Do Man-Made Laws Trump the Authority of Jesus? Reflecting on the Meaning of Humility, Priestly Service, and the Issue of Women’s Ordination by Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Maundy Thursday – the imitation of Jesus’ act of service and submission is re-created.  Controversy surrounds the “disciples” – must they be all men?  Are women allowed?  Who steps into Jesus’ role?  Men, women, or both?  Why, when it comes to imitating the act of  humility and priestly service (rooted in our baptismal call), does a distinction of gender need to made at all?

As I progressed towards the intersection, I looked up to witness a grand procession of men dressed in white albs with stoles that often contained subtle hints of gold, worn in a manner to distinguish their role as priests and deacons.  They moved slowly down the sidewalk entering the Cathedral to begin their celebration of the Chrism Mass – a celebration of priesthood and priestly service within the Diocese where all priests and deacons gather to celebrate and re-affirm their commitment to ministry and service to the Church.  It is also during this Mass that the oils used in sacramental celebrations, used by each church, are blessed by the Bishop.

As I continued to watch, I could not help but search the processional line for those with a hair color other than gray.  I wanted to see  how many young priests were in that processional line.  What I found was no surprise –  an aging group of men with the sporadic appearance of younger priests.   The numbers stood as a staunch reminder that we, as a Church, may be faced with a severe shortage of priests in the future.  Something already known and planned for by the Diocese in its campaign to consolidate and close parishes.

Another sad observation was put on public display  –  the absolute absence of women.

It seems fitting that this articles appears on Maundy Thursday, the day where the Church bears witness to the humility of Jesus who washed the dirty feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17), displaying  an example of what service and ministry in the Church looks like. In fact, it is at the end of this story that the disciples are given the specific instruction to imitate what Jesus just did for them:

” If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:14-16, NASB).

If you examine the biblical text, it is not the first time an act of washing feet was performed.  Mary humbled herself in service and ministry to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume.  Despite the protests of Judas, Jesus allowed Mary to perform this selfless act of washing his feet and anointing him (John 12).  Another reference of this act occurs when Jesus is talking to Simon and says, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did  not give me any water for me feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (Luke 7:44).

Mary and the woman acted instinctively, boldly, and lovingly. Jesus imitated their act of hospitality, humility, and service.  He permitted not one, but two woman to serve and minister – to engage in priestly activity and role.   Linking these two stories together, a question about the women and their actions emerge – Did the acts of these women inspire Jesus’ selfless act of service?  This issue is so important today when discussing the role of women in the Church and their ability to take on leadership/priestly positions.  Witnessing an aged and slowly shrinking line of priests and deacons process into the Cathedral certainly reflects a need that has the potential to be dire if the issue of ordination is not addressed.  It also displays a patriarchal interpretation of ministry and discipleship that exclude women – something that contrary to what Jesus did.  This prompted my question – Do man-made laws trump the authority of Jesus?

To look at this question, I will explore the Church teaching and issues relating to the ban to permit the ordination of women. Today, Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ act of service and humility is imitated by ordained men around the world.   Controversy surrounds the role of the “disciples” – must they be all men?  Are women allowed?  Who steps into Jesus’ role?  Men or women or both?  Why,  when it comes to imitating the act of  humility and priestly service (rooted in our baptism), does a distinction of gender need to made at all?  The short answer is, because the hierarchy in the church made this distinction.

Two main documents address the issue of excluding women due to their biological sex – “Inter Insigniores” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Paul VI (Oct. 15, 1976) and “Ordinatio Sacredotalis” by Pope John Paul II (May 22, 1994). These two documents use the “iconic argument” and the “argument from authority.”   Hannah Mecaskey describes the “iconic argument,” as  being “based on the embodied person of Christ, Jesus” who, while on earth, was biologically male.”  Pope John Paul II asserts ministerial priesthood as “the sacramental representation of Christ” however another question must be asked – why does biology matter?  Galatians 3:28 states that in Christ all lines of gender, race, and class are erased.  Christ, as we refer to Jesus post-resurrection, does not embody gender.  This passage means, according to Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty, in  All We’re Meant to Be,  “all social distinctions between men and women should [be] erased in the Church” (72).

