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Published Date: January 31, 1994

Published Date: January 31, 1994

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The Historical, Social, and Religious Context of American Baptist Women in El Salvador

“…the liberation of women requires, and is only really possible through, a change that goes to the root of this system and of its mechanisms of domination. We have to uproot structural violence and move toward a new type of social relations. We need a new exodus, in which the female role is fundamental and determining.”1

Such is the determination of a small but growing number of women in Latin America, including El Salvador. It is no accident that the imagery in this statement is both biblical and revolutionary, for those dimensions encompass the nature of the history of El Salvador. To understand the situation in which Baptist women in El Salvador find themselves today, let us first briefly consider their historical backdrop, particularly as it relates to women.

Women And The History Of Catholicism In El Salvador

Before the sixteenth-century conquest of the Americas by Catholic Spain, the indigenous people of El Salvador practiced their own native religions. According to Dom Bartolome Carrasco Briseno, archbishop of Oaxaca, Mexico:

“In America’s pre-Columbian cultures women had a predominant role… [Their] contribution to the development of indigenous cultures was so important that the concept of God remained closely linked both to maize and to the female principle. There were peoples who knew God only as Mother. Others, the majority, combined male and female in God…. It was impossible for the ancient—as it is for the present-day—native peoples to conceive of God only in a male mode.”2

Although there was probably a bit more diversity among the various cultures than the archbishop acknowledges here — and perhaps more oppression as well — it was to this type of Mayan religious culture that the Spanish came to conquer the land and “christianize” the natives and their society. The area of El Salvador fell to Spanish rule in 1525, at which time the Catholic faith was imposed on the Fipil and Lenca Indians, the peoples of the region.

Spanish women are not known to have been among the conquistadores, although they soon joined them as colonies were established. Native women were raped by their conquerors and required to serve as both mistresses and wives. Today over 90 percent of the Salvadoran population has become Mestizo (mixed race of Spanish/European and Indian), 5 percent is Amerindian, 1.7 percent white, and the remainder a variety of other ethno-linguistic groups.3

Roman Catholicism, with Spanish cultural overtones, has in many ways dominated Salvadoran culture since the sixteenth century. In 1970, over 90 percent of the El Salvador’s population was identified as Catholic. Thirty percent of these practiced a “popular Catholicism” which consists of little religious education but participation in the popular religious festivals. The other 60 percent practiced some form of “Mayanized Catholicism,” which is a mixture of Catholic and traditional Mayan Indian beliefs and customs.4 By 1990, the figure had dropped to about 82 percent, as Protestantism is spreading rapidly in El Salvador and throughout Latin America5 (perhaps indicating, at least in part, that Catholicism’s visible domination of the region may not in fact have deeply penetrated Latin American life and beliefs6).

Women were active in the uprisings of 1811 and 1814, which led to independence from Spain in 1821. Numerous successive governments accepted and then rejected Catholicism as the country’s official religion until, in 1886, freedom of religion was established by El Salvador’s eighth constitution. These changes made little difference in the living conditions of the vast majority of the country’s poor, however, and by the 1920s, both rural and urban citizens were seeking changes through political elections and peaceful demonstrations. A December 1922 women’s march in San Salvador was fired on by the military, and dozens of women died. Unrest culminated in a 1932 peasant uprising in which Augustin Farabundo Marti, the leader of the Communist Party in El Salvador, was executed and over thirty thousand Salvadorans, most of them Indians, massacred within a three-week period. The ruling oligarchy of some fourteen wealthy landowners subsequently controlled the economy and politics until war broke out in the late 1970s, after decades of festering unrest. During this time, peasants and church workers had formed Catholic base Christian communities which reflected on local conditions in light of biblical texts. As a result, “many rural women who had never imagined a political role for themselves joined the massive outcry for land reform, motivated above all by a religious faith that justice could prevail on earth.”7

Up until then, according to David B. Barrett’s 1982 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, church and state had maintained “an attitude of mutual recognition and [tried] to avoid conflict.”8 That conflict ignited, however, as Catholic religious leaders, especially Jesuits, led the battle for land reform, and numerous Catholic priests and religious sisters working with the poor were assassinated, “disappeared,” or forced to flee the country during the ensuing twelve-year civil war. Although a faction of the Catholic Church has upheld the status quo in El Salvador, an opposing faction has been deeply compelled by the new faith perspective of liberation theology, which calls for a different interpretation of the Christian message, that puts God on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Since January 16,1992, when a peace agreement was signed, peace has been maintained. It remains to be seen how the Catholic Church will officially position itself in this new phase of Salvadoran history.

