New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements and Women

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Whether they arise from within a given culture or find their way into it by multiple means of importation, new religions take many different forms and play a variety of social, spiritual, economic, and political roles. They provide arenas of resistance to prevailing cultural and religious beliefs, practices, and values. They sometimes foster restoration, as members see it, of earlier, more authentic expressions of religious piety or offer visions of as-yet-unrealized possibilities for the future. New religions offer their members support, often communal, for developing and living out alternatives to established theological worldviews, dominant economic systems, and monogamous marriage. They are pivotal sites for the adjudication of cultural and religious tensions with the capacity to respond more quickly to those tensions than is often the case with long-established religious traditions. They hold together sometimes-conflicting manifestations of innovation and conservation, critique and construction, protest against some cultural norms and compliance with others. Given these functions, it is not surprising that new religions are often subjects of conflict, anger, and suspicion.

These multifaceted dynamics are particularly evident in the area of gender and gender relationships and with significant consequences for the roles of women. New religions formulate questions and convictions about femaleness and its bearing upon how women might achieve spiritual fulfillment, salvation, or enlightenment; about the relative spiritual significance of female and male bodies for the proper operating of the universe and the prospering of the human community; and about whether women and men are helpmates, hindrances, or of no ultimate consequence to each other on the spiritual path, however defined.

Since the last third of the twentieth century, scholars of religion have become increasingly aware of the extent to which new religions provide insights into larger questions about women and religion. Are there beliefs, practices, and organizational structures along with historical and cultural factors that tend either to promote or stand in the way of women's leadership and full participation, not only in new religions but also in religion in general? Are there discernible patterns to explain why, historically, women have achieved more public prominence in new religions than in the established traditions? When given the opportunity, do women exercise religious authority in distinctively different ways from men? Are women more drawn to one kind of religious worldview than another? Do female, androgynous, or non-personal images of the sacred necessarily ensure equal access of women to authority or, as Catherine Wessinger suggests in Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions, do these have to be under girded by institutional structures and demands from the broader culture for women's equality?

Scholarly works about women and new religions have increasingly revealed that there are no all-encompassing answers to these questions. In some new religions, gender as an essential aspect of being human is de-emphasized, thereby taking down traditional gender-related bars to women's leadership and opening up new possibilities for women to exercise publicly acknowledged positions of authority. In others, femaleness and maleness are intensified, understood in cosmically significant ways that require a new religion to foster women leaders as a way of reflecting the female nature of the divine or the importance of the feminine principle in the workings of universe. There are yet other new religions that insist upon traditional gender roles to the extent that they would ordinarily circumscribe women's access to public prominence. Nonetheless, there may be demonstrations of charismatic power by women in these groups sufficient in the power and respect they generate to override the community's reluctance to grant women public authority if they are also willing to satisfy traditional expectations for marriage and motherhood. There are, by contrast, new religions that discourage women from living out traditional female roles in a physical sense and instead offer romantic and maternal fulfillment with opportunities for "spiritual" wifehood or motherhood.

Both the complexity and the variety of new religions and the roles of women within them require reference to a multiplicity of examples and a resistance to the temptation to over-generalize. Studies of women in new religions have been emerging since the 1980s; they work to avoid ultimately unsupportable conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships between beliefs and particular forms of religious organization and practice and their consequences for the participation or exclusion of women. To see any new religion as either a paradise of freedoms and possibilities for women or a sinkhole of restrictions and degradations is to miss the nuances of the realities women live out in new religions. An exploration of selected new religions from the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries demonstrates, nonetheless, at least some general patterns. This essay focuses on historical context and inter-relationships between religious ideas and institutional forms and practices as they affect women. Ambiguities, ironies, and paradoxes are often in evidence as new religions negotiate combinations of resistance to and compliance with social and religious expectations concerning women's nature, women's bodies, and women's roles.

Quakers in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

The Quakers demonstrate a compelling example of a new religious movement that emerged in protest against Puritanism and Anglicanism in England and America, and whose theology and minimalist system of governance were conducive to the public leadership of women. The title of a 1666 tract, "Women's Speaking Justified, Proved, and Allowed by the Scriptures, all such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus," suggests that Quaker approval of women preachers and teachers found legitimation through two primary means. One was a rejection of biblical passages that admonished women to keep silent in church and to submit to the familial, governmental, and religious authority of men. The other emerged from the theological claim of an inner light, a sacred presence, dwelling within every person and upon whose authority anyone could speak. Quakers rejected a doctrine of the fall that rendered women morally unequal to men for the sin of Eve. They opposed what they called exterior religion and priestly authority, and emphasized lay ministry. Taken together, these characteristics removed traditional scriptural and theological bars to women's public leadership. They foreshadow strategies for empowering women that women would use again in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to argue for women's ordination in the mainline denominations.

