Women Religious Leaders -- women we do not often discuss

10 years ago

I was tasked with writing a piece about “Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders”. This is not about women who are leaders who are religious, or about female deities – but about women who had or are having a leadership role within their religious tradition. My research reminded me once again about the male hierarchy in religious circles. Nonetheless, from ancient times to now, we women have raised our voices and our prayers in leadership. Here are some “new women” I’d like you to meet -- women who have made an impact in surprising ways, or women whom time has almost let us forget. I have only chosen a few from each major religious tradition. Feel encouraged to add your choices to the comments section!



Deborah, a prophetess and a "judge" had more of the role of a godly counselor and deliverer than the courtroom judges of modern times. As a compassionate woman, (she is called "a mother in Israel") living in the hills not far north of Jerusalem, she must have become aware of the suffering and hardship of her people who lived in Galilee. No doubt she was responsible for uniting her people in the hill country and helping to raise a small standing army. As a judge she helped people make wise choices in their lives in the absence of prominent godly leadership among the people. Her life is an enduring example of God's willingness and ability to use a devoted woman (or man) to change the course of history and bring about a great military victory. Though the problems must have seemed insurmountable, Deborah saw the need of Israel, knew of the promises of God, and made herself available to Yahweh. It was God who had the exact plan for the hour. All that was required was obedience and courage.
"Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappodoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment," (JUDGES 4:4-5).


Miriam was Aaron and Moses's older sister. According to some sources, she was seven years older than Moses, but other sources seem to indicate that she was older than that. Some sources indicate that Miriam was Puah, one of the midwives who rescued Hebrew babies from Pharaoh's edict against them (Ex. 1:15-19).
Miriam was a prophetess in her own right (Ex. 15:20), the first woman described that way in scripture

According to ritualwell.org, "A Miriam's Cup is a new ritual object that is placed on the seder table beside the Cup of Elijah. Miriam's Cup is filled with water. It serves as a symbol of Miriam's Well, which was the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. Putting a Miriam's Cup on your table is a way of making your seder more inclusive. It lets people know that at your table, the words of girls and boys, women and men, are welcome. It is also a way of drawing attention to the importance of Miriam and the other women of the Exodus story - women who have sometimes been overlooked but about whom our tradition says, "If it wasn't for the righteousness of women of that generation we would not have been redeemed from Egypt" (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b)."

When she finally realized that she could never give full expression to her energies if she stayed within the sphere allowed her within male-led Jewish organizations, she founded one of her own. And the members of Hadassah took up the challenge raised and modeled by Henrietta Szold, showing that women could indeed change the Jewish world.

Wikipedia states

In 1909, at age 49, Szold traveled to Palestine for the first time and, as historian Michael Brown observes, "found her life's vocation: the health, education and welfare of the Yishuv [the pre-state Jews of Palestine]." … Contributions from Hadassah funded hospitals, a medical school, dental facilities, x-ray clinics, infant welfare stations, soup kitchens and other services for Palestine's Jewish and Arab inhabitants. Szold persuaded her colleagues that practical programs open to all were critical to Jewish survival in the Holy Land. Regardless of the changes in Israeli politics and population since 1948, Hadassah still follows this philosophy.



The Hindu women leaders I discovered (thanks in part to our CE, Snigdhasen) ard all women who would fit the Western notion of guru -- they are referred to as great teachers, avatars, the Great Mother, They all embody profound compassion and live(d) in simplicity with many followers visiting them..

Her marriage with Sri Ramakrishna was an example of 'union of two souls', and not of two bodies in usual sense as we understand... Ma Sarada Devi joined her husband at Dakshineswar in the year 1871. He asked her about the purpose of their marriage, to which Ma Sarada replied, "I have come to help you in your efforts to seek God. By forcing physical relationship, I do not want to drag you down to the sensate worldly plane."
Sri Ramakrishna accepted her as his first disciple and worshiped her as Mother of Universe, Divine Universal Power, and surrendered all his spiritual realizations at her Holy Feet. He used to say, "Sarada is Shakti, the Power; like the Sun and its light, fire and its warmth, milk and its whiteness, and diamond and its lustre. She is knowledge personified, and the world will learn a lot from her."
In the year 1886, when Sri Ramakrishna ...knew that his life on this earth was short, he told Ma Sarada to look after and help spiritual upliftment of thousands of the people entangled in the mesh of worldliness. The Holy Mother shouldered this great responsibility of spiritual awakening of masses with calm repose and maturity...For twenty four years after the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, she effectively carried out the aims and objectives of Ramakrishna.


