Advocacy & Activism for Women in Religion: A Wider View

by: Hedgehog

July 3, 2014

With the recent excommunication of Kate Kelly, and the many criticisms made of Ordain Women, I wanted to take a wide look at advocacy and activism for and by women of faith in other religious groups and also to point out the interests expressed by wider society in such activity. We all ought to be aware that Ordain Women is not the only such organisation, and that advocacy and activism for greater inclusion of women’s voices is to be found in other faiths too. Those groups I mention are not meant to form an exhaustive list. Feel free to introduce others in the comments.

Roman Catholic women have several such groups, WOW (Women’s Ordination Worldwide) whose website aims to include a short course to “systematically explore the important theological concepts that underlie the debate on women priests” and a discussion guide on “John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in which he attempted to officially ban discussion about the ordination of women” including a letter writing campaign to Pope Francis (deadline May15 this year). National groups such as CWO (Catholic Women’s Ordination) in the UK are affiliated with WOW. In the US there’s the WOC (Women’s Ordination Conference) who “advocate for the ordination of women as priests, deacons and bishops into an inclusive and accountable Roman Catholic Church.” Ordination of RC women has been performed by some rogue RC clerics; most notably 7 women on the Danube river in 2002. They are supported by RCWP (Roman Catholic Womenpriests) and are not recognised by the RC church.

Muslim women also participate in activism, from the activism in Saudi Arabia fighting for greater day to day freedoms for women to holding events in the West in which female Imams lead prayer for a mixed sex group of worshippers. There are groups such as the Inclusive Mosque Initiative whose mosques aim to “value gender expression and gender justice as an integral manifestation of Islamic practice” and WISE (Women’s islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality) whose website includes an advocacy toolkit covering a whole gamut of areas of interest including but far from limited to religious education and leadership, but on that topic stating: “Muslim women are demanding their full rights to full participation in the public and religious sphere. Patriarchal customs are being rejected and laws are being revised.

Whilst Episcopal members of the Anglican Communion in the US now have ordained women Bishops, in the UK WATCH (Women and the Church) organised in the Church of England are still campaigning in favour of ordaining women Bishops. Voting takes place next month. WATCH replaced MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women) which had campaigned for women’s ordination in the Church of England since 1977, until the first women priests were ordained. Anglican women in Australia also have their own organisation MOWatch which, amongst other things, “seeks to move all dioceses in the Anglican Church of Australia to admit women to the ordained ministries of the Church” and “supports those women already ordained”.

For Jewish women, there is the progressive Jewish women’s activist group “Women of the Wall” (also WOW) whose aim is “to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” Women have been arrested whilst praying at the wall. Then there’s JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) who advocate “for increased opportunities for women to: function as religious, spiritual and halakhic leaders in synagogues and communities; assume professional and lay leadership roles in all spheres of communal life. Leadership positions available to Orthodox women should include presidents of Orthodox synagogues, heads of day schools and heads of Orthodox organizations. In addition, JOFA seeks to place more women as Talmud and halakha teachers in institutions of higher learning.

In the context of the above, the actions of Ordain Women appear to be neither particularly out of the ordinary, nor especially extreme.

It is not only within the religions themselves that debates are to be had about the roles and rights of women in participation. We perhaps ought also to be aware of the views held in secular society.

Human Rights Watch pay particular attention to the situation for women and others in rather theocratic middle east nations, where human rights are increasingly leading to political activism, particularly regarding the position of women – one activist quoted in Aljazeera said: “There’s a human rights culture growing in Saudi society. People are waking up from the extremist-induced slumber of the past 40 years.

Just this week a case of a woman wearing the niqab (full face veil) in France reached its conclusion in the European Court of Human Rights. The court dismissed French government arguments based upon respect for gender equality and human dignity, but did find that (from the court press release):

“the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of “living together”. In that connection, it indicated that it took into account the State’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction. The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life within the society in question. The Court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.”

Consequently the French law banning face coverings has been upheld.

