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Can Feminism and Religion Reconcile?

15 mins read

The beliefs of those interviewed for this article do not reflect the beliefs of every member of their respective religions.

Modern feminism can often seem irreconcilable with traditional religious beliefs. Some religious organizations use patriarchal hierarchies and hold values that limit female opportunity and freedom. Four religious individuals share how their beliefs compare, contrast, and connect with feminist values.

Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

Reverend Dean Koyama serves the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple as its resident minister. The temple practices a sect of Buddhism known as Jodo Shinshu.

“From the time of the historical Buddha, he accepted anyone into his order, anyone that would be interested in following his path,” he said. “He made no distinctions between class, gender, or anything like that. I think that has always been the primary model of what a Buddhist order should be like, but historically, because of human beings, who they are, they started to make distinctions.”

He explained that for a while in some sects of Buddhism, women were not allowed on the sacred ground where Buddhist monks practiced and had to practice in a separate order. Until around the 1960s, women and men sat on opposite sides in temples.

Koyama said, “Japan is and has always been a male-dominant culture and so we do have some carry over on that. For example, the head of our sect of Buddhism is considered to be the ancestor of our founder, Shinran, and that succession has always been from father to son. That happens in the temples in Japan, as well—it’s passed down from father to son. However, in essence, there’s no doctrinal foundation for that.”

While the highest leader of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism must always be male, the sect has generally become more progressive towards women’s roles and offers the same opportunities for men and women regardless of gender. Women can be priests, monks, and study in the same seminary schools as men.

Koyama explained, “Our particular sect has the understanding that we’re all equal and we do have women that are taking on higher leadership responsibilities in our organization, as well.”

That being said, the Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, “As far as looking at the leadership roles, it does seem that men take on more of a responsibility than women have and I think that’s just a deference on the women’s part. We’ve asked certain individuals who are women to be presidents of the temple and they have declined.”

In addition to letting women hold many of the same leadership positions as men, there are no expectations for women to have a family.

According to Koyama, “One of the masters basically said, ‘If you need to be married to reach enlightenment, get married. If you need to be single to get to enlightenment, be single.’ I think that’s something that’s been a cornerstone of our tradition.”

However, Koyama acknowledged that some sects of Buddhism, particularly those that follow monastic lifestyles, may be less progressive surrounding women’s roles.

Generally, Koyama described most restrictive policies towards women as “more cultural-based than anything else, not based upon the religion itself.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Tiffany Quinton is the Young Women’s President at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Menlo Park. She leads the youth group for teenage girls.

She is a dedicated member of the church and identifies as a feminist.

“I really believe super strongly that women are incredible, and that women should be treated equally,” she said.

According to Tiffany, the Menlo Park church espouses views of gender equality. ““In theory, we believe that men and women are equally created and each have a divine purpose and role to fulfill that are different but they’re equally as important,” she said.

However, she continued, “I feel like oftentimes, they like to put women on this pedestal of, ‘They can do it all.’ Are women always treated equally? I don’t know.”

Tiffany acknowledged that women’s opportunities in the Church are limited. “The Church itself runs in a more patriarchal order,” she said. “There are women leaders but a woman will never be a bishop. A woman will never be a prophet. They don’t hold the priesthood in our Church. In some ways that can put women behind.”

“From an outside perspective and even an inside perspective, it’s not equal all the time, and that can be hard sometimes,” she continued.

On the other hand, she thinks that these restrictions don’t greatly hamper collaboration between genders. “I think that if you were also to see how one of our units operates, you would see that men and women are very much working together,” she said.

Tiffany added, “I would say for the most part, given that we live in a more liberal area, people are on the same page in regards to feminism and making sure that women are treated equally.”

She thinks the Church has become more open to gender equality and norms over time.

Tiffany recalled that when she was growing up, young women were told to aspire to marriage and home-making, whereas today greater emphasis is placed upon women’s education and personal growth. She explained that much of this shift has to do with changing norms, not religious ideologies.

“A lot of it it’s not scripture based,” she said. “It’s more cultural things like, ‘Oh, this is the way it’s always been done.’ And then it’s just a shift in the cultural way of thinking. As times change, as people change, the church grows and evolves with that.”

Of the Church’s restrictions on women, she continued, “I think it’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘This is just the way things have always been,” and so I think that as a culture we just accept a lot of these things as the way things are and then it just takes someone being like, ‘You know, I think we could do this better,’ and then that’s how things change.”