Women Preachers in the Eighteenth Century

Two eighteenth-century women founders of new religions offer instances not only of women's leadership, but also of the significance of alternative interpretations of "body" and sexuality. Influenced by the evangelical preaching of George Whitefield (17141770) and her own Quaker upbringing, Jemima Wilkinson (17521819) rose from a near-death vision in 1776 to acclaim herself the genderless "Publick Universal Friend," commissioned by God to preach and to redeem the world. Wilkinson is a good example of the lone, charismatic woman who achieves a singular fame as the founder of a short-lived new religion. Wilkinson advocated celibacy and de-emphasized her female body by dressing in clergymen's robes. Both reviled and praised as a woman in the pulpit, Wilkinson's fame seems to have come at the cost of her "femaleness," a trade-off that is in evidence in numerous other new religions of later centuries.

Ann Lee (17361784), an Englishwoman who emigrated to the United States in 1774, extended the practice of celibacy and the separation of women and men to form the foundation for the communal religion she established, the United Society of Brethren, or Shakers, a new religion that reached its apex in the years before the American Civil War. Mother Ann's theological claims about the male and female nature of the godhead and original sin as the result of sexual intercourse fostered the eventual construction of nineteen Shaker communities across New York, New England, and into Ohio and Kentucky after Lee's death, and the further development of her ideas about the Shakers as a saved community. There are gender conflicts and ironies evident in Shakerism as it grew after Mother Ann's death. There were a number of major attractions for women: a female founder; a deity imaged as both female and male; economic security and a form of family life free from the dangers of childbirth; and the opportunity to participate in a theoretically egalitarian, male/female leadership that was required to serve the spiritual and material needs of celibate men and women who lived separately within their communities. Shaker women had the opportunity to express themselves in ecstatic visions, teaching, domestic arts, and aesthetic/religious outpourings of dancing and painting. At the same time, Shaker work roles were gender-based with women having responsibility for domestic chores. There were also gender-based leadership tensions and conflict over control of ecstatic, female-related religious experiences in contrast to more orderly male expressions. In addition, males primarily articulated Shaker theology.

Women in Five Nineteenth-Century New Religions

A survey of five new religions with their origins in the nineteenth century, two of them communal, reveals the variety of circumstances, theological ideas, and religious forms and practices that, at one level, afforded women radically countercultural ways of participating in religious life and, at another level, paradoxically, circumscribed and interpreted their activities, self-understandings, and religious experiences in gender-traditional ways that reflected values in the larger culture. In effect, these examples function to offer a dialogue about an array of roles available for women in new religions, as well as the theological and structural foundations and eschatologically oriented community goals that supported them. They suggest how new religions participate in the always-in-process cultural project of working out women's roles and, by implication, men's. They also demonstrate the extent to which new religions see the bringing about of the kingdom of God on Earth, however defined, as predicated on bringing about right relations between the sexes.

Mormon women found themselves participating in a religious community that began to practice polygamy, a policy instituted almost twenty years after founder Joseph Smith's (18051844) visions in the 1820s led to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830. Polygamy, based according to Smith on the model of biblical patriarchs, stirred up animosity among some of Smith's followers, and more intensely among outsiders, but it functioned to expand and solidify kinship ties and therefore group loyalty in Mormonism. The practice of polygamy, which was prosecuted by the U.S. government and outlawed by the Mormon Church in 1890, is by no means the only distinctive aspect of nineteenth-century Mormonism, but debate persists in contemporary scholarship and within the Mormon community about the relative benefits and restrictions of polygamy for women. As an alternative to monogamous marriage, did polygamy offer women more or less autonomy and opportunity for self-fulfillment, greater or fewer options for significant authority within Mormon communities? There is general agreement that Mormon women experienced more freedom in general in the early frontier-based years of the movement during the time that polygamy was practiced, and that Mormon assimilation into the American mainstream has brought with it a restriction of women's authority to the roles of wife and mother. At the same time, contemporary Mormon feminists are reclaiming earlier forms of authority, healing among them. They have reinstituted an influential nineteenth and early twentieth-century women's newspaper, now called Exponent II, and they are engaged in theological reconstructions of women-oriented images of divinity through the vehicle of "Heavenly Mother."