Women And The History Of The Baptists In El Salvador

At about the same time that the Spanish were claiming most of Central and South America for their Catholic Monarchs, some Catholics in Europe were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church. By the mid-sixteenth century, a few Protestants from England and France had ventured to Latin America as sailors, merchants, and colonizers.9 The majority of the Protestant groups, however, came as family, church, or community units and settled in North America, conquering, colonizing, and christianizing the native peoples in their own fashion as they went.10

It was not until the late nineteenth century, which was characterized by a nationwide Protestant missionary fervor, that North American Protestants turned their concerted efforts “south of the border.”11 In 1896 Protestant evangelistic work began in El Salvador with the arrival of the Central American Mission. Between that time and World War 1, the Church of God (Cleveland), the Seventh-day Adventists, and the American Baptists began missionary endeavors in El Salvador as well. In 1922, the Assemblies of God extended their outreach to El Salvador, and today remain the largest single Protestant alternative to Catholicism in El Salvador.12

The history of the American Baptists within this broader context is particularly significant to our study and to the Baptist women living in El Salvador today. The American Baptist Home Mission Society began its work in El Salvador in 1911, according to historian Charles L. White, by organizing groups of believers in the mountains and valleys into churches.13 In 1915, the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society (WABHMS) sent two women missionaries, May Covington and Eva Garcia, to work among the women and children.14 In these early years, other Baptist women “pioneered… as ‘mule-back ministers,’ calling people to Christ, healing them, and setting up vacation schools for them”15 Grace Hatler, for instance, set up projects in nutrition, farming, and animal husbandry in the school at Santa Ana and founded a home for the aged.

Covington and Garcia, working under the Rev. William Keech, had begun offering classes for the children three mornings a week.16 Before long, two academically excellent schools were founded by the WABHMS, one in Santa Ana (1919) and one in San Salvador (1924).17Women missionaries Ruth Carr and Evalena McCutcheon served as principals in these schools respectively (Carr for more than thirty-five years). The schools achieved international respect and trained a new generation of leaders in government, business, education, and the church.18 According to a 1952 report from the American Baptists, the school in Santa Ana, which offered primary and secondary educations, also had a boarding school for girls which was “especially important in preparing young women for leadership in the church.19 By 1952, there were twenty-two Baptist churches in El Salvador with a membership totaling 1,430, and the average attendance in the thirty-eight Sunday schools was 1,650. The churches had raised $18,078, and the two mission societies had contributed $14,561 for church work.20 As of 1990, the Association Bautista de El Salvador (ABES) is an affiliation of some sixty-five churches and twelve mission churches, with approximately eight thousand members;21 it ranks sixth or seventh in terms of denominational size (Catholic being the largest).22

It is pertinent to note how deeply involved Baptist women were in the early Protestant missionary efforts in El Salvador. In one sense, this is certainly not surprising, as women were on the forefront of other reform movements and endeavors of the age as well.23 Women were often permitted to exercise more leadership responsibilities overseas among foreigners than they were among those at home, and by 1910, ten thousand Protestant women — half of them single, 322 of them physicians — were working in seventeen mission fields.24 Yet the fact that the Baptist women had formed their own mission society, in which they exercised leadership independent of men, indicates that there is a clear history of women in leadership in the American Baptist Church. Interestingly, the school in Santa Ana was reported to be “preparing young women for leadership in the church.” (Though the specific type of leadership remains unspecified, it is high unlikely that pastoral leadership was intended but rather leadership over other women and children.)

But this era of women’s leadership and initiative in El Salvador came to a close several decades later. “Forty years ago [Baptist] women had their own missionary societies, both for home and foreign missions,” explains Baptist theologian Jorge Pixley of Nicaragua in a 1985 interview with Elsa Tamez. “All the executives and administrators of the society were women…. Later, about 1948 or 1950, the two societies [men’s and women’s] merged, and I think that was a loss.

…The merger meant that women were again second-class….”25

Machismo And The Social Realities Of El Salvador

As Salvadoran Baptist women today seek to reclaim their God-given, first-class status as equals with men, they are following in the steps of other women who have gone before them. Salvadoran history, as we have seen, has been influenced by women throughout the centuries and offers hope for Salvadoran women today.