As for what further changes she would like to see within the Church, Tiffany said, “Making sure that women’s voices are heard at every level of the church. I think that we have women leading the charge in many ways. I feel very heard and I feel very listened to in my own unit, but I think that that needs to spread to all LDS units and not just my own.”

She summarized, “I think the easiest way to say it is making sure that women’s voices and opinions and thoughts are women are consulted with or heard or listened to in every area and aspect of decision making within the church.”

Tiffany shared why advocating for change was so important to her, saying, “I truly believe in the gospel and the doctrine that’s preached within the LDS religion, and it really rings true for me. So when I’m faced with things where it doesn’t feel quite as equal or just, I feel like, as a feminist and as a member, it’s important to stand up for those things within my own community.”

She added, “Just because we love something doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. It’s a religion that I love and I feel passionately about and I want to see it evolve and become better and for us as members of the church to do better.”

Overall, she believes that most of the tension between feminism and the Church arises from differing interpretations of religious ideology and not the ideology itself.

“For the most part, I would say that my faith supports my feminist beliefs,” she said.

Judaism

Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and attended schools that emphasized religious studies from kindergarten through high school.

“I certainly did experience limitations growing up female,” she said.

Goldhaber-Gordon identifies as a feminist, defining feminism as “empowering people to move beyond gender assumptions and gender norms.”

Although she majored in biology as an undergraduate, “I used all of my electives on Jewish Studies classes,” she said. Goldhaber-Gordon earned a PhD in biochemistry, but took time off to care for her children before she could begin working as a scientist.

During that time, “I realized that working for my community gave me a lot more joy,” Goldhaber-Gordon said.

She then got ordained at a rabbinical school and has been a rabbi for the past ten years.

A Jewish woman’s ability to become a rabbi is a fairly recent advancement. There are multiple branches of Judaism that have varying levels of openness towards gender equality, and so change often lags between them.

“The first woman rabbi was in the 1930s,” Goldhaber-Gordon said. “She was a real pioneer, but then nothing until the 1960s when the Reform Movement started ordaining women, and then in the 1980s, the Conservative movement started ordaining women, and today there’s even an Orthodox rabbinical school that ordains women.”

Goldhaber-Gordon explained that in some ways Jewish women possessed greater opportunity than many women in historical society, largely because Jewish women were deemed less threatening than Jewish men to the dominant cultures they lived within.

“It was often the case that women were the breadwinners, so women had to read and be able to do math,” she said.

In fact, historically, literacy rates among both Jewish men and women were comparatively much higher than those of the general populace. Goldhaber-Gordon explained, “Whereas some religions have tried to retain control over interpretations of Scripture in the hands of the clergy, Judaism has always put a very high value on education for all people.” She believes this emphasis on education promoted open-mindedness in Jewish people.

Goldhaber-Gordon also believes the extensive oppression the Jewish people have faced fostered men’s empathy for women’s issues, saying, “The experience of living as an oppressed minority can have a way of ultimately making one more open and desirous of change.”

Judaism is notably progressive on women’s rights regarding their body and marital relationships.

“Divorce has always been permissible within Judaism,” Goldhaber-Gordon said.

Additionally, she said, “Jews have been very active in the fight for reproductive rights. Every single major Jewish movement came out with a statement opposing the Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization].”

Goldhaber-Gordon explained that Judaism contains core ideas that encourage feminist discussion. 

She said, “There’s a concept of holy debate: that disagreement is an essential part of all intellectual engagement, especially religious engagement, and so that has enabled fairly rapid change. Another related idea is called derash, which is basically that we study all of our holy writings through creative interpretation, and that too has really enabled space for new voices.”

On the other hand, Goldhaber-Gordon recognizes that Judaism has often lacked gender equality.

“Judaism has always been part of Western civilization and patriarchy was the norm,” she said. “There were many ways in which Judaism was maybe a step ahead of the surrounding culture in terms of gender equality, but nowhere close to equal.”

Specifically, she shared, “It wasn’t just the Rabbinate that women were excluded from. Women were basically excluded from ritual spaces, historically.”

Goldhaber-Gordon also said, “Women were expected to marry and have children and much of their self worth came from motherhood.”

In Orthodox Judaism, the least progressive branch, gender division and inequality are much more prevalent and slower to improve.

“There are definitely many, many Orthodox synagogues that would not hire a woman rabbi.” Goldhaber-Gordon said.

