The Ties That Bind: Women's Public Vision for Politics, Religion, and Civil Society

Article excerpt

This Research-in-Brief summarizes the findings of a larger report, The Ties That Bind: Women's Public Vision for Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, based on a series of 75 in-depth, qualitative interviews with women (and a few men) working as volunteers, staff, or leaders of nonprofit religious groups working on social justice issues.

Religious life is an important place where men and women are recruited into civic and political life. In their congregations, men and women learn and practice important civic skills, develop relationships that turn into recruitment networks, and are inspired by the values they learn and discuss. In fact, religious involvement is considered one of the stronger factors associated with increased civic and political participation. Congregations, then, have the potential to involve women in activism around issues they care about, particularly because women are more involved in congregational life than men. But in fact, the opposite is happening: within congregations, men are more likely to practice civic skills, serve in leadership, and be recruited into other civic and political activities (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba 2001). In other words, congregations are less likely to translate women's involvement than men's into political or civic activism. Some of the problem may be connected to limitations on women's religious voice and leadership. Most religious denominations come from a history of values and traditions that have limited women's roles as leaders and activists, denying women the authority to interpret religious or moral values. Instead, they have assigned women a very specific set of roles rooted in family, children, and private life, while excluding them from the authority of claiming public leadership, and have presented these roles as based on inherent and fundamental moral values (Buchanan 1996; Chopp and Davaney 1997; Pateman 1988; Schneider and Schneider 1997). The idea of women's roles as natural and justified by "core" moral values also underlies the basic precepts of American democracy, which, too, is built on the idea of women sustaining home, family, and the private sphere, while men are public figures in politics and economics (Okin 1992; Pateman 1988). As a result, if we are to fully include women in democratic life, we may need to rethink the systems of morality that define women's roles.

To encourage the process of bringing women's experiences and values to discussions of morality and politics, this Research-in-Brief, based on a larger report by IWPR, describes how women social justice activists talk about their moral values and experiences with claiming leadership in their activist lives. Because so many "moral values" issues are linked to religious faiths and traditions, we focus in particular on the values and visions of women working as activists in religious contexts. In a series of in-depth interviews with women activists from a broad range of religious traditions across the country, we sought to determine what kinds of values and themes are central to their work and leadership (for information on methodology, see below).

In general, the women we interviewed articulate a moral vision for public life that is informed by their lives and experiences as women, experiences often excluded from traditional ideas about both morality and politics. This vision includes an emphasis on values of shared responsibility and connectedness, which are used by the women interviewed to rethink traditional ideas about economic and political rights. The work and leadership of these women also challenge ideas about women's moral agency by putting it squarely in women's hands. The women we interviewed still describe struggling to claim that agency and consistently experience resistance and hesitation in taking on leadership, but they point to ways that women can overcome those obstacles.


The religious women activists we interviewed are actively claiming a public voice as political and religious leaders, based on their sense of individual and collective responsibility for their communities. …