | 6 min read

In the story of the Samaritan woman told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a woman tending to a well as he travels through the town of Samaria. When he asks the woman for a drink of water, she refuses, in a typical display of the long-standing tension between Samaritans and Jews. After offering her a drink of water that promises eternal life in response, Jesus compels the woman by revealing his knowledge about her life and proving that he is the son of God. Inspired by her encounter with Jesus, she returns to her village to declare that she has met the messiah. Her story and confidence in her newfound savior are so powerful that many in her village come to faith in Jesus.

“This was a social world that did not accept the testimony of women,” says D’Esta Love (MDiv ’03), Chaplain Emerita of Pepperdine University, who explains that women’s lives were limited to the domestic roles they played in the private sphere. “The Samaritan woman’s faith and courage were so strong and convincing, and the power of the good news emboldened her in such a way, that her village went with her to seek Jesus.”

Love further observes that the story of the Samaritan woman provides a sense of authority and acceptance that women’s stories in scripture are as important to the unfolding story of faith and of the early church as the stories of the men of scripture.

“God has always worked through both men and women to achieve his purposes in the world,” she says. “These stories continue to influence the church today to embrace the contributions of women in the life of faith.”

Love, who experienced criticism and setbacks as she pursued her scholarship, shares that speaking her words into “silent traditions” early in her ministry career required courage to tell her story in settings that traditionally limited the roles of women.

“To find room in our particular religious tradition for our stories to be told has been challenging,” she says. “For women of faith, telling our story is a part of who we are as people of faith. It’s telling something about the work of God in our lives. In the telling of our stories, we pass on a legacy to others that they can step into this arena and express themselves.”

Throughout time, stories have illuminated patterns of thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs that, through their repetition, have reinforced truths about previously unknown realities. The power of story to shift perceptions and make meaning of diverse experiences has, throughout history and across industries, influenced culture and society in both effective and destructive ways.

Over the last decade, only 4 percent of the 1,200 top-grossing films were directed by women, according to data gathered by the TIME’S UP and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative #4PercentChallenge. Research shows that films and other media produced and directed by women are more inclusive and prioritize more representation of girls and women of diverse backgrounds. This type of widespread, pervasive storytelling on screen—that shapes cultural notions and promotes various narratives of the female experience—is critical to both the storyteller and those consuming the content.

Alumna Andrea Baltazar (MFA ’17), assistant professor in the communication department at Weber State University in Utah, teaches audio production, editing, and documentary filmmaking. Her film, Urban Uber, that she began developing as a student in Pepperdine’s master of fine arts in writing for screen and television program, is currently making its way through the film festival circuit, an arena that has historically been dominated by male filmmakers.

As a young woman of color, Baltazar was exposed to limited narratives in the media that captured her personal experiences. She understands firsthand how the limited scope of diverse storytelling can impact a viewer’s identity and attitudes about the world. In her work as an educator and mentor for emerging filmmakers as well as an advocate for women filmmakers, screenwriters, and cinematographers, she strives to create content that demonstrates a variety of perspectives on race, gender, and age.

“When you can see and identify with the different types of narratives and the diverse people in those stories, you are better able to broaden your worldview and the opportunities that exist for you,” she says.

Leslie Kreiner Wilson, director of the MFA program in writing for screen and television, explains that as technological advances and the emergence of dialogue in film brought an end to the silent era of filmmaking in the 1920s, and as the widespread sentiment about women focused more on their contributions to their domestic lives and less on their professional capabilities, film and media industries favored employing the men who were trained in the technical and creative skills necessary to produce motion pictures. Wilson explains that the false belief that men were more qualified as filmmakers in the sound era contributed to the loss of women’s voices in storytelling and the sexism that exists in the industry today.

“Women’s storytelling is not only about women having a point of view,” Wilson says. “Employing women, putting women in decision-making roles, and enabling productive spaces where women can thrive in their careers is just as relevant.”

Karen Castañeda (’94) is a film editor whose credits include Killer Women, Scandal, and Desperate Housewives—shows that portray the complex lives of bold and powerful women in both their professions and at home among their communities of family and friends. Over the course of her 20-year career, Castañeda has experienced a shift in the hiring of more women and people of color in the technical field of film editing as well as in the world of post-production.

