Once upon a time—not too long ago—I thought religious women’s groups were destined to be a relic of the past, and that was okay by me. Women of previous generations needed women’s groups; in them, they organized for women’s rights, public schools, health services, and so much more. For those pioneering women, coming together in congregations for mutual support, encouragement, and communication was vital and essential. Religious women’s groups were activist training grounds, places of refuge, and centers of power.
But today? In many congregations, women’s groups function more like social clubs. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not against socializing. Some of the women’s groups I’ve seen offer valuable community to young stay-at-home mothers who feel isolated, working women who feel pulled in too many directions, and older, retired women who feel, once again, isolated. But I know men staying home with young children who feel isolated, I know working fathers who feel stretched, I know older men who would benefit from the friendships that intentional community brings. In the 21st century, why segregate these opportunities by gender?
I am honestly not interested in a women’s-only social group. Maybe it’s because I have two brothers, because I’ve always had good male friends, or because, growing up, I climbed more trees than played with dolls—I don’t know. Whatever it is, I don’t feel a personal need to gather exclusively with other women to socialize; I’d rather spend my time in mixed-gender company.
And so it was that until very recently, I thought that the fading-away of congregational women’s groups would be natural and acceptable. In our more liberated era, the need for women’s groups, I thought, just isn’t there.
Now I realize that I was wrong.
My friend Amanda Quraishi recently connected some feminist dots for me in her excellent essay, “Enough with the Veiled References,” in which she critiques the pigeonholing of Muslim women by the Western press and then lists the variety of ways in which women—even Western women (gasp!)—are still subjugated.
She’s right that Islam is not alone in having troublesome, non-feminist attitudes and practices among some of its practitioners. Recent news out of Beit Shemesh in Israel highlights the tensions around the role—and the value—of women among some in my own Jewish tradition. And of course there’s my not-so-distant Southern Baptist relatives who insist that women should “submit” to their husbands and must not teach—a dangerous Christian theology that contributes to the systematic undervaluing and oppression of women.
As we know, women’s challenges are not limited to the religious sphere. After President Obama rightly declared during his 2012 State of the Union speech that, “women should earn equal pay for equal work,” one of my friends commented on Facebook and Twitter: “Depressed that in 2012 we’re still talking about equal pay for equal work for women. How is that not already the norm?!”
Meanwhile, funding for programs that help promote fairness and equality for women—and for all people—such as public education, community colleges, and student financial aid, is being slashed throughout the country. Other programs that help women be successful and raise strong families are underfunded, too; consider health insurance, preschool programs, and afterschool care.
So what should we do? Well, a lot of things: talk to each other, make calls, write letters, donate money, donate time, etc. But I want to get back to this question about religious women’s groups, because I think they have something to teach us.
Two weeks ago, it was my privilege to attend (as part of my job, since I’m not Methodist) the 24th annual Texas United Methodist Women’s Legislative Event, co-sponsored by Texas Impact. This was my fourth time to attend, and I seem to grow in awe of the event and those women with each passing year. For three days every January, 150 women from churches around the state gather in the Austin, the state capital, to be together, pray together, and hear some religious teaching—but mainly, they come for a cram session on state issues: education, criminal justice, energy and the environment, water, payday lending, immigration, the budget, and more.
Speaker after speaker moves through PowerPoint presentations and panel discussions, and these women soak it up like sponges—asking questions, grappling with the issues, and sometimes disagreeing with speakers and with each other right through to the end of a very long second day.
Then they break out into groups by region (by their Annual Conference). They consider everything they’ve learned about our state’s pressing issues over the previous two days. They discern together what core positions they feel moved to take in relation to those issues. Then the small groups’ positions are collected and worked into one final document which becomes the Texas United Methodist Women’s Legislative Agenda for the year, and when they are done—late that night—the women go to bed.
The next morning, they’re up early for their Lobby Day. They fan out across the State Capitol building in twos and threes and meet with their State Representatives and Senators. They bring them a copy of the Methodist Social Principles and their newly-crafted Legislative Agenda. Sometimes they bring cookies. They always bring opinions.
If you can’t already tell, I’m pretty fond of these women. They are some of the smartest, fiercest, and most compassionate advocates I know—and they stand in a long and proud tradition of Texas women working for justice. Many of them, as you might expect, are older women. This year, though, they provided scholarships for six young women in high school to attend; four came from El Paso, and two from Monahans. (Monahans! Google it.) Those six young women participated in the full program and did legislative visits right alongside their elders.
After their morning at the Capitol, the women return home. But they are not done. See, each woman is returning to her church where there’s a women’s group waiting for her to report back. And so the notes that she carefully took during the presentations, and the handouts she gathered, and the issue information that’s posted online, all gets shared with other women in communities around the state. And their new Legislative Agenda is the tool they use to engage in issue advocacy all year.
Now imagine if every religious tradition and denomination had this kind of women’s group. This kind of intentional, structured, and purposeful women’s group. It is this vision that now has me rooting for religious women’s groups, and hoping that they don’t fade quietly into the night.
We need religious women’s groups to safeguard and promote the roles of women in our religious traditions.
We need women’s groups to encourage and nurture young women leaders.
We need women’s groups to advocate for social policies and programs that benefit those in need—children and families, people struggling with poverty or addiction, the elderly and those with disabilities.
We need women’s groups to be activist training grounds, places of refuge, and centers of power, as they once were—because for all the progress we’ve made, we still have a long way to go.