On March 19, 1911, the first international celebration dedicated to women’s work and roles took place. Thus 2011 marks the centenary of International Women’s Day.  Some places devote a month to events, and March 8, the current “official” women’s day, is a public holiday in some 28 countries. But amid this year’s celebrations of courage and compassion and of progress towards women’s rights, there’s a parallel commentary: baby, you’ve still got a long way to go to full equality.

Nowhere is the lingering reality of inequality between men and women quite as clear as in the world of religion, where the ceilings are harder than glass. While women are acknowledged leaders in some denominations and traditions, men generally are in charge. Debates about women’s leadership still tear communities apart--witness the Anglican Communion which is on the brink of splintering over issues of ordination of women and gays. Women as priests is not even open for discussion in official Catholic circles.

It’s complicated, of course, with a taste of irony. Women in the U.S. attend church six times more often than men, according to one study. They carry a large part of the routine burdens of running faith communities and facilities. Positively, they welcome strangers, care for those who are in need, and bring a joy of life to the community. More difficult to prove but nonetheless likely, women carry and pass on to their children and grandchildren the essential values of spirituality and the ethical backbone that is the best of faith.

Yet in many religious traditions there is an unease about the idea of equality between men and women.   In discussion after discussion, when the topic of gender and women’s roles is raised, the response is that family is what matters, not issues specific to either men or women. More worrying is a reticence to address what would seem to be obvious and urgent spiritual challenges: domestic violence and maternal mortality that result, in significant part, from the attitude that women matter less. 

 It’s a puzzle that needs to be addressed because it colors the way religion is seen in many quarters.

Neri Livneh wrote last week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz lamenting the attitude that “"The honor of the king's daughter is within", meaning that women should stay home and not meddle in important matters. Her conclusion?  “The feminist struggle will never end - especially not in a country like our own, where there is no separation between religion and state - until there is such a separation. So long as religion rules our lives, our status as women will be regarded as inferior, and not just on issues of personal status.”

 Karen Jo Torjeson wrote a wonderful book, When Women Were Priests. It is about a feminine revolt, apparent in many parts of the world and different faith communities, against the attitudes that have excluded women from religious leadership. They amount to an effort to reclaim religion’s history and its present. Just as Muslim women are arguing that the Prophet Muhammed was far ahead of the society of his time in teachings on women, Torjeson points out that Jesus challenged the norms of his age, addressing women as equals and seeking their wisdom. In the early Christian world, women were well known evangelists and leaders, bearers of prophetic authority. It was only later, from the third century, that the patriarchal norms of what had been truly a Greek tradition that held that men were superior to women took hold. And they held fast in Christianity until the twentieth century. 

 Torjeson argues that just as Christianity faced a crisis in the nineteenth century over slavery, it now faces a similar challenge over women’s rights. Slavery’s moral challenge pitted Christian tradition, and the fact that slavery was a recognized social institution in Biblical times, against the essential message of the Christian gospel. Likewise, contemporary Christian theologians must extricate the core teachings of the Bible, about human dignity and the worth of each individual, from the patriarchal traditions of Biblical times.

 Torjeson delves deep into the attitudes that underpin the stubborn persistence of negative attitudes towards women within the Christian faith. But she also draws inspiration from the interweaving of glorious images of hope in the Bible that are both female and male. God’s protection of his people is compared to the power and caring of a mother eagle: “As an eagle stirs up her nest, flutters over her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her wings” (Deuteronomy 32:11). Surely if we look to the essential spirit and teachings of each faith there’s a clear way upward to equality and to cracking the ceilings and attitudes that stand in the way.


Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a visiting professor and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.