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The Importance of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders

January 6, 2009

A friend who knows me well was surprised (when she finally got around to reading my blog) that I am focusing a lot on women’s spirituality. That’s because in the classes that I teach I often warn people about the various subcultures present in spirituality, all of which, to my Buddhist-trained mind, just seek to reinforce a limited personal identity, rather than helping us break free of it.

Here in Los Angeles, I meet so many people that define themselves by their membership in a particular meditation group, or wellness program, or yoga style, etc. While I don’t doubt that they are  benefiting from what they learn, I am often uncomfortable with the level of certitude, and even self-righteousness, that often accompanies it. This self-righteousness is no different in my mind than the self-righteousness of the religious right, which many of these same people regularly bash and denounce as ‘arrogant’.

The human ego thrives on a sense of tribe, and on categorizing everyone outside that tribe as ignorant, wrong, or even downright evil. So I am suspicious of tribes, and of my own tribal instincts. So much so that I don’t even consider myself a member of any one religion or spiritual tradition, despite the fact that my spirituality is the foundation for my life. Of course we all have to have opinions, but defining ourselves according to them only binds us more to delusion – it doesn’t liberate us, which is what I view the purpose of spirituality to be.

So, getting back to women’s spirituality, I am often uncomfortable with the tribal feeling of many books and sites labeled as such. Too often they seem to be  a backlash against the patriarchal history of the world’s religions, and in my view they ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’, by rejecting everything those traditions have to teach us because of past discrimination. To me that is a grave mistake, because the true teachings of Buddha, and Jesus, and yogic masters such as Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, and of hundreds of other mystics within all of the world’s religious traditions, can lead us to spiritual liberation. They have nothing to do with gender (or any other level of identification, for that matter.)

However, one of the biggest problems historically, and one of the biggest crimes against women, in my view, is the restrictions placed on their access to teachings and official roles. Many religions restrict women’s rights or abilities to read certain scriptures, or to teach or preach. Since scriptures are often considered the word of God, or a conduit to enlightenment (in the East), this sends the message that women are ‘further’ from God or enlightenment, and that they don’t have the right to communicate directly, or to learn, teach, or preach on their own. They have to get everything secondhand.

I recently read an interesting book that highlights this issue called Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. I posted a formal review on Amazon, so won’t do that here, but basically this book focuses on the role of women within the three ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The author interweaves religious history with interviews of contemporary women who care deeply about their religions, and derive great knowledge and sustenance from them, but are unhappy with the restricted roles of women within them. Many of these interviews are very touching, much more so than I was expecting, because these women have really struggled with this issue.

I wonder how many more women have just given up, denouncing all spirituality or religion? Or accepted their second-rate status, internalizing the idea that ‘men are closer to God’ (or enlightenment, or liberation, or whatever?) Or settled (in my view) into a backlash tradition, focused solely on goddess worship or other staples of women’s spirituality, giving up altogether on the idea of enlightenment or union with God or nirvana, or whatever you choose to call it?

While Taking Back God focuses on the official role of women in organized religion, things aren’t altogether different in the New Age community, or in many Buddhist or Yoga centers. Although there are more women spiritual teachers, authors, and religious leaders in America than elsewhere in the world, they are still vastly outnumbered by men (just check out the Amazon bestsellers list). This despite the fact that according to book marketing surveys, women outnumber men as the purchasers of spiritual and religious books by as much as 4 to 1. In other words, women would appear to be more interested in spirituality in general, but the majority of books, teachers, organizations and resources out there are male-dominated.What is the message sent by this?

I have seen a bit of this myself, even in my small role as a meditation teacher. I don’t fit the ‘mold’ people are expecting, and can sometimes see the surprise on their face when they enter the room for their first class. Part of that is also cultural, as they are often expecting someone Indian or Tibetan. While most of these people would say when asked that of course spiritual truth or knowledge is not tied to a particular culture or gender, there are subconscious biases that creep in. Initially, they’d feel more comfortable with a Tibetan monk than me, no matter how long I have been doing this.

So, my answer to my friend, the reason I do focus on women’s spirituality so much, even though I am wary of over-identifying with gender issues, is that I think it really matters how many women religious leaders and spiritual teachers there are out there. And I think full access to scriptures, and leadership roles, and teaching positions – within every tradition – is imperative. Women’s access to enlightenment, their relationship with God/Tao/Nirvana/Brahma etc., can’t be secondhand. In a way, changing this is the most essential form of change that can occur, because our spiritual and religious beliefs define our organizational view of the world. If we see women as ‘lower down’ the totem pole, even subconsciously, we are denying ourselves our full power.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2009 11:10 pm

    Beautiful, thoughtful post, MM. I have never heard this viewpoint expressed better anywhere by anyone. Thank you for raising this issue up for our conscious and conscientious consideration. Your writing and clear seeing is a blessing.

    I concur with you wholeheartedly. One of the organizations I support is the Tibetan Nun’s Project. It is one very big finger point at how women are treated differently—still!—even in the most progressive of traditions or in an “open-minded” spiritual environment. The women’s spirituality movement is very, very important to all of us, both men and women, bringing healing to the woundedness of women, and to the world at large.


  2. mommymystic permalink*
    January 7, 2009 3:49 am

    Jan, thanks as always for your supportive words. Your own books are a valuable asset in this process! I had not heard about the Tibetan Nun’s Project, I will have to check it out.