However, the struggle for women’s rights is particularly difficult in Latin nations like El Salvador because of a deeply rooted societal machismo. According to the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, machismo is “a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.” Men in El Salvador are traditionally expected to be macho — by both men and women. To be macho is to be “characterized by qualities considered manly, especially where manifested in an assertive, self-conscious, or dominating way.”26

Machismo has been equated with sexism, male chauvinism, and male power. In one sense, almost every society, whether Eastern or Western, bears the marks of machismo inasmuch as it is patriarchal, In Latin America, however, the machismo seems to be particularly strong, more deeply ingrained, and more overtly accepted than it is in the United States.

In El Salvador, for instance, to be macho is viewed as a positive quality by most Salvadorans;27 in the U.S. culture, although we can find many areas and subcultures where it is admirable to be macho, by-and-large the dominant culture tends to not affirm machismo and sexism (at least overtly), thereby forcing it underground. Perhaps there is only a quantitative difference between the sexism in El Salvador and the United States; perhaps a qualitative one. Regardless, machista attitudes have led to much of the oppression and victimization experienced by Salvadoran women, as attested to by many with whom I spoke.

As Zoila Innocenti and Ignacio Marti Baro suggest, “marriage”28 in a macho society is no happy ending for many Salvadoran women.29 Yet the stigma of singleness and childlessness is enormous, and all women are expected to marry and bear a healthy number of offspring — especially sons.30Machista attitudes still endorse male virility —and blame the woman when the union bears no “fruit.”

Unfortunately, machismo has been reinforced by the patriarchal teachings of the Christian church concerning such things as female obedience and submission in the marriage relationship. The Salvadoran law which stipulates that a man is responsible to protect his wife and the wife obligated to obey her husband has echoes of Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians (5:33: “Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”) — with the words protect and obey substituted for the words love and respect. The interpretation and application of this Salvadoran law falls far short of any biblical intent, however, and the man is permitted a lot of leeway. To give his wife a little money from time to time is considered “protection,” and sexual unfaithfulness is excusable, even expected, as proof of his manliness.

Even though the Baptist church as an institution would not officially support machismo, Baptist women are by no means exempt from its consequences. Woman’s “submission” to her husband in all things is deemed biblical by both women and men — and often means acting like a servant, conceiving more children than desired, having no control over finances, and tolerating sexual unfaithfulness and emotional and/ or physical abuse.31 Even among Baptist Christians, machista attitudes dominate to such an extent that such behaviors are seen by many as appropriate within the marriage bond.

The Rise Of Feminism In El Salvador

The 1982 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia lists no organizations for women in the ordained ministry in El Salvador, nor does it list any groups for laywomen emphasizing the role of women in church and society. This would suggest that a visible feminist movement in El Salvador did not exist at any organized level prior to the eighties (although some women’s groups were in fact existent, including Emmanuel Baptist Church’s CEFORM center for women). Although basically the case, a number of active women’s organizations were in fact emerging during the late seventies and into the mid-eighties to address the nation’s economic, political, and social problems, particularly as they affect women.

Among the first and most important women’s organizations is the Association of Women in El Salvador (AMES), which formed in the late 1970s. It is closely associated with the FMLN and FDR rebel forces and has worked on issues that affect women in the refugee camps and guerrilla-controlled zones in the country. The Association for Salvadoran Women (ADEMUSA) has worked with base Christian communities and domestics and organized against forced recruitment by the military. A third group, the national Coordinator of Salvadoran Women (CONAMUS) was founded in 1986 by Mercedes Cartas (who is considered by many to be the founder of the feminist movement in El Salvador), Maria Cristina Gomez, and others, to address labor issues as well as domestic and societal violence against women. In December 1990, it began publishing Palabra de Mujer (Word of Woman), edited by Cartas, which boasts of being the “primera revista Jeminista salvadorena” (first Salvadoran feminist magazine). During the eighties, numerous other groups organized around a variety of women’s concerns, and Latin American feminism gained strength and attention.32 Even among FMLN combatants, “attempts are being made to improve the traditional position of women, although machista attitudes remain strong.”33

The emergence and growth of the feminist movement in El Salvador can be credited to a number of factors. These include the conditions resulting from the war, the influence of liberation theology, the international feminist movement, and the growing awareness among Salvadoran women of their own oppression. Although these factors are all interrelated, let us consider each briefly.

