Role models, women clergy, and psychological empowerment for young women and girls

This week I found my four-year-old daughter holding a ruler and standing at the front of a room, moving the ruler and talking to herself. She told me she was “pretending to be the church person!” She told me and her twin sister to sit down and close our eyes (presumably for a prayer?) and then she giggled. I was trying to figure out which church person specifically that she had in mind (a choir/music director, with the ruler as a baton maybe?), so I asked “which church person?” They both said “Amy!” referring to the rector at our local Episcopal church. The other twin especially is aware of Amy since she noticed early on that she and Amy have the same hair color and style. “Her hair is yellow like mine!”

Last year Cammie Jo Bolin and I published a book that included social science evidence that when young women and girls see a woman as their principal congregational leader at least some of the time growing up, they have higher rates of self-esteem and efficacy as adults. This conclusion is supported by all kinds of social science research showing that young girls look to same-gender adults in their lives for cues as to what their roles are in their communities. Seeing women serve as the principal leaders in congregations sends a cue to young girls that part of what it means to be a girl/woman is to be a leader and have authority in their communities, whether in the religious, social, or professional worlds. This can have important effects on boosting levels of self-esteem and empowerment later in life.

There may be traditional, doctrinal, or theological reasons to restrict authoritative leadership positions to only men in some religious congregations, but leaders of those communities should be aware of the long-term disempowering effect that this policy can have on the lives of the young girls and women in their congregations. Further, I argue that they have a responsibility to grapple with this reality and to do the theological work necessary to address it.

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