A Look Back
Studying Women in Religion is Crucial
Ron Thiemann and Constance Buchanan, undated. HDS photograph
By Constance H. Buchanan
In the course of the last ten years, it has become increasingly clear that one cannot hope to study human religious experience adequately without studying women. It is now beginning to be evident, not only in terms of the nature of the scholarship on women being conducted in the various disciplines of the field of religion, but also because of the interest in religion in the scholarship on women emerging from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, that one cannot adequately study the historical and contemporary condition of women’s lives without studying religion. . . .
This is so for several reasons. Primary among them, of course, is the fact that religious systems of meaning and belief have so powerfully shaped cultural patterns defining the social status and roles of women. Anyone hoping to understand women’s lives needs to attend to the extent to which religion has not only reflected basic cultural assumptions about gender but has in turn helped shape, reinforce, and alter those assumptions. A second reason why the study of women in religion is so important for the study of women in general is that it gives us access to women’s interior or spiritual lives. The study of women in religion allows us to learn and to understand how women of various historical periods, cultures, races, and ethnic groups have understood themselves, their social context, and their world. In other words, as feminist theologians have pointed out from the start, the study of women’s religious experience gives us access to women’s interpretations of reality. A third reason why the study of women and religion has major implications for the study of women is, of course, that religion and religious institutions historically have been a major sphere of women’s activities, second perhaps only to the domestic sphere itself.
Constance H. Buchanan, an associate dean and member of the HDS faculty from 1977 to 1997, was the founding director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program (WSRP).