Women Faith Leaders Struggle To Make It To The Top

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Women have long fought to shatter the so-called "glass ceiling" in society and culture at large yet in matters of faith and religion, similar gains aren't always realized. Host Michel Martin talks with Maureen Fiedler, author of "Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words," about where the female faithful are going in their quest for equality in churches, mosques and temples.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from you about our stories this week. It's our Backtalk segment.

But first, it's time for our Faith Matters conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Earlier this week, a woman named Anat Hoffman was detained for several hours for carrying a Torah scroll to the women's prayer section of the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism.

Well, a number of Jewish leaders in this country have denounced the detention saying nothing in Jewish law prohibits women from carrying or reading Torah at the Wall. The Israeli police said Hoffman's actions violate a Supreme Court ruling that says cannot read from the Torah in that place. And Hoffman was ordered not to pray at the Wall for 30 days.

Well, of course that controversy is related to specific issues around Jewish practice and identity in Israel. It does point out yet again the question of women in religious leadership. And while many people turn to religious institutions for guidance on issue of morality and justice, in many religious traditions women are often deemed unfit for these roles of authority.

But many women around the world and in different religious traditions are challenging that. So to learn more we've called Maureen Fiedler. She's the author of "Breaking Through The Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words." She's also the host of the radio show "Interfaith Voices." And she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome.

Ms. MAUREEN FIEDLER (Author, "Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words"): Thank you, Michel. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Maureen, if you tell a little bit about how you got interested in this area. You have an unusual, or an interesting, I should say, story of your own to tell.

Ms. FIEDLER: Well, when I graduated from high school 50 years ago this year, as a matter of fact, I went to a Catholic high school where a girl school and a boy school had merged a few years before. I was eligible to give the graduation address. And the principal, who was a priest, called me into his office and said I could not give the valedictory because I was a girl.

I was stunned. So I went home and talked to my mother whose major advice was, don't get into a fight with a priest. But I thought, no, this is wrong. I have earned this. And I went back to his office and I said, this is unjust and it will look perfectly terrible on the front page of our local newspaper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FIEDLER: And I gave the speech. So I think for me that was a seminal moment in my life when I actually experienced that kind of discrimination.

MARTIN: But you were called to religious life and then you became a nun.

Ms. FIEDLER: That's right. I still am a nun. I'm a Sister of Loretto. And very happy being one.

MARTIN: How does that then relate to your interest in women of in fact, it's kind of the perfect context, though, because there are those who would argue that it isn't that women are denied authority in religious institutions, but that they have their own spheres of authority.

Ms. FIEDLER: Ironically, nuns have been in a rather perplexing position in a certain sense because at the time when women at similar ages were holding what you might call inferior roles, nuns were the presidents of colleges and universities. They were the chief administrators of hospitals.

But in this institution called the Roman Catholic Church, we could not even be deacons, let alone priests or bishops. And of course that's still the case. But in other religious denominations, women in fact are assuming leadership roles in unprecedented ways.

And this is the trend that I try to underline in this book because I've had the privilege of interviewing many of these women.

MARTIN: When you talk to a number of women across faith traditions about their roles in their religious communities, were there some themes that you heard consistently?

Ms. FIEDLER: Yes. All of them initially experienced some kind of barriers. But most feel that many of those barriers have been broken. And they were anxious to go on and talk about the major issues facing their denominations.

For example, I interviewed Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, who is the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States. And she was as anxious to talk about the threats of schism in her church, as she was to talk about any barriers she had run into as a woman.

MARTIN: But to that end, one of the sources of schism is how you say that? I always thought it was schism. I'll take your leadership on that, sister, because I think you would know.

One of those key points of division or controversy is in fact around the issue of women's leadership. You know, same sex relationships is one, but leadership is one of the issues that is causing portions of some of these denominations to seek their own authority. What do you think that says, that there are these strings going on at the same time?

Ms. FIEDLER: What it says to me is that we're in the midst of a massive cultural change in the world of religion. And what you've got is people starting to come to terms with what it feels like to sit in a pew and have your preacher be a woman, to have a woman read the Torah in the synagogue.

I think you've got a massive cultural change going on that is a direct result of the fact that women have now, for several decades, assumed leadership roles in secular life, whether it's politics, the judiciary, academia, the business world. It's gradually being taken for granted.

I say in the book, you know, in a day and age when Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House of Representatives, when Hillary Clinton could be a credible candidate for president of the United States, being a woman bishop doesn't look like such a big deal anymore.

MARTIN: But, you know, it's interesting that you say that because there are also women who are achieving prominence in secular life who still adhere to very conservative religious traditions like Sarah Palin, who belongs to a very conservative church, theologically. Sharron Angle, who's running for Senate against Harry Reid in Nevada. And they find nothing incongruous at all about seeking significant leadership positions in secular life while still belonging to denominations that just don't adhere to that vision of female authority.

Ms. FIEDLER: You know, there are contradictions. However...

MARTIN: And some people might say the same thing about the Catholic Church, frankly. You know, there are many, many Catholic women who are, like Nancy Pelosi, who are in significant positions in secular life, but whose churches do not give women a particular kind of leadership role.

Ms. FIEDLER: Right. Yeah, an ordained leadership role. But there are feminist movements, very strong ones, in the Roman Catholic Church to change things. In the Baptist world, because Southern Baptists have recently tried not to have women be pastors, for example. There are strong movements against that that you wouldn't have found 30 or 40 years ago. It's not going without strong challenge.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about women religious leaders and the struggles they face in their ministries. We're also talking about the broader conversation that many countries and cultures are having about women in religious leadership.