The war, for instance, is believed to have left a female population perhaps as high as 57 percent, according to Zoila Innocenti, although a national census has not been taken in recent years. During the eighties, the percentage of female-headed households rose dramatically, and women were forced simultaneously to take care of their children and work outside their homes out of financial necessity.34 The war precipitated a flux of women into the public domain of the workplace, and women have gained ground in professional occupations in the last decade. They now constitute about 30 percent of El Salvador’s physicians and attorneys, more than 30 percent of university professors, and about 50 percent of the dentists and high school teachers. Nevertheless, unemployment remains some 20 percent higher among women than men. In addition, although Article 123 of the Labor Code requires equal pay for equal work within a single enterprise, traditional “women’s work” remains on a lower pay scale than men’s work, and law enforcement officials commonly ignore women’s complaints of discrimination and inequality of treatment.35

At the same time, liberation theology has simultaneously offered new hope to women as well as to the poor (many of whom are, of course, women). Although strongest among Catholics, some Baptist women, such as pastor Ruth Rodriguez and others, have been challenged and changed by liberation theology because, according to Ruth R., “it is a biblical and Christian theology that helps us because it speaks of oppression, which is our reality.” Indeed, as women hear their own stories in the stories of the poor, they are beginning to see God as a God who liberates — and themselves in need of liberation.

According to American Baptist missionary Ruth Mooney, liberation theology is in fact the predominant theology being taught at the Baptist Theological Institute of El Salvador, although its feminist implications have not been taught — yet. Mooney suggests that it’s only recently that “women have started to take on liberation theology as having some significance for women.” Elsa Tamez, she suggests, is “clearly challenging others that they have forgotten an important piece—women—and bringing women’s issues as a part of liberation theology.”36

Liberation theology seems to have breathed new life into the old bones of Catholicism, especially for the poor and the many women among those poor. The standard teachings of the Catholic and Protestant churches and their interpretations of Scripture have both fed and reinforced the perpetuation of the legal and societal oppression of women over the centuries. One theologian suggests that women throughout the history of Western Christendom have been marginalized by simultaneously being considered a minor and being exalted, as traditional interpretations of the biblical texts have reinforced the concept that women are to be counted with children and to retain a childlike innocence, obedience, and purity.37 Catholic teaching has revered Mary, the mother of Jesus, for instance, for being simultaneously mother and virgin — an impossible role model for woman, yet a role model nonetheless. This

has produced an aberration in Marian devotion — or rather a male-supremacist exploitation of devotion to the Virgin Mary. Mary is a synthesis of both aspects, virginity and motherhood. Thus she symbolizes the traditional ideal of woman (in a male-supremacist reading of her life).38

Much more could be said about the significance of the Virgin Mary in Salvadoran Catholic society, but for our purposes we should only note that, while Catholicism offers a strong female model in Mary, it has also used her to reinforce traditional patriarchal expectations for women concerning both virginity and motherhood. As women have begun to recognize the ways in which their religious faith has been used to sustain their subservience and oppression, they are seeing Mary in a new light and rereading her Magnificat as a strong statement, not of humility only, but also of liberation.

Baptist women, along with most other Protestants, tend to respect Mary but are careful not to revere or worship her in the way that Catholics do. Until recently, however, they have had few other positive role models offered to them by male preachers and expositors of Scripture. (In this regard, Salvadoran women have been no worse off than the rest of the Christian world, of course.)

Some Baptist women appear to remain skeptical of liberation theology because of both its Catholic and “subversive” connections. There may in fact be some reasons to be skeptical, particularly as it tends towards violent solutions and calls for disobedience to one’s government if it is oppressive (and thus far a new understanding of Romans 13). Nevertheless, some of its teachings about poverty, oppression, and empowerment have taken strong root in El Salvador and appear to be having some influence in Baptist circles.

International influences also appear to be at work in the development of feminist thought in El Salvador. For instance, some Salvadoran war refugees who fled to Nicaragua learned much about cooperative communities in which women had equal status and participation. Many of these Salvadorans have since returned to El Salvador and are implementing and sharing with others the values they learned from neighboring Nicaragua in communities such as Nueva Esperanza.39

The work of Latin American female theologians such as Elsa Tamez is also making an impact throughout Latin America. In her book. Against Machismo, Tamez engages in dialogue with some of today’s most influential Latin American theologians and invites them to be aware of and speak directly about women’s oppression and need for liberation — something which most have failed to do thus far. Gustavo Gutierrez, for instance, did not devote a chapter or section of his ground-breaking book, A Theology of Liberation, specifically to women, even in his revised edition — although he did write that his work was “based on the gospel and the experiences of men and women committed to the process of liberation in the oppressed and exploited land of Latin America” (italics mine).40 Little by little, Tamez and others (both men and women) are making women’s issues a more visible aspect of liberation theology.

