With a Woman’s Face

    With a Woman's Face

    By Brazzil Magazine

    In 1987, women from Christian base communities in the Catholic parish of Santo Antônio
    in São Paulo’s poor eastern periphery celebrated International Women’s Day. To
    commemorate the event, they designed a poster bearing the slogan "Women! Make
    History!" emblazoned above a lithograph depicting a woman with upraised arm, bursting
    the confines of a house. The slogan was more than mere rhetoric: since 1980, Santo
    Antônio, like many poor urban areas throughout Latin America, had been galvanized by a
    series of social movements challenging the government to improve living conditions.
    Contrary to the expectations of both social science and popular wisdom, poor, religious
    women from the base communities were in the forefront of this activism in Brazil and
    throughout the region.

    Women’s mobilization and politicization were unexpected consequences of the creation of
    the Popular Church, a movement identified spiritually with liberation theology, and
    organizationally with the Christian base communities. As one author observed of E1
    Salvador, "The surprise in the birthing of the Iglesia Popular (Popular
    Church) is that the midwives are women" (Golden 1991, 38). Liberation theology set
    out to shake the Catholic Church out of centuries of passive and active support for the
    existing social order. It envisioned religion as a source of cultural, political, and
    social change. That change was to come through a process of consciousness raising in the
    base communities—small grassroots communities of the poor—that would lead the
    poor to recognize and act upon their oppression as a social class.

    The liberationist message, with its emphasis on exploitation of the poor as workers,
    was most clearly directed at the situation of poor men. When priests and nuns carried the
    consciousness-raising techniques, radical symbolism, and class analysis to poor urban
    areas, however, women were more likely than their husbands to respond to the call to form
    base communities (comunidades eclesiais de base, or CEBs). One nun working in a
    factory and living in a poor urban community noted: "The CEBs don’t have an adequate
    structure for workers. The factory influences them for forty-eight hours, the CEB for two.
    I perceived then that the church did not reach youth or workers, but only women, old
    people, and children, whose life is centered in the neighborhood…. In the CEBs, the
    majority are women" (Nunes 1985, 178). Base communities are not exclusively female
    preserves, of course. In Brazil as a whole, women represented about 55 to 60 percent of
    all members in 1994 (Pierucci and Prandi 1995, 22, 29). In many urban communities
    especially, however, the day-to-day audience—the core workers who organize the
    masses, catechism classes, novenas, and often the social movements as well—is female.
    Cecilia Mariz’s informal survey of sixteen CEBs in Pernambuco found that 74 percent of the
    leaders were women (Mariz 1989, 84). In urban São Paulo, two-thirds to 90 percent of base
    community members are women (Hewitt 1985, 120; "Aos animadores").

    This book explores the significance of this fact for women, for the Catholic Church,
    and for society. It asks whether religious experience is gendered and, if so, what impact
    this has had on the liberationist project of religious and political change. To answer the
    second question is to ask as well what the liberationist experience has meant for women.
    What effect did participation in the base communities have on their religious beliefs,
    political attitudes, and behavior? Finally, this book asks how the experience of the base
    communities may have changed women’s thinking about themselves and their roles in the
    family, the church, and society.


    Only twenty-five years ago, it would have seemed strange to ask what role religion,
    particularly Catholicism, might play in political and social change in Latin America. The
    problematic linkage was not between religion and politics or society. On the contrary,
    many scholars saw Latin American politics and culture as profoundly shaped by a Catholic
    ethos. Precisely because Catholicism appeared to be the source of deeply ingrained
    political and cultural beliefs, social scientists of many stripes—Marxists,
    functionalists, feminists—deemed it incapable of generating change, and especially
    "progressive" change.

    Catholicism arguably stood as an obstacle to social change in the direction of greater
    equality and democracy in two areas especially, political culture and gender relations.
    Scholarship generally pointed to three means by which the church buttressed inegalitarian
    relationships. First, institutional structures and politics tied the church to elite
    groups, whether political or gender elites. Second, the larger religious ethos of official
    Catholicism—doctrine, ritual, beliefs—seemed to be a powerful conservative
    cultural force. Third, popular religion, though quite different from the official
    religion, also seemed a substantial obstacle to progressive change.