In addition, she explained, “In most orthodox synagogues, there’s actually a divider down the middle and there’s a men’s side and a women’s side.” However, she added, “Now, we’re seeing Orthodox synagogues that are set up so there’s a men’s side and a women’s side and the leadership happens in the middle, so it’s part of like creative modern reinterpretation that’s even happening within the Orthodox world.”

Goldhaber-Gordon is hopeful that Judaism will continue to advance towards greater gender equality.

“I see change happening and I think it’s happening at a pace that’s healthy for each community,” she said.

For example, “The Orthodox community is changing slowly, but they’re changing and they have to change at their own pace. I wish they had changed faster because I had to leave that community, but it’s also remarkable to me how much they have changed.”

Goldhaber-Gordon said, “I often say there is no dogma or doctrine in Judaism. So, when there is no dogma or doctrine, it’s much easier to change things.”

Catholicism

Joan Desmond is a parishioner at the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park.

“I was raised Catholic, but like a lot of people I was in and out of the church,” she shared. “I returned to the Church in my mid 20s.”

Desmond’s life has also been influenced by feminism. She said, “I came of age during the era of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. And I think whether I thought about feminism or not, I certainly benefited from things like new opportunities in a variety of different settings.”

Desmond explained that within the Church, people hold a wide range of social and political ideologies, but the Church emphasizes that members should think about how they interact with specific people in their life instead of thinking in generalities.

“Whether they would want to use ‘ideology,’ I think you would find many Catholic feminists,” she said. “I’m probably less inclined to call myself a feminist, but I’m not opposed to feminism.”

Desmond detailed her issues with certain feminist beliefs, saying, “The areas that I would have problems with is when you move from equal opportunity and that sort of thing to the idea that we actually have to be the same.”

She believes Church teachings “affirm the equality of the inviolable dignity of every person, though not the sameness of every person.”

Desmond explained, “The Church’s vision of human life is that it goes back to Genesis and male and female, He made them, and so there’s an acceptance of male and female, a desire that each would be treated equally and be equally worthy. They are the image of God; that’s where their dignity comes from.”

Desmond continued, “People can be special in their differences, and those differences are part of life and what makes it rich, and that includes male and female. So, the idea that a man would be the same as a woman wouldn’t be the case; it would be, they both have equal dignity and rights.”

She added, “We would also believe that there’s complementarity in difference, it doesn’t have to clash. You can come together in that difference, and that difference is healthy and positive; it creates new life, you work together in complementary ways, you have areas of focus that you’re more interested in, whether you’re working or you’re not working, whether you’re rich or poor.”

She elaborated, “The Church really believes in a bodily reality … Whether you’re male or female, that is who you are, and you act in the sense within that bodily reality of being a woman or a man. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a job or something … But what it does mean, though, is that that is a certain reality that we’re meant to embrace as opposed to ignore, that we should think about what that means as part of who we are in our lives. The Church will say today that many people almost try to suppress that bodily reality, and some of them in a well intentioned effort to respect others, to say, ‘I don’t want to suggest that I’m different from anybody else.’ But that difference doesn’t have to be a bad thing; that difference can be as good as the difference that the other person has.”

Overall, she believes that the Church’s teachings in general affirm women’s equality and generally women’s rights.

Desmond explained that the Early Church and the rise of Catholicism influenced the advancement of women’s rights at a time when women were greatly oppressed and seen as far inferior to men.

“Women did not have rights,” Desmond said. “A lot of the people who came into the early Church were women, including women from the highest levels of Roman society, as well as slaves, who also heard from the message of Christ this experience of freedom, whether in this life or the next, and a perspective on suffering that helped them struggle with things.”

Catholicism’s moral influence finally began treating society’s ills. “Children were used sexually, women were used sexually; there were literally no laws guiding any of this at all, and so as the Christian world began to flower, these laws changed,” Desmond explained, though she also acknowledged the laws’ flaws.

She said, “They’re not perfect, human beings aren’t perfect, but that was a really important inflection point in human history when that happened.”

Desmond also described how Catholic orders provided women with greater opportunities.

She said, “A lot of religious orders of women in this country—their founders and their superiors were among the first to lead hospitals and schools and universities and charities before other women did, in many cases.”

Desmond also explained that joining religious orders allowed women to avoid social pressure to bear children. “It used to be that a woman could only be a real woman and really gain respect when she had children, and that is not the case in the Catholic Church,” she said.

