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Published Date: December 5, 2021

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Watershed Moments? Reexamining the Barriers Facing Women in the US and UK Church

A few years ago, I attended an event in New York City centered on supporting women to pursue church leadership. The church sponsoring the event espoused an egalitarian view of gender roles in and out of the church, and they even had a few women already in leadership positions. Still, there were many other women at the church who protested that the gender imbalance remained woeful—especially for a church that theologically supported women leaders.

I arrived early that morning and grabbed a pastry at the welcome table before finding my seat in the church sanctuary. Two women who had helped organize the event climbed on the stage to introduce themselves and welcome the hundred-odd women present. Soon after, they directed our attention to a pre-recorded welcome address from a male pastor of another church who couldn’t attend the in-person gathering. A large screen began to descend. The lights dimmed and a cheerful, fresh-faced man appeared on the screen. “Sadly, we don’t have any women leaders at our church currently,” he began, solemnly. “But we are desperate for that to change.” His face brightened. “And I want you to know that I am all for women in church leadership. I say, ‘You go girls!’”

I stirred uncomfortably in my seat.

A bit later, during one of the coffee breaks, I met a woman who pastored a small congregation outside of New York. Like so many other female clergy, she had faced many battles over her three decades in church ministry. But this event brought her hope. “This is a watershed moment today,” she declared, explaining that for such a large and influential church to hold an entire workshop devoted to encouraging women to pursue Christian leadership was truly remarkable.

Having grown up in the church and studied gender and Christianity for the past eight years, I’ve encountered many “watershed moments.” From the Church of England approving women’s ordination in 1992 to well-known churches finally appointing female senior pastors to events such as the one in New York, the term “watershed moment” has marked several milestones along Christian women’s long fight for equality. More recently, the phrase was assigned to Beth Moore’s much-discussed resignation from the Southern Baptist Convention and her detachment from a complementarian theology.

Watershed Moments and Progress

The use of the phrase raises a few questions, such as what, exactly, is a watershed moment? And how can we truly know when one has taken place? Is the designation only salient in relation to the goals aspired to (just as beauty lies in the eye of the beholder)? And if so, does the repetition of watersheds over the years mean that our goals are too meager or that gender equality is progressing?

A reflection on watershed moments, and progress more generally, leads us to consider the barriers themselves—how they’ve morphed, developed, or flattened over time. In other words, the synergistic relationship between barriers and progress must be examined together. Here, I focus on the former to shed light on the latter. I draw on my in-depth multi-year research study on single evangelical women and their struggles for equality in American and British churches.1 That research shows that the biggest impediments single women currently face are the ones that operate in disguise. To illustrate, let’s return to the same event for women in leadership that took place in New York. Before the day drew to a close, I met another female pastor. A commanding woman with a serene presence, she had pastored various American churches for over thirty years and was introduced to me by a woman in my study.

“Give me a Roman Catholic any day over a so-called ‘inclusive’ mainline Christian,” she declared. I stared back in surprise at the bluntness with which she delivered her judgment. She went on to explain that churches that espoused an egalitarian perspective were often the most dangerous: those were the ones who said all the right things, ticked all the boxes, and cheered women on while maintaining (and supporting) an all-male staff. Dangerous because alongside their pleas for inclusivity, these church leaders simultaneously erected invisible barriers for women, making it difficult to know why your efforts kept failing, and whether you were making it up—or worse, if you were actually the one to blame.

The Barriers Are Now Invisible

Invisible barriers can take many forms: for Carys, one woman in my research, they entailed being left off work emails, subtly discouraged from pursuing ordination, and unnecessarily questioned over a church scandal that she had nothing to do with. Another woman, Jo, applied again and again for a leadership position at her church and was repeatedly denied. When she questioned the decision, she was told that someone else was more qualified and a better fit. He just happened to be a man, with an inside connection, and less experience.

These invisible, subtle barriers are all the more impenetrable for single women, my research found, because of their single status. And the difficulty increases for women who do not fit the dominant mold, including ambitious and outspoken women, women of color, and working-class women. “Women of a certain ilk,” as Jo put it. Such a confluence of factors means that women often question if they are being discredited and denied because they are a woman, because they are a single woman, or (as many conclude) because they are an ambitious/working-class/non-white single woman. Such an entangled web of identities demonstrates that marginalization takes place on an intersectional grid, and just as discrimination is hardly uniform, the category of “woman” is not either.

A quick review of the data on church congregations over the past twenty years demonstrates how little progress has actually been made for women. A recent report found that only 3 percent of American evangelical congregations are led by women, the same percentage as in 1998.2 In England, women make up 28 percent of paid clergy, despite the Church of England authorizing female ordination in 1994. And fewer than one in fifty of the largest churches in England are led by women.3 These disappointing figures sit alongside key watershed moments. They remind us that progress and stasis can and do occur simultaneously. But disappointment can also be a call to action and a recognition that since obstacles remain stubbornly intact, we must adapt our tactics to overcome them.

False Hope from Real Progress

In the case of Christian women called to church leadership, the hope of attaining such roles, buttressed by the promises of pastors who theologically support egalitarianism, keeps women tethered to the church. The late scholar Lauren Berlant, although writing about a different context, calls these unfulfilled promises a relation of “cruel optimism.”4 The relationship between women and church leaders is not cruel in and of itself, but cruelty emerges when false hope is doled out and yet very little progress is ever made. When women’s continued subordination becomes hidden behind egalitarian affirmations and vows of inclusivity, subordination is rendered invisible, undiagnosable, unmarked. It’s cruel because such a dynamic is inimical to women’s flourishing. It leaves women groping around in the dark, trying to find the light switch, only to realize there isn’t even one in the room.

To be sure, Christian egalitarianism has made great strides over the past decades—even over the past few years. All of these watershed moments must be recognized for what they are and celebrated. Alongside these gains, women’s expectations, hopes, and aspirations have also swelled, moving the marker of what counts as a watershed moment farther along. With more and more churches espousing an egalitarian perspective, and more complementarians renouncing their position, the current challenge is to identify and contest the subtle and damaging instances of gender discrimination that continue to take place. This challenge also comes with a warning: that the most formidable opponent is often the one who dresses up like a friend.

This article is from “The State of Women’s Equality,” the Winter 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.


1. See Katie Christine Gaddini, “Between Pain and Hope: Examining Women’s Marginality in the Evangelical Context,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 26, no.4 (2018): 405–420. A book based on this research will be published in early 2022: Katie Christine Gaddini, The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women Are Leaving the Church (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming).
2. Mark Chaves, “National Congregations Study, Cumulative Dataset (1998, 2006–2007, 2012, and 2018–2019),” Association of Religion Data Archive, January 2021.
3. Madeleine Davies, “Women in Leadership: Is 2017 the Year HTB Will Practise What it Preaches?” Christian Today, 23 December 2016. Madeleine Davies, “Why Women Clergy Lead so Few Large Churches,” Church Times, 13 April 2017.
4.  Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).