For years, women have struggled to gain equality in all areas of life—from the home to the workplace, and especially in positions of leadership. Despite being 50.8 percent of the population, only 14.6 percent of executive officers in companies are women, and overall, women only earn 80 cents for every dollar men make. These discrepancies are even larger among women of color. Yet women of faith have historically played a pivotal role in challenging gender inequality, and they continue to defy stereotypes in politics, the workplace, and houses of worship. Here are five ways in which women of faith are fighting for gender equality at work and in broader society—empowering young women as feminist and womanist theologians, faith community leaders, social justice advocates, and elected officials.
1. Shaping and elevating feminist theology
Feminist and womanist theologians exist in every religion, actively engaging in efforts to achieve gender equality from a perspective of faith and making clear that women’s equality and faith are not inconsistent with one another. Challenging misunderstandings or misinterpretations of religious texts that have justified segregating society along gender lines, feminist theologians have surfaced the issue of gender inequality in religious communities. For example, Native American feminist Renya Ramirez wrote an article proposing that gender equality be part of any conversation about the oppression of Native American communities, and she challenges the gender-discriminatory practices that some indigenous nations have traditionally followed. Zainah Anwar also empowers women of faith as a founding member and director of the organization Sisters in Islam, which seeks to teach gender equality through an Islamic framework. In addition, the Sikh Feminist Research Institute exists to engage the Sikh community in feminist research to understand further the causes of gender-based oppression and how to combat it.
In the early 1970s, several Jewish feminists created the social justice group Ezrat Nashim in an effort to give men and women “equal access” to leadership roles within the Jewish community. María Pilar Aquino, a pioneer in the field of Latina feminist theology as a professor of religious studies, has authored more than 50 works on Latina rights, including Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America. Finally, bell hooks, a Buddhist Christian expert on womanism—a form of feminism centering on black women’s liberation—has written numerous essays and books analyzing the effects of racism, sexism, and spirituality on black women and feminist movements.
2. Holding leadership positions in faith communities
In 2012, only 11 percent of American congregations were led by women, and today, only 1 of the 100 largest churches in the United States is led by a woman, due in large part to institutionalized patriarchal models of leadership present in many houses of worship. More women of faith are redefining leadership in their houses of worship, providing important role models for young congregants and pushing to transform gender inequality from within their religious traditions. Bishop Vashti McKenzie was the first woman head of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a role in which she encouraged and empowered women to grow professionally and attain leadership positions. Sally Jane Priesand was the first woman in the United States to be ordained as a rabbi and has worked in the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Task Force on Women to help more women become ordained in the Reform Jewish movement.
Some of the largest and most historically significant churches today are led by women, such as Amy Butler, the first woman pastor of The Riverside Church. “Any time we can see women in roles of leadership doing good work … we’re changing people’s perception and chipping away at the patriarchy we all live with,” Butler says. She often uses her platform to speak out about women’s issues including abortion and sexual harassment. Rabi’a Keeble and M. Hasna Maznavi—founders of the first two female-run mosques in the country—have created their own communities of faith, where they saw a need for more gender-inclusive houses of worship. It is imperative that women continue to take the helm of faith-based organizations and communities, so that female congregants will feel more comfortable sharing their experiences as religious women.
3. Fighting against sexual harassment in religious communities
Over the past year, there have been numerous complaints of pervasive and persistent sexual harassment to which no industry has been immune, including faith communities. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men experience sexual harassment at some point in their lives. Building on the #MeToo movement, which aims to destigmatize survivors of sexual violence, Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy created the #ChurchToo movement on Twitter. #ChurchToo gives victims a platform to share their stories of sexual abuse in religious spaces. Paasch states, “for those who felt themselves silenced and their experiences erased, this hashtag is meant to be a place where survivors are heard, believed, seen and surrounded,” as well as hold churches accountable for their actions. In response to this campaign, Belinda Bauman and Lisa Sharon Harper started the movement #SilenceIsNotSpiritual to urge evangelical congregations and leaders to elevate and show solidarity with the voices of those affected by sexual assault.
Popular evangelical leader Jen Hatmaker has openly taken a stand against leaders who have committed sexual assault, telling abusers, “You will not be covered by … your clergy robes … your powerful position … Let this filthy, evil system that protects abusers fall to shreds.” As more women of faith share their stories and create platforms for others to do the same, houses of worship will continue to take steps to reform their sexual harassment policies.
4. Serving in public offices from underrepresented religions
Elected officials that practice a religion other than Christianity are grossly underrepresented in local, state, and federal levels of government. For example, 91 percent of Congress identifies as Christian, while Jews make up only 6 percent, Buddhists make up 3 percent, Muslims make up 2 percent, and Hindus make up 3 percent. Today, the number of women running for elected office is increasing at an unprecedented rate, including women from underrepresented religions. Muslim women are filling legislative positions across the country and advocating for policies to help women in their faith community and beyond: Ilhan Omar (D-MN) made history in 2016 as the first Somali American legislator in the country when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, where she successfully advocated for paid parental leave for city employees to increase support for working families.
At the federal level, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) was the first Asian American woman and first Buddhist woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Earlier in her career, she founded the Patsy T. Mink Political Action Committee (PAC) with the goal of helping elect pro-choice women to Hawaii state offices. As an Obama administration appointee, Farah Pandith was the U.S. State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities, where she led initiatives to help Muslim youth feel more accepted in society in an effort to reduce extremism. She also led the State Department’s Women in Public Service Project, a program to help women become the next academic, foreign policy, and advocacy leaders through learning institutes and mentorship.
5. Leading advocacy for immigrants and refugees
Since early 2017, the Trump administration has launched a slew of attacks on immigrants: removing protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including asylum seekers and long-term U.S. residents; detaining and deporting parents of U.S.-citizen children; and continuously targeting some of the most vulnerable people. In response to increased deportations, women of faith have called for immigrant justice in their local communities and beyond. Social justice activists such as Stosh Cotler— who helped organize a day of action for the Muslim and Jewish communities in solidarity with immigrants—were arrested at the U.S. Capitol while demanding renewed protection for Dreamers. Bishop Minerva Carcaño was not only the first Hispanic woman elected as a bishop to the United Methodist Church, but she has also long advocated for immigrant rights, even testifying before Congress.
Today, approximately 50 percent of refugees worldwide are women and girls seeking safety and economic opportunity in new countries. In their journeys toward refuge, they are often vulnerable to sex trafficking, in which 96 percent of victims are women and girls. Yet faith leaders such as Nadia Murad Basee Taha are fighting to ensure the safety and success of these affected communities. After escaping Islamic State captivity, Taha became a Yazidi human rights advocate and is now the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Goodwill Ambassador for Human Trafficking. She has testified on the international stage to raise awareness for the disproportionate vulnerability young women face in areas of extreme violence and called on international organizations to help stop the violence against her community. In addition, poet and author Rafeef Ziadah uses her writing to advocate for human rights and women’s rights in areas of war, especially Palestine.
The historical contributions and leadership of women in religious communities are paramount. While the fight for women’s equality has persisted for years, there remains much room for progress. Women faith leaders are defying the limitations that society has historically placed on them in houses of worship, politics, activism, and society more broadly. Moving forward, women will continue to rise in all areas of public life, and in faith communities in particular, as an integral part of the rising tide of women’s leadership and the continuing fight for gender equality.
Rachel Koehler was an intern for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Gwen Calais-Haase is a special assistant for both Democracy and Government Reform and the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center.