Women and Religion

An interfaith discussion

Women and their relationships: it’s the stuff to which movies, best-selling books and magazines devote lots of attention.  Whether it’s with their mate, their children, or their friends, the relationships women cultivate are as complicated as they come. 

Naturally, a woman’s relationship with God fosters lots of opportunity for reflection and analysis as well.  In this special panel discussion, BustedHalo gathered six women of different religious faiths, all of whom are members of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis. They’re all proud leaders and members of their local congregations, and they reflected on what it means to be a religious woman in America today. 

Our panel includes: 

  • Sister Carla Mae Streeter, OP, an instructor of theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis;
  • Nancy Remmert, President of Church Women United of the United Church of Christ in the St. Louis area;
  • Doctor Billie Mayo, an educational consultant and chair of the St. Louis Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i Faith;
  • Pastor Penny Holste, co-pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Missouri;
  • Jerri Livingston, a longtime religious school teacher at Congregation Shaare Emeth in St. Louis; and
  • Doctor Ghazala Hayat, a neurologist at St. Louis University Hospital, a member of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis, and chairperson of the Interfaith Partnership of Metropolitan St. Louis. 

BustedHalo:  How has the role of women in your faith community evolved over the years?

Pastor Penny Holste:  For about 30 years now, women have been ordained in the Lutheran church (ELCA), but it’s been a struggle for women from the beginning.  I have reaped the benefits of the trailblazers before me and I’m fairly new to the ministry (10 years).  The inequities remain.  Older women and ministers still have to get used to the idea.  Although I personally have not felt any prejudice against me as a female pastor, there are some things that are not open to me as easily as to others.  You don’t see a lot of Lutheran senior female pastors in large congregations. There are some, but most of them are men.  In my case, I’m a co-pastor with my husband, and we had to work through that, to see if we could do this.  And it’s worked well; it has to work as a marriage does.  We determined from the very beginning that it would be equal.  I couldn’t expect that with just any man.  It has to be a deep commitment on the part of the man to see that.  Some men accept that without any problem, but some think they have to carry more weight, more responsibility, more control. 

Nancy Remmert:  United Church of Christ is proud of the fact that they’ve ordained women.  United Church of Christ is a result of a merger of congregational Christians and the evangelical and reform churches.  The congregationalists have ordained women for a long time.  My personal opinion is, only in the last few decades have we placed them as pastors in churches and only in the last decade have they been more readily accepted by congregations as pastors.  The church I attend has an associate pastor who’s a woman.  She’s quite good.  I served on the Church and Ministry panel, which determines people’s preparation for ordination and their ability to be a good pastor.  It’s been my experience that women had to accomplish a whole lot more before people thought they were good enough.  Women couldn’t afford to be mediocre; they had to be excellent.  They run the risk of slipping if they don’t meet those high standards. 

"It’s been my experience that women had to accomplish a whole lot more before people thought they were good enough.  Women couldn’t afford to be mediocre; they had to be excellent.

Sr. Carla Mae Streeter:  In the early Church, there’s evidence the women were very active in leadership positions.  A lot of the churches were in homes, so the women were the hostesses at these gatherings.  As the church evolved from the home church into the actual cathedral and building type, things changed.  That’s mostly due to the absorption into the Roman empire, whose culture and societal context dictated that women be kept in a very subservient place, because that was the culture of the day.  Now, where you have a growing awareness among women who feel they have much to contribute, we’re in a flux of an early or a moderate developing "feminism" or "feminique."  For some, it’s radical.  You end up standing on one foot, which is patriarchal, and the other foot, which is radical feminist.  We’re in that flux within the Catholic community.  Some women are saying, "Where do I stand?"  I don’t want to be a man-hater, but at the same time, I don’t want to be someone whose voice is never heard and who’s quite invisible as far as the church community goes.  Women comprise at least 50 percent of the entire church, but many of them feel invisible.  They have been doing much of the building, the education, the healing, the child-raising in the church, yet there is very little recognition from church authority figures of that contribution.  There’s a clearer call for a feminine point of view in the structures of the church as well as in its service areas.  If you have a good pastor, he will allow women acolytes in the Catholic liturgy, or if he is also open-minded, he will allow women lectors.  But you have priests to this day who will not allow women into the sanctuary, either as a server, lector or communion distributor.  It’s their training, you see, and they just don’t want to change it. That’s just the reality. 


Dr. Ghazala Hayat:  The role of women hasn’t really evolved.  From the beginnings of Islam, women have had the right to property, their own name, and equal rights.  Women can speak up, for example, if they don’t want to marry a certain person. They’ve always had that right.  Over the years, it’s been the different cultures that have suppressed women’s voices. It wasn’t an "Islam thing." There are a couple of Islamic countries who have women prime ministers.  In other countries, like Afghanistan, you’ll hear that women can’t go out without a man, or they can’t drive a car. Again, it’s a cultural thing.  The religion itself has given lots of rights to women.  The media perpetuates a lot of misinformation.  More than 10 years ago, there was a program that declared a Pakistani woman is the most oppressed person on earth by their husbands and their fathers.  They went to rural areas to seek out these women.  The next day I came to work, and people were asking me, "How did you become a doctor?"  "Well," I told them, "I went to med school.  Lots of women go to med school."  It’s one of those things — if someone’s never been to America, they might think everyone here is a cowboy, that everyone is shooting everybody. 

BH:  The Gospel calls for us to be responsible disciples, but is that calling the same for both men and women? 

Dr. Billie Mayo:  In the Baha’i faith, the prophet, Baha’ullah, the founder of the faith, said that if there’s a choice of who gets educated in the family, it is the daughter who should have the education first and foremost, that’s because she is first teacher of the children.  How children are raised and socialized in the early years will determine how they adjust later on.  Women participate in all aspects of the Baha’i faith.  In the early stages of Baha’i, it was the women who were going out and spreading the faith.  The message brought by Baha’ullah was championed by women and by men as well.  But the women left places of comfort to go to foreign places, where it might not have been easy.  So women have always risen to the call to foster and to share the importance of the message of Baha’ullah. 

Holste:  I see two things that women bring to the ministry:  for better or for worse, worship leaders give us a picture of God.  After I started thinking of God as a woman, I thought, "Oh my goodness, I’m really included."  I realize that I wasn’t created in the image and likeness of God if God was exclusively male.  I try not to refer to God as a male presence.  I really don’t refer to God as a female; that would really ruffle more feathers than I care to ruffle right now.  But because I think God is bigger than gender, we should realize that gender can exclude.  Women give an insight into what God is.  Women stereotypically have different gifts to bring that are excluded if women are excluded, but I don’t know if I want to classify them.  There are preachers who are dynamic and personable who are both men and women.   I think that if you exclude half the population from service to the church in a more public role, you’re excluding half of the God-given gifts.

Streeter:  The call to discipleship is a human call; it’s a call for all of us.  The way it’s responded to will be according to the particular uniqueness of each gender.  Even if it’s somewhat stereotypical to say, women, by nature of their psyches, are more relational.  Men are puzzled and amazed at how a group of women who’ve only met five minutes ago are already sharing and exchanging information.  Men are much more guarded as far as boundaries and turf are concerned.  What we see emphasized as strong points of the genders, are perfectly natural and need to be respected.  There’s no reason why one has to be considered less important because the both types of gifts are needed for the fully integrated person. As for discipleship, it’s an equal response that’s called for, but people will respond according to their strengths.