The assertion of the issue of authority is rooted in Church teaching that states the Church does not have the authority to ordain women because the priesthood, initiated at the last supper, was vested in the apostles with Jesus, who were only men.  First, it is improbable that no women were there.  Jesus was always around women and if no names can be found, it cannot be concluded with absolute certainty that they were not there.  Their status in society was secondary and if their name was mentioned in the text, then we know immediately that she (they) was very important and probably leaders within the community.  Moreover, the upper room where the Last Supper was celebrated was in the house belonging to Mary, the mother of John Mark. We also know that Jesus had disciples that were women: 1) Mary of Bethany, 2) Mary Magdalene, 3) Susanna, and 4) Joanna.

Aida Besanion Spencer, in Beyond the Church: Women Called to Ministry,  brings up another important point -“if Jesus’ choice of twelve male [Jewish] disciples signifies that females should not be leaders in the Church, then, consistently, his choice also signifies that Gentiles should not be leaders in the Church” (45).  In other words, if Gentiles are permitted to be ordained leaders in the Church, then women should also be allowed.

The other issue of this argument is lack of guidance in the New Testament regarding the ordination of women.  Once again this argument is flawed. Women in the early church were in leadership positions  – leading the early church communities who met in private homes.  Women would be the hostess and presiders at the Eucharistic celebration.  Besides the female disciples mentioned above, also listed in the New Testament are Junia (Apostle), Prisca (Leader with higher authority than her husband because she is always listed first), Chloe (Leader), and Phoebe (Deacon).  Precedent exists for women’s ordination, a precedent set forth by Jesus in scripture.

Rosemary Radford Ruether in “The Liberation of Christology from Patriarchy” points out a couple of basic antiquated concepts that need addressed (140).  Women, according to Ruether,  need to assert their humanity and the right to the redemption in Christ.  “Patriarchal ideology” demoted women to subservient and inferior status, implying that women lacked intellect and leadership and should be ruled by men.  It also categorically excludes women from redemption as well as Christ’s representation of women.  Women are taking a stance to contest these categories. By changing the language we hear to be inclusive and by contextualizing and updating antiquated nuances that still seep through our doctrines and church teaching, we as a church community, will be able to answer more fully the call to priesthood and priestly service in a manner consistent with our baptismal promises and gifts.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality.  She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Professor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf .  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.



Categories: Activism, Bible, Catholic Church, Catholicism, Christianity, Church Doctrine, Community, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, General, Identity Construction, Jesus, Reform, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Spirituality, Thealogy, Theology, Vatican, Women and Community, Women and Ministry, Women in the Church, Women's Agency, Women's Ordination, Women's Spirituality

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14 replies

  1. “If you examine the biblical text” – it has been suggested, that there is one single issue in the Christian scriptures that has in the past always influenced the way women are seen by “men dressed in white albs with stoles that often contained subtle hints of gold, worn in a manner to distinguish their role as priests and deacons”.

    Revelation 14:3-4 “No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. They have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins…”

    Although there are alternative Christian interpretations, the simple reading makes it perfectly clear that women are “defilers”. As long as “an aging group of men” makes decision in the Church, no amount of modern day interpretation will change the “fact” for them that women are defilers. This seems to be the real reason behind the refusal regarding the ordination of women.

    One of the early Church fathers, Jerome, who is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin, seems to suggest that that the “solution” is abstaining from sex so that a woman can become ‘a man’: Letter 71. To Lucinius, § 3. “You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh but is now your partner in the spirit; once your wife but now your sister; once a woman but now a man; once an inferior but now an equal. Under the same yoke as you she hastens toward the same heavenly kingdom.”

