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The ascent of woman

Though more active in organized religion than men are, women can still

The emergence of women as a professional force to be reckoned with will be on the short list of the stories of the 20th century, maybe even of the millennium.

Even a cursory historical look confirms the modern women's rights movement as nothing less than a transforming millennial event.

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But surprisingly, women's ascent to leadership has been more dramatic in many secular fields than in religion. The organized church is an area where women actively participate at much greater rates than men do but can still find the path to authority and leadership firmly blocked.

Historical impositions on women have been justified as both scriptural and theological. One might expect that the consciousness of women's equality with men was a feature of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation - but it wasn't. A few enlightened and progressive European humanists challenged centuries-old patristic attitudes - the scholar Cornelius Agrippa wrote daringly in defense of women in 1529 in his "Nobility and Superiority of the Female Sex."

But Martin Luther and John Calvin, the principal founders of Protestantism, were unremitting in their perpetuation of the doctrine of "headship" of men over women. They claimed scriptural authority for it.

Nor did those few pre-Reformation women who stood out because of their exceptional piety and spiritual authority challenge the enshrined doctrines that confined women either to home and family, or to the convent. Hildegard, abbess of Bingen (1098-1179), by making herself "nothing" but a vessel for God - a "poor little female figure" - opened herself to revelatory and prophetic visions. Convinced of their authenticity as the divine voice, the most powerful prelates of her day, including three popes, validated and consulted her.

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-83), Catherine of Siena (1347-80), and Julian of Norwich (1342-1416?), also nuns and mystics living in a manner controlled and sanctioned by male priests, were able to gain authority as visionaries and "vessels" of divine revelation.

It's a far cry from a Hildegard to the peer status with men of Madeleine Albright, present United States secretary of State, and her predecessors and contemporaries in the front ranks of women in business and government at the end of the 20th century. A woman's attainment of genuine leadership and authority is, in many women's eyes, the crucial test of equality.

Many barriers began to fall when women were granted the vote. In the case of women's suffrage in the US, specific events leading up to the victory of 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, can be traced in a direct line to the 1830s, when a few American women joined their male counterparts to speak out publicly for the abolition of slavery.

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The "struggle for women's civil rights in American society," notes feminist theologian and author Rosemary Radford Ruether in "Women and Redemption: A Theological History," was not only inaugurated by "these fore-mothers of American feminism," but was fought "on biblical and theological grounds."

It was still the time when American women, like their ancestral sisters, were by and large silent in churches and in public affairs. Home - or the cloister - was woman's sanctioned domain. A woman who dared take the podium on a public topic risked public vilification.

Undeterred by this prospect, Philadelphian Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), a lifelong Quaker minister, and two other remarkable Quakers, Sarah and Angelina Grimk - native Southerners - threw themselves with utter conviction into the thick of the anti-slavery crusade in the North.

All three were steeped in Quaker thought. The Society of Friends had arisen in mid-17th-century England and unequivocally embraced the scripture in Genesis that male and female are created equally in the image of God. Though the Society was founded by a man, George Fox, from the outset Quaker women enjoyed full participation in the life and ministry of their community.

The Grimk sisters discovered it wasn't just their stance on slavery that aroused hostility in audiences and clergy. It was their perceived rebellion against their status as women. After several published attacks on them, the Grimks saw that oppression of women, an injustice just as onerous as slavery, demanded the same moral renunciation.

Prolific writers, the sisters answered their critics in a series of letters published in 1838. Sarah titled hers "On the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women." Both drew on Scripture to support their arguments.

Just about then, Mott began to exert leadership in the American reform movement. In her sermons and speeches, writes Dr. Ruether, "Mott laid out a consistent religious basis for her involvement in these many reform issues ... the Quaker principle of inner light. For Mott the inner light was simultaneously a revelation of the true inner spiritual nature of human beings and the presence of the divine in the depths of the self."

Mott's encounter with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) in 1840 led to the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. There Stanton introduced a resolution calling for "women in this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."