The Oneida Perfectionists, an upstate New York community founded by John Humphrey Noyes (18111886) that existed between 1848 and 1880, engaged in another alternative to monogamous marriage. "Complex marriage" was designed to foster the solidarity of the group and to eliminate what Noyes considered the divisiveness of exclusive sexual relationships in order to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth. Noyes's patriarchal stance dominated the authority structure of Oneida. The privilege of participation in community governance, of choice in the matter of sexual partners, and permission to bear children were meted out according to a hierarchical criterion called "ascending and descending fellowship." Ambiguities, ironies, and contradictions abounded for Oneida women. Noyes was scornful of nineteenth-century women's rights advocates and articulated views about male superiority. He was just as convinced that social disorder could be eliminated and right relationships restored between God and humankind and between the sexes by doing away with the excesses of female bondage to domesticity and male enslavement to isolating capitalist endeavors. Women at Oneida enjoyed greater freedom of dress and access to education than women in the mainstream culture. Because childrearing was turned over to the community after the first year, women experienced both liberation and deprivation in this respect, according to documents left by community members. Contemporary scholarship is divided on whether Oneida offered women liberation or repression, greater or lesser status. There is evidence to support both interpretations, and, as Lawrence Foster suggests in Women, Family, and Utopia, the most compelling evidence will take both interpretations into account.

Spiritualism emerged as a cultural movement with minimal organization in 1848, not founded by a particular person but in response to doubts fostered by the growing prestige of science as the primary arbiter of ultimate truth in combination with reactions against Calvinist theology among Protestants. The catalyzing events were the rappings heard and interpreted by two young girls, Kate and Margaret Fox, as evidence that the spirits of the dead were attempting to contact the living with physical evidence that life survived the death of the body. There followed a burgeoning of possibilities for women without prescribed credentials to assume careers as Spiritualist mediums and to preach and teach publicly. In combination with the development of an optimistic, progressive, anti-clerical theology derived from sources as varied as Swedenborgianism and Transcendentalism, Spiritualists fostered a progressive politics that engaged issues like abolition, divorce reform, and women's rights. In addition, mediumship proved to be good training for public work on behalf of women's suffrage later in the nineteenth century. Scholars have also pointed to the fact that female mediums, unlike most male mediums, frequently spoke in trance under spirit guidance rather than directly as a conscious or unconscious means to fend off claims that they were challenging propriety by speaking publicly. Male protectors often managed them and both exploited and were exploited by stereotypes of women as passive, sensitive agents of higher spiritual forces.

Theosophy, founded in 1875 by Helena P. Blavatsky (18311891), a Russian emigree, and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), both one-time Spiritualists, embraced an eclectic worldview, the "Ancient Wisdom," that combined Eastern and occult thought, and rejected both Christian orthodoxy and scientific materialism, and understood itself as gathering together the essential truths of all the world's religions. Theosophy offered an immanental doctrine of the sacreda spark of the divine in every atom of the universethat gave women as well as men direct access to spiritual authority. It promoted hopeful doctrines of human nature, among them a theosophical form of karma that held that human souls could be born into either female or male bodies, depending upon the lessons needed in a particular lifetime. Theosophy offered women models of strong female leadership in addition to Madame Blavatsky, including Annie Besant (18471933), Katherine Tingley (18471929), and Alice Bailey (18801949). Twenty-first-century scholarship such as that of Joy Dixon has begun to demonstrate the extent to which British Theosophical women were involved in progressive politics and rejected a privatized occult spirituality that excluded participation in political culture. Generally speaking, Theosophy attracted educated middle- and upper-class women whose spiritual needs were not being met by prevailing Christian orthodoxies and who found outlets for their spiritual gifts, religious experiences, and psychic needs in Theosophy.

Mary Baker Eddy (18211910), founder of the Church of Christ Scientist, better known as Christian Science, provided yet another option for women as both participants and leaders in a new religious movement. Christian Science was grounded in an absolutist metaphysical claim based on Eddy's own healing experience in 1866that there is no ultimate reality in matterand upon which she based not only a new theology, but a healing system and a church structure. Eddy published the first of many versions of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in 1866. Christian Science offered women positions as teachers and practitioners and promulgated a theology that denied the reality of the physical body and its ultimate relevance, whether female or male. It understood sin, sickness, suffering, and evil as illusions based in the mistaken conviction that matter is real. For Christian Science, the site of struggle for achieving health and social transformation was "mind," an arena obviously open to women who had little opportunity for active, public involvement in institutional religion, politics, or the marketplace.