Desmond further explained, “People in a culture that prized women’s fertility were instead choosing to be virgins, and to focus on this work that they did … The church not only countenanced this, they esteemed it. People who chose this path were not considered of a lesser order because they didn’t have children, and this was a radical thing. It actually reaffirms the idea that the woman is of the same order as a man and doesn’t require children to finally earn her rights somehow.”

Prominent female religious orders still stand today. “You have religious orders that are run by women and have all the influence and leadership and power they need to run hospitals—they run the billion-dollar hospital networks,” Desmond said.

However, Desmond also described practices and beliefs of the Catholic Church that many may view as contrary to feminist values.

First and foremost, “I oppose abortion,” she said. “I think it is a human life, and I believe our society needs to address that and accept that.

Desmond continued, “That’s what I do think is unfortunate about feminist ideology: the view that abortion has to be available for true women’s equality. I don’t think that’s true. It doesn’t mean there aren’t crisis pregnancies, it doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen to women, but I think fundamentally, abortion is not needed for women to have full equality.”

Although, Desmond acknowledged that each pregnant individual should come to that conclusion on their own. “Ideally though, you do it with each person coming to that conclusion, not an imposed approach where people then feel rushed to find some solution that they can deal with.”

Another aspect of Catholicism possibly deemed out of alignment with feminist beliefs is that ordained priesthood is only available to men.

“There’s no, ‘We don’t like women,’ or, ‘Women are at a lower level,’ but because Christ chose men to be priests, the Church has maintained that tradition,” Desmond said.

However, she explained, “He had many women who were in his ministry, and of course his mother is revered in the Catholic Church.”

She continued, “The Catholic Church is Marian as much as it’s Christological in its own way. Christ is the redeemer but his mother is central to his ministry on Earth. For example, we pray the rosary to Mary as she’s like the intercessor. She’s there at all the major points in his life and ministry. And of course we have thousands and thousands of female saints dating back to the early Church, the early martyrs who were killed in the coliseums up to the present moment.”

Desmond said, “Someday it might change, but Pope Francis echoed the views of his predecessors and said the Church cannot ordain women, so I don’t think that will happen.”

While Desmond accepts the Church’s teachings on gender equality, she recognizes that women still face gender-specific struggles.

She said, “I realize that there are issues posed by living as a woman in the world that are important, and I’ve benefited from those accomplishments of women who came before whether I agree with them on every topic or not. I respect what they accomplished.”

Desmond acknowledged that cultural influences can also promote sexism.

She said, “The Church is embedded in the culture wherever it is. There could be sexism here, there could be sexism in any part of the globe, and so that is a reality, and it’s an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed in every society.”

Desmond mentioned the role of local churches in combatting sexism.

“The church can help, and if you have a strong church where you are, if you have a wonderful pastor who brings up these issues that could help a woman who’s dealing with [sexism]. If you have someone who ignores them, then it’s not going to help. Is the pastor responsible for it? He may not be responsible but he’s not making it better.”

Desmond made a point of mentioning that other members of the Catholic Church differ in their beliefs, which she respects, as well.

“I think a lot of women in religious orders, some may be more ‘conservative,’ some may be more ‘progressive,’ but some are going to be very feminist and really embrace feminism in a very, very considered way. Others of them may feel that the church is meeting their needs without being quote ‘a feminist’ but respecting the fact that women can do things that they didn’t do before. So I think it’s personal.”

For example, she said, “You will find Catholic women who support abortion and feel it’s necessary.”

In addition, Desmond said of the priesthood’s male exclusivity, “I don’t have a problem with it. I know people who do, and I respect the fact that they do and if the Church changed its teaching tomorrow and said there could be female priests, I would say, ‘fine.’”

She continued, “There are people who feel it does have to do with rights, and they feel there’s something wrong that there can’t be women priests, and other people don’t feel that.”

Desmond explained, “You could talk to someone else about feminist ideology, who describes themself as Catholic, and get a slightly different perspective. I was really wanting to focus on what the Church teaches and then offer a little bit of my take, but make it less about me and more about how the church approaches these things.”

She said, “I’m speaking for the Church’s teaching here. I’m speaking about what the Church teaches, but what individual Catholics believe is of course very personal.”

Dylan is a senior who primarily covers education and breaking news. He also writes for News Not Noise, PUNCH Magazine, and InMenlo. In his free time, you can find him at the beach or on a (shaded) running trail.

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