Religion and faith have always presented mixed fortunes for women. On one hand, it is seen as a source of solace for them, but on the other hand, and especially with the rise of feminism, religion has been cited as a great source of women oppression (Leger-Anderson). The mainstream Catholic Church has been known to perpetuate the latter by maintaining monasticism therefore using the family unit as a challenge to women participation in religious activities (Sharma 25). The Protestants on the other hand, did not take marriage as a sacrament and therefore attached less meaning to motherhood and the domestic roles reserved for women. Most of the protestant religions however failed to equally give religious roles to the women citing the allegation that women had no role to play in the church’s leadership. They justified this by laying claim bible passages that states that women are the weaker vessel.
The Catholic Church relied on church traditions and popular practice to determine if women had any roles to play in church or not, the Protestants on the other hand relied on reason, learning and scriptures to affirm the authority of women in church leadership (Westerkamp 1). To date, the church prohibits women from being appointed as priest (Ekelund et al 317). Another reason cited for the semi-active roles that women have undertaken in the protestant religions, is that protestant churches have a firm believe in the role of the Holy Spirit in not only the lives of believers, but also in the determining what the church leadership should be. As such, the church is unable to control its members due to the strong believe in the immanence of the Holy Spirit (Westerkamp 1). In the United States, churches where women take up active leadership roles include the Assemblies of God, The Presbyterian Church of USA, American Baptist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church and Episcopal Church (Ekelund et al 317).
According to most customs and laws, women have less authority socially, politically and economically. Under protestant religion however, women have overtime envisioned a more powerful force- the Holy Spirit-, who has given them charismatic authority that allows them to delve into diverse and expanded pietism. Because of this perception to life, women in the protestant religion have managed to prove that women and men equally compose the human race. However, it would be misleading to state that women in protestant religion are extremely liberated or equal to men. This is especially so because some Bible analysts believe that the position of women in the bible is inferior to the male position.
To the protestant religion, salvation is available for both men and women in equal measures. As such, protestant women were able to resist most of the male efforts that sought to control their sexuality, images of women impurity and freedom to make responsible choices on marriage, divorce and leadership (Sharma 18). However, the rise to taking up more roles for protestant women has been gradual. Initially, Protestantism started by allowing women to read scriptures in religious meeting or offer testimonies (Gallaher 93). Consequently, the rigid norms that tied women down to domestic roles began to loosen not only in the church but also on the social setting.
Many scholars and societal analysts agree that in households where the women converted to Protestantism before other family members, the probability of the rest of the family members converting due to the influence exerted by them by the converted women was high (Bendroth and Lieson 25).
While many anti-feminists may undermine the influence that women have on their families, it is obvious that even if women do not convince the husbands or fathers to join their religious affiliations, the children, who are constantly under the care of their mothers, will attend the church with her.
In the second Great Awakening, protestant women took motivation from the perfectionist doctrines taught at the time and not only filled the pews, but also led their children and husbands to the altar, which was in-line with the loving familial descriptions propagated through religious teachings(6). Conversion also happens when protestant women intermarry with pagan men (Furseth 2)
Statistics through out the world reveal that women form the highest percentage of the church going populace (Furseth 1). While the multiple theories have surfaced in an attempt to explain this precedent, the different social analysts agree that without women, religion would barely succeed as it has today. As such, they not only provide the numbers needed to get the church going, but also the much needed money in terms of offerings and tithes required to keep the churches running (Leger-Anderson). According to Bendroth & Lieson (xiv), women have over the time participated enthusiastically in religious duties, even though they do not often enjoy the access to church leadership as their male counterparts. Often times, women were given duties such as teaching the Sunday school, leading youth groups and leading prayer meetings. In some instances, women have had to use their social expertise and knowledge in the religious spheres. For example, a woman medic would offer her services free to the church congregation during medical camps organized by her church.
Since protestant women did not give up their roles as mothers, they continued to register high birth rates. Consequently, their role in molding their children in religious ways also assured and continues to assure the church of future church-goers (Furseth 2).
The liberation given to women in the protestant religion, although not sufficient to bolster most of the women to the high echelons of power within the religious circles, have inclined most to gather the courage to address the political and social ills within their communities (Bendroth & Lieson xiv). This they did with more courage and boldness than the men in the protestant religion. In addition, women in the protestant religion have an affinity for avoiding doctrinal controversies. As such, they are able to work a cross racial, ethnic and denominational boundaries as demonstrated by their passionate participation in the protestant religion.