Bridging the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Centuries

The direct and indirect influence of Christian Science and Theosophy, along with different kinds of spiritual healing and esotericism, proliferated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as there emerged a constellation of new religions categorized variously as "harmonial" religion, the "metaphysical" traditions, and, more pejoratively, the positive thinking religions. Typically, these religions integrated philosophical idealism with distinctive, often called "spiritual," interpretations of Christianity. Among the most famous names associated with these movements are Ursula Gestefeld and Emma Curtis Hopkins of New Thought, Myrtle Fillmore, who, along with her husband Charles, founded the Unity School of Christianity, and Alice Bailey of the Arcane School. These movements were not reluctant to institutionalize leadership positions for women, and they drew large numbers of women members. Their theological worldviews promulgated ideas that women have been drawn to historically. They revolted against what they saw as rigid forms of creedal Christianity, de-emphasized the doctrine of original sin, and held to hopeful understandings of human nature such as a belief in the divinity of the inner self. These religions often combined elements of both Eastern and Western religious thought and were characterized by an emphasis on healing, both spiritual and physical. They typically held to the power of thought or mind to changes one's consciousness, often by tapping into other levels of reality, and thereby to change one's circumstances as well. There are many examples, however, of these traditions giving over institutional power to men as they moved into the second and third generations of existence and became more assimilated to patterns in mainstream American and British culture.

Twentieth-century New Religions

The twentieth century continued to offer a great variety of possibilities for women in new religions. Charismatic, pentecostal preaching and healing women in the earlier part of the century, among them Aimee Semple McPherson (18901944), founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Alma B. White (18621946), a Methodist preacher and founder of the Pillar of Fire Church, and Mother Leafy Anderson (c. 18871927), founder of the Black Spiritualist churches, continued to overcome disapproval of women preachers by force of their personal power. Growing numbers of Eastern religions began to find their way into Western culture in greater numbers beginning in the 1960s and provided new communities, practices, and forms of leadership for women. Feminist/goddess spirituality, an outgrowth of the women's movement and based in the authority of women's distinctive bodily and religious experiences and rituals, came into prominence as well, beginning in the 1960s. The constellation of ideas and practices that came to be called the New Age movement, many of whose themes overlap with Theosophy and feminist spirituality, also attracted large numbers of women and women leaders. Like their nineteenth-century forerunners, these religions offered women ways to experiment with new religious ideas, practices and images, often female, of the sacred and with alternative models of family and community and expressions of sexuality.

Buddhism as a New Religion in America

An ancient religion in the East, but relatively new to the West, Buddhism offered Western women new spiritual opportunities and has itself been changed by the process of responding to calls for a feminist Buddhism, a Buddhism "beyond patriarchy," as Buddhist scholar and practitioner Rita Gross (1943 ) puts it. Highly cognizant of anti-female assumptions in traditional Buddhism about women's bodies and women's nature, an increasing number of Buddhist feminists who have become teachers and leadersGross, Charlotte Joko Beck, Joanna Macy, Jan Willis, Anne Klein, Sandy Boucher, Lekshe Tsomohave found in Buddhism itself sources to combat its own anti-woman entrenchments. Buddhism's non-theism, its emphasis on impermanence, its various female images of power, its teachings that insist on the ultimate irrelevance of gender, and its focus on the primacy of experience are all resources from which women Buddhists draw to foster female leadership, a more Earth-centered practice of Buddhism, and innovations in the teaching of Buddhism.

Three Twentieth-century Religions of Eastern Origin

Other, newer forms of Eastern religions have also attracted Western women, three in particular that have emerged since the middle of the twentieth century. Looked at comparatively, they offer women very different possibilities for both traditional relational roles and alternatives to Western marriage traditions that illustrate what can appear to the cultural mainstream as paradoxical, unappealing, and even dangerous combinations of freedom and restriction.

