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Empowering Women of Faith

Last week, the University of Notre Dame Law School’s new Religious Liberty Initiative hosted a panel discussion with women from different faith traditions, each of whom see religion as an integral part of their lives and work as community activists. Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee was one of those panelists.

The conversations of religious liberty in the context of U.S. and global politics are most often about exercising religion free from government constraints or outright oppression. Yet what shone through in the discussion from all of the panelists was a more elemental idea about liberty in the context of women and religion: each of these panelists derives her sense of what it means to be an empowered woman from within her religious tradition, even as each is working in her own way for the empowerment and liberation of others, both within those traditions and animated by them.

Orthodox Jewish journalist Rachel Benaim, for example, shared the story of an effective social media and live protest campaign by fellow orthodox women regarding men who refuse to grant a get—similar to an annulment—to women they have divorced in secular courts. While there are legislative efforts afoot in the New York State Assembly to prevent this form of abuse, Rachel highlighted the empowering impact of women-led activism aimed at the perpetrators themselves, and of women adroitly using Jewish marriage law to deploy prenuptial agreements that make it almost impossible for men to use this tool against their wives. The empowerment of women she highlighted comes from within the tradition.

The personal story and sense of purpose that Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee shared in the discussion likewise highlights what a faith tradition can give women. As Kathleen explained:

My own understanding of women’s empowerment was shaped by the women who raised me—all of whom were fiercely independent, faith-filled and devout Catholic women, and stubborn feminists who didn’t wait on society to grant them empowerment; they insisted on it. 

Both of my grandmothers were working women by necessity long before being a working woman was thought of as a form of self-empowerment. In the 1940s, it was against the rules of the preschool my grandmother wanted to send her children to for a mother to work. But of course, without working she wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition.

So my grandmother would pretend to have all the time in the world when she dropped my dad off—she’d stand around and chat before clandestinely slipping away to dash off to her job.

By today’s standards, the act of quiet defiance might make her a hero of modern feminism—a woman who wouldn’t comport with the majority view of what a woman “should” do and decided for herself whether to work and where to send her children to school. But she was doing it because she understood the importance of giving her children the strong start that a Catholic education could provide. My maternal grandmother made the same choice on behalf of my mom and her two sisters. And they still credit their Bronx Catholic school community with helping to lift their own family out of poverty. 

The entire system of American Catholic schools is really a story of how women of faith have come together to selflessly support their communities and empower women and children through education. 

Kathleen went on to highlight the women—those who built and sustained the institutions we now serve; the women serving in them now; and the moms who go to great lengths to ensure their children have the education they seek—who are driving the present and future of Catholic schools that have been agents of social mobility as long as there have been nuns and laypeople to run them.

Such stories of how women find strength from faith traditions and make a difference animated by them are perhaps more crucial to the larger religious liberty effort than may be apparent at first glance.

Tales of women oppressed by religious communities can be easier to tell in secular media than stories of women empowered by them, because it takes more effort to understand how a tradition builds a sense of self and purpose. But as Rachel, Kathleen and fellow panelists Samah Norquist and Mona Polacca illustrated, it is possible to be women who advocate for change within a faith tradition and still love that tradition, to be formed positively by it.

Given that legal courts cannot help but be influenced by the court of public opinion, perhaps our stories about how faith strengthens us—and how we use that strength on behalf of others, both within and outside our faith communities—can serve alongside legal arguments as ways to achieve a more fruitful bargain between religion and American life than we may have right now.