It is no secret that women generally get the short end of the stick, so to speak, when it comes to how they are treated and viewed in religions and religious institutions. A pretty safe rule of thumb would be that women do all the work, while men take all the credit. Putting it charitably, women are generally treated as somewhat less than equal with men in most religious settings and belief systems. One of my favorite formulations is from the evangelical world, where the argument is that women and men are equal, it’s just that God has just given them different roles to play. Of course in this version, the primary role for men is to be in charge of women. Nicholas Kristof recently wrote in the New York Times of the many forms of oppression that women face in different religious settings. He suggests however that at least among some African Pentecostal churches, women are (finally) being entrusted with positions of authority, and in the process these churches—and Pentecostalism more generally—are becoming a “significant force to emancipate women.”
Now I hope that Kristof is correct and that such opportunities will lead to long term changes for women in these (and other) churches. History, however, would suggest that evangelicals and Pentecostals, while in some cases looking like they are providing opportunities for women to exercise their gifts of creativity and leadership, will inevitably revert to their historic patriarchal structures. The history of evangelical and Pentecostal churches shows that while in many instances women led the way with new ideas and innovations, these were consistently transformed into male dominated structures. Think of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Foursquare Gospel Church she founded, and think of Henrietta Mears and the whole enterprise of developing the field of Christian Education. For Sister Aimee, her denomination now looks like most any other Pentecostal denomination (that is to say governed by white males). For Henrietta Mears and the field she founded—a structured and professional approach to Christian Education—that field is now almost completely professionalized (as evidenced by advanced degrees, etc.), and dominated by men with advanced academic degrees in Christian Education.
So while Kristof rightly sees new opportunities for women among some Pentecostal churches, the long view is that these opportunities will be short-lived, and these churches will at some point revert to being the patriarchal institutions they have historically been, with women, again, doing all the work, while the men take all the credit.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.