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Shortly after joining the Brethren Volunteer Service staff, I visited with WATER, a new BVS project site that is hosting its first volunteer this year. WATER—Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual—has been seeking to meet women’s religious needs and nurture women’s creativity for 40 years, with the goal of promoting empowerment, justice, and peace across all genders.
WATER shared with me a few of their newsletters, including one in which they cited a 2020 report from the United Nations Development Program that stated, “Gender disparities are a persistent form of inequality in every country. . . . The Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index—a measure of women’s empowerment in health, education, and economic status—shows that overall progress in gender inequality has been slowing in recent years.”
I wonder what the words of this report, now a few years old, would say if written in 2023? During the past year, we have seen women banned from receiving basic education, women’s healthcare options altered, and lingering pandemic pressures for women in the home and workplace.
While the overall movement of the past century has seen improvement on gender equality, I imagine that we have not escaped what the UN report dubbed the “gender inequality plateau”: a leveling out of progress that began around 2010 and likely continues today.
As WATER’s newsletter writer, Mary E. Hunt, points out, “Glaringly, religion is left out of the investigation of causes and possible cures for this inequality plateau.” Across religious traditions, there is a tendency toward masculine imagery and language for the divine, male voices in leadership, and stories and songs that celebrate male saviors. Some traditions do not allow women to speak in religious services or segregate women to a separate meeting space.
Yet, the Pew Research Center reports that women place more importance on religion in their lives, believe in God at higher rates, and read scripture, pray, and attend religious services more often than men. How can this be? I have a hard time finding the correlation; despite barriers to the divine and gender bias, women are seeking God more often than men and finding purpose and place in the world of religion.
During a women’s Bible study I attended in college, someone pointed out that men in the Bible are always going up into the mountains to talk to God, but that we hardly ever hear of women doing the same. And the reason is clear—women are too busy keeping life going and managing a thousand responsibilities to make the climb. But, she said, that’s why God comes to women where they are. God meets women at the wells where they draw water for their families, as they sit beside sickbeds, as they give birth, as they prepare bodies for burial. In the seemingly ordinary tasks of life, women find themselves face to face with the divine.
At first, this seems counterintuitive to finding a cure within religion for the gender inequality plateau. It appears to do more to solidify a woman’s place as homemaker or caregiver rather than leader or teacher. However, I think it merits deeper reflection than that, along with an acknowledgment of the liberation from norms and the empowerment of the spirit that is present in the honor of encountering God outside of the holy, quiet, set-apart mountaintop.
As we observe Women’s History Month and mark International Women’s Day (March 8), how can we better utilize women’s ability to commune with God in the mundane and everyday tasks of life? How can we empower the wisdom of women who are finding a place in God’s community despite barriers? How can we celebrate and lift up the spiritual voices of women of all ages as we seek to cultivate a more inclusive world?
Marissa Witkovsky-Eldred is interim coordinator of short-term service for the Church of the Brethren
s Brethren Volunteer Service. She lives in Washington, D.C.