Three years later, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), also of Quaker background. Following Stanton and Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw, an ordained Methodist minister, then Alice Paul, another Quaker, led the women's suffrage movement until the vote was finally won.

At the same time, other 19th-century women had begun to change America's religious landscape, strengthening the spiritual foundations of the women's movement. Among them was Mary Lyon who, in 1836, founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, one of the first schools to offer higher education for American women.

Ellen G. White, with her husband James organized the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1855, and she became its prophet and an international evangelist.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, discovered Christian Science in 1866 and published the first edition of "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" in 1875.

In 1891, she issued one of her short works, "No and Yes," where she wrote, "In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable, and these rights are ably vindicated by the noblest of both sexes. This is woman's hour, with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms."

Frances Willard, a staunch Methodist evangelical, led the Women's Christian Temperance Union from 1879 to 1898. In the established churches, other bold, farsighted women pressed to be admitted to seminaries and ordained as ministers.

Historic progress notwithstanding, the attainment of leadership roles by women today has been easier to accomplish outside the church than inside. The British accepted a woman as their prime minister in 1979, but the decision in November 1992 of the General Synod of the Church of England to begin ordaining women almost broke the denomination apart. The Roman Catholic Church stands firm in its official refusal to admit women to the priesthood.

Some conservative Protestant denominations, including Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Utah Mormons, and the Seventh-day Adventists, do not ordain women. In 1960, women constituted only 2.3 percent of all US clergy. The Methodist Church granted full ordination rights to women in 1956. The Lutheran Church of America and the American Lutheran Church approved women's ordination in 1976. A similar step was followed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1976.

In 1980, the United Methodists (created in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren) became the first mainline Protestant denomination to elect a woman, Marjorie Matthews, to their Council of Bishops. In 1989, Barbara C. Harris, an Episcopal priest, was that denomination's first woman consecrated as suffragan (assistant) bishop of Massachusetts.

By 1993, it was estimated that of all Protestant ministers in the United States, 10 to 12 percent were women.

After these modest but hard-won gains, some of the more forthright among these women now speak of a "backlash" within the church: a general devaluation of the ministry that some suspect may be correlated with the presence of so many female ministers and seminary students; ordained women marginalized in entry-level positions; promotional decisions based on gender; lowered status and salaries as the numbers of women increase.

Joretta Marshall, associate dean of Iliff School of Theology in Denver and a Methodist minister, refers to the men, both ministers and bishops, who have gone on the line for women's leadership in the church. "Without the advocacy of strategically minded men," she says, "progress [in the church] would still be a long time coming."

Dr. Marshall acknowledges the immense contributions of the great feminine pioneers of the past 150 years. But she would not have us forget the thousands of less well-known "women of the church [who] have been marching along progressively in local churches and in denominational organizations.... Those women," she says, "have done incredible things in terms of mission and outreach and movement. They have ... changed the texture of the church in ways that make women in ministry thrive."

In the field of Bible scholarship, for example, "women have taken a very serious look, not just at biblical literature but, more broadly, at ancient Near Eastern literature to try to see what life was like for women," notes Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston University's School of Theology.

"Ancient Israelite society was part of a broader ancient Near Eastern culture that was patrilineal and patriarchal," Dr. Darr continues. There were important questions that traditional Bible scholarship had largely ignored or overlooked. "So," she says, "women in biblical studies began asking questions: What did women do? How did they provide for themselves? What were their legal rights in a particular society?" Also hugely significant is the impact of women's thinking on theology and ideas. Ruether refers to the "new wave of feminist theology that began in Western Europe and in North America in the 1960s."

Most Western feminist theologians, whether thinking from within a traditional Christian framework or radically apart from it, embrace the vision of a more life-affirming, inclusive, relational, ecologically whole world in which mutuality replaces domination. Common to all Christian feminist theologies, writes Ruether, is the "rejection of any theological or sociobiological justifications of women's subordination.... Women's full and equal humanity with men and their right to equal access to education, professions, and political participation in society are assumed."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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