As we near the March 25 arguments in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, it can feel as though men have the monopoly on religious activism in America. After all, 38 protestant theologians signed on to an amicus brief suggesting that a business owner’s religious beliefs should dictate the consciences and actions of female employees – none of those theologians were women.
A glance at the past, present, and future of women’s leadership in American religious life, however, shows this simply is not true. Today, as throughout American history, women have fought for their voice in religion, the opportunity to express their faith, and to obtain the same access to religious leadership as their brothers. Just as in other areas of work and life, creating opportunities for women to increase their hand in religious leadership is vital to greater equality and new perspectives in theology, moral activism, and spirituality.
Despite the increase in women in clergy careers over the last 40 years, it has been an uphill battle for women who have changed hearts, minds, and traditions for career opportunities as clergy and religious leaders in churches, synagogues, and mosques. Issues around the “ stained glass ceiling” in clergy careers can range from discouraging congregants who are biased against women clergy to institutional inequalities: men still outnumber women in clergy positions in America, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 20.5 percent of self-described clergy were women in 2012. In certain religious traditions — the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox Judaism, for example — women cannot be ordained as clergy or prayer leaders. It is also very rare to find Muslim women leading mixed-gender services.
A 2009 poll by the Barna Group , a research organization focused on the intersection of faith and public life, found that within Christian churches in the United States, women often encounter other inequities faced by their counterparts in different careers: although women clergy are generally more educated than male clergy (77 percent of women clergy have a seminary degree as opposed to 63 percent of men), a wage gap persists between men and women pastors – on average, women make $45,300 and men make $48,600. The Barna poll was quick to note, though, that women’s pay is increasing faster than men’s, and that the discrepancy may be attributable to the fact that women generally serve smaller congregations and hold fewer high offices within denominations. Another study from 2012 found that women rabbis earned up to $43,000 less than male rabbis, and few led large congregations.
Still, there are some bright spots: small majorities of Unitarian Universalist and Metropolitan Community Church pastors are women. Further, standout leaders have, quite literally, changed the face of American religious leadership, contributing their unique voices and paving the way for women clergy: In the mid-19th century, women like Olympia Brown and Antoinette Brown Blackwell were among the first women ordained as clergy in dominant American denominations, the Universalist and United Church of Christ traditions, respectively. In the 1970s, women like Pauli Murray, an activist, lawyer, and the first African-American female Episcopal priest, and Sally Priesand, the first woman Reform rabbi, led the march toward more denominations and religions opening their doors to women clergy. These earlier crusades finally culminated in women leaders in denominations’ highest offices: in 2003, Rabbi Janet Marder was the first woman to lead a major rabbinical organization as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Further, certain Christian denominations in the United States are led by women, such as the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The growing number of women’s voices in career religious leadership is crucial because of the broader perspectives they bring. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the nontraditional – yet crucial – leadership of women as educators, organizers, and theologians within religious communities whose expressions of faith through action have changed the United States. The “dynamic force” of women within the Black Church led Civil Rights leader, Ella Baker, to say, “The movement of the fifties and sixties was carried largely by women, since it came out of the church groups.” In the early 1900s, Jewish women sought social justice through labor reforms in factories and sweatshops. And, in the 19th and 20th centuries, when most women had few career opportunities outside of marriage, American Catholic nuns and sisters , many of them immigrants, as well, built and worked in schools, as well as hundreds of hospitals, and quite literally settled the American West.
Today, religious values expressed through work for justice continues. The majority of religious educators are women, and theologians — notably Catholic and Muslim women — continue to shape religious discourse and interpretation in a way that provides a basis for the greater inclusion of women in religion. Last year, Mormon women fought to be ordained and, following a change in age restrictions, the number of women missionaries has tripled to 23,000. The Nuns on the Bus and Sr. Simone Campbell have rallied and gathered support for economic justice and immigration reform. Muslims for Progressive Values works to create more inclusive, women-led Mosques. And three Orthodox women have completed their rabbinical training and have been ordained as ‘maharat,” — a new Hebrew acronym for a female leader of spirituality and the Torah — moving the Orthodox faith towards greater equality. These movements give a glimpse of the future of religion in America, where greater equality leads to great change.
Women religious leaders have accomplished remarkable goals by working at the margins, from the pulpit and the pews, in spite of the many persistent roadblocks. Perhaps, then, on March 25, rather than the voices of 38 men, the Supreme Court should recognize the perspectives on the other side of the Hobby Lobby case: the organizations of religious women’s groups – from Catholic nuns to Jewish women – whose amicus briefs represent a broader voice, arguing for the morality (and legality) of supporting women’s access to health care.
Emily Baxter is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.