A woman tends to a child during a Sacrament Meeting of the Washington DC 3rd Ward at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Chevy Chase, Maryland. (photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
In the March 8 Washington Post article “Feminism’s Final Frontier? Religion,” Lisa Miller predicted that American women would soon abandon the Republican party in droves, just as they are reportedly quitting conservative Christian churches in historically large numbers. In both cases, women’s disaffection appears to be fueled by the disrespect shown to them by male leaders, a disrespect revealed in the ecclesiastical sphere by evangelical minister Jim Henderson’s new book, The Resignation of Eve, and visible in the political sphere to anyone who has followed the recent debates over access to birth control.
As “the men of the right” (as Miller calls them) insult women of faith, many of the latter are rejecting the communities that demean them, and creating leadership roles for themselves elsewhere. She suggests that a similar dynamic will soon govern American party politics. However, the implications of the current situation may not be that clear-cut, religiously or politically.
Miller believes women’s disaffection to be a new phenomenon, spurred by the incongruities between a newfound economic independence and an old-fashioned gender hierarchy:
“In churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the land, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And because women of faith are increasingly breadwinners, single moms and heads of households, that diminished status is beginning to rankle” (emphasis mine).
The assumption that previous generations of women of faith uniformly accepted an inferior position, that is, that religion constitutes “feminism’s final frontier,” leads the author to predict a major break with the patriarchal past due to a novel combination of propitious circumstances and female aspirations. But the “resignation” described by Henderson is not a new departure potentially signaling a major break with tradition; rather, it is the latest permutation of the gender conflict that has been part and parcel of the Christian tradition from earliest times.
Indeed, the struggle over gender and spiritual authority set in early enough to affect the canon of the New Testament. Many women supported Paul, the greatest early Christian missionary, including Prisca (Priscilla), who was instrumental in the apostle’s successes at Corinth and Ephesus, and whom he ordained as a congregational leader along with her husband Aquila (Acts 18). Yet, misogynistic editors of biblical manuscripts successfully obscured Paul’s respect for female religious leaders by falsely attributing to him — either through misplaced punctuation or outright interpolation — the sentiment that women should be silent in churches (1 Cor. 14:33-36).
Nevertheless, women persisted by, among other things, writing or supporting the composition of egalitarian texts, founding and governing monastic communities, pressing the liberationist claims of virginal feminism, exercising a number of liturgical (at times sacerdotal) functions, articulating a whole range of new theologies (including feminine theologies of the godhead), and establishing innumerable beguine communities that were absolutely independent of male ecclesiastical authority. In sum, women consistently found ways to control their own religious destinies and to assume leadership roles within Christian contexts, including during the European Middle Ages, a period popularly (albeit erroneously) conceived as particularly repressive of women. Yet, none of these activities ever fully erased the persistent commitment to gender hierarchy cherished by the “men of the right” whose values have determined the character of most mainstream hegemonic institutions.
Christianity has consistently been open to pro-feminist movements, but this has resulted neither in a fundamental egalitarian transformation of Christian institutions, nor in a mass exodus of disaffected women. The current wave of “resignations” fits squarely into a 2000-year-old tradition of tension over gender and spiritual authority; if proponents of patriarchal forms of religious organization do not feel particularly threatened by the alarm bells Henderson has rung for them, it is because historical precedent encourages complacency on their part. After all, their predecessors always managed to hold on to power.
“The men of the right” have found, in every generation, a substantial number of Christian women who considered the limited roles and secondary status allotted to them to be quite comfortable. It is certainly easier to execute simple, circumscribed tasks such as meal preparation than to shoulder the responsibility for major policy decisions. But every generation has also witnessed rebellion and discontent.
Today’s feminists of faith can draw on a rich heritage to stake out positions that might ultimately justify both Henderson’s warnings and Miller’s optimism. Success may well depend precisely on an awareness of that inspirational heritage. A radical egalitarian transformation will require an unprecedented struggle; it will not be the inevitable result of the rise of the female breadwinner.
Felice Lifshitz earned a PhD in History from Columbia University and currently teaches in the Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Alberta. She has published numerous books, articles, and essay collections concerning medieval Christianity.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.