    In the realm of politics and political culture, much research focused on the link
    between the institutional church and the state. From that perspective, the church seemed
    firmly linked to the interests of conservative elites. It repeatedly sided with and gave
    legitimacy to authoritarian regimes throughout the region, often in exchange for
    recognition of church privileges. The second source of church influence, official doctrine
    and symbolism, also seemed to shape the region’s `’two-class, authoritarian, traditional,
    elitist, patrimonial, Catholic, stratified, hierarchical, and corporate" political
    culture (Wiarda 1973, 209). Religious reinforcement of this authoritarian political
    culture originated in Iberian Catholicism’s corporatist, feudal, and antidemocratic
    tendencies (Wiarda 1973). Popular religious practices seemed to further buttress political
    practices such as patron-clientelism, with its hierarchical structures, dependence of the
    masses on elite benefactors, and impediments to effecting intraclass political
    mobilization. Moreover, the otherworldly quality of folk Catholicism arguably led poor
    individuals to channel their efforts toward propitiating the supernatural elements, rather
    than organizing collective political action for change (de Kadt 1967).

    Feminist scholars modified mainstream sociological theories of religion and applied
    these to the analysis of gender relations. They concluded that religion was "the
    major cultural reinforcer of modern industrial patriarchy" (Briggs 1987, 408). In
    Latin America, feminists saw Mediterranean Catholicism reinforcing a conservative gender
    ideology in much the same way it reinforced an unequal and exclusionary political culture.
    The institutional church’s actions, such as opposition to divorce and birth control,
    contributed to women’s subordination. So, too, did official Catholic doctrine, which
    stressed women’s domesticity and proper vocation as wife and mother. In its popular folk
    version, marianismo, Catholicism’s exaltation of the Virgin Mary simultaneously
    raised women to a level of moral superiority and excluded them from participation in the
    public realm. Indeed, the term marianismo came to describe not only a complex web
    of beliefs and devotional practices centered on Mary, but also a social norm, the inverse
    of machismo, that perpetuates women’s subordination, especially in the public

    Static theories of religion’s conservative political and social impact, however, ignore
    the fact that religion has always been a crucial element in stimulating political action
    by the Latin American poor, including women. A team of Mexican researchers claim that
    "For the Latin American people, the leaders in whom they have confidence are
    religious leaders.… Movements of popular rebellion have been religious movements
    although not always inspired by priests. But a popular movement always needs religious
    motives…." Such theories also ignore the multifaceted nature of religious belief,
    concluding that religiously inspired popular movements must be reactionary,
    "traditionalizing," or in some way "pre-political." But while some religiously
    motivated movements may have these characteristics, religion is not always and inevitably
    a conservative force with respect to either politics or patriarchy.

    In different contexts, David Laitin (Africa) and Daniel Levine (Latin America) have
    stressed the mutability and complexity of religious symbols. Laitin points out that
    multiple strands in religious traditions make them particularly open to reinterpretation:

    "any religion encompasses a number of traditions that are in some degree in
    conflict…. World religions constitute complex social realities; and adherents to those
    religions are not limited in their repertoires for action by a single system of symbols.
    Religious adherents have available to them the original books and founding ideology, the
    various traditions of the priests, and the contemporary development of the religion
    elsewhere in the world." (Laitin 1986, 24)

    Levine notes that such complexity can provide a basis for change in even the most
    "conservative" religion: "it is not religion per se which produces
    conservative effects, but rather a particular set of historically determined concepts,
    tradition and organizational commitments. As these change, we may expect new models of
    social and political action to arise in association with them" (Levine 1980, 16).

    The multifaceted nature of religious symbols opens them to conflicting interpretations,
    some with conservative and others with quite radical implications for social, political,
    and cultural change. This fact was brought home to students of Latin American religion and
    politics by the advent of liberation theology and the growth of the Popular Church. The
    church’s public commitment to a preferential option for the poor at the regional bishops’
    conference in Medellín (1968) meant that Catholicism in Latin America could no longer be
    looked at as a static, conservative force in politics. Since that time, most scholars have
    come to take "change in religion…as normal and continuous," and have also
    stressed the primacy and autonomy of religious motivations for political action and social
    change (Levine 1991, 683).

    At about the same time, feminists also began to reassess their conclusion that religion
    inevitably contributed to women’s subordination. The women’s spirituality movement and
    feminist theologies of liberation suggested that reworked religious ideas could be a
    source of empowerment rather than subordination for women. Consensus on religion’s
    mutability and potentially liberating role is considerably less widespread among feminists
    than among mainstream students of religion and politics, however, and most feminist theory
    still casts doubt on the ability of a movement initiated in a male-dominated church to
    emancipate women.
    The central issue for Latin American religion in any case was what impact liberation
    theology’s new ideas would have on society and politics. Liberation theologians only
    gradually modified their class analysis to include other forms of subordination, such as
    sexism and racism. Moreover, most early feminist theology was written in the United States
    and Europe, emerging in Latin America only in the early 1980s. In addition, the
    male-dominated structure of the church itself, as well as the assumption that the main
    audience for liberation theology was defined by class ("the poor") helped to
    sharpen the scholarly focus on liberation theology’s likely effect on political rather
    than gender-related change.

