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(THE CONVERSATION) In some religions, women are not allowed to serve in the clergy or are excluded from leadership positions. Nonetheless, women rose to influential roles in these male-led religions. How do these women open up new avenues in these traditionally patriarchal religions?
The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation hosted a webinar with academics, reporters and religious leaders to discuss the future of women in religious leadership on December 9, 2021.
The panel included Ingrid Mattson, president of Islamic studies at Huron University College, Western University; Emilie M. Townes, dean and distinguished professor of womanist ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School; Carolyn Woo, Distinguished Fellow of the President for Global Development at Purdue University; and Jue Liang, visiting assistant professor of religion at Denison University. Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief of Religion News Service, acted as moderator.
Here are some highlights of the discussion. Please note that the answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Some of the women [faith leaders I’ve spoken] with [talk] about how leadership is not just in the titled positions, but in influence. What is your definition of leadership? In the male-led religions that you pay attention to, do you see examples of women taking on non-traditional and informal leadership roles?
Carolyn Woo: I think leadership is the ability to have a vision that really moves this particular organization forward and serves that organization, and the ability to translate that vision into action. I think the influence is very important. I think the informal influence for women comes from the fact that maybe [they] are very invested with [their] work and have expertise and have good relationships with people and credibility. They are informal sources of influence, but that’s not fair. Women should not only operate with informal power – not because it is not useful, but because they also deserve formal recognition of their position. Formal positions allow you to have a vote. You don’t need to whisper it to someone else.
Jue Liang: The Buddhist way of thinking about leadership is more in the identity or role of a teacher or a role model. Everyone has the potential to become enlightened, just like the Buddha. [In Buddhism] leadership is seen, at least in theory, as open to everyone. [Historically, it has not been] the case. But through education and ordination we are [seeing] Following [role] models that inhabit the body of women. [Leading] more women thinking, “Maybe I can do that too.” “
Are women who have informal or non-religious influencing roles – for example in publishing, social media or academia – able to sustain this informal influence over the long term?
Emilie M. Townes: I think our ability to lead and influence is going to be weak [in any circumstances]. Influence will always depend on whether people are listening or not. I think it gets even more tenuous if you’re in a more conservative setting that has a hierarchy of roles where the idea of challenging just isn’t part of everyday life.
Ingrid Mattson: I see a lot of self-censorship. When I talk to women religious leaders about issues that impact women, the majority are very cautious. They feel their authority is very provisional and all it takes is a few guys calling them radical feminists [to lose their influence]. Women who are ready to go out have other sources of support. They are in universities or women’s organizations, so even if they are fired in this way, they still have a base of support.
When we talk about these problems [that women in male-led major religions face]It is almost assumed that change is inevitable, that the younger generations simply will not stand it. And that if women don’t start to have more leadership positions in some of these traditions, they won’t survive. What do you think of this, and where do you think we are headed?
Carolyn Woo: Change is inevitable, but the direction and sources of those changes are not seamless. You have young people who walk away from the church and become disaffiliated. On the other hand, I also see women who have started ministries for women athletes. Within the Catholic Church, [women have started ministries] trying to understand our own menstrual cycles so that they can appreciate the female body.
Emilie M. Townes: Change is happening, but I always look at the structures of the change that is happening. [We may have more women seminary students than men], but if the basic structure of the church remains the same, the roles perpetuate the structure. I like to think more in terms of transformation. I think that pushes us further.
Watch the full webinar to hear more detailed answers to these questions and to hear panelists discuss the stereotypes women leaders face, the future of women’s leadership in the Catholic Church, the impact of the pandemic of COVID-19 on Muslim women leaders and more.
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