In carrying out research for the post I stumbled across a paper examining “the role of patriarchal religion and culture in the subordination of women”. The paper argues against the tolerance of secular governments for the subordination of women on grounds of religious freedom, points out that the laws governing nations often have their roots in patriarchal religion, and that such practices continue to affect women today both inside and outside of religious organisations due to cultural influences:

“Today liberal states, such as the United States, do not outright exclude women from shaping culture. Nevertheless, they actively and no less successfully, assist in perpetuating the hegemony of patriarchy by protecting the right of powerful patriarchal religions and other patriarchal communities to exclude women from positions of power. The result is that women have no voice in the shaping of the internal cultures of many communities within the state and consequently have much less than an equal say in the shaping of the overall culture of the state. By tolerating discrimination and protecting the religious, cultural, and associational rights of the leaders of patriarchal religious and cultural groups, and by refusing to assist dissenters within those groups to shape the group’s cultural product, the state legitimates the continued existence of overt patriarchy and protects patriarchy’s power base from any external and even internal challenge.” Gila Stopler; “A Rank Usurpation of Power”–The Role of Patriarchal Religion and Culture in the Subordination of Women, Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 15, pp365-397, (2008)

The issues in the US over birth control provision and abortion, and the influence of the religious right, get some discussion in the paper. Stopler suggests that a just society ought to assist those who struggle for equality within their religious communities because:

“The liberal suggestion that the appropriate remedy for discrimination within the group is for the oppressed to exit and establish their own group does not provide any real solution for the oppressed, both because it is impracticable and because exit only entrenches and legitimates the differences of power instead of mitigating them. As for impracticability, it is questionable that the oppressed have the practical and psychological ability or the desire, to leave the community. … the reliance on the option of exit protects patriarchal power from the need to answer calls for change within the community and delegitimizes those who seek such change from within.”

The ECHR ruling would suggest, reasons of gender equality as a wider community value are not deemed sufficient argument for interfering with religious practice.

Stopler is correct, that not all women choose to leave:

“While some women have responded to this disparity [between religion’s moral imperatives for justice and women’s lower status in religious ritual, doctrine and organisational structure] by abandoning religious institutions, others have worked from within to reform and restructure their religious traditions.” Catherine A. Faver, To Run and Not be Weary: Spirituality and Women’s Activism, Review of Religious Research, 42:1 pp. 61-78 (2000)

As we have seen in the number of advocacy and activist groups that exist within the different religious traditions.

  • Are you aware of any other advocacy or activist groups?
  • Do you see a disparity between the moral imperatives of a religion and the status of women within that religion?
  • What are your own views on the place of advocacy and activism within religion?
  • What do you make of Stopler’s idea of state intervention?


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24 Responses to Advocacy & Activism for Women in Religion: A Wider View

  1. ji on July 3, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    I am hopeful that religious matters will be settled within the religious bodies. The state cannot take on these matters, without destroying the religious bodies. Imagine the threat to religious liberty when a state commands a religious body that it must ordain women as priests, and must solemnize same-sex marriages, and must allow guitars in worship meetings, and must never sermonize on an ever-growing list of topics, and it cannot exclude people from ordination based on viewpoints, and so forth.

    Persons who want to change religious practices should work from within religious bodies, to whatever degree allowed by the religious bodies. If unsuccessful or excommunicated, well, that’s the way it has to be. Maybe others will be successful in a hundred years. But for the meantime, we cannot criminalize religious thought. And those who propose state action in religious matters are trying to criminalize religious thought.

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  2. ji on July 3, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    It is okay for some diversity in religious practices. It is okay for some to reflect modern sensibilities, and some to hold to old ways. In our western democracies, religion is an individual decision — anyone thinking his or religion doesn’t meet his or her needs is free to leave, or to work for change within the parameters of the religious body. To homogenize religious practices to conform to modern sensibilities under the power of the state would be a shame.

    Protecting religious liberty is so very important. The well-intentioned nanny state has the power to destroy religious liberty, and maybe that is the goal, but achievement of that goal would be detrimental to the diversity and richness of our society.

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  3. Howard on July 3, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    The Pain of Social Exclusion

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  4. ji on July 3, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    In a world of diversity, there will always be some social exclusion. A Ku Klux Klansman’s membership application to the NAACP would likely be rejected. A strident abortion foe’s membership application to NOW would likely be rejected, even if the applicant is a woman. I’m fine with both of those outcomes. I don’t see any problem with a religious body following its own rules to decide its beliefs, even if in doing so one or some of the members of that body feel excluded or not heard. I might feel sad for them, but there are more important correct principles that need to be upheld. And one of those correct principles is that we (we as a body and as a church) claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience. In doing so, we hope as many as so choose will find happiness among us as we strive to follow our Savior. Some can’t find that happiness, either short-term or long-term, and that is sad and we try to help bear their burdens, but life goes on.

