Alvera Mickelsen devoted her life to the conversion of her fellow Christians, not to faith but to feminism.
A lifelong evangelical, Mickelsen dedicated her career to arguing, despite considerable pushback, that being a feminist is a Christian responsibility. She published many scholarly articles and books, lectured throughout the world on the topic and started a nonprofit organization that advocates for equality of women in church, at home and in society.
Mickelsen, a former journalism professor at Bethel University, died on July 12 of natural causes. She was 97.
Born in 1919 to Swedish immigrants, Mickelsen started life as one of five children on a tiny farm near La Porte, Ind. She attended a one-room schoolhouse until, at the age of 9, her family moved to Michigan City, Ind. The next year, the Great Depression plunged her family deep into poverty.
“My mom remembers coming home during those years and there was literally nothing in the cupboards to eat,” said her daughter, Lynnell Mickelsen.
Despite the hardships, Mickelsen graduated from high school in 1936 and became the first member of her family to attend college. She bounced between several universities — following wherever scholarship money was offered to her — and graduated from Wheaton College in 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.
She got her master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and worked as an editor in Chicago for various Christian magazines before landing a teaching position at her alma mater, Wheaton College. It was there that she met A. Berkeley Mickelsen, whom she married in 1952. She kept teaching while pursuing her second master’s degree in education from Wheaton.
“She was the only mom that I knew in the ’50s and ’60s who had a job,” said Ruth Mickelsen, her oldest daughter. “She did work for money, but she also worked because she loved what she did.”
As some of the few progressive-minded evangelicals in their community, the husband and wife duo were labeled communists and apostates, her daughter said, which made them proud.
The couple moved to Arden Hills in 1965 when A. Berkeley Mickelsen got a job teaching Greek, Hebrew and theology at Bethel Seminary. In 1968, she started teaching journalism at Bethel University, where she worked until 1986.
In the 1970s, Mickelsen became alarmed by what she felt was a backlash against women in the evangelical world, her daughters said.
“They really felt the Bible was being misused to roll back a lot of women’s rights,” Lynnell Mickelsen said of her parents’ passion for women’s rights. “My father was a biblical scholar, and my mom’s genius was she was a really great communicator.”
Together, the two wrote books and articles, pointing to passages within the Bible that supported equality. The two, who had a close relationship, would tour Minnesota debating pastors and leading theologians and later helped found Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), an advocacy group. “She was a brilliant debater,” said Mimi Haddad, president of CBE. “She was gracious, but firm and strong. She had clear ideas but was always ready to listen.”
Her daughters said she was a great role model — sharp-minded but never gossiped or spoke poorly of others.
“She would always say her mind, but she never had to push it on you,” Lynnell Mickelsen said.
After her husband died suddenly in 1990 at the age of 69, Mickelsen continued to travel and argue for women’s equality within her evangelical sphere.
“She chose to help people who place a lot of confidence in biblical text,” said Haddad. “She was especially happy to work with colleagues around the world where women do not have political protection. She was practical and wise, but she was a people’s theologian.”
Haddad recalls a time when a Christian radio talk show asked Mickelsen on-air how she could be a feminist and still hold what he felt were traditional values. Mickelsen asked the host to look up “feminism” in the dictionary, which defined it as a belief that women should have social, political, and economic equality with men.
“He said, ‘Well, I believe in all those things.’ And Alvera told him, ‘Well, then, you are a feminist!’ ” Haddad said.
In addition to her two daughters, Lynnell of Minneapolis and Ruth of St. Paul, Mickelsen is survived by her brother, Mel Johnson of Carol Stream, Ill., and four grandchildren.
A visitation for Mickelsen will be held at 10 a.m. followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 23, at GracePoint Church in New Brighton.