Ruth Rodriguez attributes the birth of the Salvadoran feminist movement to an awakening among women across the Latin American continent in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Indeed, with the proliferation of modem-day media — newspapers, magazines, books, radio, television, movies — international information is constantly being communicated around the globe, it is rare these days for any movement to be totally indigenous, with no outside influence. CONAMUS’s magazine Palabra de Mujer, for instance, is supported by the “Mujeres Parteras de Milan y Sus Alrededores” (Women Mid-wives of Milan and Vicinity) in Italy. International and global influences certainly and unashamedly come to bear on the birth of feminism in El Salvador.

In a variety of ways, then, Salvadoran women are becoming increasingly aware of their oppression as women. As a result of some of their subsequent efforts, their situation in society has seen a few improvements.

Legally, for instance, Article 3 of their 1983 constitution mandates the equality of all people before the law and prohibits restrictions based on gender, and other articles are in the process of being re-evaluated and rewritten. At the same time, many other laws still keep women bound by the traditional models of gender roles and expectations (such as Article 182 of the Civil Code, which stipulates that “the husband owes protection to his wife, and the wife obedience to the husband,”41 or Article 69, which requires a woman to live with her husband as long as he resides in El Salvador42). In addition, of course, any law must be properly enforced to be effective — and that takes the commitment of both the law enforcers and the society-at-large.

As feminist awareness grows in El Salvador, societal laws, religious teachings, and relationships between men and women are bound to see further change. Feminists in the meantime are working patiently but persistently for the day when female babies will not be considered of lesser value than males and grown women not paid less than their male comrades.

Signs Of Feminism Among Salvadoran Baptists

In recent years, some new challenges have been issued by Latin American Baptists to fellow Baptists which have contributed to the dialogue and urged growth in feminist thought. In February 1986, twenty Baptists from twelve Latin American and Caribbean countries met at the Seminario Biblico Latinoamericano in San Jose, Costa Rica, to discuss their Baptist identity and direction. (Among them were several Salvadorans who were observers rather than full participants because they had not prepared papers.) One of the major concerns that emerged from the meeting concerned “the woman and the repression that she suffers in the church and in society.”43 The group was not a decision-making body but called on Latin American Baptists to launch a renewed study of the teachings of Scripture concerning women, with a particular awareness of the traditional patriarchal bias; to incorporate the nature of women into the church and society that has embodied mainly masculine characteristics; to be aware of the predominant influence of the conservative publications coming from the Casa Bautista de Publicadones (CBP) in Texas; and to consider women’s pastoral vocation according to the Bible. Several of the presentations from this meeting were published in an exciting book edited by Jorge Pixley called La mujer en la construcción de la iglesia. The challenge to fellow Latin Baptists offered by the women who participated there was to “re-read the Baptist heritage in the conditions of life and social-economic-political position from Latin America and the Caribbean, a place from which it is desired to be more Christian and to announce the justice, peace, and truth that liberates.”44

Shortly afterwards, Virginia de Palma, a Salvadoran pastor ordained in Puerto Rico, began a “Programa de Apoyo a la Mujer, ABES” (PAMABES) in 1986 in El Salvador which “focused primarily on working intensively with a limited number of women (four centers of twenty-five women each) over several years, teaching them leadership skills, self-esteem, Bible studies on women’s equality, etc.”45 PAMABES also offered a literacy program, “Mujer a mujer” (Woman to Woman), which trained twenty-five to thirty women to teach other women to read. Although PAMABES no longer exists, it has left its mark. About 60 percent of the current leadership of the Femenil (women’s groups which are the equivalent of the American Baptist Women groups) participated in PAMABES. Sara and Zoila (Cecia’s mother) are also disciples of Virginia and PAMABES.46

Regarding the Baptist Sunday school curricula, books, devotionals, and teaching materials available in Spanish for the Salvadoran Baptist churches, the most widely used have been those from the Casa Bautista de Publica-dones (the Spanish publications division of the U.S.-based Southern Baptist Convention, which is notably more socially conservative than the American Baptists).47 These materials were reviewed by the Salvadoran Baptist leaders and perceived as “expensive, decontextualized, and theologically reactionary,” explains Ruth Mooney, who was invited to El Salvador in 1986 to develop a new curriculum. She formed a four-person editorial committee, which secured lessons written by fifty-one different Salvadoran Baptists across a wide spectrum. As a result, a one-year curriculum waa published in 1990 for children and adults on Baptist identity, history, and principles. Feminist issues are touched on only indirectly, however; a chapter on the priesthood of all believers, for instance, includes a section on how women have played a significant role in Baptist history. Mooney surmises that about one-third of the ABES-affiliated churches are using these new materials, while another third has continued using the CBP curriculum and the remaining third uses other materials, perhaps from the Assemblies of God or the Bible alone.48