The Unification Church, better known as the Moonies, was founded in 1954 by Korea's Reverend Sun Myung Moon (1920). Unificationism's complex theology of restoration assumes that Jesus Christ accomplished a spiritual, but not a physical, redemption. It is in living out the tightly structured, family based, husband-wife sexuality modeled by Moon and his wife that the edenic pre-fall condition of the world will be restored. Unification women have access to a wide range of roles, mostly ordered sequentially: careers often involving work for the church, arranged marriages followed by several years of celibate sisterhood to their husbands, and, eventually, children who may be left in the care of others while the parents work elsewhere for the church. The domestic sphere is valued as one of ultimate spiritual significance and the value of the marriage relationship in bringing about the salvation of the world cannot be overestimated. One of the early leaders and theologians of the movement was Oon Young Kim (19151990), a female professor at Ewha University in Seoul and the first Unification missionary to the West.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, known also as ISKCON and Hare Krishna, came to America from India in 1965. The society and its male founder, Swami Prabhupada (18961977), attracted young counterculture members. Unlike the male/female sexual complementarity assumed by Unificationists, ISKCON espouses a radical body/spirit split that holds bodies to be illusion but nonetheless assumes male spiritual superiority. At the same time, the security of a highly ordered sexual life and the comfort and support of the women's ashram is appealing to the women of ISKCON, and there is evidence to suggest that women exercise significant power indirectly, a pattern common in traditionally male-dominated religions.

Another new religion of Indian origin, the Rajneesh movement, now known as Osho, originated with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (19311990) in an ashram in Poona, India, in the 1970s. Its most famous site in the West was Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, disbanded in 1985 in the midst of scandals and church/state tensions. In contrast with marriage-based movements, Rajneesh encouraged women to have nonexclusive sexual relationships with men. These were regarded as gateways to spiritual experiences and gave women both the freedom and the responsibility to avoid traditional roles of wife and mother, develop identities as "lovers," and assume positions of leadership. This movement offers an excellent forum for exploration of issues dealing with women's relationships to male gurus and of the question of what distinctions need to be drawn between sexual freedom and exploitation in religions that make connections between overtly physical rather than metaphorical sexual expression related to the sacred.

Feminist Spirituality

Unlike highly structured family and communally oriented new religions, feminist spirituality has been developing since the second wave of feminism emerged in the 1960s as a loosely organized, very widespread cultural movement movement. However many varieties exist within the movement, there is a discernible woman-oriented worldview often grounded in female images of God or devotion to the Goddess or goddesses. However imaged, the divine is understood as radically immanent in every aspect of reality. Earth- and nature-related rituals affirm both the spiritual relevance and the physical reality of the world and celebrate women's bodies and bodily rhythms, in contrast with some nineteenth-century groups that denied the ultimate reality of the body. Feminist spirituality is broad enough to encompass manifestations as wide-ranging as Neopaganism and Wicca and groups that identify themselves with Judaism and Christianity. The movement as a whole places great emphasis on spiritual healing from what members describe as the scars of male-dominated religion and culture. Feminist spirituality continues to develop ethical stances related particularly to environmentalism and peace.


Scholarly and popular speculations abound about women's motivations for joining new religious movements. No one explanation suffices, since women offer many, many reasons for their attractiveness, even if, as sociological data indicate, women who join new religions do not necessarily stay in them forever. Those reasons almost always include the appeal of theological claims and ways of living that are more coherent with women's own experiences, religious and otherwise, than those offered by the established religious traditions or the secular culture. They encompass, as well, possibilities for expression of women's charismatic gifts and leadership abilities along with the freedom to explore individual psychological strengths or deficits that find outlets and compensations in new religions. There is also the draw of economic security and community, along with opportunities for sexual relationships outside monogamous marriage, or, communally validated celibacy, or communal suppot for traditional monogamous marriages. All of these may figure in one combination or another in women's joiningor foundingnew religious movements.

See Also

Besant, Annie; Blavatsky, H. P.; Buddhism, article on Buddhism in the West; Christian Science; Eddy, Mary Baker; Feminist Theology; Fillmore, Charles and Myrtle; Gender and Religion; Hopkins, Emma Curtis; International Society for Krishna Consciousness; Lee, Ann; Mormonism; Neopaganism; New Thought Movement; Noyes, John Humphrey; Olcott, Henry Steel; Prabhupada, A. C. Bhaktivedanta; Quakers; Rajneesh; Shakers; Smith, Joseph; Spiritualism; Swedenborgianism; Theosophical Society; Tingley, Katherine; Unification Church; Wicca.


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Mary Farrell Bednarowski (2005)

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New Religious Movements: New Religious Movements and Women