Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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

Religion has been seen as a major institution for the social control of women. It has been the focus of feminist attacks in both first and second wave feminism. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's last work, The Woman's Bible , in 1895 (1972), and Mary Daly's first work, The Church and the Second Sex in 1975 (1985), were attacks on institutionalized religion and its treatment of women. Yet women have also found ways of using religious ideologies to argue for egalitarian treatment or demand that men change their behavior. Women have sometimes found space in religious institutions to organize on their own behalf; at other times they have created female-based religious groups.

Women, Ministry, and Oppression

A number of sociologists have designed research projects that attempted to identify the extent to which organized religion and religious ideologies fostered sexism (e.g., Himmelstein 1986).

Some of this research was tied to resistance to the ordination of women in particular. Changes in society regarding women in the professions, as well as the pressures inside the denominations from women in the seminaries, spurred research on the topic of women in the ministry. Most of the research on women clergy has been conducted within mainline Protestant denominations. These denominations have been most affected by second wave feminism. The portion of clergy that was female doubled from 2.1% in the 1950s to 4.2% by 1980. Additionally, by 1980, half the M.Div. students at mainline seminaries were female. In Women of the Cloth (Harper 1983), Jackson Carroll, Barbara Hargrove, and Adair Lummis offered the first broad look at the impact of growing numbers of women in the ministry. Another major direction was the examination of resistance to women in ministry, both in denominations where ordination occurred and in denominations where it has not been sanctioned (e.g., Lehman 1985, Nason-Clark 1987).

Although most of this research examines mainstream Protestant denominations, there is some material on the rather different situations of women leaders within pentecostal churches (e.g., Kwilecki 1987, Lawless 1988, Poloma 1989) and in Roman Catholicism. Ruth Wallace (1992) suggests that women as well as men benefitted from the increased official enthusiasm for lay participation in governance of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. Although power remained in the hands of the male clergy, changes in canon law allowed women to participate in public ministry in many ways, including acting as eucharistic ministers, lectors, and even chancellors of dioceses. Involvement in the women's movement mobilized Catholic women to seek changes in their church, including ordination. In the early 1980s, the Woman-Church movement emerged from a coalition of Catholic feminist organizations to keep the issue or ordination under discussion within the Catholic Church.

Gendered Experience within Abrahamic Religious Traditions

When fundamentalism began to attract scholarly attention in the 1970s, feminist writers became interested as participants in the new Christian Right mobilized against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and abortion rights. Analysis of the public writings, especially of male conservatives, stressed official positions on traditional family values, "male headship," antifeminist positions on abortion and the ERA, as well as opposition to the welfare state (e.g., Eisenstein 1982); yet this work left unanswered questions about why women would be attracted to fundamentalist religion, and the extent to which evangelical women endorsed the official views. Early research on fundamentalist women, based on women who had joined religious communal groups, argued that in a period of time when cultural values seemed to be in flux, part of the appeal for women was the certainty of traditional roles (Aidala 1985, Harder et al. 1976). Other studies of charismatics, evangelicals, and the New Christian Right have suggested that women as well as men see themselves as having something to gain from the pro-family stance articulated by these groups (Ginsburg 1989, Luker 1984, Neitz 1987, Rose 1987). The pro-family ideology dictates that both males and females make family life a top priority. Younger married women, some of whom had seen themselves as feminists prior to joining the movement, saw it as a way to solve problems in their marriages; they traded formal authority for their husbands' emotional expressiveness and involvement in family life.

Feminist scholars studying women newly converted to Orthodox Judaism face a similar puzzle: Why would modern women embrace such an apparently restrictive religiosity? Recent research suggests that the answer to the question depends in part on the population one is studying (see Davidman 1991, Kaufman 1991).

