This week, the Huffington Post has an article called “Women as religious Leaders: Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling” written by Maureen Fiedler, who is the author of a new book on that very subject.
Her report is surprisingly upbeat. After pointing out the trends for women to have more leadership roles in society generally, she then comments “The trend is also true for women in the world of religion.” She goes on to explain that she has interviewed many women leaders in religion as the host of a radio programme called Interfaith Voices, and has compiled a selection of those interviews into her new book called “Breaking Through the Stained Glass Ceiling” (Seabury Books, 2010).
The book “provides human stories that document the fact that this dream of gender equality in the world of religion is 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.”
She says that there has been a gradual rise of women leaders in the world of religion over the past four to five decades which has been largely “under the radar” but that “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.”
She points to emerging leadership by women in Islamic as well as Christian and Jewish organisations, before highlighting where discrimination still exists, including in her own faith, Roman Catholicism.
Other religions have traditionally done better, particularly Sikhism, which 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.”
Then she points out that there are two major religions in the world which claim a woman founder, Christian Science (the subject of this blog) founded by Mary Baker Eddy, and the Seventh Day Adventists founded by Ellen White.
She concludes “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.”
As a Christian Scientist who has always assumed and valued the inherent equality of all humanity, I am so grateful to be on the “notwithstanding” part of that equation. Nevertheless, I have always deeply desired to be part of “the rule” rather than “the exception” when it comes to belonging to a religious movement where the equal rights of women to serve in positions of authority is not in question. It is heartening to hope that “the tide has clearly shifted”, as Ms Fiedler suggests.
This is how plainly Mary Baker Eddy stated her own view as the Founder of a global Christian movement back in the late nineteenth century. “In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable, and these rights are ably vindicated by the noblest of both sexes.” (“No and Yes”).
Here in the the UK, over 100 years later, the struggle in this direction still meets resistance. Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill has just published a frank interview with Christina Rees (Chairwoman of WATCH) after “results of the General Synod elections have placed women bishops in jeopardy in the Church of England”.
What do you think? Is women’s leadership role in spiritual/religious life coming out from under the radar? And should it? Is leadership in spiritual/religious life just about having authority, or are there other ways in which women can be/have been leading? Please do comment!