11292000 Dr. Kathryn Keller
Montclair University  
Lecture 11/29/2000 Gender and Spirituality

Gender and Religiosity – describes an individual’s or group’s intensity of commitment to a religious belief
system. Differences between women and men on several other measures of religiosity. More women than men
actually go to church or synagogue; more women than men consider religion to be very important in their lives;
and that considerably more women than men that religion can answer all or most of today’s problems.

Other studies show that women are more likely to pray and to read the Bible regularly. Moreover, additional
research indicates that when race and ethnicity are also taken into account, women of color have especially high
levels of religiosity. In some Black churches women make up up from 70 to 90% of the congregation. Women’s
level of religiosity has been declining in recent years.

Several theories have been offered to explain sex differences in religiosity: women are more submissive, passive,
obedient, and nurturing than men, and these traits are related to high levels of religiosity.

A second theory of sex differences in religiosity has focused on the division of labor, specifically women’s
primary responsibility for the family well-being and child care. One version argues that religious activities such as
church attendance are considered an extension of household responsibilities, A second version maintains that
women simply have more time for religious activities.

Renzetti and Curran explore the gendered teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam regarding three main
topics: 1) appropriate behavior and rituals for the male and female faithful; 2 the regulation of sexuality, and 30 the
relative positions of men and women as church leaders or authorities.


  1.Appropriate behavior and rituals for the male and female faithful: Orthodox men and women have separate
    and verily clearly defined rights and obligations under Jewish law. Traditionally, the scholarly and
    spiritual realms have been reserved for men. Women are exempt from these religious duties on the ground
    that fulfilling them would interfere with their primary roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Women
    then control the domestic realm where they tend to the needs of their husbands and children.

Orthodoxy maintains that this is not unequal separation of roles but allows for the moral purity of their
households. Orthodox women may not read the Torah during worship or in prayer groups. They can not be
ordained as Orthodox rabbis. They sit separating in the synagogue.

Male-female relations = wives may not bequeath their property while they are married without their husbands’
consent. Women may not formally initiate marriage nor can they divorce (husband is allowed to divorce wife).
She may institute divorce proceedings before the religious court but she is not released from her marriage unless
her husband grants it.

Jewish law recognizes the rights of both women and men to sexual fulfillment n marriage. But women must be
modest. The laws of family purity include the rules of bodily cleanliness, which revolve around a woman’s
menstrual cycle.

Deborah Kaufmann – did a study on newly Orthodox Jewish women who felt that the halakic prescriptions were
in fact liberating – they felt they had regained control over their sexuality and felt that they had an enhanced
status as women and as mothers, and they considered the men in their lives were more respectful, supportive and
committed to their relationships.

In 1972 Reform Judaism opened rabbinical ordination to women. In 1990 gay men and women accepted into the
rabbinate. In 1996 voted to endorse legalization of gay and lesbian marriages.

The third Jewish denomination, Conservative Judaism – established also in the 1880s as a more midde-of-the road
alternative to Orthodox and Reform Judaism. 1973 – prohibitions that excluded women from some parts of worship
were abolished. Mid-1980s women were permitted to rabbinate. In 1990 women were permitted to be cantors (who
chant liturgy of behalf of the congregation and therefore play a more central role in worship than rabbis, whose
teach and preach) Conservative Judaism continues to prohibit the ordination of lesbians and gay men as rabbis.
Conservative Jewish authorities welcome lesbians and gay men as individual members of Conservative
congregations but leave the decision of whether to hire homosexuals as teachers or youth leaders up to
individual rabbis.


Early Christian movement had both men and women leaders. The rationale for the decision of male church
authorities to exclude women from leadership roles remains open to speculation. Whatever the rationale, women
were relegated to a second-class citizenship within Christianity, a status that persists in many Christian
denominations to this day.

Within the Christian tradition, both men and women have been characterized in contradictory ways. Men are
supposed to be rational, authoritative, and in control, yet they are depicted as weak-willed when confronted with
women’s feminine charms. Indeed women are portrayed as temptresses "the devil’s gateway" At the same time
though the virgin, pure of heart and body, has been extolled by Christianity, as has the good mother.

Such images hint at the Christian church’s traditional teachings on sexuality. Historically sex was discussed as an
activity to be avoided if possible, except for the purpose of procreation. St. Augustine – sex was the means by
which original sin was transmitted across generation.

Today Christian teachings on sexuality remain mixed. Virtually all sects and denominations continue to frown on
nonmarital sex although groups within various churches have recommended more open-minded discussion of
sexuality. The Evangelical Lutheran Church issued a report in 1992 on the "created goodness’ of sexuality.
Affirms marriage and committed love relationships, recommends young people refrain from sex until they are
ready; should affirm committed same-sex relationships. However, gay clergy members have been expelled from

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church has voted to retain its official position that
homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

United Church of Canada

Episcopal Church – gay men and lesbians could be ordained as both priests and bishops.

Catholic Church – reiterated its strong disapproval of homosexuality – has also argued that discrimination against
homosexuals in the area of adoption, foster care placement, military service and employment as teacher and
coaches. Bishops actively oppose any legislation that promotes public acceptance of homosexuality and
homosexual relationships.

Catholic Church continues to require celibacy on the part of clergy and nuns and it prohibits the use of artificial
contraception and abortion as well as artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization.

Opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Unlike the Catholic Church virtually all the Protestant churches now ordain women to their ministries.
Nevertheless, women ministers still confront sexism in their churches and denominations. There is a "stained
glass ceiling" within their churches.