    As a result, very little attention has been paid to women’s role in the Popular Church,
    despite the fact that historically and culturally women were considered the primary
    bearers of religion in Latin America. As Daniel Levine points out,

    "There has…been scant attention to issues of gender, such as the roles
    women occupy in religious symbols and structures, or the specific way in which gender
    affects the reception of religious or social messages" (Levine 1991, 685). Yet it
    seems increasingly clear that "gender turns out to be a major determinant of how
    messages are received and what is viewed as legitimate action" (Levine 1991, 688).
    Moreover, it is also plausible that women’s new status, roles, and activities in the base
    communities contribute to changing gender attitudes and relations. It is time to reassess
    the Popular Church as a women’s church, asking both how women’s experiences and
    perceptions have shaped the radical project of the liberationist church and how
    participation in that project has affected women’s lives. Such an assessment is
    necessary to understand fully religions potential as a force for political and cultural
    change in Latin America.


    In recent years women’s numerical predominance in the CEBs has received
    increasing recognition, so that it is now common to find references to the CEBs as
    primarily women’s organizations, or to have note taken of women’s day-to-day
    responsibility for carrying on the work of the Popular Church. At the same time, feminist
    scholars have increasingly noted the origins of many urban working-class women’s movements
    in the Popular Church. The church is, according to some feminist scholars, one of several
    major strands that fed the growth of a regional women’s movement during and prior to
    redemocratization (Jaquette 1991, 6). Yet despite this growing recognition, analysis of
    women in the Popular Church remains rare.

    The empirical fact of women’s predominance and the relative neglect of women’s roles
    point to a serious gap in our understanding of the Popular Church. They would alone not be
    enough to justify a focus on gender issues. There are, however, also compelling
    theoretical reasons for looking at women in the Popular Church.

    Gender as a Filter for Religious Experience

    Liberation theology’s impact is likely to occur through gradual, diffuse changes in
    culture, rather than through a dramatic impact on political behavior. Although it may have
    real long-term social implications, such diffuse change can be difficult to perceive
    (Levine 1992; Escobar 1992). Assessing it requires looking at the way liberationist ideas
    are taken up, reconceptualized, and used to generate both political behavior and new
    cultural attitudes in the Christian base communities. In other words, we must understand
    the process by which ordinary believers interpret their faith and the world in the CEBs.
    As noted above, there is a growing consensus that gender may be one important factor in
    this process of interpretation. Thus, analysis of gender as a factor is a prerequisite to
    answering larger questions about liberation theology. Theoretically, however, it is also a
    legitimate area for inquiry in its own right.

    The empirical fact of women’s predominance in the CEBs suggests some theoretical
    reasons for positing gender’s importance. Throughout Latin America, women bear the burden
    of advancing Catholic movements—whether conservative or radica1 and carrying on the
    religious life of communities on a day to-day basis." Women in the base communities
    in Santo Antônio remembered, "When we began to get together, there were just the
    women." And one Salvadoran base community, reflecting on its evolution, noted,
    "The chapel was a place for women” (Golden 1991, 41). Women throughout the region
    have a quantitatively distinct relationship to religion, participating in ritual and
    sacraments more, praying more, and organizing more than men.

    Women’s quantitatively greater religious activity suggests one important sense in which
    religiosity is "gendered": in Latin America, and indeed it seems throughout the
    Mediterranean Catholic world, religion falls into women’s sphere of interests and
    competence despite their lack of formal authority in the church. Women are expected to be
    more religious and to maintain religious teachings, morals, and traditions in the home and
    community (Stevens 1973). The sexual division of religious labor may have implications for
    the way women perceive the church, religious symbolism, tradition, innovation, and so on,
    as well as for their higher levels of participation.