Anandamayi was a holy woman without formal religious training or initiation whose status was based entirely on her ecstatic states. She did not have an outer guru, though she did hear voices that told her what religious and meditative practices to perform. She emphasized the importance of detachment from the world and religious devotion. She also encouraged her devotees to serve others. She did much traveling and wandering, at times refusing to stay at the ashrams her devotees provided for her. While her parents worshiped Krishna, she could not be placed in any definite tradition. An ecstatic child of ecstatic parents, she became a famous saint who like many other female Indian saints stood on the edge of several religious traditions, and in the midst of none. She influenced the spirituality of thousands of people who came to see her throughout her long life, and died in 1981.

Mother Meera holds darshans (audiences) where devotes line up to have her hold their head in her hands and look deeply into their eyes. From this many have reported physical and spiritual healing. Yet Mother Meera accepts no money and does not want to be surrounded with disciples.

It is not necessary to devote or believe in me. If you are sincere to your guru, master, God, Absolute or to the Divine, it is enough and I will strengthen your faith. Finally, if you believe in God, that is enough for me. I suggest that you do you job and your duties wholeheartedly and joyfully and bring peace and happiness in your family and in your surroundings; do Japa, the chanting or repeating of the name of God (or whatever you believe in), and ask for whatever you want.
If you need me or my help I will help you, whatever path you may follow. For me there is no difference. All paths lead to the same goal, that is, to realize the Divine.

Amma-- also known as the Hugging Mother -- is a worldwide humanitarian, who, in addition to meeting with and hugging everyone who wants to met with her (sometimes thousands in a day), also has founded many aid efforts around the world.

Though only a child, she did whatever she could to ease the suffering of her elderly neighbors. She washed their clothes, bathed them and even brought them food and clothing from her own home. This habit of giving away things from her family’s house landed her in deep trouble. However, no amount physical abuse or punishment could stop the expression of her inborn compassion. She later said, " An unbroken stream of Love flows from me towards all beings in the cosmos. That is my inborn nature."
‘Amma’ as she is known all over the world today, has inspired and started innumerable humanitarian services. She has earned international recognition for her outstanding contributions to the world community. She is recognized as an extraordinary spiritual leader by the United Nations and by the people all over the world.
For the past 35 years Amma has dedicated her life to the uplifting of suffering humanity through the simplest of gestures – an embrace. In this intimate manner Amma had blessed and consoled more than 25 million people throughout the world.
When someone asked Amma why she receives every person who comes to her in a loving embrace Amma replied, “ If you ask the river,' why do you flow?' what can it say?”
Amma spends most of her waking hours receiving the distressed and all who come to her for comfort, day after day without a break.



The widely published Pema Chodron is an ordained nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is widely known for her teaching on meditation and for her position as Abbess at Gampo Abbey.

Ane Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado until moving in 1984 to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey. The Vidyadhara gave her explicit instructions on running Gampo Abbey. The success of her first two books, The Wisdom of No Escape and Start Where You Are, made her something of a celebrity as a woman Buddhist teacher and as a specialist in the mahayana lojong teachings.


There is a feminist movement in long-male-dominated monk community of Thai Buddhism. A leader of this effort is Dhammananda .

In an inconspicuous Buddhist temple, Wat Songdhammakalyani, in a distant suburb southwest of Bangkok, extraordinary things are happening. Wat Kalyani (as it is known) is a center for bhikkhunis ("female monks" as the Thais translate it) in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
In a country of 60 million, more than 90% of whom are Theravada Buddhists, there are some 300,000 bhikkhus or male monks and 25,000 temples where men can learn about and practice Buddhist Dharma. But only a handful of temples have focused attention on women, and there is only one bhikkuni, the Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda of Wat Kalyani who was ordained on Feb. 28. She had to be ordained in Colombo, Sri Lanka, because Thai law prohibits the ordination of women.
The bhikkhuni sangha (female monks' community) disappeared from the Theravada traditions around the 11th or 13th century C.E. Thus when Buddhists in Sri Lanka restored the bhikkhuni sangha in 1996, the first ordinations had to be conducted with the help of Korean and Taiwanese bhikkhunis, who belong to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Since then, more than 200 women, including some from other countries, have been ordained in Sri Lanka.
As a bhikkhuni, Dhammananda dons the saffron robe. This contrasts with white-robed, non-ordained women renunciants known as nuns or mae chees in Thai. The mae chees have traditionally been regarded as uneducated and serve as unpaid consecrated servants and maids of the bhikkhus.
This distinction from the mae chees has put Dhammananda in the center of much dispute. She has been labeled as an impostor, received nasty letters and hateful criticisms from many monks, and was even subjected to a government investigation, an obvious case of harassment.
She has, however, also received support from a number of senior monks, including one who sent an e-mail to Sri Lanka offering his blessings for her ordination. She says, "They told me to persevere, to prove myself to society. If society embraces the new institution, the clergy will have to accept it too, because the clergy is also supported by society."
Dhammananda insists she never meant to antagonize the monks: "We are not asking for anything; we are not demanding any privileges; we don't want to be confrontative." But she adds, "On the other hand, it is our duty to bring back the bhikkhuni sangha. Bhikkhuni ordination is a right which the Buddha gave women."
That the Thai Supreme Sangha Council of the bhikkhus has not made any official comment on Dhammananda's ordination is significant.
Dhammananda is well versed in the issue. In her "previous life," as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a professor of religion and philosophy at Thailand's prestigious Thammasat University, she researched the bhikkhuni sangha extensively. Her research convinced her that the Buddha, who lived more than 2,500 years ago, was probably the world's first feminist. He believed that men and women are equally potentiated for spiritual enlightenment.
Dhammananda proclaims: "I became a feminist because I am a Buddhist."