    Incidentally, probably Jerome’s most influential text is his ‘Letter 22. to Eustochium’. We learn from this that for our salvation Jesus not only died on the Cross, ‘celebrated’ in a few days at Easter but :

    “For our salvation the Son of God is made the Son of Man. Nine months He awaits His birth in the womb, undergoes the most revolting conditions, and comes forth covered with blood, to be swathed in rags and covered with caresses….”

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  2. Hey, men wrote the bible. All those rules are male made. Women support the churches that completely negate women’s humanity and equality, and women have just got to walk out of any church that does not have women as priests or pastors. It’s just got to stop. When women withdraw free labor from male dominated and controlled churches, we’ll see change.

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  3. OK, once more from the top:

    1) If the Last Super is assumed as the ‘iconic’ model for the mass by which exclusion may be justified, then women, being absent, may not attend the service nor recieve communion. (Any more than gentiles can, a point already made)

    2) Christ said ‘do this in memory of me’ not in ‘immitation’ of me.

    3) We recall Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. It was Jesus himself who rebuked Martha for working in the kitchen when Mary sat listening to his teaching. I would have thought this made his views pretty clear.

    4) Who says there were no women present at the Last Supper ?

    5) If women were not meant to take as full a part in Christian life as men, why did the Holy Spirit descend on both men and women alike at Pentecost ?

    6) When Christ rose from the dead, the first people at the empty tomb were women. And the angel said to them – ‘He is risen, Go, spread the Good News.’ Now, the ‘Good News’ of Christianity is the gospel of resurection and the teaching of Christ. Spreading the Good News is what priests are supposed to do. Does the Catholic Church pretend to know better than an angel of God who is and who is not allowed to spread the Christian gospel ?

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  4. “Does the Catholic Church pretend to know better than an angel of God who is and who is not allowed to spread the Christian gospel ?”

    Yes June – the Catholic Church always knew it better. And they have had the inquisition to “prove” it.

    Your reasoning above (and any reasoning) is dismissed by the father of Christian Protestantism, Martin Luther:

    “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but — more frequently than not — struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.
    Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom … Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism… She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.” Martin Luther, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148

    “Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.” [Martin Luther]

    “God created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoilt all, when she persuaded him to set himself above God’s will. ‘Tis you women, with your tricks and artifices, that lead men into error.” [Martin Luther]

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  5. Beautiful! And, in theory, I agree with “Turtle Women” that women need to stop giving their free service to the church in order for the Church to take notice that change is wanted and necessary. In practice though, it is hard to walk away from an institution that many of us grew up with and our families are very much involved with.

    Drastic actions must be done, though. There is so much good in the church, but man-made laws and dogma has ruined it.

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  6. Beautiful! In theory, I agree with “Turtle Women” when she says that women need to stop giving free labor in order for the Church to see that change is wanted and needed. But in practice, it is hard for many of us to walk away from an institution that we’ve grown up with our entire lives and where family members are very much involved with.

    Regardless, change needs to happen and some change has happened in some communities, but institutional change is necessary.

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  7. Andre and Jocelyn – I agree with much of what both of you say.

    I am very aware that any reasoning put forward to improve the position of women within Christian institutions, and most especially in the Catholic Church, will be met with the obsessive repitition of worn out and bigoted dogma.

    It is, in fact, interesting to note that the extraordinarily illogical ways in which arguments against the emacipation of women in the churches/mosques/synagogues/temples etc are couched, mimics the very language with which women are charged as being unfit for office in the first place : ie that they are hysterical, irrational, ignorant, unlearned, emotional and selfish. But of course, all these institutions of faith are still firmly lodged in a pre-Freudian era and have no concept of the mechanics of projection. Besides – how many priests will even read, let alone respond to, a reasoned argument which runs counter to their own indoctrination?

