Women, Activism and Religion in America

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union
Members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, [ca. 1910]. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Although many of the world's religions have traditionally more patriarchal structures, women have nevertheless played important roles. Specifically in America's history, women have pioneered the way for activism and social justice. From the Quakers in the Colonial period to African-American Christians in the Civil Rights Era to modern Jewish Feminists, women all over the country have been actively pushing for social change and equality based on their ideals of faith and religion. Here are just a few examples of how women have fought for social and civil causes in our nation's history:

The Grimké Sisters

“I never saw a true woman who was not an abolitionist.” —Mary Chesnut


Angeline Grimké (left) and Sarah Grimké. Image source: kids.britannica.com

Decades before the Civil War forced the issue of slavery onto the nation’s conscience, Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké Weld were active abolitionist public speakers and women’s rights advocates. They connected appeals for the abolition of slavery with defenses of a woman’s right to political action, understanding that they could not be effective against slavery when they did not have a public voice. The sisters helped organize the New York Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women and toured and gave talks to packed audiences in Northern cities. Their work led to the creation of more female anti-slavery associations and thousands of signatures on anti-slavery petitions. In their writings, Sarah and Angelina argued that slavery was in opposition to Biblical teaching. They used Genesis to support the claim that all people are created in God’s image and therefore could not be used as a means for others’ ends. They also argued that treating other humans as “chattel property” contradicted the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Grimké Sisters’ raised awareness of the issue of slavery and paved the way for anti-slavery sentiment that eventually led to abolition.

Jewish Feminists

Jewish women's club

Jewish Women's Club luncheon honoring Women's Day, [ca. 1944]. Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Jewish women like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin were at the forefront of the Second Wave feminist movement in the United States that began in the late 1960s. The re-emergence of a Jewish feminist movement, as part of the Second Feminist wave, led to major changes in women's status in Judaism and to a flourishing of Jewish feminist scholarship and theology. Jewish women began critically examining both their own status within Jewish tradition and the political and social structure of their American Jewish community. They focused their energies on winning women greater roles in Jewish religious and communal life, including receiving membership in synagogues, being allowed full participation in synagogues and being granted the right to initiate divorce. One of the most striking transformations from previous Jewish practice was the ordination of women as rabbis. Thanks to Jewish feminists, many synagogues today allow women to play active leadership roles.

Catholic Nuns

"Our gift to the church is to be with those who have been made poorer, with those on the margins. Questions there are much less black and white because human realities are much less black and white. That's where we spend our days." —Sister Pat Farrell


Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell (center) with Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon (left), and Dominican Sister Mary Hughes (right) addresses a press conference at the group's annual assembly, [2012]. Image source: ncronline.org

Women in the Catholic Church have also played a unique role in social justice issues. From ethical conduct in the corporate world to reproductive rights, nuns in America have been a minority voice in representing the Church on such issues. For example, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia have been persistent and influential corporate activists. Their aim is to foster moral responsibility and ethical practice to big businesses and Wall Street. The nuns have gone toe-to-toe with Kroger over farm worker rights, with McDonald's over childhood obesity, with Wells Fargo over lending practices, and with Goldman Sachs over consumer protection, increased transparency and limits on executive pay. Other nuns have focused their attentions on gender inequalities. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has omitted the Catholic Church's teaching on women's ordination and same-sex marriage. The LCWR has also backed the Affordable Care Act, which supports reproductive rights like birth control, despite being faced with accusations of insubordination by the Vatican.

Recommended Titles for More Reading

Women have pioneered countless social changes throughout history through their churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. If you want to learn more about these women of activism and faith and their work in America and throughout the world, here are some books available for check-out at the library.