In 2006 Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA. This was controversial in the wider Anglican Communion because national bishops in some other countries (most notably African and South American countries) object to a woman in that role. While most dioceses of the Episcopal Church in America ordain women as priests and bishops, the full Anglican Communion does not. She is the first and only national leader of a church in the Anglican Communion who is a woman. Previously Bishop of Nevada, Jefferts Schori is the 26th Presiding Bishop. She was elected at the 75th General Convention on June 18, 2006 .

Founder of Christian Science

Eddy sustained a major spinal injury in February 1866, She reported that she turned to the Bible and recovered unexpectedly.
She devoted the next three years of her life to Biblical study and what she considered the discovery of Christian Science. In her autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, Eddy writes "I then withdrew from society about three years,--to ponder my mission, to search the Scriptures, to find the Science of Mind that should take the things of God and show them to the creature, and reveal the great curative Principle, --Deity."[
Convinced by her own study of the Bible, especially Genesis 1, and through experimentation, Eddy claimed to have found healing power through a higher sense of God as Spirit and man as God's spiritual "image and likeness." She became convinced that illness could be healed through an awakened thought brought about by a clearer perception of God. She eventually called this spiritual perception the operation of the Christ Truth on human consciousness.
Claiming to have first healed herself and then others, and having learned from these experiences, Eddy felt anyone could perceive what she called "the Kingdom of Heaven" or spiritual reality on earth. For her, this healing method was based on scientific principles and could be taught to others. This positive rule of healing, she taught, resulted from a new understanding of God as infinite Spirit beyond the limitations of the material senses.

Founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper and hands-on humanitarian during The Great Depression

On May 1, the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out on Union Square.
Few publishing ventures meet with such immediate success. By December, 100,000 copies were being printed each month. Readers found a unique voice in The Catholic Worker. It expressed dissatisfaction with the social order and took the side of labor unions, but its vision of the ideal future challenged both urbanization and industrialism. It wasn't only radical but religious. The paper didn't merely complain but called on its readers to make personal responses.
For the first half year The Catholic Worker was only a newspaper, but as winter approached, homeless people began to knock on the door.
Surrounded by people in need and attracting volunteers excited about ideas they discovered in The Catholic Worker, it was inevitable that the editors would soon be given the chance to put their principles into practice. Day's apartment was the seed of many houses of hospitality to come.
By the wintertime, an apartment was rented with space for ten women, soon after a place for men. Next came a house in Greenwich Village. In 1936 the community moved into two buildings in Chinatown, but no enlargement could possibly find room for all those in need. Mainly they were men, Day wrote, "grey men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the rising sap of faith."
Many were surprised that, in contrast with most charitable centers, no one at the Catholic Worker set about reforming them. A crucifix on the wall was the only unmistakable evidence of the faith of those welcoming them. The staff received only food, board and occasional pocket money.
The Catholic Worker became a national movement. By 1936 there were 33 Catholic Worker houses spread across the country. Due to the Depression, there were plenty of people needing them.
The Catholic Worker attitude toward those who were welcomed wasn't always appreciated. These weren't the "deserving poor," it was sometimes objected, but drunkards and good-for-nothings. A visiting social worker asked Day how long the "clients" were permitted to stay. "We let them stay forever," Day answered with a fierce look in her eye. "They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ."



