Women in New Religions

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Laura Vance
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , March
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If you picked up Women in New Religions as I did, looking for a general theory on gender in new religious movements (NRMs), you would be disappointed, as I was. Aside from some quite general reflections on reversion to the norm in gender as NRMs mature, and the sensible reflection that NRMs differ very substantially and so it is not useful to generalize too broadly about these movements, Vance generally minimizes theory. However, pushing past my inappropriate expectations about the scope of Vance’s ambitions, I found a useful group of historical sketches of gender developments inside four quite different religious movements. 

The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) had substantial autonomous roles for women from the founding of the religion to the 1950s, with reductions in women’s autonomy resulting from outside pressure (such as the removal of women’s suffrage, which had been in effect from 1870 in Utah, by the United States Congress in 1887) rather than from internal developments of the religion. Vance’s discussion of the controversial practice of polygyny and its relationship to gender and to the autonomous organization of women in Mormonism is interesting but short. The full reversion to traditional gender norms for women was prompted by the reinforcement of separate spheres and domesticity in the 1950s. 

The Seventh-day Adventist movement and church were founded by a woman, Ellen White (Harmon) out of the Millerite millennialist movement, and like many revivalist and unorthodox Christian movements from the 1850s to the present, preaching and spiritual leadership by women was a prominent feature of the movement. Nevertheless, the movement always had an uneasy gender politics, and women were not formally ordained in Seventh-day Adventism. The importance of the founder’s advocacy of equality for women and all suggestion of women’s leadership were swept aside as the 1950s and its great reversion to gender norms hit.

Unlike the first two examples, which are close to the American mainstream, the Family International and the Wiccan movement are in greater tension with American culture. 

The Family International, which began life as a charismatic evangelical Christian mission to aid disaffected countercultural youth in the late 1960s, and which has undergone numerous mutations and changes of names since its founding (Jesus People, Children of God, Family of Love, The Family International), has attracted interest from scholars because of the extent of its deviance from mainstream Chrstianity. It emphasized communalism, a strong prophetic role for its leadership, and, since the mid-1970s, sexual openness. There was a brief period during which prostitution was used as an evangelical outreach tool and widespread allegations of sexual abuse of children and younger members came close to destroying the organization. The movement now appears to be disintegrating. From a gendered perspective, the leadership of heterosexual couples at all levels is significant, as is the strongly sex-positive (heterosexual only) theology inside a basically Pentecostal framework. 

The Wiccan movement has no dominant organization, scripture, or single charismatic prophetic leader. The central importance of images of the divine female and goddesses, the role of priestesses in embodying the goddesses and in leadership, the positive but polymorphous expression of sexuality (with lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexual, transsexual, monogamous, and polyamorous expressions all celebrated), and the celebration of the sacred in nature all differentiate Wicca from the mainstream. Wicca is stylized as an experiential religion with great ritual variation, the practice of magic, and connectedness. There is a tendency toward gender essentialism and gender binaries via the strong influence of a second-wave feminism that celebrates an essentialized feminine, albeit with gender performed in non-traditional ways, often relying on the anima/animus notions borrowed from Jung.

Vance tells the history and the story of these movements sympathetically from, as much as possible, their own perspective. She cites documents written by the leadership and refrains from critical comment. The result is a group of short histories that accepts the legitimacy of the visions of the divine moving through disparate movements. This approach would make Vance’s book quite useful as an undergraduate text dealing with gender in religion or new religions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Wagar is the Wiccan chaplain to the University of Alberta and a doctoral candidate in Ministry at St. Stephen's College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laura Vance is Director of Gender and Women’s Studies and Faculty of Sociology at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Seventh-day Adventism in Crisis


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