What Do Women Bring to the Interfaith Table? by Rita M. Gross

The most important thing that women bring to the interfaith table is our sheer presence. I do not support theories of gender essentialism, which claim that women and men are fundamentally different, that men have a masculine essence different from women’s feminine essence. Regarding most interfaith issues, I do not think that women offer different insights than men could. But because religions have been such a boys-only club, the presence of women at the interfaith table loudly proclaims a critical message that can be proclaimed no other way. Religions are no longer going to be male sanctuaries, closed off to women except for the supportive roles we have traditionally played.


Religions claim to have messages relevant to all human beings. But that claim is hollow when the only people who proclaim the messages are men. The further up the ladder of religious hierarchies we go, the fewer women we find. Highly publicized meetings of world religious leaders are usually devoid of women. How can such gatherings pretend to represent all humans or have messages relevant for all? The messages that emanate from conferences of major religious leaders would have more credibility if half the people at those conference tables were women. The most important thing women bring to the interfaith table is our sheer presence. There is no other way for religions to live up to claims they make about their universal relevance.

When we are present at the interfaith table, we talk about many things. Some of things we say are not distinctive to women. If someone read a transcript without knowing the gender of each presenter, it would be impossible to determine which are women and which men. We also speak of things which most men would be unable to speak about. We speak about the pain of being excluded from something as meaningful as roles of religious leadership. We speak about not having role models who look like us in the religions to which we give our best energies. We don’t have a specifically feminine message, but we do add a feminist voice to interfaith discussions. Only then will every chair at the interfaith table be filled.

Rita M. Gross, Ph.D. is a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who teaches Buddhist dharma and meditation nationwide and who has published on many aspects of feminism and religion.  She received her Ph. D. from the University of Chicago and is Professor of Comparative Study of Religions, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire.  In 2005, she was named a lopon (senior dharma teacher) by Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, head of the Mindrolling lineage of Nyingma Tibetan Buddhism.  Her books include Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism, Feminism and Religion: An Introduction, Soaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues, and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration.  She co-authored Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Dialogue with Rosemary Radforth Reuther and co-edited Unspoken Worlds: Religious Lives with Nancy Auer Falk.  Her forthcoming book is Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity.  She live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where she leads a small Buddhist dharma study group.  With her live three Siamese cats and a Border collie.  She gardens extensively and has about five hundred house plants.  

6 thoughts on “What Do Women Bring to the Interfaith Table? by Rita M. Gross”

  1. Important message, Rita. And of course if the only players at the table represent Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, all of the new religions are excluded as well as all tribal and prepatriarchal religions.


  2. I, too, think we need a bigger table, and maybe it should be a round table. The reason King Arthur made his table round was so avoid hierarchy. The standard-brand religions like hierarchy, so let’s all sit as equals and be friends. We’re all children of the Goddess.


  3. Rita, your words are so immediately relevant especially to the Roman Catholic hierarchical power play going on at the present moment. While all religions at the dialogue table need women’s voices, the Catholics seem to be the most needy and in danger of extinction by their own hand. Thank you for your clear and important message.


  4. What we bring to the table is a wealth of experience that’s different from that of our male colleagues. And male privilege tends to be invisible to those who’ve never had to live without it.


  5. King Arthur may have had a round table, but he still had the title of KING. “Essentialism” is one of those terms used to undermine radical feminism all the time. Whether men a born with an essense or not, or just grow up in a world that worships and gives them everything, including rule of the entire world, the end result is the same.

    And, I can tell when I read papers if men or women wrote them, just as I can tell 90% of the time if a mainstream TV show was written by a woman or by a man. There are some things that neither sex can write about the other sex, because well, we don’t see that sex within their own group. You can have all men at a White House meeting, but no women are there to change the interactions.
    Women don’t converse the same way when men enter a room, for example. I see a huge difference in how women behave without men.

    We live in a sex caste system. Men worldwide are the ruling class, women are the sex and servant class. To try to sugar coat that and use the term “essentialism” doesn’t address this actual reality, or the difference in biology in males and females. I think Mary Daly said it best, to paraphrase, people call me an essentialist all the time, but actually I’m a quintessentialist!

    What do women bring to any table, interfaith or the dinner table? Well, all I know is that I find it a lot more fun to be at the women’s table talking about issues essential to women. I find the male places boring and dead. Women have yet to create enough thealogical spaces for more and more women to construct politics, resistence, and a way to truly challenge the sex caste system.

    Men aren’t going to help women do this. Men need to organize and change other men. It is essential that they do this :-)


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