Gender Essentialism and Ordination

June 14th, 2018

A new book by Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in America, explores the question of what factors lead people in the pews to support female clergy. Based on an analysis of the 2006 and 2011 Faith Matters survey, Ryan Burge found that support for ordaining women was widespread, with a full 78% of Americans agreeing either somewhat or strongly that “women should be allowed to be priests or clergy in my house of worship.” Even among members of traditions that do not currently ordain women, support was well over half. Interestingly, the strongest predictor of support was religiosity and partisanship, not gender or age. Supporters of women’s ordination were more likely to identify as Democrats and less likely to attend worship frequently.

Knoll and Bolin then interviewed American worshippers in 2015 and 2016 who stated they at least “seldom” participated in a faith community. Their findings were similar to the Faith Matters survey, with 72% of American worshippers supporting women as principal leaders of congregations. Not surprisingly, those who attend congregations who ordain women are 40% more likely to support women’s ordination, including traditionalists and conservatives.

In the qualitative interview portion that they discuss on the Religion in Public blog, both those who support and those who oppose rely on similar justifications. Both use appeals to sacred texts to validate their position. But most concerning to me is that both those in favor of women’s ordination and those against it rely heavily on gender essentialism to make their points. Supporters believe that women tend to be more nurturing, better at communicating, and more compassionate, all necessary qualities in religious leadership. Opponents think that women are too emotional, impulsive, or moody for effective religious leadership.

Certainly, women and men are socialized in different, not always entirely healthy ways. Compassion and nurturing qualities in women are praised at a young age, while men are taught to be more aggressive and less emotionally expressive. However, this does not mean that these are inherent qualities based on one’s gender. I have known clergywomen whose spiritual gifts bent more towards the traditionally masculine and clergymen who were well-known for being nurturing.

These survey results are a reminder of the insidious ways in which the patriarchy inserts itself. Someone can be supportive of women’s leadership but for reasons that still rely on gender stereotypes rather than the call of God to use all of our gifts, regardless of gender. Additionally, these kinds of statements are damaging to men by perpetuating the stereotype that being communicative and emotionally intelligent are “feminine” characteristics rather than something to which all leaders should aspire. Meanwhile, assertive women leaders are frequently told that they need to be “nicer” and more compliant when exercising their gifts.

While men and women are socialized according to gender-based expectations, not least within our faith communities, God’s call to preach, pastor, celebrate the sacraments, and teach is not based on gender. Each of us has unique gifts, qualities, and capabilities that may or may not correspond to what society tells us a man or a woman should be. Even though support for women’s ordination is high, the underlying attitudes and assumptions about giftedness and gender should concern all of us.

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