Another more overt opportunity for Baptist women has been a Bible study series for Latin American women called Jesús, las mujeres y yo. Based on the work of U.S. pastor Mary Hammond and revised by Ruth Mooney with the collaboration of various Latin American women, including Ruth Rodriguez, it offers Salvadoran women new insights on women in the New Testament. Its introduction specifies that the Bible study is for women only, in groups of no more than ten to fifteen. The intent of the study is to “seek the transformation of ourselves and our society and church. We will try to develop a feminist spirituality.”49 It begins by defining patriarchy and pointing to examples of patriarchy in the Bible. Each Bible study session then focuses on different women in the New Testament and raises stimulating discussion questions that invite women to identify social problems, consider their own and others’ life experiences, and envision their own potential, as Jesus saw potential in the women with whom he related.

For instance, the session on Mary and Martha begins by asking whether women in El Salvador have equal opportunities to study with men, as Mary desired to do at the feet of Jesus. It points out that Jesus defended Mary’s right to learn rather than work in the kitchen with her sister and asks the women to consider why, when as many as four out of every five church members are women, the men are the leaders and the teachers. This book has been used by a number of Baptist women in El Salvador — and has apparently been well received.

Other Baptist women’s projects have also been in existence over the years, including CEFORM women’s academy, now in its sixteenth year and forging ahead with plans for a Bible study class on women and the family in its upcoming semester. CEFORM as one of the women there mentioned, was begun in response to the three-year curriculum “Nueva Vida en Crista” (New Life in Christ), which was produced by the Comisi6n Evangelica Latinoamerica de Educaci6n Christiana (CELADEC). This curriculum — perhaps the first truly Latin American curriculum — has been used in many countries. It is a type of discipleship course that emphasizes putting Christian faith into action through involvement in the community and movements for social change. It has been promoted among Baptists again in recent years but rejected by the majority as too radical.

Women are also finding new avenues of leadership within the Baptist churches through pastoral ministry. According to Baptist theologian Jorge Pixley in 1985,

In the Baptist churches we have a traditional practice that puts women in second place in leadership functions in the church. There are few women who are pastors. There are some, but they are few. As far as I know, in Latin America only in Puerto Rico has there been a conscious effort to increase the number of women in pastoral programs. In Mexico I did not know of any. Women there are either missionaries or directors of Christian education. There are, of course, women’s organizations in the churches and they have their projects, some of which are very important. For example, in the Baptist churches homes for the elderly are almost always women’s responsibility. This is very important; if women didn’t do it, we’d have to find some other way to do it.50

Since that time. Baptist women in El Salvador have begun to claim and use their gifts of teaching, preaching, pastoring, and Christian ministry. The Baptist Theological Institute of El Salvador (ITBES) in Santa Ana has been training pastors and church leaders for the past fifteen years; three of its forty to forty-two graduates as of April 1992 have been women.51 The first female pastor was graduated in 1984. Other women have taken classes at ITBES but not graduated. Currently, one of the three first-year students is a woman, as are three of the nine second-year students. Its extension program boasts about twenty-four women out of some forty participants.52

This education of women for ministry and church leadership is a hopeful sign both for women and for the Salvadoran Baptist church because, according to Pixley,

…The ordained ministry has the symbolic value of leadership, of the one who speaks for the congregation. And if women are not allowed to do this I think we’re legitimizing injustice within the church. Even if women are ordained as pastors, of course, this won’t solve all the problems of inequality within the church. The vertical structure will continue to be a problem, but I think that the problem will be understood better.

As Baptists we have a democratic and anticlerical tradition, at least on a formal level. I think we have to take advantage of this and change it from a formal democracy into a real community where all of us participate in the decisions of the church, in the church’s celebrative life, and in all other church activity. So I think we have a tradition that can be recuperated.

Even more, the formal structures are less oppressive than in other churches where women’s ordination is not permitted and they cannot administer the sacraments.53

Ordination and pastoral ministry, which have been open in theory to Baptist women for the past century,54 have recently begun to open in reality. As congregations experience women in pastoral roles and find the Holy Spirit using women effectively to preach, teach, and minister to the church, they are gradually becoming more open to the possibility of women legitimately serving in these traditionally male roles.

