Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Millions of believers gather regularly in churches, synagogues, and other “holy” places to worship a higher power, learn the doctrines and principles of their faith, socialize with other followers, and celebrate a particular form of “family life.” Commensurate with the faith messages are admonitions concerning the rights and responsibilities of men, women, and children within the general life of the faith community, the wider society, and, most important, the family unit. The relationship between religion and gender involves a complicated web of social interactions and teachings on the supernatural, human sexuality, gender relations, spiritual vocations, and weekly routine of life in the faith tradition. However, within the last 30 years, much of what was once taken for granted has come under criticism-and significant voices of challenge are feminist in their orientation.

The Challenge to Reevaluate the “Inspired Truths”

Through both feminist theological scholarship and discontent among women in the pew has come the impetus to reconsider religious truths particularly as they pertain to the role and status of women. Confusion and controversy characterize the debate of the biblical record and women. Theological teaching has been used to justify the exclusion of women from positions of church leadership and from ordination to the priesthood or full-time religious office. Those who argue for a restrictive role for women base their position on Old Testament laws, Eve’s beguilement by a serpent, and the Pauline instructions contained in the pastoral epistles of the New Testament. Other scholars conclude their search of the Christian Scriptures by justifying an expanded role for women; they base their conclusions on the equality of men and women in the creation narrative and the numerous examples of women who transcended traditional roles in ancient Israel, interpret Jesus' treatment of women as revolutionary, and consider the openness of the Apostle Paul to equal and free participation for all people within the early Christian movement. Feminist scholars both within and beyond faith communities have concluded that much of the misogynist treatment of women is not an integral part of the original “holy” and inspired manuscripts but is an introduction by male clerics and others eager to extinguish the early fires of egalitarianism among women and men, slave and free, or Jew and Gentile.

More than 20 years ago, Mary Daly argued that women of faith need to look beyond the concept of God the Father-the all-knowing, all-powerful male. “A woman’s asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a black person’s demanding equality in he Ku Klux Klan,” she wrote (1957:6). Other feminist theologians, however, disagreed with this position. Phyllis Trible, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, to name but a few, claim that biblical faith can have a liberating potential. Within their perspectives, the essential elements of the Judeo-Christian faith are not captured in the sanctity of patriarchy but in a sense of relatedness to God. Themes such as the exodus of the children of Israel, the plea for justice by the prophets, and Jesus' own words and concern about the poor fuel the optimism of feminist theologians. The task of the feminist “herstorian,” according to Fiorenza, is to recapture the theme of liberation in the Jewish-Christian tradition and to assist people’s spiritual journeys by providing a context for both renewal and conversion.

In the Western world, there is ample evidence that women are more faithful church attenders than men and that they cling more fully to the teachings of their faith communities (Bibby 1987, McGuire 1992). Despite admonitions by some feminist writers that women en masse leave their churches and patriarchal faith communities, researchers have found that women are “defecting in place,” challenging the institution from within, and supplementing their faith journey by contact with women’s spirituality groups (Winter et al. 1994). Moreover, women from various spiritual and doctrinal positions are “reclaiming” and “rediscovering” the place of women within the pages of their sacred books. As a result, many lay people are no longer content to equate the present church or faith practices with “unchanging truths.” Many pew warmers and activists alike echo Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

The Challenge to Rethink the Image of the Religious Leader The issue of women and ordained ministry remains contentious, even within those faith traditions that formally recognize women’s ordination. Although the struggle for admission into the ordained ministry has received the most attention, the career part of clergywomen tends to be laden with obstacles and inequities as they seek placement and other career opportunities (Lehman 1985, Carroll et. Al 1983). Yet the evidence suggests that women clergy bring no measurable disadvantage to the local congregation and, in fact, several advantages (Royal 1987).

Several common features characterize the struggle for women’s ordination (Nason-Clark 1993). In the early stages of the debate, theological issues appear in the forefront, although there is little evidence to show that theology accounts for the resistance. Sociologists who have considered the resistance to the ordained ministry of women agree that religious beliefs alone are unable to account for the opposition to women clergy (Lehman 1987, Chaves 1997). In a British sample of clergymen in the 1980s, those opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England were more restrictive in their views on women’s role in society and in the family (Nason-Clark 1987b). They were more likely to believe that a woman’s place was in the home, reported less support for equality between men and women in the workplace, and were less supportive of women choosing to combine motherhood and careers. A study of these same clergymen in the 1990s (nine years later) revealed that such factors as working with a clergywoman, or fathering a daughter, or having a wife who works full-time for pay were related to changes in their attitudes toward women and ordained ministry.

