Yesterday marked the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Ninety years is a relatively short period of time: within memory of people I know, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections.
Unfortunately, by the time that women were gaining the right to vote, women ministers were finding it nearly impossible to find settlements in Unitarian or Universalist churches. There had been a period of a few decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a few dozen women would get settlements in our churches. But by 1920, that period was over. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Unitarian Universalists began ordaining — and settling — women in significant numbers once again.
Maybe we’ve done better in politics than we’ve done in religion. In politics, the fact that we have powerful female politicians on both the left — Nancy Pelosi is a liberal powerhouse — and on the far right — Sarah Palin is a central figure of the Tea Party — is remarkable. In religion, however, most religious groups do not have gender equality among their clergy or equivalent leaders; many religious groups do not allow women to even serve as clergy at all. Sure, Unitarian Universalists have more women ministers than male ministers, but we constitute a tiny fraction of the U.S. population.
In her preface to a 1992 reprinting of Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Reuther wrote: “The starting point for feminist theology, perhaps all theology, is ‘cognitive dissidence.’ What is is not what ought to be. Not only that, but what we have been told ought to be is not always what ought to be” [SCM Press: London, p. xix].
The feminist revolution is not even complete within Unitarian Universalism: men still dominate the highest-paying ministry jobs. In many other religious traditions, the feminist revolution has barely begun. Sure, I’m ready to celebrate the 19th Amendment: break out the cake and cookies! And while we’re celebrating that political achievement, let’s figure out how we can do a little cognitive dissidence in religion. Maybe we can figure out how to reach out to feminists in other religious traditions, to offer support if they need it, to learn from them so we can keep moving forward in our own feminist revolution, and perhaps to make progress towards a world where all religions recognize the equality of women and men.