Over millennia, women’s lives have often been defined by religion. The earliest religions are believed to have revered female fertility and to have worshipped goddesses. Later religions brought polytheistic male and female gods and the idea of a male supreme deity. Religions have brought with them proscriptions for female behavior, rules about treating women and views of women that have ranged from empowering to devaluing. Religious beliefs have been behind many of women’s oppressions as well as advances. Beliefs about women’s roles in religious leadership, worship and ideology of the divine have impacted women’s experiences through the present day.
• Women’s And Gender Studies
Demographics: Women have outnumbered men as participants in religious communities for decades. This domination in numbers brings up several issues that could be studied, such as whether congregational worship is more attractive to women than men and why, or what experiences within a religious community draw women and keep them committed to the affiliation. Researchers could also study what social, economic, professional, cultural, spiritual or personal benefits are obtained by women through religious affiliation.
The figures also highlight women’s roles in many aspects of church membership and leadership. The number of women in church leadership in the U.S. – as well as women’s attendance and graduation from seminaries – has grown consistently in recent decades. The 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., raised much interest in the concept of female religious leadership in the top ranks. Her election was hailed by some and deemed divisive by others.
Gender roles: Women remain in a minority at the highest religious leadership positions, however. Southern Baptist churches do not allow women senior pastors and the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women. Other sects of Christianity such as the Pentecostal movement have long encouraged women to lead in ministry. Mainline Protestant churches welcome more female pastors each year and some say the future may show a female-dominated clergy in these denominations, though statistics show women are most often at small churches and are paid less than male pastors at larger churches.
Researchers could study which roles women generally fill in religious organizations and analyze why those roles appeal to women, or whether there are structures in place – official or unofficial – that prescribe certain roles for women. The Center on Religion & the Professions focuses on religions’ impact on the workplace and professionals.
Those interested in women’s studies could partner with the Center to look at the workplace climate of a religious setting. Do women pastor differently than men? Are there different sets of expectations? Do senior pastors of different genders have more in common than senior and assistant pastors in general? Does gender shape the role, or does the role shape the professional regardless of gender? What would women in leadership positions in a setting such as a church or synagogue want colleagues and the public to know about religious leadership, or about being a woman?
Some in the Christian church movement have criticized churches in recent years for placing more emphasis on love than social justice, implying that women are more concerned about love, and because of their domination in numbers in church, churches tend to emphasize that idea more than justice.
On the other hand, women involved in religions have been key players in many social justice issues, from abolition of slavery to global outreach, to the peace movement. Some think female religious leaders are more likely to engage in political and civil issues. Research that attempts to build bridges in church communities could attempt to dispel stereotypes while addressing what might be legitimate needs among parishioners – a broader message and ministry not defined in terms of gender. The role of women in religious communities is particularly strong, and studying both changes and impacts are in some ways a study of society itself.
Religion and rights: Historically, much of the oppression women have faced came as a result of policies within churches and organized religion. Forced marriage, oppressive ideas about sexuality, quashing of rights to speak, and lack of stake in family leadership are all issues women have faced through the centuries. On the other hand, research in recent decades has shown that women who are involved in religion report higher levels of happiness. Researchers could examine this dichotomy to discover core values held by women who choose to affiliate with a religion and those who do not. Researches could look at what specifically and indirectly makes women happier when their lives are tied to religious beliefs and settings. They could also look at how much religious oppression colors women’s views about religion in the present day and whether it affects their choice to be or not be religious.
While religion can be oppressive to individual and gender rights, religions have also helped pave the way for social changes and civil rights. The Christian Apostle Paul wrote that “… women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Corinthians 14:34), but also made the point that there is no “male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and instructed husbands and wives to have mutual care for each other. The Christian church’s prohibitions against divorce, which may have bound women into marriages against their will, was also designed to protect women from finding themselves cast out of a home. The Protestant Reformation helped change paradigms about views of women by first emphasizing the value of the individual, and his or her own value in the eyes of God, a key underlying idea to the exploration of human rights.
Another example where rights are debated is within Islam, which, based on cultural interpretations, is known to place restrictions on women in terms of what they wear, where they can go, and with whom they can associate. Women are banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, and in nations such as Afghanistan are forced by law or social/religious pressure to dress and behave in certain ways, including prohibitions against education. However, Islam is also known for granting rights to women long before many Western countries. Islam dictates that women, whether single or married, are individuals in their own right, with control over their financial affairs, and the right to own and dispose of property and earnings. A woman keeps her own family name when marrying. Islam’s prophet Muhammad is quoted to have said that the “best among you are those who are best to their wives.”
In the United States, the effort to obtain the vote for women, with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, was successful in part due to the fact that men and women of the time generally accepted the belief that women were more moral and pious than men. Though the battle for the vote was also fought on civil rights grounds, it won over many voters who believed that women with a vote could help temper the evil in society, such as alcohol and other immoralities, to make the country more pious. Women were active in the temperance movement, which resulted in the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale or production of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Earlier, women’s rights advocates also fought for abolition of slavery and some were active in efforts to achieve universal suffrage.