Once denominations have exhausted the debate in theological terms, the second stage of resistance centers on appropriate timing. At this phase of resistance, practical issues take precedents: the geographic mobility of married clergywomen; the possibility of temporary vacancies due to pregnancy leave; the acceptance of younger, never-married clergywomen by parishioners; problems of placement; and opportunities for career advancement. Such discussions prolong the decision about women’s ordination, under the guise that practical details present insurmountable problems for the religious organization.

After official recognition as ordained elders is granted, the next stage of controversy centers on placement issues and the persistent finding that women appear to be frequently passed over in the selection process (Lehman 1985) and overrepresented in junior positions (Nesbitt 1993). An obstacle faced by all clergywomen is continued resistance to their ministry by their clerical colleagues (Nason-Clark 1987a). Although contact between clergywomen and clergymen plays a role in reducing the resistance (Lehman 1985), these men have few opportunities to work with female ministerial colleagues, and as a result changes in their gender role ideology occur at a slower pace.

The Challenge to Rethink Lay Leadership Although it is critical to highlight women’s struggle for official recognition in ordained ministries, it is important to realize that women do not participate on an equal footing with men even as lay members of local congregations. Rather, a gendered division of labor characterizes most churches, such that women perform a multitude of sex-typed tasks in a supportive role to men, not unlike the responsibilities women traditionally have performed in the home. The challenge in the contemporary Christian church is to prevail over sex-typing and to recognize and incorporate the differences among women and men by offering tasks based on talent rather than gender.

What would a church look like if it took the responsibilities of Christian men and women to be equal as partners in sharing their faith and in leadership (Nason-Clark 1993:230f)? The gender breakdown of the local church governing council would be comparable to the nursery roster; the proportion of women on the platform would approximate the number in the pew; the language and liturgy of worship and instruction would reflect the diversity among believers; the full expanse of the church’s ministry would include men and women serving as partners, on the basis of talent, willingness, and spiritual maturity; and the programs offered to the congregation and the local community would be inclusive of the full range of needs and experiences of ordinary people, male and female. The inclusion and copartnership of men and women in active lay service can only be realized by rethinking the power and prestige conferred by ordination.

The Challenge to Rethink Clerical Power and Privilege Sexual scandals involving clergy bring to center stage the vulnerability of churches and parishioners when clerical trust has been violated. Although it would be clearly erroneous and misleading to suggest that all ordained priests and ministers wield unleashed power over others, sexual scandals provide a case study of the power of the “clerical collar.” In part, crimes of clergy malfeasance continue because of the awe, respect, and reverence attributed to the priesthood. Churches fail to respond quickly and decisively to curtail the abuse and support the victims partly because of their desire to protect the priesthood and the office of the parish minister (Nason-Clark 1997). Within new religious movements also, spiritual leaders and advisers are reported to take sexual advantage of women and children (Jacobs 1989). Yet several factors have begun to erode the power of clergy in the Western world: the shortage of male priests (Hoge 1987), nonordained women performing clerical tasks (Wallace 1992), the presence of women clergy (Lehman 1987) and the changes they have introduced (Ice 1987), declining church attendance (Bibby 1993), increased education among the general church-attending populace, the pluralism of modern religious life together with the proliferation of secular professional in the helping professions, and a generalized growing intolerance of unchecked power in any sphere of contemporary society.

The Counterchallenge-Fundamentalism and Gender Controversies about gender, and by extension the social, reproductive, and economic status of women, occupy center stage in the social/political agenda of religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalists religion worldwide idealizes woman as the self-sacrificing wife and mother, content to run the home rather than be occupied with the business or external world (Hawley 1994). Antimodern religious groups-whether they draw their followers from American fundamentalism, Indian Islam, Hinduism, or Japanese new religions-preach a powerful message of solid, changeless familial relationships. In fact, fundamentalists religions have responded to the uncertainty of modernity by firming up the boundaries having to do with women. Such a process has been labeled gender inerrancy (Nason-Clark 1995), referring to the non-negotiable ideas about gender roles, gender expectations, and performance standards. The contemporary gender challenge to fundamentalism is profound at the point where feminism asserts that a woman’s deepest sense of identity may be found in something other than her family connections.

