Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Tempered Radicals: Black Women's Leadership in the Church and Community

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Tempered Radicals: Black Women's Leadership in the Church and Community

Article excerpt

The Challenge of Women's Leadership

Women have been under-represented in positions of leadership in most arenas, including corporate, education, government and the non-profit sector around the globe. This under-representation has been described as the glass ceiling; a term coined by the Wall Street Journal to denote the apparent barriers that prevent women from advancing to the top of corporate hierarchies (Weiss 1999). The subject of women and leadership has received a lot of attention, particularly in the last two decades after the area of study was initiated by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her incisive book about men and women in corporate America (Kanter 1977, 1997).

In the religious sector, the issue of the ordination of women has divided many churches and resulted in many conflicts. Most mainline protestant denominations in the United States (US) did not begin to ordain women until women's voices were initially heard following on the heels of the American civil rights movement, as women demanded equality of access. As Sullins (2000) found out, whereas some protestant denominations had in theory accepted the ordination of women as biblical and acceptable, it took several decades before this theory matched their practice both in the US and other parts of the world.

There is, moreover, a disparity between formal acceptance and actual status of women clergy in those denominations that ordain women. Empirical findings suggest that "the more responsible, prestigious, and superordinate church positions in virtually every female-ordaining denomination fall disproportionately to men" (Sullins 2000, 244). This phenomenon is referred to as the stained glass ceiling: those apparent barriers that keep women from attaining positions of authority within religious institutions, subordinating women to lower levels and/or smaller, financially strapped congregations (Williams-Gegner, Gramby-Sobukwe and Ngunjiri 2010).

Carroll and Washington (2006) indicated that, whereas Black women in the U.S. make up a large majority of Black church membership (up to 70%), they are only a tiny minority among its recognized spiritual leaders. The Black church lags far behind mainline protestant denominations in both formally ordaining as well as recognizing the spiritual authority of women in their ranks. 11% of those self-identifying as clergy in the 1990 census were women; however, in the Black church, only about 3% of clergy were women. Yet, women have played important roles in providing leadership for the Black church throughout its history, as evidenced by the lives and stories of phenomenal Black women, many who provided leadership without becoming formally ordained and/or recognized (Carpenter 2001).

Tempered Radicalism

Intersectionality is the interpretive framework undergirding this exploration of Black women's experiences within the Black church who, because of their gender, race, and other social identity markers, find themselves at odds with the dominant culture. An intersectional paradigm indicates that the intersections of race and gender, sexuality and social class, shape Black women's and other minority groups' experiences within the US (Collins 1996, 2009; Crenshaw, 1991). As Alston (2005, p. 677) argued, "this concept helps to account for the complexity of the Black woman's lived experiences, recognizing that race, class, and gender are markers of power creating intersecting lines or axes used to reinforce power relations and forms of oppression".

Collins argued that Black women in the US have historically produced knowledge, but that knowledge is subjugated in the academy. Black feminist thought, an intersectional and critical theory, aims at exposing and dislodging the injustices faced by African Americans in the US, and increasingly, it is being extended to look at Black women's experiences globally (Collins 2009). We uncover the historical, social and cultural factors that, combined, form the 'matrix of domination' (Collins 2009, 21) affecting Black women's experiences in the church and limiting their access to the pulpit. …

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