What constitutes women’s leadership in religious communities is open to many interpretations. In the United States, more attention has been paid to the ordination of women due to the highly public and visible nature of these roles, but the issue is much more complicated.
In her 2010 book “Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words,” radio host Maureen Fiedler identifies at least eight types of religious leadership roles for women: faith-based and organizational leaders, Bible scholars , theologians, religious activists, spiritual teachers, interfaith leaders and journalists. Although everyone has their own challenges and struggles, Fiedler notes that “faith-based leadership is the most difficult for women to achieve because it involves real power.”
As an expert on gender and religious history in the United States, I contend that while attention to the ordination of women is important, it does not tell the whole story of women’s leadership.
Although women have not always had the same rights and privileges as men, there are also long and vibrant traditions of female leadership in world religions.
Women have been nuns, teachers, priestesses, gurus, heads of religious orders, deacons and elders. In the United States, Jarena Lee became the first woman allowed to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1819. In 1854, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained by a local congregational church in New York City, becoming the first American woman to receive full ordination as a minister.
But the ordination of women was not widespread in the United States until the 1950s, when some Protestant Christian denominations began to offer formal ordination and full clergy rights to women, beginning with the Methodist Church. United (UMC) and what would become the Presbyterian Church of the United States in 1956. These changes arose out of a desire to formalize local and smaller-scale practices of women’s leadership as well as respond to larger cultural changes such as the second wave feminist movement.
Some feminists have rejected all religious institutions, and religion more generally, as inherently patriarchal. Others have left their own communities to create whole new forms of women-centered religion. But many preferred to stay and work within their traditions to make them more inclusive, turning to history, tradition and sacred texts as resources. The ordination of women is only part of this work in progress.
In the 1970s, more Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Episcopal Church, voted to ordain women. In 1980, Marjorie Mathews became the first female bishop of UMC and the first American woman to hold the office of bishop in a major Christian denomination. In 1989, Barbara Harris became the first African-American woman and woman bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Today there are more women, women of color, and LGBTQ priests and bishops in American Protestantism than ever before.
There have been equally dramatic changes in American Judaism since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first female rabbi in the United States, ordained by a Reform Jewish rabbinical seminary. Reconstructionist and conservative traditions followed, ordaining female rabbis in 1974 and 1985, respectively.
Since then, at least 700 women have been ordained Reform rabbis, and at least half of all rabbinical students in liberal Jewish seminaries are women. The American Jewish rabbinate is more diverse than ever, not only in terms of gender, but also racial and ethnic diversity as well as LGBTQ identity.
Opposition to change
But the ordination of women remains largely prohibited in many other traditions, including the two largest American Christian denominations – the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, or SBC – as well as the Church of Jesus Christ of Saints. of the Last Days, known as LDS and Orthodox Judaism.
In 2014, Kate Kelly, founder and leader of a movement to ordain women to the LDS priesthood, was excommunicated by the LDS Church. In 2000, the SBC attempted to settle decades of debate over the ordination of women by issuing a statement that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by the scriptures.” Despite this, due to the decentralized nature of the Baptist regime, individual churches can, and still do, occasionally ordain women even though they risk being excluded from the denomination to do so.
While some continue to advocate for women’s ordination within the SBC, others, like acclaimed Bible studies teacher Beth Moore, have made the painful decision to leave to pursue their leadership vocations in less restrictive communities.
Orthodox Judaism also remains officially opposed to the ordination of women, although as of 2009 a small number of women received rabbinical training and ordination through Yeshivat Maravat, a modern Orthodox seminary based in New York. York. Most have chosen to call themselves by titles other than “rabbi”.
In response, the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the largest associations of Orthodox rabbis in the world, passed several resolutions condemning the ordination of women, including a 2015 statement declaring that “ACR members having positions in Orthodox institutions cannot ordain women to the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used.
But in 2016, Lila Kagedan, a graduate of Yeshiva Maharat, made history by becoming the first woman to bear the title of “Rabbi”. She currently serves a congregation in New Jersey.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis issued an executive order officially authorizing women to serve as readers and acolytes in the Roman Catholic Church, roles that many women around the world have unofficially had for some time. Yet he simultaneously distinguishes these lay ministerial roles from the “ordained” ministries of the priesthood and the diaconate, which remain reserved for men.
When asked in 2016 whether women would ever be ordained priests, Francis referred to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter definitively denying the possibility of women priests and noted that “on the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear ”.
Yet many Roman Catholic women are not discouraged and continue their decades-long struggle for the ordination of women. Since 2002, the controversial Roman Catholic Women Priests have ordained approximately 200 “women priests” – and some men – in what they call a “renewed priestly ministry,” many of whom serve communities in the United States.
Thinking beyond ordination
The ordination of women has contributed to significant changes in American religious communities, in many cases opening avenues of ordination for LGBTQ and other marginalized groups and leading to greater diversity within their traditions as well as ” higher levels of participation and commitment among parishioners.
But others criticized the emphasis on ordination as being too limited. Instead of just being incorporated into male dominated institutions, they argue that women should work to transform them.
The emphasis on ordination also obscures the many less visible forms of female leadership in religious communities. Additionally, it may reflect a limited understanding of individual freedom and the nature of religious authority.
For example, within the American Muslim community, scholar Amina Wadud made headlines in 2005 when she led prayers for a mixed congregation at a high-profile event in New York City, some of the calling the first female American imam.
Wadud and other Muslim women continued to lead prayers in their communities. But Muslim women’s leadership can also be measured by increased representation of women on mosque boards and the creation of female-led spaces, like the Women’s Mosque of America, the premier Muslim place of worship. run by women in the United States, founded in 2015.
Other forms of discrimination
There is also an important practical difference between ordaining women and having women in leadership positions.
For example, 71.8% of US congregations surveyed say they allow women to preach or lead services. But the 2018-2019 National Congregations Study, which surveyed 5,300 U.S. religious communities, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups, found that only 56.4 percent of those communities would allow a woman “to be head of the clergy or principal nun. leader. ”He also revealed that only 13.8% of congregations are actually led or co-led by a woman, and only 8.1% of American membership belong to communities led or co-led by women – both figures representing increases of only 3% since 1998.
Even after decades of ordaining women in major American religious organizations, very few women have held leadership positions.
The term “stained glass ceiling” has been used to describe “the limitations faced by women in religious leadership roles”. Although much progress has been made, more subtle forms of discrimination and limitations on women’s advancement opportunities persist. The pay gap between men and women in the clergy is much worse than the national average.
Although some women have successfully broken the stained glass ceiling, the struggle for more inclusive and just religious communities continues.