For contemporary American fundamentalists, the gender struggle-celebrated most vociferously in the pro-choice/pro-life abortion war-is rooted in nostalgia for a bygone era: an idealized version of family and community in rural nineteenth-century America. The sacred texts of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Japanese new religions differ, but the message for women is much the same: “Know thy place.” In knowing her place, the American fundamentalist woman is accepting an ideal that flourished in the postindustrial small-town United States, ignoring that such a traditional concept of femininity itself was a nineteenth-century construct made possible only by the advances of modernity (Balmer 1994). In knowing her place, the Hindu fundamentalist woman defends her “right” to choose whether or not to cast her living body on the burning pyre of a dead husband (Hawley 1994). In knowing the place of women, Islamic fundamentalists decry any move to liberalize divorce laws or to grant women economic security once divorced (Awn 1994). And in knowing the place of woman, Japanese female leaders of new religious movements define women’s salvation in relation to their domestic choices (Hardacre 1994).

According to McGuire (1992), there is impressive historical evidence that nonofficial religion continues to be a vehicle for women asserting an expanded religious role, with examples ranging from healing cults (Csordas 1994) to contemporary witchcraft (Neitz 1990). Yet there is also evidence of pushing the boundaries within official religious institutions, for Catholic women pastors serving in priest-less parishes (Wallace 1992), small-group female or shared leadership in evangelical and charismatic churches (Wuthnow 1994), not to mention the long-standing role of women as Pentecostal itinerant preachers or missionaries in “foreign” contexts.

Despite the rhetoric, however, there is far more latitude in the way conservative Protestant men and women interpret and operationalize these gender messages than one might think (Ammerman 1987, Heaton and Cornwall 1986).

Religion and Gender Roles Gender is a social construct, involving three interrelated dimensions: differentiation, traits, and hierarchy (MacKie 1987). As differentiation, gender implies a biological distinction upon which an elaborate set of meanings have been built. Gender as traits refers to societal norms identifying what men and women should be, feel, and do to exhibit masculinity or femininity. The third aspect, hierarchy, involves the ranking of males and females in such a way that there is a cultural devaluation of female characteristics and activities.

The content of gender socialization, including gender scripts, is learned during our childhood, first and foremost from parents and then through the influence of teachers, peers, the media, and religious institutions. Gender role attitudes constitute one part of the gender script that is learned in childhood. These attitudes include consensual beliefs about the differing characteristics of men and women, coupled with a tendency to ascribe greater social value to masculine, rather than feminine, behaviors. Despite the fact that the Western world is changing its gender text and a noticeable shift can be observed in attitudes toward the rights and responsibilities of women in modern society (Thornton et al. 1983), large differences in gender attitudes still exist depending on sex, age, educational attainment, characteristics of one’s mother, employment history, and religious affiliation and practice (McMurray 1978), Molm 1978, Porter and Albert 1977).

Religious participation offers a socializing group atmosphere where values and beliefs are learned and transmitted. The opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States maintained by many Christian women belonging to conservative Protestant denominations attest to this influence (Brady and Tedin 1976). Conversely, feminists are less likely to engage in religious behavior or to hold religious beliefs than nonfeminists (McClain 1979).

Porter and Albert argue that specific types of religious orientations persist and that religious subcultures are affected by the secular value system of the country in which they are located. They claim that if many women in one’s religious reference group are actually involved in paid employment, this may mitigate or modify the effects of religious ideology, even for those women who do not work outside the home. Porter and Albert consider their data to suggest the persistence of religious subcultural ideologies in modern industrial societies. They also argue that religious orientations are “clearly shaped and modified to some extent by other cultural and structural factors” (1977:358).

In her study of Jewish women who return to orthodoxy, Lynn Davidman (1991) found that there was an attraction to the restrictive gender script; for some women, narrow proscribed roles and responsibilities provide a sense of stability in what is perceived to be a changing, “rootless” world. Other data corroborate the finding that religious orientations are influenced and molded by nonreligious cultural and structural factors. In a study of the gender role orientation of English clergy, it was found that within denominations, personal, familial, and educational characteristics could be understood to shape and modify particular gender role attitudes (Nason-Clark 1993). The etiology of a traditional view on the rights and responsibilities of women may well be fostered by personal and familial variables through the process of socialization, but it is maintained by structural constraints, including those religious in nature, that reinforce patterns of behavior and associated attitudes.

