Has religion shaped our understanding of gender?

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America’s strong ties to the church have influenced and defined gender roles, many of which remain embedded in our culture today. The teachings of the church have provided the constructs of what a man should do and what a woman should not. Yet for the most part women have been the ones who supported the church financially, cleaned the sanctuary, brought their children and helped to foster a new generation of congregants. Without the women in the pews, no religious institution in America would exist.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Ann Braude, Senior Lecturer on American Religious History, Director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School and author of  “A Religious Feminist – Who Can Find Her?” about the history of women and religion and how religion has defined gender roles. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: What's made you so interested in understanding the relationship between women and religion?

Ann Braude: “I really became interested in the study of religion, because I was fascinated by the mystery of gender. It seemed to me that Americans hold ideas about what a man should be like, or what a woman should be like, very much as we hold religious beliefs — we hold these things as matters of belief and we can't really tell why we think something is a characteristic of a virtuous man or a virtuous woman but we know it when we see it. 

That's the first thing we ask when we see a baby; we want to know is it a boy or a girl, we can't relate to a human being without seeing their gender. So I wanted to understand what that's all about.  

I grew up in LA in the 60s, and was very influenced by the women's movement and was brought up to believe I could be anything I wanted to be as a woman. That didn't really turn out to be true. There were some very, very strong ideas about gender that are so deeply embedded in our society and in our social structure, that they affect everybody's experience and everything we do and I wanted to understand what that was all about. It seemed to me that studying the nature of belief, studying how people come to believe the things that they believe, how people come to hold values dearly and as inviolable, and as crucial to being a good person. I wanted to understand how that happens, so that I could understand the mystery of gender.”

What are the historical roots of gender discrimination in the church? 

Braude: “Well, many people would say that when you're talking about religion and sexism, you're really looking at the belly of the beast, because religious ideas, particularly Protestantism, but also Christianity are so deeply enmeshed in American culture and American law in American institutions, that the Bible is never far from the values that are expressed through an American institution. Our country has been deeply affected by biblical texts that prohibit women speaking in public that view women as subservient to men that view women as needing to be obedient to men, all of those texts have had a profound influence in American society. 

These are not the only biblical texts that relate to women or to appropriate gender roles. There's plenty of others, but those have been the influential ones. During the last, I would say, 50 years or so. We've had a movement of feminist biblical criticism, we've had many women questioning why those texts are the ones that have been elevated, rather than the texts that emphasize that both men and women are equally created in the image of God.”

Talk about the discriminatory texts in the Bible, or the interpretations of them that create these divisions between men and women?

Braude: “Sure, the Bible is really the textbook of American history. It's really hard to understand anything in the American past without looking at the centrality of the Bible to the formation of American culture. We have texts in the Bible that say that women should be silent in church and if they want to learn they should stay at home and ask their husbands. Those texts were very influential in the 19th century and still today in some places. 

In creating a view that women should not speak in public, it's been very interesting during the last 20 or 30 years ago to look at a figure, like Sarah Palin, for example, who was a candidate for vice president and who believed that women should be subservient to their husbands in the home, but nevertheless believed that she could be vice president of the United States. So it's been very interesting to see how Christians who hold the Bible to be divinely inspired, have navigated the many different things that the Bible says. One of the figures that Sarah Palin loved, that many Christian women have looked to is Queen Esther, as a model of someone who took public leadership and saved the Jewish people. She did so by strategically deploying her femininity, she never went outside of what a proper woman should do, but nevertheless she was able to change history and to have power over her husband, the King, by being virtuous, and strategic about the deployment of her femininity. 

So many women have found in the Bible authorization for doing things that the society told them they could not do and often that they themselves doubted whether a woman could do. In the 21st century, it's difficult to remember how strong gender norms of the past have been and continue to be in many places. We tend to think today, we're beyond all that but that's not at all the case.” 

Is this attitude mirrored in other religions, Judaism, Islam for example? 

Braude: “It’s really important to remember that all religions have internal diversity in every religion is practiced in different times and places in different ways. Very frequently it’s members of the same congregation, who differ with each other about the interpretation of religious texts or religious laws. 

I'm Jewish, and we always say, ‘two Jews three opinions.’  You have to have at least two synagogues in your town, because you have the one that you go to and the one that you won't set foot in. That's a funny way to express what I think is a very important truth about religion, that there's no religion that has one orthodoxy that has governed in all times and places and that is compelling to all of its adherence. 

So that's one reason that I believe, and the program I direct at Harvard Divinity School in women's studies and religion really takes this idea to heart, is that it’s very important for there to be qualified women scholars, who are literate in the sacred languages of their scriptures and can be voices at the table, in the interpretation of those scriptures, in the interpretation of the religious law of their faith, because all of these are interpreted by human beings. And if they are only interpreted by men, I don't have to tell you what the result of that is going to be — we've seen that for 1000s of years. Now we're starting to see, certainly in Islam, in Orthodox Judaism, in many religions, women educate themselves for authoritative roles of being able to interpret scripture and religious law.”

Why do you think there’s a certain religiosity, perhaps more within women than men? 

Braude: “That's a great question. Social surveys show us that women throughout the world are more religious than men. On every metric they pray more frequently, they attend public worship more frequently, they consider religion to be a more important part of their daily lives and their decision making. That's not every woman and it's not every man, but numerically women are more religious. Now, what does that mean? 

There have been several attempts to explain this, most of which I find very unsatisfactory. I'm not sure we have a better explanation for women's religiosity than the one that was given by Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan divine in early New England, who said that women are more religious than men, because they face death in childbirth. Every time they have a baby, they have to prepare themselves not to survive that experience and they have to be prepared to meet their maker every time they become pregnant and deliver. 

There was a much higher mother and infant mortality rate at that time than today, so we can't rely on that explanation anymore but women do have a profound experience of not controlling their own body in childbirth. In their roles as mothers, they have a profound experience of being connected to other people in a way that requires them to put their own needs aside. Now, that's not to say that men don't play parental roles and have those experiences and that men aren't religious, they are, but proportionately we see women more involved in the parental role and we see women more involved in religion.”



  • Ann Braude - Author and Senior Lecturer on American Religious History and Director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program, Harvard Divinity School.


Andrea Brody