Taking Back God
American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality
By Leora Tanenbaum
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2009 Leora Tanenbaum
All rights reserved.
Women on the Verge of an Uprising
Go to your local church, mosque, or synagogue, and take a look around during worship. Who is leading the service? Who is preaching? Are women mentioned positively, negatively, or at all? Is God described exclusively as Father, as Father and Mother, or in gender-neutral terms? How are the women dressed — are they covered up, even on a scorching-hot day? Wait — where are the women, anyway? Oh, there they are — all the way in back. Or upstairs. Or in another room.
If you've witnessed the preferential treatment of men in America's houses of worship, you will not be surprised to learn that there is an explosion of millions of women in this country rising up and demanding religious equality. More and more, religious women — Christian, Muslim, and Jewish — are declaring that they expect to be treated as equal to men in the religious sphere. They want the same meaningful spiritual connections enjoyed by their brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons. They are critical of their faith's male-oriented theology and liturgy. They reject the interpretations of their religious tradition that give women a different, and to their minds lesser, status.
These women agree with their priests, pastors, imams, and rabbis that the word of God is revealed in their faith's sacred writings. And they embrace the word of God. Yet they believe that God always intended for women to be treated as equals to men. The problem is not God's intention, but rather a distortion of God's plan.
I am one of these women: I too live with deep conflict. I am committed to my religion, but increasingly I am frustrated with the place my tradition assigns me as a woman. In writing this book, I have connected with many of these women, and share their experiences here to raise awareness that conflict and contradiction sometimes can be good things because they can impel positive change. For when there is tension between the desire to be religious and the desire to be treated as equal, religious women inevitably question the status quo, leading them to study the foundations of their faith. This process strengthens religion for everyone involved. Blind faith, on the other hand, weakens religion for everyone involved.
We are living at a pivotal moment. Catholics have been active in the movement for women's ordination as priests since 1975, and the first woman was ordained as a rabbi three years earlier in the Reform Jewish denomination. In 2006 we saw the installation of the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States. But today the movement has deepened. It still pushes for ordination in those faiths where it remains forbidden, but it has widened its focus beyond that one issue. And it encompasses Muslim women, who are also speaking up against women's discrimination. It has germinated a new class of religious women who are infusing their faith communities with palpable energy. That energy is alive: it is growing and spreading.
These women are not abandoning religion. Nor do they seek to overturn it. On the contrary: they want to stay within their religious heritage but make it better by allowing women full rights. They want to transform religion while maintaining tradition. Many of these women seek out like-minded folks, both men and women, in order to practice their faith together in a way that is spiritually fulfilling rather than spiritually disabling. Others work from within to reform their church, mosque, or synagogue to become more inclusive of women. All of these devout women recognize that religion, when practiced together with a commitment to gender equality, can empower women rather than limit them. At the same time, by creating opportunities for women, they are making their religion stronger and more durable.
Historically, men have monopolized God. Today, women are taking back God for themselves. Says forty-six-year-old Catherine Shannon, a practicing, churchgoing Catholic and stay-at-home mother of four in suburban Connecticut, "I don't feel equal at all, and I struggle with it. I watched the installation of Pope Benedict XVI on TV, and I found it repulsive. It was all these men — no women. Women are allowed to become 'Eucharistic ministers,' but they're not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist. Only a male priest is allowed to do that. I would feel better if women could do it."
Syeda Reshma Yunus, a forty-seven-year-old traditional Muslim woman who was born in India and lives in California, feels similarly. She is offended that many mosques forbid women from entering and exiting through the main door (a separate door for women is sometimes found on the side or rear of the building) and that nearly all mosques in the United States require the women to worship behind the men. "You know how you're supposed to come back from the mosque feeling good and spiritually recharged? I never feel that way. When I come back from the mosque, I just want to throw something at those people!"
For her part, Ariele Mortkowitz, a twenty-seven-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman living in Washington, D.C., shares this sense that as a woman, she's getting the short end of the religious stick. She disagrees with her tradition's rule that women, but not men, must dress modestly. "You need to cover your hair [as a married woman] and you need to cover your body because women are considered sexual beings. A male friend [not from my community] once said to me, 'Doesn't that make you feel good, though, knowing that you are looked at as a sexual being?' But no, it doesn't! I don't want to hide who I am, but I'm supposed to because I'm a source of negative influence for my male counterparts in society."