My guest is Maureen Fiedler, host of the radio show "Interfaith Voices." She's also author of the book "Breaking Through The Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words."

I want to also talk about this whole question of feminist theology. This is a subject on your program. And you talked with feminist theologian Mary Hunt about the need for kind of a woman-centered theology. I want to talk more about what that means. I'll just play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of radio show, "Interfaith Voices")

Ms. FIEDLER: Why feminist theology at all? What is wrong with the traditional theologies that demanded that new perspective, Mary?

Ms. MARY HUNT (Feminist Theologian): Well, I think the first thing, Maureen, is that the way in which we live in the postmodern world calls for equality of men and women. And if you think of religion as one of the ways in which we inform our consciousness as a society, the fact that religions focus their divinities on male figures and that we live in a society of discrimination against women, we had to find a connection. And so it was out of that discrimination that feminist theology arose.

MARTIN: What has your sort of research in this area uncovered? Is there a lot of ferment around this issue? Is this mainly, again, a kind of a preoccupation of a few denominations and not others?

Ms. FIEDLER: No, no. This is a very widespread phenomenon. It's not just in Christianity and Judaism. The leading feminist theologian in Islam, for example, is Fatema Mernissi in Morocco. There are women like Pema Chodron in Buddhism that are putting forward theologies from a woman's perspective.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that this kind of discussion is, I'm not going to use the word heretical, because I think that has its own sort of theological meaning, but I mean it's cherry picking. It's people seeking the answer that they want as opposed to the answer that is there. What do you say to that?

Ms. FIEDLER: No, it's people seeking justice. That's what it is. If you think about the Christian scriptures as an example, it says if you read it literally, slaves be subject to your masters, somebody could say, well, you're cherry picking here, you know? They sanctioned slavery in that day and age. God help us we would never do that anymore. But right next to that it says wives be subject to your husbands.

And I think it's seeking equality, looking at those texts, in this case with a woman's eye and saying, no, God has created us to be equally precious. And we want to claim who we are in that light of God. That's what it's seeking.

MARTIN: There are those who, alongside these voices, there are also those who are very aggressively calling for men to take back their role. There's a movement in Christianity, around a more masculine Christianity. I know you've heard that. There are people who are aggressively pushing back against the idea of mixed gender worship spaces and who are actively building spaces that will support gender segregation in worship. So I'm wondering what you think that means. And have you had any of these voices on your program? What do they say to you when you say why?

Ms. FIEDLER: I haven't. I think there are very few. I think in many cases the challenges are coming from the other direction. I'm thinking of a woman like Asra Nomani, who in her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, directly challenged the practice of gender segregation.

MARTIN: But I'm actually thinking about Asra too because one of the issues that arose was the fact that in the new mosque, I mean, the walls were higher than the ones that had been before. There was a separate entrance where there had not been a separate entrance before. That is in part what gave rise to the challenge. And having been to that mosque, I know exactly what she's talking about, that women are not even visible now in way that they were before. That's not the mosque she grew up in.

Ms. FIEDLER: Mm hmm. I think any time there's a serious challenge to something as basic as gender roles, there are bound to be people who want to have a throwback to the older ways of doing things. But the forward-looking progress is being made by women who want to challenge those things. I see this in my own tradition, in Catholicism, all over the place, you know?

A few years ago, women who wanted to be ordained as priests, well, you kind of had a polite theological discussion of this. Now there is a group called the Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement, where they actually found a male bishop - whose identity we don't know. The agreement with him is that his identity will be revealed once he's passed away. But he ordained several women as priests and then as bishops, so that they can pass on the priesthood. And that movement now has 100 women ordained worldwide. That's the kind of challenge that the Roman Catholic Church hasn't seen before.

MARTIN: Weren't those women excommunicated?

Ms. FIEDLER: Yes, but most of them say that's irrelevant in their lives. They're going on with ministry to people who want to share in the ministry of women.

MARTIN: But can we finish where we started out? We started by talking about you and that powerful experience you had in high school, where you sought your place at the lectern as valedictorian, which you had earned. And then of course you did go on to real life as a committed religious person and you remain so. And I would like to ask how you have reconciled your commitment to your vows all these years, with your other interest in women in leadership in a manner that is not now accorded by your church.

Ms. FIEDLER: I see it as part of my own call to bring greater justice to the world, and thus to bring greater justice to my church. And so that's the reason I have sought to champion women's rights within Catholicism. I see it as a part of my calling. And I think a lot of women of faith would say the same thing.

MARTIN: Some argue that obedience to the decision of the church is also part of that call and some would say that this call for women to have broader roles is in defiance of that vow of obedience. How do you respond to that?

Ms. FIEDLER: My vow of obedience is a vow of obedience to the call of God and to the call of Jesus. And first among that is to do justice.

MARTIN: Maureen Fiedler is host of the radio program "Interfaith Voices." She's the author of "Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in Their Own Words." Thank you for our conversation today.

Ms. FIEDLER: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: As Maureen mentioned, a group of Catholic women have been ordained as bishops and then excommunicated. Yesterday, the Vatican went a step further in a set of new guidelines the Vatican said that, quote, "the attempted ordination of women," unquote, is a grave crime in the same category as clerical sex abuse.

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