“The environment is markedly different than what it was even 10 years ago,” explains Castañeda, who shares that progress is still being made in employing women in more technical roles. “There weren’t many female editors, writers, or directors when I first entered the field, but the climate has shifted in recent years, and the industry is making efforts to help elevate females, especially in editorial roles. I’m happy to represent women and women of color in the technical side of a creative industry.”

To Olivia Robinson, a senior at Seaver College, telling stories is a way for her to affirm who she is. “Storytelling is a way of keeping narrative alive beyond just the eyes, ears, and minds that witness or imagine something firsthand,” she says. “I have family members who have been dead for more than 100 years, but I have a glimpse into who they were, who their people were, and who their land belonged to all because their stories were kept alive. With stories, a graveyard is merely a library. We achieve a type of immortality when our stories are told.”

This feeling about narrative inspired Robinson to speak at the first-ever TEDxPepperdineUniversity in March 2019. The event featured speakers on the theme “Take the Leap.” Robinson chose to relate her story about employing radical love as a strategy to manage conflicts. She explains radical love as “being able to love when you’re being confronted.”

“Radical love is a message I wholeheartedly believe in,” Robinson says. “And while this topic has been discussed for a very long time, I felt there was an opportunity to adapt it to fit the minds and context of this age and time.” Sharing her personal understanding of the unconventional radical love approach to difficult conversations was a way for her to take a leap into a future where such discussions may be less challenging.

In literature as in real life, stories that demonstrate the complexities of the woman’s experience—such as the inner lives of strong, intelligent women who are trapped in the confines of their restrictive society—serve as a vehicle to free themselves from the burdens of their circumstances. Throughout her scholarship, assistant professor of English Katie Frye discovered that the disruptive narratives demonstrated in the work of American author Kate Chopin and Southern Renaissance writers did not align with the dominant model that had been messaged to her as a young woman growing up in the South.

“[Their work] problematized the narrative of what womanhood means and diversified it in a way I found refreshing,” Frye recalls.

The dominant narrative that emerged from pre-20th-century literature presented the woman’s experience in a way that disrupted common perceptions of womanhood and domesticity.

“This was storytelling dominated by male voices,” Frye explains. “When women began to tell their own stories—and Kate Chopin is a great example—they told stories of motherhood and of marriage and of partnership that were far more complicated and nuanced and less sentimental than the dominant idea about what their lives were like. Their stories demythologized the myth of the southern lady.”

The publication of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in 1899 is an example. Chopin’s acclaimed book examines the life of a young mother wrestling with her domestic identity and her desire to pursue her greatest potential, and although Chopin had an established audience at this point in her career, the novel was not well received; some reviews called the book “sordid” and “unhealthy.” Frye notes that the type of negative criticism experienced by Chopin was a typical reaction to a woman telling her own story in that time period and place, and talking through both the female perspective and the varying reactions it elicits can be a powerful tool in the classroom.

“Teaching the literature of this time and region allows students to have conversations about current societal and political issues through the lens of narrative,” Frye says. “These stories and conversations about these stories promote empathy in students in accessible ways and allow for a certain amount of self-reflection.”

Constance Fulmer, the Blanche E. Seaver Chair in English Literature at Seaver College, has dedicated her life and scholarship to examining the contradictions found in the works of Victorian author George Eliot, a female writer who famously assumed a male pseudonym and identity in order to publish more freely in anonymity. Fulmer, who actively supports the scholarship and advancement of women and men in the literary world, recognizes the continued struggle of female voices to be heard.

“There’s still a prejudice toward the voice of a woman as being not quite as authoritative or as intellectual as a man’s,” Fulmer says. “We need to talk about women’s experiences and write about them, but we also need to get out there and support other women. That’s what I love about teaching and going to conferences and supporting these young women and men who will become teachers. They have a changed attitude about women and their roles. As educators, we have a lot to offer in terms of encouraging people of all genders to achieve all they can.”