Women, Religion and Leadership

Female Saints as Unexpected Leaders

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Barbara Denison
Routledge Studies in Leadership Research
  • New York, NY: 
    , September
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The seventh book in the Routledge Studies in Leadership Research, Women, Religion, and Leadership: Female Saints as Unexpected Leaders, edited by Barbara Jones Denison, features individual biopic case studies of eleven female saints (ten Roman Catholic and one Episcopal) through the lens of leadership studies.

Much work has been done on women religious leaders, such as Catherine Wessinger’s Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream (University of Illinois, 1993), yet the academic discipline of leadership studies is both fairly recent and also growing actively, both in secular and religious institutions. For example, Liberty University and Regent University, two of the largest Christian colleges in the US with vast online programs, both offer multiple degrees in leadership studies.

However, Women, Religion, and Leadership seems to be one of the first to apply leadership theories to (sainted) women in religion. In the brief foreword, Denison explains that her goal is to provoke interest in “studying leadership theory for those who typically read saints’ lives for piety and devotion” (ix). Additionally, she hopes “to further the causes of gender equity in leadership” (ix).

The volume does not have an overview or introduction apart from its two-page foreword. A more substantial introduction would have greatly assisted readers who are not familiar with the field of leadership studies. Most chapters include readable and clear discussions of a particular leadership theory or model, such as transformational versus transactional leaders, authentic leadership, and empathetic leadership, and there is a repeated focus on servant-leadership. Although the authors are trained in a variety of disciplines, including anthropology and sociology, history, English, medieval studies, communication, leadership studies, and religion, most seem to accept leadership studies without critique. Only David von Schlichten provides any substantial critique of a leadership model—and offers a constructive critical assessment of leadership studies—in his chapter on Elizabeth Ann Seton, whom he calls a “proto-feminist servant-leader.” Apart from von Schlichten’s chapter, Jen Jones writes the chapter most applicable to academics outside of leadership studies: “Empathetic Leadership: Saint Edith Stein’s Phenomenological Perspective.”

Several of the chapters would fit into undergraduate or seminary courses in religious leadership or the history of women in religion, as they are basic and readable overviews of key women in the history of Western Christianity, including Hilda of Whitby (Denison), Catherine of Siena (Sally M. Brasher), Katharine Drexel (Jessica Huhn), and the only Episcopalian, Pauli Murray (Kristin Pidgeon). Race was best addressed by Pidgeon’s chapter, which would make a decent syllabus addition to a course on African-American religion or religion and the civil rights era, except for the fact that Pidgeon completely leaves out any discussion of Murray’s non-conforming gender identity and sexual attraction.

Denison proposes that the volume will provide a beginning to understanding the designation of female “saint” as an “active engagement with leadership rather than an idolization of submissive passivity” (x). While some female saints are generally viewed as passive (especially virgin saints), many saints in this volume are already well known for their leadership and strength.

Like Denison, the authors of this volume bring with them some unexamined biases and prejudices, which compel them to protest, at times too loudly, what wonderful leaders these women were. For example, several authors mention the featured saints as having “unexpected leadership” (33). Some of the chapters should warrant critique both from a positionality perspective in addition to a data perspective. For example, Karen Monique Gregg concludes, “In the decades since the 1970s, women have forgotten that religion can be a forum, mode, mechanism, or cultural tool in which to pursue gender equality (albeit not within the structure of the Catholic Church’s, or many other Christian denominations’ male leadership hegemony)” (53). In her chapter on Clare of Assisi, Gregg concludes that women should “return to the sacred halls of American churches in order to jump-start the stalled revolution” (53). While I appreciated Gregg’s analysis of Clare as a woman who employed “strategies of defiance,” I do not think her implications reflect the reality of women already working for gender equality in many churches and traditions.

In the end, the collection is most successful when seen as a series of case studies of conventional leadership studies models. I do not recommend it as a whole for religious studies generalists, or scholars of women religious in particular. However, several chapters would make fine readings for undergraduate or introductory seminary courses related to leadership and religion, or women in religious history. I imagine this book will find a place on syllabi in the field of leadership studies, especially at schools that combine a Christian lens with leadership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Emily Zimbrick-Rogers is an independent scholar whose published work investigates gender and theology in Madeleine L'Engle and the experiences of evangelical woman theologians.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Barbara Denison is professor and department chair of sociology and anthropology at Shippensburg University.



Barbara Denison

Thank you to Reading Religion for providing the intellectual space in which such thoughtful comments regarding Women, Religion, and Leadership: Female Saints as Unexpected Leaders could be considered. As editor and contributor for the volume, I agree with the reviewer in seeing this book as a starting point for a much broader discussion of reframing the identifications and hagiographies of female saints in terms of their active leadership promotion instead of their piety. The reviewer’s suggestion that a more in-depth introduction would be helpful is valid. The envisioned audience was more those familiar with leadership theory and less likely to know anything about religion and saints, and it is clear from the suggested audiences that my assumption needed to be questioned. Indeed, the number of starting points academically from which the authors included here approached the subject shows just how transdisciplinary the field of leadership studies has become. It is gratifying to see a number of suggested religious audiences since a goal was to provide a “crossover” volume intersecting gender and religious studies with leadership and appeal to diverse readership.


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