    The Church in the 21st century has nothing to offer me, nor so far as I can see, any other woman. But, Jocelyn, you are right, many people find it difficult to just walk away. Perhaps I was lucky: my loss of faith came as a revelation which it was impossible for me to ignore. That was emotionally devastating at the time, but perhaps also the greatest liberation of my life. For a very long while I lived without any kind of religion at all, and then slowly, bit by bit, over the course of some 20 years, I re-created my own forms of belief and worship. I say ‘re-created’ because for me this process was as much about the discovery of an extremely ancient faith as well as its adaptaion to the contemporary world.

    And this is precisely what the churches (and mosques and synagogues) preach most bitterly against: the very notion that a person (especially a woman) might figure things out for herself is just about as disobedient, sinful and heretical as you can get. Of course it is. It means rejecting all that stuff the men have been spouting for so long that any meaning any of it once had is exhausted.

    I think a number things might help a woman walk away.
    First to know that the discovery of her own unique spiritual biography (which may or may not include some of the teaching she learned as a child) is one of the most exciting journeys she will ever undertake.
    Second, to remember that many brave people have had to reject and rediscover their own path. To use a deliberately non-spiritual example, think of all the people whose faith in the communism with which they had been bought up was radically undermined after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nostalgia isn’t a good enough reason to avoid the truth.
    Third, women’s spirituality has come a long way. There is now a tradition of dissent, and also many alternatives out there. You will not be alone.
    Finally, take what you want with you. Cherry pick. Be ecclectic. Use the forms of service which are meaningful to you. Hold fast to the ethics which you share with your family.Celebrate the festivals which shape your year. Its your faith. You can fix it just how you like.

    Blessings

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  8. Joselyn6 — ever heard of strikes? When women went out on strike in massive numbers at the turn of the 20th century, it was a powerful labor statement. Women need to go on strike in any church that doesn’t ordain and fully support women. If you don’t ordain women, then women shouldn’t give labor to that institution. Every time a woman goes into a church that doesn’t ordain women, every time a woman continues to bake cookies for the bake sale, serve on the altar guild, teach in a catholic school that pays her substandard wages, teaching sunday school— all of this is in service to churches that despise women as human beings.

    It really is not that hard to leave a woman hating place, not that hard at all. Just leave, and support if you have to the thousands of churches that do have women pastors and that do ordain women.
    !!!!

    Focus on those churches that do good by women.

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  9. And I might add, who wrote the Bible and the OT and NT, but human men. So a deeper issue is at stake here, is the word of the Bible the inspired word of God or the wishful thinking of patriarchal men who back 2000 years ago wished to diminish the power of the female-led, ‘pagan’ religions and institute their own? One needs to go back ‘behind’ the text of the Bible and see where these ideas originated and how the exclusion of women happened. Remember that the all-female temples were officially banned around 300 AD in Rome.
    It is complex and one that I have only touched the surface on. However, if we keep discussing it, the truth will achieve a stronger consensus and the Greek/Aristotelian idea of women as ‘aborted’ males will be brought to light and refuted for the unscientific imbalance that it is. If slavery can be abolished,even though supported by the Scriptures, then the barring of women from ordination can also be overturned.
    If we are all priestly by our right of baptismal call and are all Imago Dei, then the grey-haired, Mother-wounded (yes, there is a fear of females inherent in their actions that stems from this psychological wounding) male priest hierarchy can no longer stand on this illogical belief.
    In all of my writing for my Masters in Theology, I have searched the reasoning that undermines and weakens this argument of an all-male Roman Catholic Priesthood, psychologically and theologically. The arguments are there, but need to enter the mainstream lexicon. Apart from the obvious arguments about Jesus in the Scriptures being around women and involving them in his ministry–known or unknown; there are other theological writings that support equality of women in our Church.
    The first most compelling argument comes from John Foley, SJ, in Creativity and the Roots of Liturgy, Pastoral Press, Chaps. 1 & 2, pps. 1-91: We are all the product of 26 female and male genes and are; therefore we are all half the products of our mothers and fathers. How can the Vatican’s argument of male embodiment hold when we are biologically, humanly equal? I ask; whose idea was it to make us this way–26 + 26 = 52, anyway — but God, huh?
    Ken Untener’s chapter entitled: The Ordination of Women: Can the Horizon’s Widen, in the Practical Prophet, Paulist Press, 2007, p.205-215, talks about where the idea of In persona Christi comes from and how this idea was not always with us–another human male fabrication. And if this was made on authority in the Church; well, then the ‘authority, can revoke it!! He addresses how our ideas change as well when our horizons are broadened by new information that then refutes a heretofore believed truth. new discoveries evolve us into new and different understandings. What was thought heretical at one point in time has now blended into our mainstream tradition and replaced antiquated ideas that no longer function with relevant meaning. I am not throwing out the baby with the bath-water here, but saying that we evolve jumping from new knowledge to new knowledge that changes old perspectives; it is how our brains function-another gift from God.
    At the Religious Education Congress a few weeks ago in Anaheim, Ca, I attended a session by Michael Crosby who spoke about the difference between power and authority and the dangers of confusing the 2, such as our US bishops are doing now on the abortion question by stating if, we as Catholics are not with them; then we might as well leave the Church because we cannot disagree with them. Why not? Hasn’t that always been our inherited right as Catholics, to debate the issues we may not agree with? Are we up against another prosaic, Pharisaic notion of: ‘If you are not with me, then you are against me’ mentality? This is a dangerous time if that is the case. Freedom of thought is on the line here and that also is another issue. As Americans we cannot stand by silently and allow a lack of dissident voices to be heard and as Catholics we cannot allow the use of power to trump humility, compassion and love as Christ would have shown us.