  3. January 7, 2009 11:54 am

    I agree so whole heartedly with this post. The problem I have always had with religion is it seems discriminatory. I am very spiritual and have studied quite a lot but I also don’t have one religion that I am a member of. I just wrote a whole poem on our “tribe” mentality. It is the first chakra that is responsible for that energy. When you begin to study more than one religion you realize how much they all have similar messages and especially the mystics/prophets.

    I am with you on the women of spirituality as well. I want more more more. I have tons of spiritual audio books I listen to and 99% of them are men. In fact the only female I have right now is Dr. Judith Orloff talking about intuition. I certainly hope with more of the world’s shift toward spirituality that more women will step forward as spiritual leaders. I feel this has happened a bit as with some of the women you highlighted for the Heroes of Healing Project.

    Thank you. You made me stop and think a lot about this, this morning and I am off to find MORE female spiritual leaders to learn from — it IS an intention!
    Lots of love,

  4. mommymystic permalink*
    January 7, 2009 5:43 pm

    Jenny – thanks for coming by! I had forgotten about the first chakra connection, you are so right, the tribal instinct in its worst form is like a misdirection of that energy.

    Also, part of the reason I like the Heroes for Healing site is that it did end up with a lot of women teachers, so hopefully that will help more people find some that work for them…

  5. January 14, 2009 2:05 am

    Thanks Mommy Mystic! I wholeheartedly concur. What a thoughtful expression of this idea. I think our world has been so patriarchal for so long, we forget that women need to take their rightful place. We need to come together. It’s not women over men or men over women. It’s man and woman standing together that really make us powerful.

    And I’m not talking that is has to be a man and a woman but the male and female energies that need to be balanced in the world at large and in ourselves and in our relationships to each other. They have been out of harmony for a great while.

    I try to support women in leadership roles in spirituality as much as possible but only if they come from this balanced approach. I don’t want an us vs. them. I want us to be together in cooperation. Know what I mean? That’s my two cents. Thanks for this blog!

  6. mommymystic permalink*
    January 14, 2009 3:45 am

    Melinda – thanks so much for coming by, and for your comment. Yes, I agree balance is the key – there is enough us vs. them going on in several different fronts!

  7. samandal permalink
    February 1, 2010 4:25 am

    I’ve just come across your insightful and inspiring blog. Very eloquently expressed!

    You write, “The true teachings of Buddha, and Jesus, and yogic masters such as Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, and of hundreds of other mystics within all of the world’s religious traditions, can lead us to spiritual liberation.” I believe this as well; what really interests me is the almost hidden tradition of women prophets and visionaries. I’m one of the contributors to this blog, and helped to write these entries on the life of Fátimih Baraghání, the prophet-herald of Bábism:

    I think it’s important to reclaim the prophet’s role for women, not just the Great Men of religious history; in every instance, I think, the support of women was essential for the ministries of these men.


  8. mommymystic permalink*
    February 1, 2010 6:22 pm

    Samandal – thanks for visiting, I agree exactly with what you have said re: reclaiming the prophet’s and spiritual leadership role for women. I will be sure to check out your site and blog.

  9. Vijay permalink
    February 19, 2010 3:55 am

    Wonderfully enlightening and articulate. Effectively poignant and succinct. This might turn out to be long, so grab a coffee and sit down.:)

    Firstly i’m a man and bounced upon this website through a thousand clicks while gallivanting around the net on spirituality. I am not a feminist, misogynist, belong to any cult, sect or unique predisposition. I simply believe in the concept of spirituality being a path of self discovery, breaking down the shell we all call “I”, and opening ourselves.

    I was really struck by the core of your post, especially breaking free of the identity (which i completely believe in) and the lack of women philosophers. Men and women are uniquely different creatures. I love women for the endless flair they display, their capacity for a spectrum of emotions, the fountain of compassion they hold and the capacity to shape, soften and mold men. It’s not without reason that there are more women followers of spirituality in the west than men. Women better understand one-ness and the potential for consciousness without fear more than men.

    My endless complaint has been that spirituality as professed by the east has been a man’s idea of breaking identity, a man’s perspective of dealing with the trials and tribulations, a man’s concept of breaking from social stress of providing, and maps and talks to man’s emotions (which is limited as it is), and enlightenment as a way of getting from point A to point B. Controlling and dampening the vices, shifting focus to within, shutting oneself off, driving to a conclusion. Clearly, a very male approach to problems. This is easy to do if you stay in the mountains ( Ramana), sit under a tree (Buddha) , and have a conducive environment to self reflect. What about Modern Society? Why not embrace our misgivings (vices), harness and channel them in, completely opening ourselves to the concept of oneness? Why not see the gray in between white and black and draw a sustainable path to that inner peace in Modern Society. Who better to do it that the master jugglers of modern society…

    Women so naturally wired for compassion, kindness, grace, and subtlety, could open us to a completely new way of spirituality. Women potentially are the doorways to a sustainable spiritual practice in modern society. Man’s spiritual practice has always focussed on concepts of detachment. Though this could open up debate, detachment doesn’t come easy in society and especially for women who are biologically wired to be more attached. This only to reinforce that a spiritual practice entirely viewed and experienced from the women’s consciousness could open us to new findings.

    Hope your spiritual wisdom will shine and you can talk to us about breaking identity from a woman’s perspective.

  10. mommymystic permalink*
    February 19, 2010 6:23 am

    Vijay, thanks for your very insightful comment. I could not agree more with so many of your points. In a way, it is really not about men’s or women’s spirituality, it is about an integrated spirituality, that encompasses all levels of our being and the complexities of modern life, without watering it down, or dividing things into an artificial mind vs. body or mind vs. emotions type approach. I think it is an evolution in spirituality that is occurring right now.

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