Many religious people consider these sentiments heretical. When excommunication wasn't considered punishment enough, the medieval Catholic Church burned heretics at the stake. When women in our country during the colonial period challenged their congregations, their punishment was swift and fierce. In 1638 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated and banished from the colony because she had held meetings in her home to discuss the Sunday sermon and to provide a forum for her own theological ideas. In 1660, a supporter of Hutchinson who preached her own sermons, Mary Dyer, was hanged on the Boston Common. Other women who expressed provocative views about Christianity and the church hierarchy were also hanged, pilloried, or whipped. Some were lucky merely to be publicly insulted. In 1848 the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton — an evangelical Protestant who claimed that opponents of women's rights were misreading the Bible — was stung when she was denounced as an "infidel" by her hometown preacher.
Today's equality-seeking religious women are sometimes considered heretics and branded as pagan, a term used to describe one who believes in more than one god. After an international conference of mainstream Protestant women, held in Minneapolis in 1993, participants were labeled pagan because they "reimagined" God as possessing both feminine and masculine characteristics. Even today, any religious woman who tries to broach the topic of alternate ways of representing God is at high risk of being silenced as a pagan — which also means one who stands outside the faith community. These women are told that nothing can change, because the way things are now is the way God decreed they should be, as revealed in the sacred texts.
Despite the insults flung at them, the women in this book remain deeply religious, faithful people. They are in awe of God as their creator, redeemer, and sustainer, and they wish to live lives that serve their God. By and large, they are mainstream, conventional people — schoolteachers, social workers, office managers, nonprofit directors, lawyers, physicians, church administrators, soccer moms, retired grandmothers. And they appear mainstream: they dress modestly — nothing too attention-grabbing, nothing outrageous. They tend to be particularly well educated (since higher education leads to critical thinking), yet they are also average Americans. For the most part, they just want to be left alone to worship Jesus Christ or Allah or Hashem — quietly, without causing a ruckus, without being in-your-face about it. But also with dignity and not as second-class citizens within their faith.
They are activists by necessity. To get to the point where they can worship the way they want to, they know that action is required. And action they are taking. Catholic women are supporting female ordination ceremonies, risking excommunication by the Vatican because the Catholic Church not only forbids female priests but also forbids support and even discussion of the subject. Evangelical Christian women are engaging in serious, high-level Bible study in which they challenge scriptural interpretations that place husbands as heads over wives, who are instructed to be subservient. Muslim women are participating in prayer services in which a woman recites the khutba (sermon) and women pray adjacent to men, not behind them. Observant Jewish women are attending prayer services in which the curtain dividing the women from the men is pushed aside so that a woman can layn (chant the words of) the Torah.
I want you to get to know this new breed of devout women — who they are, why they are dissatisfied with their faith, and what they are doing about it. Millions of religious women, together with like-minded men, are having an enormous impact on churches, mosques, and synagogues across the United States: they are reshaping organized religion to become more inclusive of women not only as worshippers but as leaders. There are no hard numbers, but everyone involved in the professional world of women and worship agrees that more and more women are standing up for their religious rights. In no small part, these women are gaining momentum through the Internet, which enables otherwise disparate individuals to come together.
"Women in these traditions are taking a very hard look at the conflict they have been living, between trying to be faithful and coming against certain elements of their tradition that are baldly unequal to women," observes Cyra Choudhury, the executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Women in Religion. "We are seeing a groundswell. There are regular women, women not engaged in the academy, asking more questions. They don't necessarily want to become priests or rabbis or imams, but they want their questions answered and they don't want to just accept the answer, 'Well, this is the sacred law; this is just what it is.'"
I have chosen to explore five communities of American women struggling for women's religious advancement: Catholics, evangelical Protestants, "mainline" (nonevangelical) Protestants, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. Obviously, there are many other communities in which women are similarly rising up. A website called Feminist Mormon Housewives offers a space for Mormon women to vent frustrations with their narrow role. There are disgruntled women in the Eastern Orthodox, Mennonite, and Pentecostalist churches and in the Jewish Conservative movement too, not to mention members of Eastern religions. Rather than attempt to tackle all denominations and movements, I limit this inquiry in order to paint a vivid landscape.
