Women in New Religions

Women in New Religions

Women in New Religions

Women in New Religions


Women in New Religions offers an engaging look at women's evolving place in the birth and development of new religious movements. It focuses on four disparate new religions--Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism, The Family International, and Wicca--to illuminate their implications for gender socialization, religious leadership and participation, sexuality, and family ideals.

Religious worldviews and gender roles interact with one another in complicated ways. This is especially true within new religions, which frequently set roles for women in ways that help the movements to define their boundaries in relation to the wider society. As new religious movements emerge, they often position themselves in opposition to dominant society and concomitantly assert alternative roles for women. But these religions are not monolithic: rather than defining gender in rigid and repressive terms, new religions sometimes offer possibilities to women that are not otherwise available. Vance traces expectations for women as the religions emerge, and transformation of possibilities and responsibilities for women as they mature.

Weaving theory with examination of each movement's origins, history, and beliefs and practices, this text contextualizes and situates ideals for women in new religions. The book offers an accessible analysis of the complex factors that influence gender ideology and its evolution in new religious movements, including the movements' origins, charismatic leadership and routinization, theology and doctrine, and socio-historical contexts. It shows how religions shape definitions of women's place in a way that is informed by response to social context, group boundaries, and identity.


Media and other popular depictions of new religions often highlight the bizarre: the mass suicide/murders of members of Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, polygamous marriages among Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, the group suicide of Nike-clad followers of Heaven’s Gate, or collective weddings featuring hundreds of followers of Sun Myung Moon simultaneously repeating wedding vows. New religions, however, are more varied—and often more mundane—than these images suggest. Indeed, because of the almost exclusive media focus on the more surprising aspects of atypical new religions, in the popular imagination new religions are strange and dangerous, their leaders are treacherous or deceitful, and their followers are brainwashed dupes. This image emerges from a particularly narrow focus on extreme practices, actions, and beliefs of a few new religions or sometimes an extreme reaction of the surrounding culture to the religion, as in the case of the aftermath of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raid on David Koresh’s Branch Davidians on 28 February 1993.

This focus on the bizarre is misleading. Most religions began as new religions—by breaking away from an existing religion, through new insights of charismatic leaders, by being imported from another context, or by some combination of these. Christianity emerged from Judaism as followers coalesced around a charismatic leader who eventually came to be called Jesus Christ. Early Christians formed a number of groups that promoted and accepted diverse interpretations of Jesus’s teachings, including varied explanations of the resurrection, the nature of God, and the role of women in the movement. Two main streams of Christianity dominated until the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth century. Catholic Christianity in the West used Latin in its worship, recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome (the pope) and emphasized Jesus’s . . .

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