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  5. Howard on July 3, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    What are modern sensibilities? Political ideology or divine enlightenment? With regard to blacks modern sensibilities turned out to actually be divine enlightenment thrust upon church from the outside via activism, it seems the agitators “got it” far in advance of the brethren “prophets”. There is NO convincing argument against women and LBGT issues being a repeat of society leading the brethren once again. If it happened once obviously it could happen again! They could not have been more wrong with regard to blacks, see 1949 Q1 statement, what makes us believe the current one about women and the priesthood?

    Now I realize that realize that black men aren’t women and gays aren’t straight so don’t waste your time attempting to deconstruct and obscure this logic with those irrelevant differences, I’ve already stipulated to them.

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  6. Hedgehog on July 3, 2014 at 1:08 PM

    In the main ji, I tend to agree with you. I do find the intersections of different interests in a pluralist society to be interesting though. There has to be some give and take to accommodate the many different freedoms of worship, and other competing societal interests.
    This morning I came across another paper by Stopler looking at the headscarf/veil issue amongst Muslims in Europe (
    This was written before the case at the ECHR made headlines, but the discussion in the paper does look at that intersection for this issue. In this case she seemed to reach the same end result, ie. full face veils were better not to be permitted, though she had no such qualms about wearing of the hijab (headscarf), and indeed many Muslim women in Britain do wear the hijab. A few wear niqab in this country.
    Back to the paper addressed in the OP, I did think her conclusion tended to the extreme end, not least because assessing power relationships can perhaps be somewhat subjective, and not at all clear cut, and if allowed for that point, what else might then be permitted. I did find the discussion about the influence of patriarchal religion on wider society to be interesting, but I also think it failed to take into account that in a democratic society, members of those religions have a right to express their particular political views, as much as non-religious persons.

    I do think however that there has been something of over-reaction in some quarters to Ordain Women, and have seen comments to the effect that members of other faiths wouldn’t do such things, court the media etc., which simply is not the case. They have and do.

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  7. markag on July 3, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    When spiritual perspectives and social perspectives are combined into one issue, one is usually pushed out in favor of the other. I would rather try to keep a spiritual emphasis prevalent.

    Is everyone who is jumping into the “ordain women” pool praying for “Thy will be done”, or is that too simplistic? Before taking a stand pro or con, how about “have ye inquired of the Lord?”

    If the Lord wants Priesthood extended beyond what it is now, the inspiring power of the Holy Ghost would convey it to the necessary authorities and to the members who earnestly seek it. The purpose of such change would be to further the kingdom which hopefully includes an increase in baptisms and active participation.

    The RLDS began ordaining women in 1984. The results can be seen by all. Their total membership has remained at approximately 250,000 since the mid-70’s.

    “And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” Is this the attitude of the activists; “because women are not Priesthood, they are not worthy members of the body of the Church?

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  8. Hedgehog on July 3, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    #3 Thanks for that link Howard
    #5 One of comments Stopler makes in her paper is “Precisely because anthropologists agree that culture effectively shapes the reality that people live in, they consider this reality with critical eyes and question why that particular reality has been created and what sorts of
    alternative realities people are prevented from experiencing. Ortner further argues that although material and political constraints such as force are fully acknowledged, there is considerable agreement among anthropologists that culture and religion systematically constrain action by controlling people’s “definitions of the world,” limiting “their conceptual tools,” and restricting “their emotional repertoires.” Thus, religion and culture restrict most deeply by becoming part of the self.”
    This would appear to be evident in the comments quoted in the Aljazeera article about the impact of increasing knowledge of human rights in Saudi, dismantling long-held paradigms.

    ji, there seems to be some point at which religious practice (for instance human sacrifice) would be viewed as so abhorrent by wider society, that it would not be protected under freedom of religion. The wearing of the full veil in France was deemed to be against the wider interests of French society because it would hinder interaction with others. It’s a matter of where that line would be drawn for any particular issue.

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  9. ji on July 3, 2014 at 1:35 PM


    The change in priesthood for all men came from within the church — it wasn’t imposed by the state.