In 2006 I traveled to Chicago to attend an international gathering of United Methodist clergywomen to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their full clergy rights. Fifteen hundred women, most of them ordained, converged at the Hyatt Regency convention center at McCormick Place, their numbers limited only by lack of space. This was the last place I expected to find disgruntled voices — the event was, after all, billed as a celebration, a landmark anniversary, a weeklong gala party. Besides, aren't mainline Protestants very open to women's new roles?
When I showed up to claim my name tag, I encountered two cheerful volunteers overseeing the registration materials. At first they couldn't find my name on their list; they leaned over the table and scanned the names, finally locating me under "Media."
"Media? Are you a reporter?"
I explained that I was writing a book about women who are devoted to their faith but ticked off about their status within it.
"Well," said one of the volunteers, a friendly woman with short white hair and vivid blue eyes. She straightened her shoulders and flashed me a wide, welcoming grin. "You've come to the right place."
More and more, any place where religious women gather is the right place to find women demanding equality.
What motivates them? To find out, I engaged in intense interviews with women seriously devoted to their faith, living across this country from far-flung rural Oregon to densely packed New York City. To seek them out, I attended five conferences of religious people in support of women's advancement — in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a conference of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus; in Chicago for the United Methodists' fifty-year anniversary of clergywomen's rights; in Milwaukee for the Catholic reform group Call to Action's annual conference; in Manhattan's Times Square for the historic Women's Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity; and in Manhattan's Upper West Side for the tenth-anniversary celebration and conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Many other women reached out to me after seeing the advertisements I placed in the politically left-of-center Christian magazine So-journers, the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, the progressive Muslim website Muslim WakeUp!, and the secular liberal journal The Nation. (Many women who read conservative publications also want equality. I chose liberal publications, guessing that in those venues I would have a good chance of finding women willing to speak with me.)
Overall, I spoke with ninety-five women — Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews. Their ages range from nineteen to ninety-five, and they live in twenty-four different states across the country. Some refer to themselves as feminist; others avoid the term as strongly as they wish Eve had spurned the serpent's fruit. (In this book I describe people and organizations as "feminist" only if they already define themselves in this way.) Except for several interviewees who had left their religious community because they couldn't reconcile their beliefs with their tradition, all are seriously committed to their religious tradition yet simultaneously believe that women are not treated as they should be. They base their beliefs on their understanding of the sacred texts of their faith.
These women collectively voiced four goals:
1. They want to see women in leadership roles within their church, mosque, or synagogue — even if they personally do not desire to hold such a position themselves. By extension, they believe that women should be permitted to participate in the same rituals available to men. Because conservative religious women do not plunge forward and claim for themselves a responsibility or ritual without authorization from a respected religious authority, they are educating themselves about existing interpretations that favor increased participation by women.
2. They want women represented in the language of their liturgy. In some cases this means wanting God to be described with feminine as well as masculine images (Mother as well as Father, Queen as well as King); in other cases it means simply wanting the liturgy to refer to human women (foremothers) as well as human men (forefathers).
3. They want religious recognition that their physical bodies are normal and not aberrant. Despite the millions of women who are proud of their bodies and enjoy wearing revealing clothes, many other millions — who grew up in religious households — have been taught that the female body, which menstruates, nurtures a growing fetus, gives birth, and lactates, is inherently offensive. Sadly, many women come to believe this is true.
4. They want to be recognized as people created fully in the image of God. The idea that human beings are created "in the image of God" and therefore share some aspects of the divine is very powerful and important in Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, it is believed that humans have the potential to share some characteristics of God but can never fully achieve a mirroring of God.
Genesis 1:27 reads, "And God created the human in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." In mirroring God to some extent, humans are elevated. If God is compassionate and just (as all three religions maintain), and if we have the capacity to act as God acts, then we have the power and responsibility to behave in compassionate and just ways. Moreover, if all humans are like God, then all humans must be treated with respect. But what happens if only men are believed to be "in the image of God"? Christian leaders throughout the centuries have argued that only men reflect the divine image, while women require men to complete them to achieve the same status. As a result, many Christians believe that women are not as valuable as men in the eyes of God — and therefore, by themselves, cannot be "saved." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Taking Back God by Leora Tanenbaum. Copyright © 2009 Leora Tanenbaum. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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