Work with the Center could explore the plight of women around the world who suffer oppression related to religion, as well as what women acting in faith and secularly are doing to ensure rights for women. Education can teach about the past and present conditions in religions that oppress, as well as examine where religious beliefs and cultural mores begin and end in an attempt to communicate a nuanced understanding of the role religion plays in the lives of women. Those aiming to understand religious teachings as they relate to women can compare teachings and practice and their impacts.
Reproductive issues: Women’s issues, reproductive rights and religious beliefs clash over issues such as abortion, which is hotly debated in religious communities. Abortion proponents frame it as a “woman’s right to choose” (control over her own body or whether to bear a child), while abortion opponents frame it as “taking a human life” (a religious and moral sin). Some could argue that the two sides are having different conversations about different issues. Research that attempts to bridge those gaps could be useful for all sides. They may not agree, but they might understand each other’s positions more clearly, in ways that inform each side’s viewpoint.
Birthrates in general are impacted by religious beliefs. For example, in scripture holy for Christians and Jews, believers are urged to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28), implying that it is holy and mandated to have many children. But in the 19th century in the United States, the Second Great Awakening – a period of evangelistic revival – was tied to development of the “Protestant work ethic.” The belief system attributed piety to an ethic of delayed gratification and abstinence, limiting family size for economic self-interest in the industrial society. Having fewer children gave women more freedom to pursue additional interests.
Declining birthrates among the Jewish faith are another trend. The number of Jews in the U.S. is declining, with the birthrate now below replacement levels. The number of children raised in Jewish homes is also dropping through Jews marrying outside the faith or not formally affiliating with their faith tradition. The decline in Jewish women’s birthrate has also been tied to the fact the Jewish women are statistically likely to marry late and delay childbearing because of education and careers. Survival is a major theme of Judaism, which has prompted some Jewish women to embrace single motherhood or older parenthood using reproductive technology to help them have more children. This trend has also created a demand for Jewish donor eggs and surrogates, and prompted some Jewish congregations to consider how far they are willing to go to preserve the faith.
Another issue relates to health access and religious beliefs. In the U.S., the Roman Catholic Church holds 16 percent of community hospital beds. Catholic-affiliated hospitals have strict rules about services (such as contraception and other procedures) that cannot be done due to moral objections. Congress and some states have allowed “conscience” clauses that allow hospitals to opt out of certain treatments on moral grounds, even if they receive public funds. Pressure is rising on both sides of the reproductive rights debate to broaden or limit the scope of such laws. It raises the question of when religious freedom trumps patients’ rights to health care. Access to reproductive services could be curtailed in many communities, particularly in areas where health care is limited. But religious liberties guaranteed in the Constitution could be threatened if laws are passed that infringe on religious organizations’ right to uphold their beliefs.
Gender issues: The idea of male Catholic priests being allowed to marry is a major issue facing the Catholic Church within the U.S., as some have criticized celibacy as an outdated policy that encourages abuse. Debate also touches the issue of whether to ordain women to help swell the dwindling ranks of Catholic priests.
Bitter disputes about the ordination of gays and lesbians in the clergy have gripped different sects of the American church the past decade. These debates tend to center on interpretation of religious text and tenets, some held for centuries. While this might seem to be purely a religious debate, American history has shown that how these debates resolve in religious settings tends to influence how policies are shaped within the political arena. Education and understanding of the true implications of these debates is worthwhile to the scholar interested in these issues.
Just as women dominate in numbers as far as religious involvement, recent surveys show men are less likely to worship at services or participate in affiliated activities. Some say this is the result of a “feminization” of Jesus. Churches are trying to figure out ways to get more men involved in religion by tying faith to traits traditionally associated with men.
Issues today: Researchers could study the role of religion in both oppressing women around the globe and behind organizations reaching out to women affected by the AIDS crisis and female-related health problems related to poverty and women’s minimized importance in society. Women in the U.S. may explore the ethical dilemmas of unbalance in opportunities for women in the U.S. and some Third World nations. Studies could look at changing demographics, the roles of woman in leadership roles (such as how being a woman affects being a clergy leader), or how being religious affects secular leadership.
There has been an increase in the U.S. of practicing Wicca and other Earth-based religions that worship or place value on the feminine. Researchers could look at what this means, both for “traditional” faiths and society as a whole, as well as for the women who practice these neo-ancient religions. How are they practiced differently in the 21st century? Why?
Researchers could look at how religion is practiced in the U.S. and other countries and how national, cultural or legal practices affect women and do or don’t reflect the intent of religion. Those interested in women’s studies can work with the Center to foster awareness of women’s history and role in the workplace, which is related to religious beliefs and roles. We could study how women experience faith and how it impacts their lives, history and the future.