“We are here in God’s name in service to help God’s people.”
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross
HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW? Take this 12-question quiz about milestones by women in American religion.
By DAVID CRUMM
To this day, the two largest religious denominations in the U.S. bar women from full ordination: the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. But that stained-glass ceiling obscures a deeper truth: Women have always been the backbone of American religious life.
It’s true to this day. Research paints the portrait both inside and outside houses of worship. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study shows that 57 percent of the Americans who say they attend services “at least once a week” are women; 43 percent are men. And, in religious activities outside houses of worship? Again, 59 percent of Americans saying they pray “at least daily” are women; 41 percent are men. Overall, 57 percent who say religion is “very important” in their lives are women; 43 percent are men.
These findings make sense on the ground. Spending time in congregations, anywhere in the United States, soon demonstrates the long-standing dominance of women in day-to-day ministries. Religious leaders know this and often praise the essential resources provided by their movements’ women’s organizations. At national conferences, faith leaders often have to brainstorm new ideas for energizing the men in their communities. Over the past century, laymen’s revival movements have sparked headlines—because they are unusual.
Despite the tireless ministry of women in all of the major world religions represented in the U.S., they lag in public honors. Through the centuries, Americans have celebrated countless male religious pioneers by placing their names on monuments, schools and other institutions. Some women have been similarly honored, but overall women’s roles in building the nation’s religious infrastructure are often overlooked.
In particular, many health-care institutions and social-service nonprofits across the U.S. have roots in programs launched by Catholic religious women or lay women’s outreach groups from Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities. Today, many of those same nonprofits tend to downplay their religious roots as they increasingly work with secular funding sources.
For example, Jane Addams (1860-1935) still is lionized as a feminist pioneer in social work, campaigning for the notion that work with the poor is not charity but is an acknowledgement of the important value of each person. In the neighborhood around her famous Hull House in Chicago, Addams lived and worked with poor families as equals in that community. And, while social workers today are familiar with her professional work, less is known about her Christian motivation.
In her autobiography, Addams made it clear that—with or without ordination—she was a Christian leader. “The impulse to share the lives of the poor, the desire to make social service, irrespective of propaganda, express the spirit of Christ, is as old as Christianity itself,” she wrote. She went on to compare her work with that of early Christians in the ancient world, simply following the words of Jesus, as she described it.
The roles of women who spread other world religions also tend to be relegated to the backstage as male titans are welcomed into the spotlight at various anniversaries. In 2017, celebrations of Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday already include published references to his early exploration of Eastern religions with the Transcendentalist movement.
The history of Buddhism in the U.S. usually starts with a summary of the Transcendentalists and is presented with a nearly all-male cast. The truth is that much of the backbone of Buddhist teaching in America rests on the work of Ruth Fuller Sasaki (1892-1967), who began studying Zen in Japan in 1930 and went on to teach, organize and translate key Zen texts.
Far more famous today is Gary Snyder, frequently described by journalists as a cross between a Beat poet, an ecological activist and a Zen master. Snyder’s whole life came together in a focused vocation, because: “Ruth Sasaki was my benefactor.” That’s what he wrote in an introduction of a biography of his mentor. Snyder wrote that Sasaki generously overlooked his youthful problems and invested both time and money in his deeper introduction to Zen. She changed his life’s trajectory, Snyder wrote.
These transformative women were not shy about proclaiming the influence of their faith in motivating their courageous work. The problem is that most Americans today have all but forgotten the vivid spiritual lives of these women.
In the late 1800s, for example, temperance and suffrage campaigner Frances Willard was often described in news reports as one of the most famous women in America. She was such a celebrity that she was able to publish a popular book about bicycling when, as an adult, she began taking up the bicycle as a practical means of transport. Women flocked to buy bicycles like their hero. She was a Michelle Obama of her era.
Willard saw her nationwide campaign to ban alcohol and her work to gain the vote for women as equal pillars supporting one goal: “protecting the home.” Alcohol was tempting men to waste the family income and, then, to abuse both wives and children if they arrived home drunk. In addition to temperance, women needed to reach the ballot box to ensure that their families were fully protected.
Guiding it all, Willard wrote in her autobiography, was her faith. “With every hour, the Bible has grown dearer. I take as my life-motto henceforth, humbly asking God’s grace that I may measure up to it, this wonderful passage from Paul: ‘And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.’”
If she is remembered at all today, Frances Willard tends to show up reduced into an iconic, dark-clad Victorian battle-axe angrily pedaling a bicycle, like Miss Gulch in “The Wizard of Oz.” Her vibrant religious life is all but forgotten.
Care to read more?
If you care to read more, books by Clara Barton, Frances Willard and Jane Addams are available in digital formats online either for free or for a few dollars. The Pew Religious Landscape Study’s gender reports are also freely available online. The biography of Ruth Fuller Sasaki with the introduction by Gary Snyder is available in hardback and paperback on Amazon.