    If the church is going to change on LGBT issues, that change also should come from within the church — it should not be imposed by the state.

    You agree, don’t you?

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  10. New Iconoclast on July 3, 2014 at 1:49 PM

    #7 markag wites, The results can be seen by all. Their [RLDS/CoC]total membership has remained at approximately 250,000 since the mid-70′s.

    And I think they’re fudging the numbers. They don’t keep records like we do; they’ve been hemorraging since then and it accelerated when McMurray became president in 1996. If they still claim 250k, they’re counting members of Restoration Branches and new churches that don’t conside themselves part of the CoC anymore.

    None of which proves a thing about what would happen if LDS leaders decided to move toward a stronger role for women, up to and possibly including ordination. The RLDS Church hadn’t regarded or used priesthood like the LDS Church, ever.

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  11. Kullervo on July 3, 2014 at 2:37 PM

    The RLDS began ordaining women in 1984. The results can be seen by all. Their total membership has remained at approximately 250,000 since the mid-70′s.

    And, by contrast, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements have ordained women pretty much since the beginning, and have experienced explosive global growth throughout the last century that makes Mormonism’s most optimistic numbers look piddly by comparison.

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  12. Howard on July 3, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    I do agree it should not be imposed by the state but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Plural marriage was brought to an end by the power of the state. Instead the President of the church should seek revelation on that issue and the question of ordaining women.

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  13. Hedgehog on July 4, 2014 at 1:53 AM

    Markag #7, I don’t know much about the figures for RLDS. Thanks to NI #10 and Kullervo #11 for their input on that. I’d imagine the RLDS/CofChrist might face similar historical issues to LDS (Nauvoo polygamy for instance). Also I’d suggest that to some extent that kind of change and subsequent losses represent more the things that perhaps had attracted some believers who then left after things changed – presumably a proportion of those who didn’t like the way things had been before the change had simply drifted away more gradually, so I don’t think its so clear cut.

    Kullervo, descriptions of the early LDS practices certainly seem to have more in common with Pentecostalism than current practice.

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  14. Rich Brown on July 4, 2014 at 9:16 AM

    I’d throw a word of caution here about jumping head first into a cause-and-effect discussion. Just this morning I heard a news report abut a new medical study that found that women who have high blood pressure are more likely to get cancer. Fortunately, the news reader quickly added that this doesn’t prove that high blood pressure causes cancer and that much further study is needed to see what, if any, connection there is to it.

    While the RLDS/CofC did authorize women’s ordination in 1984 (with the first ordinations taking place a year and ahalf later) and North American membership stats have shown a decline, or possibly stagnancy at best (more likely the former IMO) I don’t think it necessarily follows that women’s ordination was the sole or even the primary cause. Worldwide membership has increased significantly, which accounts for the total 250,000 figure staying the same for decades.

    My personal opinion is that the now-CofC has become a far different kind of church over the past four or five decades: from inwardly focused to outwardly, from a prime concern over what I’ll call purity issues (alcohol use, premarital sex, dancing, card-playing, etc.) and a church separate if not withdrawn from the world (“one true church,” closed communion, exclusive priesthood authority, etc.) to concerns for justice and peace. That, in turn, is what has led to interfaith involvement (membership in the US National Council of Churches and other orgnizations), open communion, and now the expansion of the sacraments of ordination and marriage to include people with same-gender orientation. There’s, of curse, a lot more to it, as well.

    The RLDS/CofC benefited from having top leaders in place who were open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit since the late-1950s and an institutional structure that could facilitate change. Certainly, many people left because they didn’t agree with the evolving theological and institutional changes. On the other hand, the church has welcomed into fellowship people who, back in the day, wouldn’t have had anything to do with the then-RLDS Church. I remain hopeful for the future.

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  15. Rich Brown on July 4, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    Apologizes from this old editor for the typos in my previous posting.

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  16. Hedgehog on July 4, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    Thanks for that Rich. I think it’s bound to be the case that different emphases attract different worshippers.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on July 4, 2014 at 3:38 PM

    I’m not so convinced that France and Montreal are off base in restricting what is allowed in society. Is it right for example that we let children die because their parents refuse modern medicine? That’s protecting religious belief above human life.