    Lastly, Rosemary’s book Goddesses and the Divine Feminine takes a look at the history of the goddess and her place in our legacy as women; this is never looked at in male theological circles, but must be taken seriously because women are the bearers of life and were revered for that when we look at the artifacts of the fertility figures(I.E., Venus of Willendorf and others). Sadly they cannot tell their story in writing, but leave it to our imaginations as to the hermeneutics of our pre-historic past that pre-dates any Bible, Torah, Vedanta, Sutra, etc., by several thousands of years!! That’s our tradition as the feminine that is divine and one that does not need verification by a grey-haired, all-male priesthood who denies us our equal rights as women in our Church and one that we need to express with a voice as loud as those white-frocked lines of males who walk with authority, but who know deep within their own souls that the day is coming when ‘we, as women, will take our place alongside them’ and walk this path together filling in the empty space at the altar that all of humanity has been cheated of for over 2000 years!

    Some may say that I have privileged males in the writings I have cited, but what better way to demonstrate to them the weakness of their arguments then by citing other men who refute the nonsensical rhetoric of what these others have been saying?. It’s fighting fire with the same fire, in my opinion. There are men with us on this and they are helping us in this struggle.
    May all have a graced Easter!

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  10. Janice, thank you for you illuminating text. But isn’t it just so much simpler (and, for women, more meaningful) to rediscover what those all female temples had to offer ?

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    • Hi June,
      Yes, good point and you are right, but it’s really not that simple, but exremely complex. It is a journey and first I had to even begin to realize that the temples existed and what was their function and for how long back in time. Yes, we do need to retrieve the truth of those temples because that too with strengthen arguments for ordained women in our church. The real story of the temples has also been obscured by male writings saying they were ‘pagan’ worship temples and dismissed as so much non-faith, but so many of Europe’s Catholic basilicas rose over these sites, so again what is the back story there? Were they pagan or another form of worship along side the burgeoning Christian believers? I do not have that historical knowledge, but it sure is one to look into.

