13 Religious Women to Watch in 2012

Changing the World for Good

Catherine Woodiwiss and Emily Farnell list 13 religious women who are changing the world for the better.

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Nobel Peace Prize winner and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, left, holds hands with fellow prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen during the 2011 Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
<br /> (AP/John McConnico)
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, left, holds hands with fellow prize winner Tawakkol Karman of Yemen during the 2011 Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
(AP/John McConnico)

For women in religion 2011 was a year of firsts, challenges, and accomplishments. As three religious women won highest accolades with the Nobel Peace Prize, others received hate mail for their work on climate change or reproductive justice—and many others not yet making headlines have worked tirelessly on a range of social issues, guided by their faith and galvanized by their conscience.

Women of faith are breaking barriers, challenging narratives, and building social movements around the world. This International Women’s Day we honor a diverse group of women who are setting an example of compelling leadership on a daily basis. Compiled below is a sample that is representative—though in no way exhaustive—of the kind of work we can expect from religious women in 2012.

We are proud to present 13 women in religion who are changing the world for good this year.

1. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Takawel Karman, joint recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Each of the Nobel Peace Prize winners this year demonstrated a tireless commitment to peace inspired by their faith. In addition to this joint accolade, each woman is accomplished in her own right. Sirleaf, a committed Methodist, is the president of Liberia and the first female head of state on the African continent. Gbowee, a practicing Lutheran, helped lead peaceful protests during Liberia’s second Civil War and has been an important player in the post-war reconciliation process. And Karman, a Muslim journalist from Yemen, helped organize the 2011 Yemeni uprising, which became part of the larger movement for peace and democracy, dubbed the “Arab Spring.” Coming from countries where religion has historically been used as a tool of persecution and suppression, these women used it as a catalyst for change.

2. Bishop Minerva Carcaño, a dedicated and prophetic voice on immigration. Bishop Carcaño, the first Hispanic woman to be elected to the episcopacy of The United Methodist Church, has become the official spokesperson for the Council of Bishops on immigration. She has been a vocal opponent of Arizona’s draconian immigration laws, marching with other faith leaders against the law in Washington, D.C. In December 2011 Carcaño led the United Methodist delegation to the Geneva Convention on Migrant Rights and this past summer gave a keynote address on the importance of compassion toward immigrants to MARCHA, the Hispanic coalition of Methodists. As states continue to introduce harsh anti-immigration bills, Carcaño is challenging discriminatory narratives about immigration, working instead to humanize the issue through respect and empathy.

3.Captain Pratima Dharm, the first Hindu military chaplain for the U.S. military. Captain Dharm was appointed as the first Hindu military chaplain for the Department of Defense in June 2011. Despite claiming nearly a billion adherents worldwide, Hinduism was the largest faith not represented by a chaplain until Dharm’s installment. Her role requires her to be a priest to Hindu adherents and a chaplain—that is, a mentor and spiritual counselor—to all. Says Dharm, “Hinduism by its very nature teaches tolerance, acceptance and respect for all religions, a key characteristic of successful military chaplains. … I can’t think of a more American endeavor than supporting the free exercise of religion for all military members.”

4. Rev. Rebecca Turner, spiritual counselor and committed voice for reproductive justice for all women. Rev. Turner is the executive director of Faith Aloud, a faith-based organization whose mission is to “eliminate the religious stigma of abortion.” Faith Aloud provides counseling to women and their families through telephone hotlines, DVDs, and other media outlets. Turner has counseled thousands of women who are facing difficult and sometimes painful decisions about abortion and often feel isolated, abandoned, or confused. Her compassionate care for women stands in stark contrast to the current public shaming of women’s sexual choices from some in the media and in politics. Her work also provides a strong counterexample to the currently male-dominated and narrow rhetoric of “religious liberty”—instead, Turner exemplifies religious leaders who provide a holistic, moral voice that supports reproductive choice.

5. Lisa Sharon Harper, a dynamic voice and a mobilizing force on issues of poverty and racial justice. Harper is the director of mobilizing for Sojourners, a nationwide Christian social justice network based in Washington. This year Harper mobilized communities of faith to speak out against harsh immigration laws; supported Human Circles of Protection, a grassroots initiative to protect federal funding for critical social services; and pressed policymakers to treat their budgets as “moral documents”—that is, with an understanding of how budgeted federal funds have significant ramifications for vulnerable communities who rely on government-supported services. An author, regular blogger, and speaker on social justice concerns, she also published her second book on morality, faith, and politics, Left, Right & Christ, in October 2011.

6. Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist and Evangelical Christian. Dr. Hayhoes’s list of credentials is impressive: She is the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and associate professor in the Department of Political Science. She has written more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and reports, including the 2011 U.S. National Academy of Science report, “Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia” and the upcoming 2013 U.S. National Climate Assessment. Hayhoe is also a committed evangelical, a historically conservative tradition in Christianity with many communities that don’t accept the reality of climate change. Hayhoe’s unwavering dedication to bridge the often-competing claims of climate science and evangelical churches—and to do so with respect and honesty—has made hers an increasingly valuable voice among climate scientists and interfaith green movements alike.

7. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association and courageous advocate for health care reform. Sister Keehan’s work to expand access to health care in order to protect the vulnerable, support the weak, and provide for the poor is a powerful example of faith in action. Keehan, arguably one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent female figures, is the CEO of the Catholic Health Association, or CHA, of the United States, the nation’s largest group of not-for-profit health systems and facilities. She was instrumental in garnering support for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when CHA broke with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly support the act. As a result, Keehan gave moral permission to legislators who were conflicted about supporting the bill. Last month, Keehan again publically broke with the bishops when she supported the Obama administration’s revision of an HHS regulation that broadens religious exemptions for religiously affiliated employers who do not want to include contraception in their health plans. The revised regulation requires their insurance companies to provide such coverage directly to their women employees.

8. Joanna Brooks, progressive Mormon and award-winning scholar of American culture, politics, and faith. Brooks’s ability to blend wit, wisdom, faith, and facts when educating the electorate on the history and idiosyncrasies of the Mormon faith gives her a distinctive voice in discourses on American faith and politics. In this election year, when the Mormon tradition has come under increased scrutiny, her columns have provided political context and theological explanations of Mormon beliefs, and her new book of personal stories, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith, helps personalize a little-understood but deeply held American faith.

9. Zarqa Nawaz, compelling and nuanced storyteller of daily life for North American Muslims. Nawaz is a Canadian filmmaker and producer known for her authentic, complex, and often humorous representations of Muslim life in North America. Since the success of her hit TV show, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” she has been a frequent advisor and writer for Hollywood projects. As anti-Muslim bigotry continues to infect everything from political campaigns to sponsorship of shows like “All-American Muslim,” Nawaz continues to create an alternative, insightful, and relatable portrayal of what it means to be Muslim.

10. Rev. Katie Ricks, the first “out” lesbian to be approved for ordination in the Presbyterian Church. Rev. Ricks’s unwillingness to shy away from her sexual orientation or her religious beliefs was rewarded when she was approved for ordination by the New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina last month, making her the first out lesbian to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA since the church’s General Assembly voted in 2011 to allow people in openly gay same-sex relationships to be ordained as ministers, elders, and deacons. Since coming out in seminary in 2002, Ricks has joined the ranks of gay and lesbian faith leaders who have used both prayer and reason to be recognized as authentic spiritual leaders in the church.

11. Joelle Novey, grassroots environmental activist connecting religious language with the urgency of climate change. Novey has been steadily building bridges between congregations, interfaith groups, and environmental activists over the past year. She helped organize the religious contingent to the massive Keystone XL protest around the White House in November 2011 and helped spearhead the effort to get Maryland legislators to support offshore wind development in January 2012. A co-founder of the Jewish social justice congregation Tikkun Leil Shabbat and co-author of “Green and Just Celebrations,” a purchasing guide distributed by Jews United for Justice, Novey is currently director for the greater Washington, D.C., arm of Interfaith Power & Light, where she splits her focus between grassroots engagement with local congregations, domestic energy legislation, and international climate negotiations, all through the lens of climate change as a moral crisis.

These 13 women provide vivid examples of the many impressive, inspiring women at the nexus of religion and public life. Their voices—and those of other female faith leaders—will be worth listening to as we continue to tell the story of who we are and who we hope to be as a nation and a global community.

Catherine Woodiwiss is a Special Assistant and Emily Farnell is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.

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Catherine Woodiwiss

Special Assistant

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The Religion and Faith team at the Center for American Progress publishes an annual list of faith leaders to watch. These clergy and lay leaders are infusing the progressive movement with moral clarity. From immigration reform and gun violence prevention efforts, to foreign policy and the climate crisis, faith communities are a critical constituency across every area of public policy.