Equal Pray for Women

March is National Women's History Month, and the theme for 2011 is "Our History is Our Strength."

Let's take a moment, then, to celebrate achievements of the last century -- or, since American women got the right to vote in 1920. Almost everywhere you look, women are doing work and assuming leadership positions -- in education, business, health professions, the arts, and public service -- that would have been unimaginable even a few decades ago. As any parent knows, hoping for a better future is crucial to creating it. So, I'm happy to agree with Barack Obama, who recently wrote, "Only if we teach our daughters that no obstacle is too great for them, that no ceiling can block their ascent, will we inspire them to reach for their highest aspirations and achieve true equality."

Hooray and Hallelujah! All this is well worth celebrating.

Imagine, however, if National Women's History Month's motto for 2011 was tweaked slightly to read, "Our Religious History is our Strength." Would there be as much to rejoice about? I'm afraid not.

The statistics on women's religious leadership in present-day America are dismal. While there are increasing numbers of Protestant and Jewish communities that recognize women's equality, the vast majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the United States worship in denominations and congregations that categorically deny women's access to top-level, ordained positions. What's especially disheartening is that the sexism found in these religious communities is not as subtle as what's now found in the public sphere. On the contrary, it is shouted from the rooftop and proclaimed from the pulpit. There's no embarrassment about it, no promise of change, no pretense of re-thinking this position. Instead, the "Women Need Not Apply" sign flashes in neon lights. It's God's will.

Faith systems are often the source of our core-truths and provide our moral compass. Given that most Americans consider themselves religious, what does it mean that women's perceived inferiority is still a central theme in many worship services? How can we expect our nation to honor basic principles of equality in public life when that's not what people are taught to believe in church?

This is especially disheartening when we consider who is actually doing the day-to-day work of running most faith-based communities. For centuries, it's primarily been women who keep the account books, dust the pews, visit the sick, teach theology to the young, support those in need, care for the sick and dying. In fact, if it weren't for women's work as subterranean ecclesiastical leaders, our churches, synagogues, and mosques would probably not exist. And yet they are barred from ordination.

There's much to puzzle over here. Why is it that some Christians have no problem imagining Sarah Palin running for the highest office in America, but would never allow her to pull on a long black robe and put her consecrating hands on communion bread and wine? Why is it that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can manage the massive complexity of foreign relations, but would be prevented from stepping into many pulpits located in the country she represents? As a female theologian, I sometimes joke that if the first half of my life was spent in seeking equal pay, the second half will be seeking equal pray. And I firmly believe that until we have the pray part settled, the pay part will remain far too fragile a gain.

It's not all bad news, however. I grew up in a denomination, the Disciples of Christ, that started ordaining women in the 1800's. Today, fully a third of the students in seminaries in the United States are women; even in denominations that won't ordain them, women still are filling classrooms and receiving degrees. Add to this that, historically, forward motion on social problems in America such as poverty, slavery, the displacement of Native-Americans, and legalized hatred of gays and lesbians, have been fueled by the efforts of not only women, but openly and happily religious women. In fact, there would not have been a women's movement in the U.S. without them. Think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who in 1895 co-authored The Woman's Bible, or The Rev. Dr. Ella P. Mitchell, who was one of the first African-American women to graduate from Union Theology Seminary, back in 1943. Dr. Mitchell often cited in favor of women's ordination a passage from Joel 2, verse 28, which says, "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy."

Thinking of what this means -- the spirit poured out on "all flesh" -- I come back to what's traditionally been considered women's work: namely, keeping a safe home, taking seriously the human need for beauty and affection, and nurturing the next generation. Is the worry that if women final attain equality with men in church leadership that they will no longer have the time or energy to do these nurturing tasks, too? We have to, all of us, figure out how to place a value on what we most want from our lives. It's not just about women gaining more power by stepping into the pulpit; it's about learning to tell a faith-filled story about what we value most, one that doesn't, at its core, cultivate negative beliefs about gender and sex inequality. So, yes, I want more women to climb into the pulpit, but I also hope more men and women alike will discover how marvelous it is to make tomato sauce, soothe a fevered brow, or listen to the bedtime prayers of their children.

Only when men and women both understand the importance of "women's work," will women and men, together, be able to truly claim equal pray time -- at the bedside and behind the alter.