The female face of spirituality

This month, the Parliament of the World’s Religions will kick off its 2015 meeting with an Inaugural Women’s Assembly. One of the main issues women at the assembly will focus on is women’s spirituality — the way women uniquely relate to, think about or commune with some sort of higher power.  Parliament organizers consider women’s spirituality key to its global movement for greater interfaith understanding.

In its focus on women’s spirituality, the parliament’s global leaders are tapping into a deep current of faith that runs beneath all of the world’s religions, from the ancient and newly revived goddess-worship movements to contemporary Christianity’s contemplation of Mary. Meanwhile, the number of women who make up the spiritual-but-not-religious, or “nones,” is growing.

This edition of ReligionLink looks at the various manifestations of women’s spirituality, from traditional Catholic nuns to newly minted “Jewitches,” and how they are affecting traditional strains of the world’s religions.


Polls, surveys and research

  • In 2015, the Barna Group conducted a survey on the “State of Atheism” in the U.S.; the survey found that a growing number of “nones” — those who have no religious affiliation — are women.
  • The Pew Research Center’s 2012 survey, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” found that almost one in 5 — 18 percent of Americans — described themselves as spiritual but not religious. Fifty-five percent of those who said they were spiritual but not religious were women.
  • The Barna Group conducted a survey among Christian women about their personal spirituality in August 2012. The takeaway: “The vast majority say they are either extremely close (38%) or pretty close (43%) to God and say they evaluate their relationship with God on a daily basis (52%).”
  • The Pew Research Center conducted a brief poll in February 2009 on spirituality. The takeaway: “women are more religious than men on a variety of measures.”
  • Alyssa N. Bryant conducted research among college-age men and women on their levels of spirituality in 2007. The results are published by the University of California-Los Angeles here. The takeaway: Respondents “showed marked gender differences in spiritual qualities.”
  • Gina Ogden researched the relationship between women’s spirituality and their sexuality in a 2002 study published by the Wellesley Centers for Women here. The takeaway: Respondents reported “meaningful interactions with themselves, their partners, and the intangible presence of Spirit, or the Divine.”


  • Christine Center

    The Christine Center, a retreat center in central Wisconsin honoring traditions of mystical spirituality, meditation and contemplation, hosts a weekend retreat at Easter, including daily spiritual rituals, spiritual guidance, and an Easter service and celebration.

    Its leadership staff is entirely women, most Catholic sisters.

  • Girlfriends in God

    Girlfriends in God is a national Christian ministry that focuses on fostering women’s spirituality through a Christian lens. It is headed by three women, Sharon JaynesGwen Smith and Mary Southerland. They are based in Huntersville, N.C., and hold conferences nationwide. Contact via the website.

  • Global Peace Initiative of Women

    The Global Peace Initiative of Women works to develop and mobilize what it calls “spiritual energies” for the healing and benefit of the world. It is led by a group of international women spiritual leaders and practitioners with a main office in New York City and several satellites. Dena Merriam is its founder and convenor, and international board members include Joan Brown Campbell and Sister Joan Chittister.

  • Hadassah

    Hadassah, the Jewish Zionist women’s organization, sponsors Israel tours mixing education, politics and religion.

  • Women’s Spirituality Forum

    The Women’s Spirituality Forum in San Francisco is a nonprofit group focused on Earth-based and Dianic religions and spiritualities and women. Contact via founder Z Budapest.

International organizations

  • Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions

    The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, based in Chicago, sponsors interfaith dialogue and encourages cooperation among religious and spiritual communities and institutions.

    This year, the parliament will introduce a Women’s Initiative and Inaugural Assembly that will focus on women’s spirituality. Major speakers at the assembly can be found here.

National sources


  • Lilian Calles Barger

    Lilian Calles Barger is an independent historian and the author of Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body, an examination of women’s relationships with their bodies and how that affects their Christianity. Contact via her website.

  • Kathleen Sprows Cummings

    Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. She is an expert on the history of women and American religion and the study of U.S. Catholicism. She is the author of New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era.

  • Elizabeth Dreyer

    Elizabeth Dreyer is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. She is the editor of a series of books, Called to Holiness: Spirituality for Catholic Women.

  • Rachel Held Evans

    Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger and the author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she explored the meaning of “biblical womanhood” as it is understood by many complementarian and egalitarian Christians. She lives in Dayton, Tenn. Contact via her publicist.

  • Michelle Lelwica

    Michelle Lelwica is an associate professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. She is the author of Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems Among American Girls and Women and The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession With Food and Weight. She wrote a commentary for Newsweek and The Washington Post linking the quests for thinness and salvation. She can discuss the Christian diet movement and the quasi-religious nature of our culture’s obsession with thinness.

  • Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado

    Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Her interests include Afro-Cuban studies, feminist theologies and Hispanic religiosity. She wrote Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas; Afro-Cuban Theology: Religion, Race, Culture and Identity; and Embracing Latina Spirituality: A Woman’s Perspective.

  • Marleen Williams

    Marleen Williams is a clinical professor of counseling psychology at Brigham Young University, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints school in Provo, Utah. She specializes in women’s mental health and focuses her research on eating disorders, depression, trauma and spirituality in women. She says religious beliefs that see the body as a God-given gift promote care through proper nutrition, exercise and good health habits. If God only values “skinny people,” she asks, why did he make so many other healthy body types?


