Women and Religion

Women’s religious commitments, ideals, and involvement are increasingly of interest to sociologists within both the sociology of religion and other fields. While early research on religion focused on the origins, functions, meaning, and measurement of religion, the past few decades have witnessed a burgeoning interest in women s spirituality, the involvement of women within religious institutions, and religiously based women s social movements. Part of this shift is the result of the growth of gender studies within sociology, as well as increased religious pluralism and expression across the religious landscape.

Women’s   involvement   in   religion varies depending on whether we are considering personal beliefs and practices or institutional affiliation and leadership. Some scholars have been critical of women’s marginalization within religious institutions. Some critics, such as theologian Mary Daly, argue that women’s historic exclusion  from positions of leadership and authority within western religious traditions is evidence that the Judeo Christian tradition itself is inherently patriarchal and oppressive and should be abandoned in favor of non patriarchal feminist spiritualities. The recent growth of neo-pagan (Neitz 2000), goddess-worship, and other forms of feminist spirituality suggest that some women are moving away from traditional western religious institutions because they do not adequately meet their needs or provide the kind of overarching moral narrative that gives meaning to women s lives.

Others, however, argue that religion itself (especially western Christianity) is not inherently oppressive to women, but that the gender egalitarian teachings of these traditions and the historical involvement of women as leaders, teachers, and writers have been minimized for political and economic reasons. Thus, within both the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestantism, for example, feminist organizations have emerged in an effort to restore more gender equitable practices and beliefs. Christians for Biblical Equality, the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, and the Women s Ordination Conference are examples of organizations that seek to advance feminist goals within conservative Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Countering these are a number of conservative organizations and institutions that promote ”traditional gender roles” in which women s nurturing is seen as a natural complement to men s responsibilities as leaders, protectors, and providers within both family and the church (Concerned Women for America and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are two such examples). Although less and less willing to describe these relationships as one of women s submission and men s leadership, the model these groups promote is nevertheless one in which men have final decision making authority and spiritual responsibility for family life. The abuses of this power have led to an increase of scholarship on links between religious teaching on women’s submission and domestic abuse (Kroeger & Nason Clark 2001).

Sociology of religion has also explored the dimensions of women’s leadership as clergy and lay leaders within the church. Adair Lummis, Nancy Ammerman, and Paula Nesbitt are examples of scholars who have written on the struggles of women in positions of leadership within conservative denominations and traditions and the organizational barriers women face as effective clergy.

What the above research highlights is how women’s connections to religious institutions vary based on underlying ideas about the nature of masculinity and femininity themselves. The teachings of some religious institutions and traditions are that women and men are essentially different, and because of those differences should be differently involved in religious worship, teaching, and leadership. Orthodox Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Ortho doxy, Islam, and many conservative Protestant denominations are examples of religious traditions in which specific leadership positions and responsibilities are reserved for men. Within some of these traditions, religious ritual and family responsibilities are also gendered – with women and men being seen as having separate practices and obligations inside and outside the household.

Not all theologically conservative religions, however, are necessarily or uniformly conservative when it comes to the place of women in religious life. The past decade has seen a movement away from debates over androgyny and hierarchy toward a growing emphasis on complementarity  and   ideological egalitarianism. Both those who argue that there are essential gender differences and those who argue for gender equality have moved toward a pragmatically egalitarian approach in which symbolic offices and authority may remain limited to women, but women’s increasing opportunities to teach, lead, and participate in institutional religious life are paralleled by greater emphasis on men’s responsibility to become more involved in everyday family life as husbands and fathers (Gallagher 2003; Bartkowski 2004; Wilcox 2004).

In terms of personal religious life, sociologists of religion have been particularly interested in the appeal of conservative religious traditions to women and the articulation of religion and family life. Rather than focusing on women’s institutional involvement, this body of research explores the personal benefits women find in religious observance. Recent studies of conservative Protestants (Manning 1999; Bartkowski 2001; Gallagher 2003), Pentecostals (Griffith 1997; Brasher 1998), Latter Day Saints (Beaman 2001), and newly Orthodox Jewish women (Davidman 1991; Manning 1999) have all made the case that women find personal satisfaction, growth, community, and family support through religious life. Small group participation, prayer services, and family rituals are particularly important in creating a sense of community and care for women within these traditions.


  1. Bartkowski, J. P. (2001) Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  2. Bartkowski, J. P. (2004) Promise Keepers: Servants, Soldiers, and Godly Men. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  3. Beaman, L. G. (2001) Molly Mormons, Mormon Feminists, and Moderates: Religious Diversity and the Latter Day Saints Church. Sociology of Religion 62(1): 65 87.
  4. Brasher, B. E. (1998) Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  5. Davidman, L. (1991) Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  6. Gallagher, S. K. (2003) Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  7. Griffith, R. M. (1997) God’s Daughters. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  8. Kroeger, C. C. & Nason-Clark, N. (2001) No Place for Abuse. Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
  9. Manning, C. (1999) God Gave Us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.
  10. Neitz, M. J. (2000) Queering the Dragonfest: Chan­ging Sexualities in a Post-Patriarchal Religion. Sociology of Religion 61(4): 399 408.
  11. Wilcox, W. B. (2004) Soft Patriarchs, New Men. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Back to Sociology of Religion