History has it that, even in the reforms that led to the protestant church breaking away from the roman catholic church, male leaders still perpetuated the patriarchal structures that continued to regard women as emotionally, physically and intellectually inferior to the men (Westerkamp 6). Protestant women, unlike the mainstream feminists did not challenge the male hegemony. Instead, they dedicated their efforts to building separate institutions of power. Such included missionary works and social reform institutions (Bendroth & Lieson 2). Under these organizations, the protestant women were able to exercise their public leadership and managerial abilities, all which were different from the feminist approach due to the religious identity attached to it. Analysts suggest that the protestant women were neither feminists nor fundamentalists (5).
Initially, the protestant woman were given roles such as praying for the congregation that made up the church, visiting the sick, or assisting the male bishops on baptism missions. They were even given a deaconess post in some of the religious groups, but were never considered part of the clerics or the laity (Mattison). Through their contributions to the religious groups however, the laity and the clerics were able to continue financial religious activities.
Another picture painted regarding the historical protestant woman is that her roles were mainly at the home front, where she could feed the children, mend clothes, tend the flowers, sing psalms and say the bed-time prayers (Pierce et al 24), yet, women are also credited with advising reformers such as Martin Luther King junior and John Calvin and offering them assistance on how deal with challenges from their male colleagues.
Protestant women just like their catholic counterparts took an active role in social movements that advocated for positive change among the communist. A prominent Quaker woman Lucretia Mott started Philadelphia Anti-slavery society in 1833. Later, she took up an active role in the suffrage movement and together with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth C. Stanton founded the Suffrage Association (Pierce et al 30).
Women as Bishops
The ordination of female bishops requires the absolute opposition of sexism in the religious circle (Pierce et al 34). The first example towards this line of perception was displayed by the Quakers in the early 1800’s, when they first accepted female ministers. This was based on the belief that the spirit of God exists in every human’s soul. As such, the Quakers treated all people within their religious affiliation as equal regardless of gender (Robinson).
The Quakers set the pace for other protestant churches who have over the time debated women ordination. While some approve, others do not, often leading to controversies within the religious circles. Recent positive development along this line includes the 2004 House of Clergy decision, which allowed the Australian Anglican Church to consecrate women clergy. Some set backs notable in the same country however include the 1991 reconsideration of the women ordination clause in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. The church had ordained women priests since 1974 (Robinson)
The Anglican Church, which has a 77 million membership through out the world, first consented to women ordination in 1976, two years after 11 women were ordained by dissident bishops from the church. The 1976 decision was however approved by the church’s mainstream bishops in a general convention held in the United States (Flitter)
Such one woman who has gone through the whole works, albeit in a more liberated society is Vashti McKenzie. She was not only the first woman pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church based in Maryland, but was also appointed the first female bishop in the entire history of the church, which spans 213 years (McGill ). According to McKenzie, women clergy should avoid compromising their femininity for the pulpit. In addition, she says that women should not be intimidated by people who question a woman’s right to hold religious roles. She also advices women to refrain acting like ‘super women’, taking themselves too seriously or oppressing others. In her books strengths in the struggles and Not Without Struggles, McKenzie advices women to be assertive firm an d fair team players, who should not only act to become role models to other women, but should also act to empower and pass on management techniques and principles to other women (McGill)
Women in the protestant religions have over the time taken up roles that have earned the women names such as martyrs, mother, mystics, scholars, visionaries, reformers, rebels and missionaries among other names. Despite the mixed recognition they receive, mainly owing to the fact that they are judged on the male standard, they have undoubtedly made contributions that cannot be ignored by the larger society. This explains why women’s names are appearing in monographs and publicity texts as never before (Pierce et al 23).
Their supportive roles behind men who led the protestant reform are embodied by the likes of Katie Von Bora Luther- the Wife of Martin Luther, Argula von Stauffer, who albeit being a catholic, supported Martin Luther in his reformist agendas and Katherine Zell, who challenged the protestant reformers, of which she was accused of trying to usurp the preacher’s office (Pierce et al 34). This is similar to the Roman Catholic’s regard for women, where according to Robert A. Orsi (quoted in LaGumina 681), honors women for their roles in maintaining stable families family. With this kind of respect however, women are held responsible for everything that go wrong in their dominant areas. As such, Orsi claims that women have learned to become serious-minded, practical and have also excelled in assertiveness, which they do in order to protect the interests of not only their children, but also their husbands too ( LaGumina 681).
Protestantism no doubt opened a new era for women, where unlike typical Catholicism; women perform roles in both the religious and political fronts