Women-Centered Religious Groups and Practices

In addition to various sorts of accommodations and resistances by women within Abrahamic religions, women also have created women-centered religions outside of the dominant cultural tradition. These are often relatively small and relatively unorganized—by their very nature hard to research. Yet they are important sites for investigating theories about gender and alternative structures of authority.

The women's spirituality movement embraces a number of women-centered ritual groups that offer ideologies explicitly supportive of women's authority. Coming out of both the neopaganism of the counter-culture and the feminist movement, these groups are oriented primarily to immanent female deities and the celebration of seasonal rituals (Neitz 1990). Several authors are exploring how these woman-affirming beliefs, symbols, and rituals may be empowering to women.

Claiming the identity of witch can itself be empowering to women. Participation in inverting a cultural stereotype and identifying with those midwives and healers of another time, who were persecuted by male authorities, is seen as affirming an alternative construction of gender, religion, and self. Rituals offer settings in which women who have been marginalized and alienated can be healed (see Jacobs 1990).

Both feminists and nonfeminists have questioned what such empowerment means. Rather than power being seen primarily in terms of the ability to get someone else to do as one wants, empowerment for these women may be an attempt to gain legitimacy for their desires to act on their own behalf.

New Directions for Research

While the question, "Where are the women?" has been attributed to the first stage of feminist research, it remains a necessary question for sociologists who study religion. In part, this is because some religious organizations are making a transition between being male-dominated and letting women in, and that change must be assessed (see Hargrove 1987). It is also because other religious organizations continue as highly sex-segregated institutions.

The feminist project of asking how any given experience is gendered also continues to be important. Individuals participate in religious organizations and movements as males and females. Organizations and movements create and maintain structures that continue to reproduce gendered relations. The strand of contemporary feminist theory coming out of the work of Nancy Chodorow (1978) and Carol Gilligan (1982) posits a model of the self that is connected to others. Gilligan's work on moral development showed girls with "connected selves" working through moral choices in ways that are markedly different from the prevailing models developed with male subjects.

Another area to be explored concerns sociological treatments of the body. A related topic is that of sexuality. In Judeo-Christian cultures, sexual norms have often denied women their sexuality while permitting male sexual abuse of women. Alternative religious movements also create norms of sexual conduct.

Perspectives in the sociology of emotion also suggest a number of yet unexplored avenues for feminist analysis in the sociology of religion. Perhaps because religious behaviors were dismissed as being "merely emotional," sociologists have favored organizational analysis; yet Hochschild's (1983) concept of "emotion work" suggests a new, sociological way to think about emotion.

See also Sexism, Sexuality and Fertility

Mary Jo Neitz


A. Aidala, "Social Change, Gender Roles, and New Religious Movements," Sociological Analysis 46(1985):287-314

N. Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

M. Daly, The Church and the Second Sex (Boston: Beacon, 1985 [1975])

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

Z. Eisenstein, "The Sexual Politics of the New Right," Signs 7(1982):567-588

C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982)

F. Ginsburg, Contested Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989)

M. W. Harder et al., "Life Style, Courtship, Marriage and Family in a Changing Jesus Movement Organization," International Review of Modern Sociology 6(1976):155-177

B. J. Hargrove, "On Digging, Dialogue, and Decision-Making," Review of Religious Research 28(1987):395-401

J. Himmelstein, "The Social Basis of Antifeminism," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25 (1986):1-15

A. Hochschild, The Managed Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)

J. Jacobs, "Women-Centered Healing Rites," in In Gods We Trust , 2nd ed., ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1990)

D. Kaufman, Rachel's Daughters (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991)

S. Kwilecki, "Contemporary Pentecostal Clergywomen," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3(1987):57-75

E. Lawless, Handmaidens of the Lord (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988)

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

K. Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)

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

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):353-371

M. Poloma, Assemblies of God at the Crossroads (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989)

S. Rose, "Woman Warriors," Sociological Analysis 48(1987): 245-258

E. C. Stanton, The Woman's Bible (Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1972 [1895])

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

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