Women assume leadership positions

The wider discussion of feminist theology has paved the way for women to assume religious leadership and is helping nourish them in their new roles.

Twenty years ago, Reform Jews were talking about Sally Priesand, their first woman rabbi. Now there are roughly 325 women rabbis in America -- most with the Reform movement. (Orthodox Judaism does not permit women to become rabbis.)


Last month, at the national conference of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a feminist liturgy was offered as an option for the daily morning service.

"The first day, the room was filled to overflowing and they had to offer it again. And about 30 percent of the worshipers were men," says Rabbi Julie Spitzer, regional director of the Mid-Atlantic Council of the UAHC and former associate rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles, was struck by the number of lay leaders at the conference.

"Once you empower women, it gives you permission to look at everybody," she says. "Feminist theology has the potential to dramatically democratize worship."

She predicts that, over the next 25 years, the majority of cantors -- synagogue officials who sing liturgical music and lead the congregation in prayer -- will be women.

Adair Lummis, Hartford Seminary scholar and co-author of "Women of the Cloth: New Opportunities for Churches," estimates that nearly 32,000 women clergy are serving Protestant denominations. Last week, the nation's first female Episcopal Diocesan bishop was consecrated. And, during the past few years, Southern Baptist congregations have increasingly ordained women, although the denomination officially bars women from the clergy. (Baptist policy allows autonomy for local congregations.)

The Roman Catholic Church continues to exclude women from the priesthood, however. So does the Mormon Church.

"Our churches are still very patriarchal in general," says the Rev. Roger Gench, minister at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. "Feminist and liberation theologies are forcing us to take a look at what has been a hierarchical way of ordering church, of structuring worship in a way that "authority" comes from on high and typically has been very male."

Although life for women at the pastoral level has improved, women who choose religious careers still fare best as scholars, says University of Chicago professor Martin Marty, a former president of the American Academy of Religion. Because previous generations of scholars were almost exclusively men, he says, universities and institutions are attempting to redress the imbalance on their faculties and staffs by hiring more women.