God Gave us the Right

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God Gave us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism. By Christel J. Manning. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 283 pp. $50.00 cloth. ISBN 0-8135-2598-5. $20.00 paper. ISBN 0-8135-2599-3.


What does it mean to be a religious conservative in the second millenium? Professor Christel Manning attempts to answer this and other questions in her excellent book, God Gave us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism (1999). Using an ethnographic approach (i.e., directly studying the subjects by living and interacting with them for a year or more), Manning examines the lives of women in three conservative Catholic, Evangelical, and Jewish communities Southern California during the mid-1990s. She employs “feminism as a symbol of secular liberalism, [and seeks] to understand the different ways in which conservative Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish women negotiate the often conflicting demands and rewards of membership in their religious community and the larger society,” (ix) To obtain a full understanding the different groups, she examines religious literature and interviews seventy-five different women. Her resulting work is an excellent study that will appeal to both scholarly and lay audiences.

Manning begins her tale with a description of how conservative religion is making strides in American culture. Critics and scholars have noted that this return to conservatism might be in response to the excesses of liberalism. Liberalism today is associated with big government that wastes money and discourages individual responsibility; with a therapeutic mentality that blames the social environment for individual behavior; and with an ideology of cultural and religious pluralism that has resulted in an absence of standards and in moral relativism. (4)

Instead of capitulating to this hedonistic, permissive culture, conservatives desire a return to the celebrated familial unit of the 1950s, when the mother stayed home and took care of the children. “If women stay home, so the argument goes, there will be more jobs for men, unemployment will fall, and wages will rise. If kids are taught good religious values, then they won’t get pregnant or become criminals.” (4-5) In Manning’s mind, women who have converted or returned to the conservative religious fold are the forerunners of this movement, and she wants to study how “they negotiate modern secular ideas—feminism in particular—with the demands and rewards of traditional religious participation.” (5) She chooses feminism because it “has become a powerful symbol for the secular liberalism that religious conservatives are supposedly revolting against. [And] by feminism [she] mean[s] the liberal feminist movement that is represented politically by organizations such as NOW[.]” (6)

Although the women in Manning’s tale are all labeled conservative, their views on issues, whether it be the status of women within the religious community, homosexuality, or abortion, are not identical. However, there are striking similarities. The first three women she discusses—Katrina (Evangelical), Mariam (Orthodox Jew), and Barbara (conservative Catholic)—“affirm some feminist values and struggle to reconcile these with the more traditionalist norms of [their religions].” All three, however, believe “feminists…have devalued motherhood.” (25) Barbara especially believes that her former co-workers look down upon her for quitting her job and raising her children. In their estimations, “work…should be governed by feminist norms: complete equality for men and women. Yet they have also chosen to be part of a traditional religious community that is governed by traditional religious norms: men and women have different though complementary roles and male authority prevails.” (27) With that said, submission is strongest in the Evangelical tradition, but less so among Orthodox Jews. Catholics, on the other hand, emphasize motherhood over submission or domestic responsibility. (31)

Next in her account, Manning briefly describes the rise of feminism in the 1960s. As women won the right to have abortions and gained in the workplace, “the ranks of conservative religion began to swell.” (43) Whether the rise of conservative religion had anything to do with the rise of modern feminism. Manning distinguishes several eras of feminism; in fact, evangelical women were often at the heart of earlier feminist movements, especially the early nineteenth-century version, since many of them had worked against slavery. And Manning writes of Evangelical feminists in the 1960s, who “began to push for biblically based marital partnership (rather than male headship) and women’s full participation in the church (including ordination).” (51) Catholic and Jewish feminists have also been prominent. Nuns who traveled to Central America became vocal in the 1970s, encouraging their lay sisters to look toward feminism. And Jewish women, even Orthodox ones, have found ways to incorporate bits and pieces of feminism into their lives. This is not all to say that the conservative women in these groups have embraced feminism, rather, they have discovered ways to include some of its more “palatable” aspects into their daily lives.

Although Manning’s background information is fascinating, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Manning’s work is her descriptions of the church/synagogue ceremonies she attends and the women she meets. After attending the various ceremonies, she discovers that not all women—in fact, most women—do not strictly adhere to ideas of male headship and women as homemakers. Even in the Evangelical Church, almost 60 percent of women work. “Regardless of their own employment status, most of the women at Victory Church support equal gender roles in the workplace. Employed women in particular think of themselves as equal to the men in their workplaces and adamantly support equal opportunity and equal pay legislation.” (93) Indeed, many believe that women can have authority over men in the workplace, but stop short of supporting women in the military. Though some seem conflicted, stating “Now being in the military…that’s different. The woman is simply not capable of the same job as a man, period,” while praising her tough friend who dons a hard hat and climbs telephone poles. (95-96)

While women in the three groups might support equality—or near equality—in the workplace, they largely accept male headship in the arena of worship. Men and women are partitioned in Orthodox Jewish synagogues, women have to have male “cover” to speak and Evangelical services, and women are forbidden from preaching in Catholic churches because they do not have the same body as Christ, i.e., Jesus was male, so only those who replicate is body can preach. Most women accept these norms, a far departure from their stances about the workplace.

At home, many of the women also accept gender separation. Jewish women have “more autonomy in the family,” but also have the “duty to care for home and children.” (129) They also have to prepare for ritual feasts during Jewish holidays, which can last as long as a week. The pressure put on them makes many wish their husbands would take more initiative in helping the women at home. Evangelicals often talk of submission to men, but they often interpret the Bible to suit their own lives. Some work outside the home to take care of the home (as the Bible mandates).Because they rely on a less literal translation of the Bible, Catholics are not so rigid about home duties. Furthermore, many disregard certain traditions, such as the prohibition against contraception.

Although women might be flexible at home and the workplace, they take certain firm stands when it comes to issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Homosexuality is regarded as a sin in all traditions, but Evangelicals are most likely to take a hard stance against the practice. They believe that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured. Jews believe the practice is a sin, they still can interact with non-Jewish gays. However, problems arise when an Orthodox Jew practices homosexuality. Catholics are more likely to feel sorry for gays, seeking ways to help them. To control the urges, Catholics encourage gays within the fold to become priests and nuns. All three traditions agree abortion is wrong, yet a pro-choice contingent is in the majority in the Jewish contingent. As with homosexuality, Orthodox Jews believe that their prohibitions within the faith do not apply to those who are not practicing Jews.

As Manning demonstrates, there are many nuanced views held by members of conservative religions. While their leaders might portray them as united against the sin and accepting of biblical prohibitions, many within these religions make up their own minds.

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