The path for women in ministry is not an easy one, however. Although Salvadoran women are pastoring churches at the present time, no woman has yet been ordained in El Salvador itself. According to Elsa Tamez,

In many Protestant churches women still experience a rejection by the congregation, even by women…. It seems that there has been a divinization of the masculine. Women have been oppressed by symbolic goods, for they have not had access to their production. The faithful are accustomed to seeing men on the altar performing the sacred liturgical functions. This gives the impression that masculinity has become sacred in the centuries-old custom. For this reason any change in the priestly ministry is difficult; an entire re-education of the Christian people is required.55


All in all, it seems that the re-education process has begun. Women’s consciousness in El Salvador has been raised on a variety of fronts during the last decade. Given women’s ongoing involvement in history, despite their oppression, it is hopeful that women will play a significant role in building a new Salvadoran society. That is not to say that overcoming deeply rooted machista attitudes will be easy — but they are not likely to be accepted any longer by a growing number of Salvadoran women, Baptists included. According to AMES:

The revolutionary process can be measured by observing the extent of women’s participation…. It is impossible to speak of a true revolution if women continue to be subjugated and marginalized. In a true revolution, there are advances by women in all areas…. The revolutionary process that is now in progress in our country has as one of its goals the abolition of social inequality.56

Battles for uprooting machismo and establishing women’s rights are being fought on many fronts. Although legal, religious, and social forces have worked together in the past to keep women in their second-class status. Baptist women are joining the ranks of those ready for reform and new opportunities. Through rereading Scripture, studying for the ministry, and entering into greater leadership in the church, the history of Baptist (and other) women in El Salvador appears to be turning a corner. Perhaps it is a type of “new exodus” in which they are leaving behind an oppressive past and beginning to create a promised land in which women and men are equal partners and have the freedom in Christ to be all that God intended them to be.


