The Shriver Report – Are Women Devalued by Religions?

Special Edition

Are Women Devalued by Religions?

The bad news came in the 2013 “State of the World’s Mothers” report. Of the 30 best countries in the world to be a mother, the survey reports that the United States ranks 30th—behind all the countries in Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, and most of the developed world.1

How can this situation exist in the United States—one of the world’s most religious countries—where so many of us believe that religion is a great force for good? Moreover, what exactly are our religious institutions—our churches, mosques, synagogues, and faith communities—doing to advance the development and status of women?

After all, the Judeo-Christian scriptures, which are the foundation for how so many of us understand the nature and role of women in society, are very clear about women’s worth. The Book of Genesis reads, “Let us make them in our own image, male and female let us make them.” It is, as the theologian Mary Daly says, “the creative potential in human beings” that is the image and incarnation of God’s power in this world—in women as well as men.

This scriptural exaltation of women’s equality only makes the actual condition of women in our society more questionable—and the attitudes of many male religious leaders on the subject more suspect. After all, at its best, religion frames our values and invites each and all us—not just men—to reach for the heights of the human spirit.

Religion, we also know, is a compelling arbiter of personal ethics and public actions. Human behavior is based on assumptions, and where women are concerned, religion has helped define the human community’s assumptions about the place and role of women in society. Religion tells us that women are valuable, of course, but also that women are secondary to men.

In fact, religion’s power to determine human reality and public morality in every arena has a long and troublesome history.

The astronomer Galileo, for instance, knew that everything to be known about nature and life was not revealed by theology alone. Galileo was silenced and excommunicated for proposing that the Earth traveled around the sun, not the other way around. He responded: “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Galileo, and science with him, paid a high price for staying true to the data when the facts of science and the assumptions of doctrine clashed.

Galileo and science were not the only segments of society attacked by Western theologians for being outside the assumptions of the time. Other debates raged for centuries. Were indigenous peoples fully human? Were American Indians fully human? Were black people fully human? Could these types be baptized, be ordained, or really be as rational and intelligent as whites. Could they be more than slaves, more than property?

It took centuries for the barriers of “otherness” that marked these groups to begin to fade away.

It took centuries before we began to speak of humanity as a whole—to see humanness as more than ethnic identity, more than color.

“But even as far as we’ve come, women are still one class of people who are set apart, separated, and given less value and worth by multiple religious traditions.”  Sister Joan Chittister
A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From The Brink

But even as far as we’ve come, women are still one class of people who are set apart, separated, and given less value and worth by multiple religious traditions. Religion has defined women by their maternity—just one dimension of a woman’s multifaceted humanity. Religion has defined women as “helpmates,” as too irrational to lead, too intellectually limited for the public dimensions of life. Though they are endowed with the same degree of sense, reason, and intellect as men, women have been locked out of full humanity and full participation in religious institutions and society at large. This marginalization of women masquerades as “protecting” them and even “exalting” them. Instead, these attitudes serve to deny the human race the fullness of female gifts and a female perspective on life.

As a result, women make up two-thirds of the hungry of this world. Women are two-thirds of the illiterate of this world. And women are two-thirds of the poorest of the poor, because they lack access to the resources and recognition men take for granted. That’s not an accident. That is a policy—one supported by religious institutions that call such discrimination “women’s place” and “God’s will.”

What religion has said about women has long been used to justify what society has done to limit their development. Not only does what our churches, mosques, synagogues, and faith communities teach and do about women become the morality of the land. What they do not say or do on behalf of women condones what becomes the immorality of the land.

The “State of the World’s Mothers” report defines five indicators essential to the well-being of women and their children, and the United States fails on three of them: economic status of women, political opportunities for women, and universal health care. When will religions call for these things to be the moral imperatives of a woman’s life?

In our time, a young woman by the name of Malala Yousafzai lives with a bullet wound in her head for wanting to go to school. The Taliban had banned girls’ education in her region of Pakistan, and the assassination attempt by a Taliban extremist was meant to intimidate other young women who want to learn how to read.

In our own country, Carie Charlesworth, a mother of four children, was fired from her Catholic school teaching job because her husband violated a court’s “protection from abuse” order by stalking her workplace. Apparently, she is the problem, not he.

In our own country, rapes in the military and rapes on college campuses go unpunished because “boys will be boys,” and winning wars and football games are more important than protecting the integrity of the women who are the victims of rape.

In our own country, religious people who insist that caring for children is a woman’s major responsibility in life have not yet called underpaying single women with children the sin that it is.

It is time for religions to repent the acceptance of assumptions about the social place and roles of women—assumptions that spring from theological definitions of women as less fully rational, less fully human, and less fully essential to the public arena than men.

It is time for religions to repair this distortion of the will of God. Like Galileo, it is time for both women and men to contest such untenable conclusions. For all of our sakes and for the sake of all humanity, it is time.

This piece is an excerpt from The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink in partnership with Center for American Progress. Beginning January 12th, you can download a full version of the report at  Sign up for our newsletter and we will send you a reminder when the report is available.


[1]: Save the Children, “State of the World’s Mothers 2013” (2013), available at

Joan Chittister is one of the most articulate social analysts and influential religious leaders of this age. For over 30 years she has dedicated herself to advocating for universal recognition of the critical questions impacting the global community and has received numerous awards and recognition for her work. Courageous, passionate and charged with energy, she is a much-sought after speaker, commentator, counselor and clear voice across all religions.
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