Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations outside the Mainstream

Catherine Wessinger has collected essays on women’s leadership roles (theoretical and actual) in a handful of American groups outside the religious mainstream. The chapters, written by historians, folklorists, and theologians, take a 1980 article by Mary Farrell Bednarowski as their starting point. Bednarowski had looked at nineteenth-century religious groups for common elements contributing to expanded leadership roles for women. These elements, she found, included (1) the denial of an exclusively male anthropomorphic deity; (2) a reinterpretation or denial of the Fall; (3) the lack of a traditional, ordained clergy; and (4) a reexamination of marriage and motherhood as the only proper and fulfilling spheres for women.

For the most part, the essays in Wessinger’s collection revolve around religious groups meeting Bednarowski’s four criteria. The groups include Shakerism, Theosophy, African-American Spiritualism, Christian Science, New Thought, and feminist spirituality. The collection also offers some analysis of three groups that do not otherwise fit Bednarowski’s model: Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and Mormonism. Seventh-Day Adventists are excluded even though their prophetess, Ellen G. White, is mentioned twice in passing.

The six-page discussion of Mormonism confines itself to some women’s current attempts to reconcile gender roles and theology from within the Church. Unfortunately, no historical overview of women’s roles in Mormonism is given, as is often provided in the essays examining other groups.

All essays accept insiders’ theological explanations without question. No attempts are made to discredit any group’s religious claims. Generally, the authors believe that marginal religious groups are more supportive of the idea of female leadership than are the mainstream traditions. This characterization holds true even for many of the groups where leadership, in actual practice, changed from reliance on a few charismatic founding mothers into a male hierarchy.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 34:4
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