      In my search I came upon Marija Gimbutas’ work. She was a Lithuanian archeologist that taught at UCLA. Her work is widely known, but very controversial. She posits a goddess culture that lived in peace and harmony with the earth and was egalitarian in its social structure. It was especially prevalent in Central Europe according to her. Rosemary in her book cites her work, but is extremely careful and responsible in her interpretation since the work is controversial. I put this in one of my papers as part of the record to say that even if her work is controversial and she seems to stretch her theories; she must be mentioned because she raises questions that we need to dig deeper in order to find the answers. Right or wrong, men are always expounding on things in their writings and they get published, so my point in my paper was that even if Gimbutas’ work is ‘wrong’, who cares ( I say this flippantly, but one must, of course, be able to support one’s reasoning which I did in my paper) because men so often get it wrong in view of their sense of their own authority(then later on they go back and correct their error in view of new research–even Heidegger refuted his magnum opus, Being and Time) so we can play this game as well–we do not always have to ‘get it right’, but just raise the issues for continuing dialogue that will eventually find answers.

      I give you a passage that might help explain a little about her. Here’s the website I got this from: http://www.belili.org/marija/aboutmarija.html
      “Archaeological materials are not mute. They speak their own language. And they need to be used for the great source they are to help unravel the spirituality of those of our ancestors who predate the Indo-Europeans by many thousands of years.”
      — Marija Gimbutas

      Conventional scholars claimed that archaeology could only describe the material record of a culture. To theorize about religion was considered speculative, not scientific. Gimbutas not only dared to interpret, she maintained that to understand a culture as steeped in the sacred as Neolithic Europe, scientists must consider religion. By looking at thousands of artifacts, analyzing groups of symbols that reoccur frequently, and bringing in her extensive knowledge of mythology and linguistics, she discovered a rich symbolic language centered around the figure of the Goddess.

      “The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, not only human but all life on earth and indeed in the whole cosmos.”
      — Marija Gimbutas

      Gimbutas’ descriptions of the life affirming culture of Old Europe have sparked enormous controversy. Her theories have been widely acclaimed by feminists, by women and men in the growing earth-based spirituality movement, by artists, dancers, novelists, and by many historians and archaeologists. But they have also been attacked by other scholars, her methods criticized, and her interpretations denied. The debate is of far more than mere historical interest, for Gimbutas’ work cuts to the heart of basic questions about human nature and possibilities. Are human beings innately aggressive and dominating, doomed to live in violence and destroy each other and the earth? Or are we capable of creating cultures based on co-operation and peace?

      “Through an understanding of what the Goddess was, we can better understand nature and we can build our ideologies so it will be easier for us to live.”
      — Marija Gimbutas

      If her theories are correct, then peace, reverence for the earth and the honoring of life are not only human capabilities, they are the very underpinnings of European civilization itself.

      Although our discussion is about the ordination of women and man-made laws about God and their viability, all this history is worth examining because it is how we intellectually work out the ability to articulate the long tradition that women have as part of that human history and women need to be writing it, not men because we have a valid perspective here and one that fills out the missing pieces that have been silenced for too long and erased by the male-dominant patriarchical structures that have been in place. Yes, the goddess temples need to be researched and retrieved because we might find another missing part of the puzzle that can only make our Church and our faith stronger and more real for us as women and add to the empowerment of those women who do not have the benefit of study and research. In our Church this is our responsibility as women scholars to present this history and these questions to validate our positions as vital contributors to the theological conversations that need to take place all around between men and women, men and men, and women and women. We need to be informed and articulate in our reasoning as the way to create the both/and dialogue that enriches all of us.

      Thanks for your comment, June.

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  11. Go on strike.

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  12. Yes, I have heard of strikes (I’ve been in some). But thank you. And thank you Janice for all the texts you mentioned, there is so much to look at. I am recently making myself aware of all the discussion within the Church and feminists and I know there is so much to catch up on. But just as you mentioned, these discussions need to reach the mainstream in order to get more people on the issue. Many men and women don’t analyze and see the inequalities because they are blinded by tradition, but through these conversations this can change. I read this book from Lara Medina Las Hermanas, where a group of women were able to organize and challenge many of the Eurocentric and patriarchal centered practices of the Church in Latino communities, so the possibilities are there. It’s exciting!

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  1. The Crime of Being a Girl Scout: The Sin of Raising Strong Female Leaders by Michele Stopera Freyhauf « Feminism and Religion

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