Called to Speak: Six Strategies That Encourage Women's Political Activism

Article excerpt

This Research-in-Brief summarizes the findings of a larger report that analyzes the experiences of women working as social justice activists within nonprofit religious groups. The report is the second in a series on women, religion, and public life.

Across the country, women are answering a call to speak. Their activism is evident in community halls, congregations, and schools, in cities, towns, and rural areas. In all these settings, women are providing leadership, labor, and passion towards improving the lives and well-being of their communities.

In recent years, interfaith community organizing has been recognized as a place where women play relatively visible roles as political activists. This type of organizing brings together individuals across congregations and denominations to address social welfare issues. Within interfaith community groups, women have achieved impressive levels of leadership: as the leaders of local and national organizations, and, according to one study, as approximately half of all board members and organizers (Warren and Wood 2001). In this work, women's leadership is significant to communities across the country, because religious community organizing is "second in size only to the labor movement among drives for social justice among low-income Americans today" (Wood 2002; 6).

Women are claiming a specifically political role in interfaith community groups. In a series of interviews by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) with women and men involved with religious organizing, three-quarters of participants describe their work as political. They are engaged in changing policies that shape the conditions of people's lives.

Women's work in interfaith community organizing is particularly important because in American life generally, women are less politically active than men. Although women report higher voter turnout than men, fewer women participate in informal political activities directed at solving community problems, are affiliated with organizations that take political stances, or contact their elected officials about issues or policies (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). Interfaith community groups seem to provide women opportunities for political activism that many other groups do not.

How can other groups follow their lead? This Research-in -Brief summarizes six successful strategies that interfaith community groups use to encourage women's political involvement. Based on interviews with women activists in religious community groups across the country, it also provides an overview of why these organizations have developed strategies for increasing women's leadership and involvement, and why the programs they have developed are successful, by outlining why women often hesitate to act in the first place.


In our interviews, women describe many reasons for not acting politically. Some are simply disillusioned with politics, arguing that our political system is unresponsive, particularly to those who are not economically and racially privileged. Some describe a general discomfort with leadership or any public role of authority. Many, however, describe a basic resistance to thinking of political activism as appropriate to their lives as women--they just don't think of politics as "women's" place. Many also describe a fundamental discomfort with expressing anger or outrage, which they see as violating an ethic of care, collaboration, or peace that seems more appropriate to their lives as women, often particularly as religious women. Women of color, immigrant women, and those from smaller U.S. religions describe another layer of difficulty: fear of physical or political retribution for speaking out, based on histories of abuse and exclusion.

Women also face considerable limitations once they want to play a public political role. Almost every woman we interviewed described some kind of experience with resistance from men, from being ignored, to being asked to help with the food rather than speak publicly, to being publicly slapped. …