She Preached the Word

Women's Ordination in Modern America

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Benjamin R. Knoll, Cammie Jo Bolin
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


While the phrases “multivariate regression analysis” and “social desirability effect” may be uncommon parlance to most religion researchers, anyone who studies religion in America from any disciplinary direction should read She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America. The book is also a must-read for any denominational or religious institution leader. Authors Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin contribute mixed-methods research data to the discussion of the beneficial effects of women’s ordination on women and girls in congregations, coupled with insights on women’s lack of parity in denominations that endorse women’s ordination. Their analysis and contributions are wide-ranging and span topics from psychological effects to political ones. 

Research on women’s ordination, strong in the 1980s, waned in the late 90s and 2000s, and thus Knoll and Bolin seek to update the landscape. The research presented in She Preached the Word is the “first nationally representative and comprehensive analysis of support” and opposition to female ordination and its effects among those who identify as even minimally churchgoing. It includes perspectives from all major American religious traditions (15). 

Using novel survey data (titled the Gender and Religious Representation Survey) and seventy qualitative interviews, Knoll and Bolin connect women’s ordination and congregants’ beliefs with wider trends, especially political leadership. Concepts such as representation and organizational stance are key to connecting political science with the religious communities, beliefs, and practices. At first glance, the political focus seems a bit of a strained connection and dependent on the authors’ disciplinary home of political science. However, the connections are made modestly and convincingly. By the end of the book, the religious and political leadership and representation connections feel clear. The authors are thorough in explaining their statistical and qualitative methodologies, as well as the limitations of these methodologies. One limitation they explicitly note is that their qualitative interviews were only conducted in one state (Kentucky). This methodological transparency effectively enhances the validity and trustworthiness of their data and conclusions. 

The authors were particularly interested to investigate the discrepancy between stated support for women clergy (55%) to the percentage of actual women leading congregations (9% across all religious traditions). They propose a “social desirability effect” to account for this discrepancy, whereby subjects experienced social pressure to answer that they themselves supported female clergy. Particularly interesting is that they authors observed a majority of people reporting broad support for ordained women in traditions that do not allow ordained women, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. 

A key assumption of this study is that people knowwhat they think and believe, and that there is or should be coherence between what they think and what they believe, and therefore, that they act out of consciously held thoughts and beliefs. Anthropological and psychoanalytic studies undermine the clear links between people’s stated thoughts, beliefs, and actions, and thus ethnographic data and a psychoanalytic framework could greatly assist in interpreting the interesting but at times confusing data. As primarily quantitative survey data, Knoll and Bolin’s research is unable to compare people’s answers with related data. In one example of the need for ethnographic data for comparison, a percentage of Roman Catholics said they attended churches where the primary leader was a woman, in spite of the Roman Catholic Church not ordaining women to lead congregations. My own disciplinary preference for ethnographic data aside, She Preached the Word reveals multiple insights worth further reflection and investigation. 

In summary, Knoll and Bolin’s results demonstrate that “there is almost zero discernible downside to ordaining women in terms of the religious attitudes or behaviors of those in the congregations” (212). In fact, the results demonstrate that measurable “levels of religious engagement and spirituality are sometimes higher in congregations with more egalitarian leadership” (212). Their survey data show that “everyone had positive religious outcomes” in congregations that allow female ordination (212). However, linked to this finding is the fact that individuals who self-select as politically or theological liberal who attend congregations that do not allow female clergy are “lower in their levels of efficacy and trust” compared to similar individuals who attend gender-inclusive clergy congregations (213). But this negative or disempowering effect seems to be greater on women than on men as measured by effects such as reported self-esteem and self-efficacy. A surprising result is that they found that “gaps in self-esteem only exist between men and women who never had [any] female congregational leader growing up,” which is approximately 60% of the population (213, italics in original). Another way to explain that result is to say that the self-esteem gap between women and men disappears entirely among those who had a female clergy even some of the time growing up. 

The data also indicate that women who had a very influential female religious leader growing up had positive outcomes in additional education and higher levels of full-time employment. The methodology was unable to investigate the causality or directionality of those correlations because it was not longitudinal. 

However, in spite of their care to nuance their conclusions to the specificity of their findings, Knoll and Bolin are bold in their conclusion: “It is difficult to overstate the extent to which strong women religious leaders and mentors are important in the lives of young women in religious congregations. We also emphasize once again that men are not disempowered by the presence of female clergy, but women are disempowered by the absenceof female clergy in their youth” (214). Knoll and Bolin are clear in their support of women’s ordination and leadership across religious traditions, and She Preached the Word is a valuable contribution to this area of research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Zimbrick-Rogers is a graduate student at Sewanee School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin R. Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and specializes in public opinion and voting behavior, with a specialization in religion, race, ethnicity, and politics. 

Cammie Jo Bolin is a doctoral student in Political Science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Her research interests include gender and politics, representation, and religion and politics.


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