"Rabia, sometimes called Rabia of Basra or Rabia al Basri, was born to a poor family in Basra in what is now Iraq. Her parents died of famine and she was eventually sold into slavery.
The story is told that her master one night woke up and saw a light shining above her head while she was praying. Stunned, he freed her the next morning. Rabia chose a solitary life of prayer, living much of her life in desert seclusion.
Her fame as a holy woman spread and people began to journey to her retreat, to ask advice, to study, to learn.
Today she is greatly revered by devout Muslims and mystics throughout the world."

The Poetseers site says of her:

More interesting than her absolute asceticism, however, is the actual concept of Divine Love that Rabia introduced. She was the first to introduce the idea that God should be loved for God's own sake, not out of fear--as earlier Sufis had done.

She taught that repentance was a gift from God because no one could repent unless God had already accepted him and given him this gift of repentance. She taught that sinners must fear the punishment they deserved for their sins, but she also offered such sinners far more hope of Paradise than most other ascetics did. For herself, she held to a higher ideal, worshipping God neither from fear of Hell nor from hope of Paradise, for she saw such self-interest as unworthy of God's servants; emotions like fear and hope were like veils -- i.e. hindrances to the vision of God Himself.

She prayed:

"O Allah! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,

and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.

But if I worship You for Your Own sake,

grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

Rabia was in her early to mid eighties when she died, having followed the mystic Way to the end. By then, she was continually united with her Beloved. As she told her Sufi friends, "My Beloved is always with me"


Zaynab al-Ghazali is Egyptian and defends the rights of Muslim women in accordance with what she perceives to be the correct Islamic doctrine... But she has been an organizer of women and an Islamic activist, rather than an Islamic scholar. Early in her youth, she was an active member of the Egyptian Feminist Union, founded by Huda al-Sha`rawi in 1923. She resigned her membership in disagreement with the ideas and ideals of the women's liberation movement and, at the age of eighteen in 1936, she founded the Muslim Women's Association in order to organize women's activities according to Islamic norms and for Islamic purposes...
The Society of the Muslims Brothers, founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, was thinking of creating a division of the Muslim Sisters at the time, and Hasan al-Banna asked Zaynab al-Ghazali to head that division and incorporate into it her new Muslim Women's Association. She and her association's general assembly rejected the offer, but promised cooperation. After the Society of the Muslim Brothers was dissolved in 1948, she gave personal pledge of allegiance to Hasan al-Banna in 1949 to support him and back his efforts to establish an Islamic state. Though he was assassinated soon afterwards, she continued her personal allegiance to his successors in the society and helped their members, particularly after they went underground during Abd al-Nasir's regime in the 1950s and 1960s.
In an interview at home in Heliopolis, Egypt in 1981 Zaynab al-Ghazali said:

Islam has provided everything for both men and women. It gave women everything--freedom, economic rights, political rights, social rights, public and private rights. Islam gave women rights in the family granted by no other society. Women may talk of liberation in Christian society, Jewish society, or pagan society, but in Islamic society it is a grave error to speak of the liberation of women. The Muslim woman must study Islam so she will know that it is Islam that has given her all her rights.
.... The thrust of her activism and that of her association is an educational one: to instill the doctrines of Islam in women's minds, teach them about their rights and duties and call her change in society leading to the establishment of an Islamic state which rules by the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet.
Zaynab al-Ghazali believes that Islam permits women to take an active part in public life, to hold jobs, enter politics and express their opinion. She believes Islam permits them to own property, do business and be anything they wish to be in the service on an Islamic society. Yet she believes that a Muslim woman's first duty is to be a mother and a wife, and that no other activity should interfere with this role of hers, for this should have priority over everything else. If she has free time to participate in public life after her first duty is fulfilled, she may do so because Islam does not forbid her.
Zaynab al-Ghazali strongly believes in the religious and social duty of being married. In her first marriage, her husband did not agree with her Islamic activism and so she got a divorce in accordance with a marriage precondition. Her second husband was more understanding and undertook in writing to assist her and never to prevent her from fulfilling her mission in the service of the Islamic cause. In her autobiographical book, Ayyam min Hayati, she tells how, though worried about her, her husband continued to support her in her activities; she emphasizes, however, that she never neglected him or her family duties, even as she continued to be president of the Muslim Women's Association, to work long hours at its headquarters and to be personally involved in the clandestine activities of the Society of the Muslim Brothers. After her second husband's death, she felt that she had done her duty in marriage and was free to devote all her time to the cause of Islam.

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