  1. From Bishop B. C. Briseno, “Maria de Guadalupe: modelo de mujer creyente y solidaria con su puebla,” Paginas, 87 (November 1987), 3ff, Quoted by Ana Flora Anderson and Gil-berto da Silva Gorgulho, “Miriam and Her Companions,” Future of Liberation Theology, ed. by Marc C. Ellis and Otto Maduro (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), p. 207.
  2. From Bishop B. C Briseno, ‘Maria de Guadalupe: modelo de mujer creyente y solidaria con su puebla,” Páginas, 87 (November 1987), 3ff. Quoted by Ana Flora Anderson and Gilberto da Silva Gorgulho, “Miriam and Her Companions,” Future of Liberation Theology, ed. by Marc C Ellis and Otto Maduro (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), p. 207.
  3. David C Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 278.
  4. Ibid., p. 278.
  5. Tom Barry, El Salvador: A Country Guide (Albuquerque: The Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1990), p. 114.
  6. An idea drawn from a paper by Samuel Escobar entitled “Missionary Action and Method in the 16th Century,” presented in his class on Christian Mission and Human Liberation, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Spring 1992.
  7. A Dream Compels Us: Voices of Salvadoran Women, ed. by New America Press (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p. 12.
  8. Barrett, op. cit., p. 279.
  9. H. McKennie Good pasture, Cross and Sword: An Eyewitness History of Christianity in Latin America (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1989), p. 149-150.
  10. Samuel Escobar, in his paper “Missionary Action and Method,” p. 17, suggests that the Spanish “conquest followed the path of a search for gold, and limited itself to the establishment of military garrisons and key cities, signs of occupation, spread all over the vast territory of the continent It was not a colonization, and in that aspect it was completely different from the process of colonization in North America.”
  11. Lest we be left with the illusion that only the Catholics had an imperialistic bent to their mission, consider the following statement made by Baptist historian Charles L. White in A Century of Faith (Philadelphia; Judson Press, 1932, pp. 201-202): “Through the work of Baptist Missions, it is hoped to bring the three republics [El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua] into a spiritual unity which perhaps may later lead to a political union. The Gulf of Fonseca serves them as a joint harbor to which the United States has secured by treaty perpetual and exclusive rights for a possible naval base..”
  12. Barrett, op. cit., p. 279.
  13. Charles L White, D.D., LL.D., A Century of Faith.
  14. “The Dawn of a New Day in Central America,” published for the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society by the Board of Missionary Cooperation of the Northern Baptist Convention, 152 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., May 1930.
  15. Eleanor Hull, Women Who Carried the Good News (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1975), p. 52.
  16. “From Ocean to Ocean,” WABHMS annual publication from the archives of the American Baptist Historical Society, 1916.
  17. Dates from Charlotte Gillespie, ed., A Baptist Witness in Latin America (Valley Forge: International Ministries, 1090), p. 32.
  18. Hull, op. cit, p. 52.
  19. From a report called “El Salvador,” found at the American Baptist Historical Society library in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, dated October
  20. Ibid.
  21. Gillespie, op. cit, p. 33.
  22. Barrett, Table 2, p. 280.
  23. Page Smith, Daughters of the Promised Land: Women in American History (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), pp. 175-176, as quoted in Eleanor Hull, Women Who Carried the Good News, p. 87.
  24. Hull, op. cit, p. 87.
  25. Elsa Tamez, Against Marchismo: Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Miguez Bonino, Juan Luis Segundo… and Others Talk about the Struggle of Women (Oak Park, Ill.: Meyer-Stone Books, 1987), p. 26
  26. Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., unabridged (New York; Random House, 1987).
  27. Ruth Mooney, in a conversation with her on January 19,1992.
  28. I use the term marriage here to refer generally to the union of Salvadoran couples, most of whom enter into common-law marriages because church weddings are too expensive. Couples simply get together, have children, and perhaps hope that someday, if they save enough money, they will have a marriage ceremony in the church. The majority never do. According to Carol Morello of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Marriage is a luxury practiced primarily by the rich. The poor, particularly peasants, rarely wed, leaving poor women bereft even of the minimal legal protection that marriage provides” (“Salvadoran women on a deadly quest,” April 11,1989, p. A-l). Before a couple is accepted into membership in a Baptist church in El Salvador, they are required not only to be baptized but also to be legally married in the church.
  29. “1991 World Population Data Sheet,” Population Reference Bureau, Inc., 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 520, Washington, D.C 20009.
  30. Barry, op. cit, pp. 122,124.
  31. Mooney conversation, January 19,1992.
  32. Latinamerica Press (Lima, Peru) featured several articles in 1983 and 1984 on topics including “Latin America Women Confront Patriarchy” (August 25,1983), “No More Chancletas: The Language and Practice of Machismo’ (May 31,1984), and “Feminist Theologians Challenge Churches on Patriarchal Structures” (May 21,1984). Unfortunately, I was unable to locate copies of these articles.
  33. Barry, op. cit, pp. 125-126.
  34. Ibid., p. 122.
  35. Ibid., pp. 122-123.
  36. Mooney conversation, January 19,1992.
  37. Ana Maria Bidegain, “Women and the Theology of Liberation,” Future of Liberation Theology. ed. by Marc C Ellis and Otto Maduro (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1989), p. 108.
  38. Ibid., p. 109.
  39. I visited this community while in the eastern part of El Salvador in January 1992. Fifty percent of the community’s board of directors is female, and women are active at all levels of leadership. The community admits, however, that men are not as equally represented in the kitchens and down at the stream washing clothes (though a few are sharing in some of this work as well).
  40. Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation, Revised Edition (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988), p. xiii.
  41. Barry, op. cit., p. 123.
  42. Palabra de Mujer, Ano 1, No. 1, December 1990, p. 6.
  43. Jorge Pixley (ed.), La mujer en la construccion de la iglesia: una perspective Bautista desde America Latina y El Caribe (San Jose: Editorial DEI, 1986), p. 16 (my translation).
  44. Ibid., pp. 10-11 (my translation).
  45. Letter from Ruth Mooney, April 2,1992.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ruth Rodriguez reported this to me in our interview (see Chapter 3), and Ruth Mooney verified it. It is further verified and discussed in detail by Betty Ruth Lozano Lerma in her paper, “La conception Bautista acerca de la mujer,” La mujer en la conatruccion de la iglesia (San Jose: Editorials DEI, 1986), pp. 31-32. Lerma refers specifically to El Expositor Biblico. which is used each week in Sunday school classes in Latin American Baptist churches, as well as other publications of the Casa Bautista de Publicaciones.
  48. Letter from Mooney, April 2,1992
  49. Mary Tuomi de Hammon and Ruth Elizabeth Mooney, Jesus, las mujeres y yo: Un studio biblico para mujeres (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1989), pp. 5-7 (my translation).
  50. Tamez, op. cit., pp. 25-26.
  51. Ismael Mendoza Martinez and Stanley David Slade, “Work Report ITBES Baptist Theological Institute of El Salvador,” November 1989-October 1990, Baptist International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches of the U.S.A. Ruth Mooney reports forty graduates, including three women, in a letter to me dated April 2,1992.1 have not tried to account for the slight discrepancy.
  52. Letter from Ruth Mooney, April 2,1992.
  53. Tamez, op. cit., p. 26-27,
  54. Hull, op. cit., p. 88.
  55. Tamez, op. cit., p. 140.
  56. Quoted in A Dream Compels Us. p. 9 (footnote missing).
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