  • Leila Ahmed

    Leila Ahmed is a professor of divinity at Harvard University Divinity School. She has a background in women’s studies and is a pre-eminent scholar of Islam as it pertains to women. She has written about the resurgence of the veil and about Islam and women’s bodies, among other things. Contact her through faculty assistant Kristin Gunst.

  • Kecia Ali

    Kecia Ali is a professor of religion at Boston University. She wrote Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence. Her areas of expertise include progressive Islam and women, gender and Islamic law and Muslim societies. She taught a class in 2003 on marriage and divorce in Islamic law at Harvard University Divinity School.

  • Carolyn M. Rouse

    Carolyn Moxley Rouse is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., and the author of Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam. She has written about women and Islam and how their religion is expressed in food and other forms of consumption.


  • Joyce Antler

    Joyce Antler is a professor of American Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She has written about images of Jewish women on television and in popular culture.

  • Hasia Diner

    Hasia Diner is a professor of American Jewish history, Hebrew and Judaic studies and director of the Center for American Jewish History at New York University in New York City. She is co-author of Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America From Colonial Times to the Present. She says a major problem facing American Judaism is keeping alive the excitement, loyalty and intensity of Jewish commitments needed to sustain the Jewish community. 

  • Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

    Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is co-editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

  • Lynn Gottlieb

    Lynn Gottlieb is a rabbi and a feminist, as well as a “storyteller, percussionist, peace educator, writer, ceremonialist, community activist and clown.” She has participated in Jewitch meetings and retreats. Gottlieb is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    She is one of the speakers at the Inaugural Women’s Assembly at the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions.

  • Pamela S. Nadell

    Pamela S. Nadell is director of the Jewish studies program at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the author of several books on Jewish women and American Jewish history, including Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination 1889-1995. She teaches courses on American Jewish history, modern Jewish civilization, Jewish women’s history, the Holocaust and the history of Israel.

  • Ellen M. Umansky

    Ellen M. Umansky is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where she teaches many courses, including one on women in Judaism. She focuses on Jewish history in the U.S. and England, leadership and women’s spirituality. She wrote the book From Christian Science to Jewish Science: Spiritual Healing and American Jews.

Other faiths/nondenominational/spiritual but not religious

  • Zsuzsanna Budapest

    Zsuzsanna Budapest — more commonly known as Z Budapest — is one of the founders of the revival of Earth-based, women-focused spirituality movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She is the author of more than a dozen books on women’s spirituality and Earth-based religions and teaches in San Francisco.

  • Robin Carnes

    Robin Carnes is the author of Sacred Circles: A Guide to Creating Your Own Women’s Spirituality Group. She is also executive director of Warriors at Ease, a yoga program for veterans, in Silver Spring, Md.

    Contact: 512-516-5031.
  • Mara Lynn Keller

    Mara Lynn Keller is a professor of women’s spirituality at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. She is an expert on goddesses — both ancient and new — and says she is “interested in promoting dialogue between Goddess people and God people.”

  • Chung Hyun Kyung

    Chung Hyun Kyung is associate professor of ecumenical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. A lay theologian of the Presbyterian Church of Korea, she was once a temporary Buddhist novice nun. Her interests include feminist and eco-feminist theologies and spiritualities from Asia, Christian-Buddhist dialogue and Zen meditation. She wrote Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology. She spent a sabbatical year traveling 16 Islamic countries and talking with women peacemakers, and is working on a book about it.

  • Linda Mercadante

    The Rev. Linda Mercadante is a professor of theology at Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio. She is the author of Belief Without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious (2014). Her focuses are spirituality, victimization, gender, addiction, sin and evil, imagery of God, and the Shakers.

  • Arisika Razak

    Arisika Razak is a professor of philosophy, religion and women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she focuses on the lives and spirituality of indigent women and women of color. She is a practitioner of Earth-based spirituality.

  • Kathe Schaaf

    Kathe Schaaf is co-editor of Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power. She is co-chair of the Women’s Task Force for the Parliament of the World’s Religions and an artist, a poet and a marriage and family therapist based in California.

    Contact: 949-300-7060.

International sources

  • Petra Bleisch Bouzar

    Petra Bleisch Bouzar is a graduate student at the University of Fribourg in Fribourg, Switzerland. Among her interests is the role of women in Islam, and she studied women leaders in a Swiss Muslim women’s association.

Regional sources

In the East

In the Midwest

  • Minnesota State University-Mankato hosts an annual Women & Spirituality Conference that includes sessions on everything from healing stones and astrology to women’s wisdom and intuition. Amy Anderson is the coordinator. Contact 507-389-2077.

In the South

In the West/Northwest

  • Alka Arora

    Alka Arora is an assistant professor in women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. She is an expert on women and spiritual-based activism and Buddhism.

  • Carol Christ

    Carol Christ is the founder of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual in Eugene, Ore. She is an expert on goddess-based religion and spirituality and frequently leads spiritual tours to Greece.

    Contact: 541-345-8306.
  • Anne Scott

    Anne Scott is a Sufi teacher and founder of the DreamWeather Foundation in Sebastopol, Calif. She develops and leads workshops and retreats on women’s spirituality in the United States and other countries.

  • WomanSpirit Center

    The WomanSpirit Center of Bellevue, Wash., is an interfaith community of women that offers retreats, workshops and activities, many of which include unusual forms of prayer, such as hiking, beachcombing, journaling, centering prayer and meditation.

  • The Women of Wisdom Foundation stages numerous women’s spirituality classes, workshops and conferences in Seattle. Contact 206-782-3363.