The Ascent of Woman ; Though More Active in Organized Religion Than Men Are, Women Can Still

By Linda Giedl, | The Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Ascent of Woman ; Though More Active in Organized Religion Than Men Are, Women Can Still


Linda Giedl,, The Christian Science Monitor


The emergence of women as a professional force to be reckoned with will be on the short list of the stories of the 20th century, maybe even of the millennium.

Even a cursory historical look confirms the modern women's rights movement as nothing less than a transforming millennial event.

But surprisingly, women's ascent to leadership has been more dramatic in many secular fields than in religion. The organized church is an area where women actively participate at much greater rates than men do but can still find the path to authority and leadership firmly blocked.

Historical impositions on women have been justified as both scriptural and theological. One might expect that the consciousness of women's equality with men was a feature of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation - but it wasn't. A few enlightened and progressive European humanists challenged centuries-old patristic attitudes - the scholar Cornelius Agrippa wrote daringly in defense of women in 1529 in his "Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex."

But Martin Luther and John Calvin, the principal founders of Protestantism, were unremitting in their perpetuation of the doctrine of "headship" of men over women. They claimed scriptural authority for it.

Nor did those few pre-Reformation women who stood out because of their exceptional piety and spiritual authority challenge the enshrined doctrines that confined women either to home and family, or to the convent. Hildegard, abbess of Bingen (1098-1179), by making herself "nothing" but a vessel for God - a "poor little female figure" - opened herself to revelatory and prophetic visions. Convinced of their authenticity as the divine voice, the most powerful prelates of her day, including three popes, validated and consulted her.

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-83), Catherine of Siena (1347-80), and Julian of Norwich (1342-1416?), also nuns and mystics living in a manner controlled and sanctioned by male priests, were able to gain authority as visionaries and "vessels" of divine revelation.

It's a far cry from a Hildegard to the peer status with men of Madeleine Albright, present United States secretary of State, and her predecessors and contemporaries in the front ranks of women in business and government at the end of the 20th century. A woman's attainment of genuine leadership and authority is, in many women's eyes, the crucial test of equality.

Many barriers began to fall when women were granted the vote. In the case of women's suffrage in the US, specific events leading up to the victory of 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, can be traced in a direct line to the 1830s, when a few American women joined their male counterparts to speak out publicly for the abolition of slavery.

The "struggle for women's civil rights in American society," notes feminist theologian and author Rosemary Radford Ruether in "Women and Redemption: A Theological History," was not only inaugurated by "these fore-mothers of American feminism," but was fought "on biblical and theological grounds."

It was still the time when American women, like their ancestral sisters, were by and large silent in churches and in public affairs. Home - or the cloister - was woman's sanctioned domain. A woman who dared take the podium on a public topic risked public vilification.

Undeterred by this prospect, Philadelphian Lucretia Mott (1793- 1880), a lifelong Quaker minister, and two other remarkable Quakers, Sarah and Angelina Grimk - native Southerners - threw themselves with utter conviction into the thick of the anti-slavery crusade in the North.

All three were steeped in Quaker thought. The Society of Friends had arisen in mid-17th-century England and unequivocally embraced the scripture in Genesis that male and female are created equally in the image of God. Though the Society was founded by a man, George Fox, from the outset Quaker women enjoyed full participation in the life and ministry of their community. …

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