By Paige Caine
Creative Writing Director
It’s a common misconception that religious life restricts girls, particularly in their sexuality, but, in contrast, feminism has always been closely intertwined with life behind the walls of the convent.
In its early years, directly following the death of Jesus, Catholicism was persecuted throughout Rome; churches were destroyed, and prayer was made illegal. As a result, early Catholics met in their own homes, and many women led masses.
In addition, convents have always offered an escape from the normal requirements for women in patriarchal societies. In the past, women joined convents to get out of forced marriages, to be relieved of household duties and motherhood, and to be allowed to study; as many convents and monasteries of all religions encourage scholarship among nuns and house libraries. In the 1800s, Roman Catholic Sisters were some of the only women who could manage charitable institutions, hospitals, and orphanages. Their work was even officially recognized by the U.S House of Representatives in Resolution 441.
However, in modern times, the secular world has seen an increase in female rights, while some religious organizations have remained stagnant. Women can become nuns or communion servers, but only men may lead a Catholic mass. Debates over the Islamic veil have been decorating news headlines for years, and many other religions have faced similar issues with patriarchal practices. Still, some religious women are fighting back.
A group of Catholic nuns across the country recently took up the fight for feminism. Though the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that included most of America’s nuns, was rebuked by the Vatican in 2012 for having “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith,” they managed to promote feminist ideals including divorce rights, the unequal status within the clergy, and birth control, as well as some of the members arguing in favor of more controversial topics, such as abortion. The new documentary “Radical Grace” provides more information on three of these nuns: Sisters Simone Campbell, Jean Hughes, and Chris Schenk. While Pope Francis may not have agreed with the LCWR, he does acknowledge their tremendous charitable work and plans to give women a greater role in the Church.
But according to Jennifer Juzwiak, the director of religious education at St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Parish in Laurel, Maryland, “the church [already] speaks to what true feminism really is.”
According to Juzwiak, to outsiders, the Catholic Church’s strict rules, particularly surrounding women, may seem restrictive, but the true purpose is to respect women. “If you look at what’s behind [the rules],” she says, “a lot of it has to do with the dignity of the human person.”
“There is a great undercurrent of dignity in every human person,” she says, “so we care for the sick, we care for the handicapped, we care for the unborn, we care for men, we care for women, we care for everyone because inherently they have dignity.”
Regarding certain feminist controversies, such as the all-male Catholic clergies and abortion, Juzwiak explained that the Catholic Church is always doing its best to be on the side of women, despite what the media often leads people to believe.
“Pro-life isn’t one issue above all others,” she said, reminding that feminists and religious women already see eye to eye on most issues, but she thinks the job of the church is to “make it possible for women to have the choice to raise a child.”
For poor women who still want to be mothers, a lot of times abortion or adoption is tossed at them as the only way to “give their children a good life,” but Juzwiak explains that the Church works to give them another choice.
“I know a lot of people who take pregnant women into their homes and care for them so they don’t have to have an abortion,” she said.
Juzwiak laughed off the all-male clergy issue. “I don’t ever feel like, ugh, I can’t be a priest, you know?” she said, “Just because I don’t do mass or confession doesn’t mean I don't have a lot of impact on what goes on here.”
Women can’t be priests, but men can’t be nuns either, and there are even more ways for women to be involved in the church. In fact, church staffs tend to be primarily composed of women, and they do a lot of the hands on work of teaching the faith, counseling converts, and running church charities.
“Just because you see the cardinals on TV voting on the pope doesn’t mean that women don’t have a large impact on the church, and they are expected to have a large impact,” Juzwiak said. Other sects of Christianity tell similar feminist stories, especially as in many Protestant religions, particularly Methodism, as women can become ministers with a status equal to men.
Beth Jaczun, a former youth group leader at Linden Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Maryland describes her own church community as very “liberal and progressive,” and as having been very accepting of her, a woman who didn’t connect to religion until her thirties.
Leading the youth group “wasn’t something [she] was really trained or qualified for, but [she] was really drawn to it,” and her pastor at the time supported her. “I am very thankful that gender discrimination hasn’t been part of my experience,” she said, “and that I was allowed to do something I was called to do.”
But even as Christians are just beginning to organize and decide on their feminist agendas, a similar group has been in action within the Orthodox Jewish community since 1997: the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). JOFA hosts biannual international meetings and publishes the JOFA Journal, a newsletter on Jewish feminism. Their agenda is to achieve “meaningful participation and equality for women in family life, synagogues, houses of learning, and Jewish communal organizations to the full extent possible within halakhah (Jewish religious law).”
In the 1980s, Non-Orthodox Jewish feminists achieved the ordination of women as rabbis and Cantors and the equalization of their rights in marriage and divorce laws. This was largely thanks to a Jewish feminist group called Ezrat Nashim that began in the 1970s when they presented their “equal access” agenda to the 1972 convention of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly.
In Tibet, Buddhist nuns at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute have begun teaching feminist classes, publishing books on famous Buddhist women, and publishing a yearly feminist magazine in an effort to protest their lack of status when compared to men. Though the Institute was the first to allow women to achieve a khenmo, similar to a religious doctoral degree, and hosts an outreach program to improve the health of women in the surrounding rural villages, it still only allows men to reach the highest status of bhikkhuni, ordination, as does the rest of Tibetan Buddhism. This is not the case in countries such as China, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, where women can achieve bhikkhuni status.
The road to gender equality is still being paved in both secular and religious circles, but some women have started taking steps down that path. As Jaczun says, “hopefully people and churches will realize that it’s God’s calling on someone’s heart [that matters] and not necessarily [that] you have to be a man to do something.”