Is Religion Good for Women? A Symposium
Religion as these patriarchal institutions have created it—no. Whether it’s religion telling people they can’t use condoms, therefore spreading AIDS and pregnancy, or not teaching about sexuality, which keeps everyone in a kind of oppression, we can go down the list. I think most fundamentalist religions are equal in the oppression of women. Unfortunately I think we haven’t yet birthed a spiritual institution where women are front and center or where women are equal. And I think until that happens there isn’t going to be a manifestation of true spirituality.
Eve Ensler is best known for her play The Vagina Monologues. Her most recent book is In the Body of the World: A Memoir.
Martha Roadstrum Moffett
From a Christian Science perspective, religion has been tremendous for women. It’s the only major U.S. religion that was established by a woman. In the late 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy discovered a wonderful method of spiritual healing based on Bible teachings, wrote the textbook Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, and established her own church after mainline Protestants proved disinterested in her discovery and method of healing. In the by-laws she established for the church and in her other writings, she made clear that men would not be favored over women—or vice versa—and that church offices should be filled by the person most qualified for the job. This was a radical departure at the time, when men were the only ones in the pulpits. Having a woman as the founder of the religion established beyond debate that women are equal to men. Christian Science also highlights the motherhood of God, and Mary Baker Eddy’s spiritual interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, which starts, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” reads “Our Father-Mother God, all harmonious.” But just as importantly, Mary Baker Eddy taught to look beyond gender—that both women and men should be freed from false concepts about manhood and womanhood to realize their unlimited potential as daughters and sons of God.
Martha Roadstrum Moffett, C.S.B., worked as a trial lawyer in the Antitrust Division of United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., as an Assistant federal prosecutor prosecuting federal crimes, in private practice, and in the area of human rights. She is now a Christian Science Practitioner and Teacher in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Some of the fiercest, most passionate African American women leaders have come out of the Black Church tradition. They may not have been pastors, but they strongly self-identified as Christians. We’re talking about women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Jarena Lee. They saw something in Christianity that was liberating, and that compelled them to be outspoken on behalf of their people. And they weren’t imagining it: The overriding impulse of scripture is liberation, whether it’s in the story of Exodus, or through women like Esther, Deborah or Mary Magdalene. Of course, the paradox of these texts is that there are also painful, violent parts, in which the writers talk about women being silent, inferior to men and ritually unclean.
The fascinating part is how women can read these male texts—which are predominantly about men—and see themselves in the story. When a woman like Sojourner Truth reads the story of Moses, she doesn’t care that Moses is a man—she still sees herself following in his footsteps. Marginalized readers have learned to identify with the protagonist regardless of gender, race or nationality, while the hegemonic group has not learned how to read novels or the Bible and identify with the victim. When men read the story of Moses, they would always identify with Moses or Aaron—never with Miriam—while women can see themselves in any of these roles. This is a great advantage.
Reverend Renita Weems is a Bible scholar and ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She is the author of Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible.
There have been plenty of debates in scholarly and popular venues about how religious traditions—and Islam, specifically—have empowered and oppressed women. But having sifted through these debates for a number of years, for me, the inverse of the question has become perhaps more urgent and crucial: Have women (here I mean feminists specifically) been good for religion? By this, I mean, does the application of a feminist perspective fundamentally transform Islam into something so radically different that it’s no longer recognizable? Does the Islamic tradition unravel with the intervention of feminism? And if this tradition falls apart, is what’s left still my religion—is it still Islam?
There are passages in the Qur’an that imply the equality of men and women, such as those indicating that they are created from the same soul. But there are also other passages that assume men are the guardians of women, and that women are passive partners in sexual relationships. In finding two apparently different kinds of tendencies like this, one might either say that the Qur’an is contradicting itself—which is a difficult position for a Muslim to take—or that these ideas are, in fact, consistent. Holding the latter position that the Qur’an is consistent in its statements about male-female relationships opens up the possibility that in the Qur’an, male authority over women’s bodies does not conflict with respect for and dignity of women—a view that would fundamentally clash with feminist ideals. If this were the case, then feminism could be said to be “bad” for religion since it would seek to radically overturn a view fundamental to religious tradition, obliterating some of its core assumptions about human beings. The struggle now is to examine if this is truly the case—and we have to start by at least entertaining this as a possibility, no matter how terrifying or shattering that might be. Otherwise, the fear of asking such unsettling questions might keep us from pushing the feminist conversation about religion forward in pursuit of a sustainable feminist subjectivity as believing Muslims and people of faith.
Aysha Hidayatullah is assistant professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at University of San Francisco and author of the forthcoming Feminist Edges of the Qur’an.
