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Why working women leave church

18 September 2015

When churches restrict female options, they don’t join up, says Harriet Baber

MEN are leaving the Church, but women are leaving faster. And the number of women who are atheists or agnostics is growing faster still, at least in the United States. In 1993, only 16 per cent of this group were women; by 2013, that figure had risen to 43 per cent, the research company the Barna Group reports in its project Churchless, edited by David Kinnaman and George Barna.

For centuries, it has been an article of faith that women were naturally religious, and would always be there for the Church. Old women would fill the pews and staff the altar guild; young women would drag their reluctant husbands and children to church.

But, by the late 20th century, women were leaving the Church. And it was no mystery why.

Until then, the Church was better to women than the world was to them. At church, women could get recognition for the jobs that they did invisibly and thanklessly in the home. Ambitious women, locked out of management and the professions, could make careers of church work, supervising volunteers, and serving as officers in women’s organisations.

For women who spent their days at home caring for children, churchgoing gave a chance to get dressed up, get out of the house, and enjoy adult conversation. Men, who spent their weekdays dressed up, out of the house, and working with adults, wanted to stay at home. Once women went to work, they didn’t feel like going to church, either.

For many working women, the Church was alien. Women were ordained as priests and bishops, in the US, but, on the ground, churches were still heavily sex-segregated. In the world, women worked with men and did men’s jobs. In church, they were recruited for women’s organisations, and were expected to do women’s work: catering, caring, cleaning, and clerical tasks.

More fundamentally, the Church embodied an ethos that was repugnant to an increasing number of women. It promoted sensitivity, sympathy, and co-operation: job skills for women who did caring work in the home or in the “helping professions”. For women who, in their professional lives, were expected to be aggressive, straightforward, and decisive, the Church was alien. At work they competed, asserted themselves, and sealed deals with a firm handshake. In church, they were supposed to be sensitive to people’s feelings and hug people.

Where women are confined to the home, or restricted to a narrow range of traditionally female occupations, and where men and women live very different lives, as they do in “traditional societies”, the Church is good for women; so women support the Church. In traditional societies in the Global South, women go to church, and churches thrive. In the US, during the 1950s, when women dropped out of the labour force, birth rates soared, and the ideology of male-female “complementarity” was in vogue, churches flourished. When women re-entered the labour force in the 1960s, churches began their long slide to extinction.

Men have traditionally counted on women to maintain moral standards, be angels in the house, and do church for them, so that they could sow their wild oats without fear that the social order would collapse. Boys could be bad because girls were good. And the Church counted on women to domesticate men and to bring them to church.

Now it cannot count on women. And when women leave the Church, their husbands and families leave with them.


Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.

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