Islam – second largest religion in the world in terms of membership

It is clear that Islam radically altered male-female relations. Muhammad permitted men to have more than one wife,
imposing a generous limit of four as long as they could be supported. He opposed female infanticide, but gave
men unconditional custody rights tot heir children. Men are women’s guardians and a degree above them.

Today many Islamic leaders maintain that men and women hold equal status, although they are quick to
emphasize that this equality does not derive from sharing the same privileges and responsibilities, but rather from
the complementarity of their roles.

In Islamic societies today, men are the undisputed heads of both the sacred and secular realms, including the
household. Theirs is the public sphere, where they conduct religious and worldly affairs and assume a variety of
roles with few restrictions. In orthodox Islamic societies women are largely confined to the private sphere. Prior to
marriage, the Muslim woman is under the control of her father, brothers, and other male relatives. Islamic law
forbids any public contact between unmarried women and men.

Islamic law imposes a number of restrictions on men’s behavior – for example, they may not drink alcohol or
gamble, and they must dress modestly –but men are given considerably more freedom that women.

The level of orthodoxy practiced by Muslims does vary by contrary as well as by sect.

Islamic women are divided on the meanings of the restrictions. Many Muslim women explain their openness to
orthodoxy in terms of institutional protection. A veiled woman is recognized by all as religiously devout and off
limits to men. It is also the case that for some women, donning the veil and chador is a political statement, an
expression nut just of religious devotion, but of militancy, rebellion, and protest against oppressive political
regimes, secularism, and Western imperialism in their countries.

In some ways then the conservative politicalization of Islamic women gives them more in common with Orthodox
Jewish women and conservative American Christian women. Each of these groups embraces religious
fundamentalism, a religious orientation that denounces secular modernity and attempts to restore traditional
spirituality through selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs and practices from a sacred past.

Challenges to Religious Patriarchy: Feminist spirituality. Many variations but the most important theme that runs
through feminist spirituality is the rejection of the dualism of patriarchal religions. That is, the major patriarchal
religious traditions separate God and the world, the sacred and the profane, spirit and body, viewing them as
distinct and placing human beings in tension between them.

There are those who feel that the Judeo-Christian traditions and other patriarchal religions are so hopelessly
mired in sexism that they have abandoned these religions altogether. Example – rise of Wiccan religion.

While some feminist spiritualists advocate a complete break with men and all that is male-identified many welcome
both women and men into their traditions on the ground that patriarchal religions may oppress members of both
sexes through heterosexism, racism and class bias. From this perspective, women’s experiences may provide the
foundation for a feminist spirituality that offers liberation for members of either sex.

Reformers – have chosen to challenge patriarchal religious forms and to reclaim Judeo-Christian and Islamic
history, language, symbols, and rituals as their own. For example, challenging the image of God as male.
Celebrating women in rituals.

Marjorie Procter-Smith – "Blessed Mother Ann, Holy Mother Wisdom: Gender and Divinity in Shaker Life
and Belief"

Late 18th and early 19th century

It is striking how many contemporary feminist religious issues are found in the history of Shakerism.
Contemporary feminists have challenged mainstream religious groups to expand women’s opportunities for
religious leadership, to reconsider the use of exclusively male language about God and Christ, and to develop
religious language that draws on women’s experience. From an examination of Shaker history we may see a
Christian group that struggled to preserve women’s religious leadership, that worshipped God as Mother as well
as Father, and that drew some of its central religious terms from women’s traditional childbearing and household

Most radical of the Shakers’ ideas about women and religion, and most startlingly contemporary, is their grasp of
the connection between and exclusively male representation of God and a male-dominated society.

The also insisted that the recognition of the female in deity was essential to women’s social and religious
emancipation, and they were unflinching in their criticism of male-centered theology and church.

However, their answer to their critique of male-centered religion was a highly dualistic system based on the
fundamental difference between men and women. In this oppositional system women’s sphere was diametrically
opposed to that of men, and it left women in the same place reserved for them by conventional wisdom. Although
redeemed Shaker women were spiritually superior to all unredeemed women and men, women by nature were
understood to be more sinful than men. Indeed this greater sinfulness of women necessitated, in part, the Second
Coming of Christ in female form.

Contemporary feminists have many concerns – First, there is the question of valorizing women’s traditional
experience. Such valorization recognizes that the work women have done for eons – care of children, care of
households, concern for maintenance of human relationships – is the work of world-construction and
world-maintenance, and as such it is religious work. The risk of such valorization, as the Shaker history shows, is
that it reinforces the cultural notion that such work is women’s sole work and that it is solely women’s work. Such
a view restricts women’s access to other kinds of work and suggests that men need not concern themselves with
such work, a bifurcation that feminism has taken some pains to correct.

Second, the Shaker story raises questions about essentialism. Is there some essential female character or virtue?
Some Shaker theologians assumed that there was such a thing and that they knew what it was. Both arguments
that female character is essentially flawed or sinful and that female character is essentially nurturant, loving, and
caring claim such knowledge, and both views can be found not only in Shakerism but in other religions as well.

Third, the Shakers demonstrate both the difficulties of preserving and perpetuating strong female leadership and
the value of having the example of a female founder as a living memory in the community’s life. The Shaker’s most
effective method of ensuring the continuation of female leadership, however, was their ideological system, which
demanded equal leadership by men and women and recruited and developed strong women for leadership
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