Does religion empower women? It certainly can. Countless women throughout history have found strength and sustenance in dealing with great suffering, including great injustice, by nurturing a strong spiritual life, and a sense of their own worth that transcends the difficulties, even horrors, of their circumstances.
My own religion, Christianity, affirms the fundamental equality of men and women in its scriptures. Jesus treated women with dignity and respect; as his encounters with Martha and Mary show ((Luke 10:38-42), John (11:1–12:11) , he treated women as his friends as well as his disciples). Many women have found their basic equality before God affirmed in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
At the same time, it is undeniable that religion can be used, and has been used, to thwart and harm women. In Christianity, this does not tend to take the form of denying the fundamental equality of women before God, but of attempting to constrict their roles in human society, including the church, in accordance with what is believed to be a divine plan of creation. For example, St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy prohibits women from teaching and having authority over men. Women “must be quiet.” (1 Tim. 2:12).
Today, many Christians, including many Catholics, see Paul’s advice in Timothy as reflecting cultural assumptions of a particular time and place, not setting forth a universal, divinely ordained rule about the relationship of men and women.
We interpret scripture by scripture, and all by the person and work of Jesus Christ. More generally, Christian women throughout the ages have attempted to use the basic insights of equality expressed in Jesus’s treatment of women, and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, as a way of challenging fellow believers who attempt to equate unjust patterns of society and church with a timeless divine will. It’s not always an easy task. Nonetheless, I think the increased prominence of women in public life and in church life in Western Christianity is due, in part, to women who rose to that task in the conviction that they were being true to God’s call to them.