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Women As Religious Leaders: Breaking Through The Stained Glass Ceiling


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
As we scan the political, economic, judicial and academic landscape these days, women are ascending to leadership positions in unprecedented numbers. Think of it: the first woman Speaker of the House, three women serving as Secretary of State and the first credible woman candidate for President (Hillary Clinton). Even right-wing Republican women are running for the Senate -- without any discernable calls for them to go home, cook dinner and take care of the kids.

One third of the Supreme Court is female. Women are rising as CEOs in the business world. And for the first time in American history, women earned more Ph.D.s than men in 2009.

And So Also in the Spiritual Life

The trend is also true for women in the world of religion. As the host of Interfaith Voices, a public radio show heard on 71 stations across North America, I have interviewed many of these women leaders. Now, I have collected many of these interviews into a new book, Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling (Seabury Books, 2010).

It provides human stories that document the fact that this dream of gender equality in the world of religion in being realized. In fact, the acceptance of women leaders in religion appears to have reached a "tipping point" in many faith traditions. Gender equality has become an accepted norm, culturally and theologically. It's just a question of how soon the new order of equality is actually realized.

There are landmark achievements like the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, and the election of Dr. Ingrid Mattson as the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America. But the gradual rise of women leaders in the world of religion over the last forty to fifty years has been largely "under the radar."

It is time to recognize this historic trend. Women are emerging as leaders in faith traditions across the board, in many different roles and capacities. They are not only denominational and organizational leaders, but leading theologians and scripture scholars, prolific writers in the field of spirituality, prominent activists for social justice, peace and ecological sanity, leaders in forging positive interfaith relations and prominent journalists in religious media.

It's Not Nirvana Yet

The increase in women's leadership does not mean that we are headed for a religious feminist "Nirvana" in the next few years. But we are seeing the front edge of a trend that will continue -- and must continue -- for many decades until women's leadership in religion is taken for granted. Still, realism demands that we recognize the formidable obstacles that remain.

Discrimination in many faith traditions is still bolstered by theological arguments. In my own Roman Catholic Church, where ordained ministry is a necessary prerequisite for institutional leadership, women cannot even be ordained as deacons, much less priests or bishops. The Southern Baptist tradition, relying on a literal reading of scripture, has backtracked on its earlier practice of allowing women pastors; they are no longer ordained. Many right-wing evangelicals in non-denominational churches often preach the "headship" of men and refuse to allow women pastors. Even in mainline Protestant denominations, where women ministers have been around for decades, there remain pockets of resistance.

In Judaism, the struggle continues. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstuctionist traditions ordain women rabbis, but Orthodox Judaism does not yet permit them, although a few Orthodox women have been ordained in some seminaries. And the quest for equality goes on.

In Islam, women in some countries are Qur'anic scholars and even muftis (authoritative teachers), but women are not generally permitted to become imams or lead mixed-gender prayer services. Instead, they are usually relegated to the rear of mosques for Friday prayers, sometimes even to separate rooms.

The structures are much more informal in Buddhism and Hinduism, but women still struggle for recognition as gurus or spiritual mentors.

Even in the Baha'i tradition, where gender equality is a central tenet, the Universal House of Justice, an international body charged with guiding the growth and development of the global Baha'i community, is all male. Women are not eligible for election.

Sikhism is especially strong in recognizing and practicing the equality of men and women. It advocates active and equal participation in the congregation, in academia, in healthcare and the military, among other aspects of society. Female subordination, the practice of taking a father's or husband's last name, practicing rituals that imply dependence or subordination, are all alien to Sikh principles. That does not mean that Sikhs always practice what they preach, but the theological basis for equality is firm.

Two major religions in the world claim a woman founder. One is Christian Science, founded by Mary Baker Eddy. The other is the Seventh Day Adventists, founded by Ellen White.

The Sikhs, Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists notwithstanding, we have a long road to go. But the path is clear and travel is easier than in decades past.

The Tide Has Shifted

The tide has clearly shifted because the culture has shifted. When Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton can run for president as a credible, serious candidate, being a bishop or a rabbi, an imam or a guru, no longer looks like an impossible dream. This entire trend toward women's secular leadership makes it more "thinkable" that women can become religious leaders as well.

More than that, women theologians and scripture scholars have challenged patriarchal thinking and traditions for decades now. They have answered the traditional arguments that defended misogyny, and they have convinced millions with their fresh understandings of scripture, new theological insights or historical proofs that women were indeed leaders in earlier centuries in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam.

Moreover, women are not only finding their theological voice, they are developing new attitudes, believing that they can preach, they can lead, and they can do it as well as men. They look to the women who are already bishops and renowned preachers like Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church/Disciples, who preached at the official Inaugural Prayer Service of President Barack Obama. And they ask themselves, why not me? Role models are producing a multiplier effect.

Finally, we live in an age of mass, democratized communication. The news that women are leaders, and the new theologies that underlie this, are everywhere. Feminist theology is not only in books, but at conferences, in the media, and on the Internet.

This egalitarian movement has become so pervasive that religions that continue to exclude women from official roles face a new cultural reality that accepts, and believes in, gender equality -- in the West and increasingly in other parts of the globe as well. Such faith traditions might well engage in an "examination of conscience" on this issue if they want to thrive in the 21st century.




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