The Extraordinary Role of Women in Religion

February 28, 2018

Virgin Mary and Jesus (old Persian miniature), wikipedia


The religions of the world would be mere shadows of their current iterations were it not for the women who championed them and, in many cases, illustrated the religions’ highest ideals with their very lives. In her upcoming class, “Women in Religion,” Professor Jill Carroll will focus on the extraordinary role that women have played, and continue to play, in the world’s religions.





WIH Reporter: From most people’s perspective, religions of the world are dominated by men. How will your upcoming class dispel this?

Carroll: The class, broadly speaking, won’t dispel this idea because historically it is mostly true. Religions have been made by men, for men and about men for the most part. That being the case, the stories and roles of women in the religions have been minimized. Our class will prioritize those stories and roles to balance out the portrait of the religions.

WIH Reporter: In many religions of the world, women are taught to be submissive. Would you give us an example of a female who went against this directive?

Carroll: Pretty much every woman who ever did anything notable in the realm of religion. Sometimes it was a matter of not being “submissive” – other times it was more about refusing the standard, limiting roles carved for women in a given socio-cultural context. The women who have achieved something in religion – started a movement, led a group, initiated socio-political activism, etc. – broke out of the prescribed roles in order to accomplish those things.

WIH Reporter: Do you have a favorite female prophet, disciple or saint and if so, what is her strongest characteristic?

Carroll: There are so many, but recently I’m enamored with Lucretia Mott, the 18th century abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and religious reformer.  She was so brave, so smart, so powerful in her person and presence.  Another would be Angelina Grimke, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.  Both these women were deeply radical in their contexts and had backbones of steel.  I admire them tremendously.

WIH Reporter: How do the women you will examine in this course illustrate the ideals of religion?

Carroll: In many ways, they exemplify the deepest ideals, teachings and ethical admonitions of the religions – and expand them into new area.  For example, Amma (a current day Hindu guru from the Dalit or untouchable caste) embodies in her life and practice many traditional Hindu virtues and does what respectable gurus everywhere do.  However, she expands her work into the world of widows – Hindu society is particularly hard on widows – and Amma from her own resources through the funds she raises has created a small pension system for widows.  I can’t imagine that such a thing would be on the forefront of a male guru’s agenda.  But Amma is a woman and understands the plight of women.  It’s not a blind spot for her.

WIH Reporter: Finally, in today’s world of women finding their voices to stand up to misogyny, what would surprise us to know about the amazing women you will be studying?

Carroll: I don’t know that it’s much of a surprise, but important to know is that so many of these women overcame significant odds against them to achieve whatever they’ve achieved.  They were scorned, put down, made fun of, harassed, rejected, etc.  But, as the recent meme indicates, “still she persisted.”

For more information or to register for Jill Carroll’s 8-week course starting March 19th, 2018, click here.