    Another female activist group i’m familiar with is the Obedient Wives Club in Malaysia. They teach women that if their husband strays it is their fault for not being attractive or compliant enough with his sexual wishes. They teach that husbands have the right to beat their wives to control them. That’s a women’s group, not a men’s group. Women preaching oppression. Personally I think that should not be allowed in society.

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  18. Hedgehog on July 4, 2014 at 11:15 PM

    Hawkgrrrl, I don’t think we do let children die, in Britain anyway. Can’t speak for the US though. Hospitals have ethics committees and take court action if necessary. Different with adults though, who get to speak for themselves.

    That Malaysian club sounds awful. I wouldn’t class it as advocating FOR women though, rather advocating a stance TO women, even if run by women. Grim. Perhaps comes under the consenting adults category….

    I’m not unhappy with the EHCR ruling for France. I do think cultural accommodations are necessary, and I can see the concern about a possible subclass of women who don’t interact. The position of the woman bringing the case seemed odd to me, which was that she didn’t wear it all the time, but liked sometimes to be separated that way… She had had to make clear that it was her own choice, and that no coercion was involved, so it seems to be coercion is absolutely not accepted, and that’s a good thing.

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  19. Kullervo on July 5, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    Kullervo, descriptions of the early LDS practices certainly seem to have more in common with Pentecostalism than current practice.

    Hmm, only in the sense that charismatic worship and gifts of the spirit were more prevalent. I don’t know that I would take it any further than that though.

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  20. Kullervo on July 5, 2014 at 8:58 AM

    Another female activist group i’m familiar with is the Obedient Wives Club in Malaysia. They teach women that if their husband strays it is their fault for not being attractive or compliant enough with his sexual wishes. They teach that husbands have the right to beat their wives to control them. That’s a women’s group, not a men’s group. Women preaching oppression. Personally I think that should not be allowed in society.

    As troubling as the Obedient Wives Club is, the whole mindset that leads a person to say “Personally I think that should not be allowed in society” about it is exponentially more troubling.

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  21. Hedgehog on July 5, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    #19 yeah, that’s all I was meaning Kullervo.

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  22. hawkgrrrl on July 5, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    The OWC does portray itself as upholding a religious viewpoint, though, one that it wants to protect in society (and polygamy is legal there). Malaysia allowed it under the umbrella of religious freedom. Singapore did not due to that group’s oppression of women’s rights. I think that’s the core argument in France and Montreal about disallowing certain dress that is more restrictive toward women and that creates divisions in society. Singapore did allow all religious dress. They drew the line at the OWC. But each country has its tolerance level.

    The US is extraordinarily tolerant of individual freedoms over what benefits the community. France and Montreal are heading in the other direction, but they are more socialist than the US. Ultimately, it’s up to the governed to decide how we want to be governed. I for one am glad the US outlawed polygamy because it systematically disadvantages women. So we outlaw polygamy, but we allow other things that oppress women? Where’s the consistency? Again, we have to draw the line somewhere.

    Kullervo: “As troubling as the Obedient Wives Club is, the whole mindset that leads a person to say “Personally I think that should not be allowed in society” about it is exponentially more troubling.” Given your statement would you say polygamy should not be outlawed?

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  23. Hedgehog on July 6, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    Hawkgrrrl, ” I think that’s the core argument in France and Montreal about disallowing certain dress that is more restrictive toward women and that creates divisions in society.”

    That seems to be part of how it is seen in France. It wasn’t the gender issues that won the ECHR case though, it was the more general issue about the face covering hindering interaction with others in a community, irrespective of gender. The arguments based on gender were dismissed. So more generally, for the moment at any rate, most nations are not going so far as to consider unequal treatment etc for women to be that thing that is viewed as so abhorrent as to not warrant protection on the basis of religious freedom. My guess is part of the reason for that is because so many women themselves support those practices. Sure, that’s frustrating, but I think it’s a conclusion the women themselves need to reach, otherwise, as ji stated, it smacks too much of a nanny state. I don’t think cultural change can be forced.

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  24. Jewelfox on July 12, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    I think that if a religion is going to teach things that go against basic principles of equality, then an egalitarian society shouldn’t give them free money by making them tax-exempt. That privilege should be reserved for organizations that contribute to society, instead of fracturing it and carving out patriarchal strongholds.

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