When I was a child in Egypt, Jews had a lot more faith, and practiced that faith with more fervor than they do these days in America, where there is ample freedom of religion, and people have decided that they don’t need religion anymore. I grew up in an observant home where the holidays, the Sabbath, the rules of kashrut and going to synagogue every week were incredibly important—we brought that with us from Cairo to our home in Brooklyn. I look back on those years of religious practice in my family and community with wistfulness and longing, because it gave me, as a woman, extraordinary strength and comfort to be part of a religious community—and I have come to feel that many secular Jewish women in America lack this deep connection with faith and community, and suffer from its absence.
I often tell my professional, secular friends in America that I still go to an Orthodox synagogue, where I sit in a women’s section with a divider. They express shock and horror: Why, when I could go to an egalitarian synagogue and sit side-by-side with my husband, participate in lifting the Torah or go up to the bimah? I like the rigor of Orthodoxy, and I like the feel of the women’s section. That was always the most meaningful place for me—it was a place where I could commune with God, and also with my girlfriends and the older women who watched over us. When I think about what I miss most now, with all the abundance and choices in America, I think it is that old sense of absolute community.
I’ve had discussions with a Conservative rabbi about how Conservative and Reform synagogues struggle week to week to fill their seats. He says he doesn’t understand—the movement has been wonderful to women, offering them almost absolute egalitarianism. The Orthodox community, meanwhile, doesn’t offer women that much in terms of an egalitarian experience, but those are the synagogues that are bursting at the seams. I’ve watched my own nieces grow up in a Conservative synagogue, and they don’t tell me, “I can’t wait to go to shul this weekend so I can go to the Torah.” And I find myself wondering where are the women—why is the Conservative movement suffering so much? Why do so many Reform temples count on bar and bat mitzvahs to fill their seats? I’m not sure I want to lift the scrolls. What I want is what I had as a child: a feeling of communion with God and a feeling that my faith is strong and intact and powerful.
Lucette Lagnado is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn.
Mormonism started out in the early 19th century as a radical religion, which included the radical re-envisioning of the role of women. Joseph Smith, the founder of the religion, had a revelation that in addition to a Father God, there is a Mother God as well, and that these two divine parents create our spirits. Smith also gave a series of speeches to a women’s organization in which he said, “I intend to make you a kingdom of priests,” implying that he would restore women to the power they once had in ancient days. Mormon women gave blessings to each other—something that is part of the priestly role—and performed other rituals that today are seen as only within the male prerogative. Mormon women were also very pro-suffrage, and even started their own magazine advocating for women’s rights in Utah. While there was still patriarchy during the 19th century, there were some empowering ideas and possibilities for women. But in the 20th century, as Mormonism sought to be more acceptable to the broader American culture, there was a conservative backlash, which led to the suppression of women’s rights. Mormons wanted to become part of mainstream Christianity and suppressed the Feminine Divine to ward off accusations of polytheism and to fit in with male-centered Trinitarianism.
Like other religions, Mormonism subordinates women, but it has the potential to change. Mormonism has an open canon and subscribes to the idea of eternal progression and continuing revelation. We can adopt new revelations from God that are directed at the here and now. For example, Mormons denied priesthood to black men until 1978, when there was a revelation from the head of the Church that struck down this policy. For me, the question of women’s ordination is the absolutely central issue right now. Unlike other Christian churches, Mormons have a lay priesthood, so every active male is ordained as young as 12 years old. This means that women are even more marginalized in the social order—12-year-old boys who have been ordained have a higher status than grown women. The fact that they changed the ordination policy before gives me hope that the Church has the theological and structural possibility to become more egalitarian for women. But I see a long road ahead of us before we reach that goal.
Margaret Toscano is a professor of languages and literature at the University of Utah and founder of the Mormon Women’s Forum. She was excommunicated from the LDS Church in 2000.
There has been a tremendous amount of speculation that, preceding the male-dominated monotheistic religions we see today, there was a universal phase in human history in which the divine was thought of as a female goddess. One of the reasons people think this is because of the enormous amount of female imagery and statuary coming from prehistoric cultures. But this can be misleading. Going back to the Iron Age in Israel, for example, the archaeological data show endless female figurines. This could suggest a goddess religion, but of course, we know from the written record that the religion was instead focused on a single, male-gendered deity.
The idea that goddess religion dominated prehistoric cultures is basic wish fulfillment. People want to imagine a goddess-worshipping past, because if you grow up in a religion with a dominant male figure—while theologians may say that God is abstract and genderless, studies have shown that people imagine God as a superhuman man—there’s a natural tendency to search out some gender balance and find feminine attributes in the divine. People also look at the major male monotheistic religions, see that they’ve been bad for women, and assume that the male gods are a projection of the power structure in society that also reinforces patterns among human beings. If we change the gender of the deity, the logic goes, we would automatically get better treatment of women.
But sadly, this does not seem to be the case. There are many prehistoric religions that paid a great deal of attention to the feminine divine and treated women very badly. And today, in Latin America, for example, the Virgin Mary is much more often an object of worship than God, but that doesn’t seem to have a direct impact on the social power women have.
Cynthia Eller is a professor of philosophy and religion at Montclair State University and the author of The Myth of the Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.