Summary The evidence suggests that there are numerous challenges to the patriarchal bias of religion in the contemporary Western world, involving reevaluating “spiritual truth” and the religious elite who proclaim it. Yet a strong countercurrent remains. There is an undeniable link between religious fundamentalism and a restrictive gender role ideology. Why do some people of faith adopt egalitarian gender role attitudes and others cling to restrictive interpretations of the female role? One’s understanding of the Christian paradigm is dynamically interrelated with personal background characteristics.

-Nancy Nason-Clark


N. Ammerman, Bible Believers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987); 

P. Awn, “Indian Islam,” in Hawley, q.v. (1994): 63-78; 

R. Balmer, “American Fundamentalism,” in Hawley, q.v. (1994): 47-62 

R. Bibby, Fragmented Gods (Toronto: Irwin, 1987); 

R. Bibby, Unknown Gods (Toronto: Stoddart, 1993); 

D. Brady and K. Tedin, “Ladies in Pink,” Social Science Quarterly 56 (1976): 564-574; 

J. Carroll et al., Women of the Cloth (San Francisco: Harper, 1983); 

M. Chaves, Ordaining Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); 

T. Csordas, The Sacred Self (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994);

M. Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (New York: Harper, 1975); 

L. Davidman, Tradition in a Rootless World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); 

E. S. Fiorenza, But She Said (Boston: Beacon, 1992); 

H. Hardacre, “Japanese New Religions,” in Hawley, q.v. (1994): 111-136; 

J. S. Hawley (ed.), Fundamentalism and Gender (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); 

T. Heaton and M. Cornwall, “Religious Group Variation in the Socioeconomic Status of Family Behavior of Women,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(1986): 283-299; 

D. R. Hoge, The Future of Catholic Leadership (Kansas City, MO.: Sheed & Ward, 1987); 

M. Ice, Clergywomen and Their Worldviews (New York: Praeger, 1987); 

J. Jacobs, Divine Disenchantment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); 

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women Clergy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1985); 

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women Clergy in England (Lewiston, N.Y.:Mellen, 1987); 

M. MacKie, Constructing Men and Women (Toronto: Holt, 1987); 

E. McClain, “Religious Orientation the Key to Psychodynamic Differences Between Feminists and Nonfeminists,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18(1979): 40-45; 

M. McGuire, Religion, 3rd ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992); 

M. McMurray, “Religion and Women’s Sex Role Traditionalism,” Sociological Quarterly 19 (1978):522-533; 

N. Nason-Clark, “Are Women Changing the Image of Ministry?” Review of Religious Research 28 (1987a): 330-340; 

N. Nason-Clark, “Ordaining Women as Priests vs. Sexist Explanations for Clerical Attitudes,” Sociological Analysis 48(1987b): 259-273; 

N. Nason-Clark, “Gender Relations in Contemporary Christian Organizations,” in The Sociology of Religion, ed. W. E. Hewitt (Toronto: Butterworth, 1993): 215-234; 

N. Nason-Clark, “Conservative Protestants and Violence Against Women,” Sex, Lies and Sanctity, ed. M. Goldman and M. J. Neitz (Storrs, Conn.: JAI, 1995): 109-130; 

N. Nason-Clark, “Abuses of Clergy Trust,” in Wolves Among the Fold, ed. A. D. Shupe (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997); 

M. J. Neitz, Charisma and Community (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987); 

M. J. Neitz, “In Goddess We Trust,” in In Gods We Trust, 2nd ed., ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990); 

P. Nesbitt, “Dual Ordination Tracks,” Sociology of Religion 54 (1993):13-30; J. Porter and A. Albert, “Subculture or Assimilation?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 16(1977): 345-359; 

M. Royle, “Using Bifocals to Overcome Blindspots,” Review of Religious Research 28(1987): 341-350; 

A. Thornton et al., “Causes and Consequences of Sex-Role Attitudes and Attitude Change,” American Sociological Review 48(1983): 211-227; 

R. Wallace, They Call Her Pastor (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992); 

M. Warner, Alone of All Her Sex (London: Picador, 1985); 

T. Winter et al., Defecting in Place (New York: Crossroad, 1994); 

R. Wuthnow, I Come Away Stronger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

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