    The broader cultural division of labor into a private, female sphere and a public, male
    one may also have an impact on women’s religious experience. This possibility is glimpsed
    in descriptions of women as not only more actively religious but also more emotionally
    involved and seeking particular kinds of solace from religion:

    We came together, men and women, but the women had many more troubles and pains to talk
    to God about. The misery is the same for everyone, but women live with it day and night,
    seeing the children cry from hunger, watching their stomachs swollen with worms. To them
    falls the care of the children with diseases that can’t be cured, to them falls seeing the
    children die without being able to do anything. The women are the ones who know everyday
    that there is not enough, that there are only tortillas and salt…. She feels more deeply
    all the bad things and even ends up feeling guilty about them…. Sunday, in the chapel,
    everything could be forgotten. (Golden 1991, 41)

    Here, members of a Salvadoran base community posit religion as "gendered" not
    only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality of the religious experience.
    The source of differential religious experiences, they suggest, lies in the different
    roles men and women fulfill in a gender-based division of labor. Women’s socialization and
    their distinctive responsibilities as caregivers for the physical and psychological
    well-being of children, in particular, may color their religious and other life
    experiences in fundamental ways.

    A variant on this approach stresses divergence in men’s and women’s psychological and
    moral development, whether or not these originate in a gender-based division of labor. It
    has become common in feminist studies, for example, to posit a "women’s voice."
    Such a voice may or may not reflect the psychological requirements of women’s
    gender-assigned roles. Many studies leave aside that issue altogether. In any case,
    certain behaviors and attitudes are described as characteristically female and as
    characteristic of a female interpretation and understanding of issues. Women, for example,
    are held to emphasize interconnectedness and interpersonal relations more than men
    (Gilligan 1982). They may also have a distinctive set of values stressing the preservation
    of life and the development of socially acceptable behavior (Ruddick 1980). They may
    communicate in a distinctive way that demonstrates a commitment to interpersonal
    interconnectedness rather than hierarchy (Tanner 1990).

    Religion has not been exempt from attempts to show that interpretations from a
    "women’s perspective" might produce substantially different readings of accepted
    symbols and values. Some of this literature has reflected a feminist view, described
    earlier, that male-dominated religions centered on a male God reinforce women’s
    subordination because they perpetuate dependence on males and a sense of the illegitimacy
    of female authority (Christ 1982; Schneiders 1983). In other cases, however, authors have
    simply sought to demonstrate that fundamental religious concepts such as sin and salvation
    may be interpreted quite differently by women and men (Salving 1979).

    Generally speaking this literature has remained theoretical or prescriptive rather than
    empirical. That is, women theologians or others have asked how a particular
    "male-defined" religious concept might look from women’s perspective and
    provided an answer based on logical extrapolation from their perception of women’s
    distinctive worldview. Such studies have rarely had recourse to surveys or interviews to
    ascertain whether women do, indeed, generally hold a particular, gender-identified view.

    There is, however, at least some sociological evidence to support the claim that men
    and women interpret religious symbols differently. One study found, for example, that
    "girls were more likely to depict God as loving, comforting and forgiving, while boys
    tended to view God as a supreme power, forceful planner and controller" (Batson and
    Ventis 1982, 4). This difference in perception of God actually fits rather neatly with
    many feminist descriptions of women’s "different voice." Similarly, there is
    some evidence to indicate that one fundamental divide in types of religiosity involves the
    extent to which people experience religion as an individual relationship with God
    (agentic) or a relationship with God through others (communal). Although it is unclear
    whether these categories cut across genders or capture some male-female differences, the
    two types initially sprang from research, which identified them as typically male
    (agentic) and female (communal) (Bakan 1966).

    In sum, several hypotheses suggest that gender mediates religious experience, adding
    weight to existing studies that suggest the importance of "developing an
    understanding of the way gender shapes the experience of being and becoming a religious
    person" (Davidman and Greil 1994, 109). First, women’s assignment of a particular
    role in a religious division of labor may influence the quantity and quality of their
    participation. Second, public-private distinctions and corresponding divisions of
    male-female roles and responsibilities may shape women’s needs, interests, and perceptions
    in ways that influence their religious lives. Third, and more simply, women’s different
    psychological and moral development, whatever its source, may lead them to interpret many
    issues and topics, including religious symbols, differently than a
    "male-defined" norm.

    If women experience religion and religious symbolism differently than men, this could
    have important consequences for a project of religious-cultural change such as the Popular
    Church. It could lead women to interpret the new, liberationist religious symbolism in
    distinctive and unexpected ways. Indeed, this possibility might be particularly strong in
    the case of liberation theology, when a doctrine developed almost exclusively by men is
    propagated in communities composed of a majority of women.

    The question of what happens in the CEBs when doctrine becomes lived faith, then, can
    be restated much more specifically: What happens to the doctrine of intellectual male
    clerics when it becomes the lived faith of working-class laywomen? Asking this question is
    essential to understanding the probable effect of liberation theology on culture and
    politics, as it leads us to clarify how women’s attitudes and political behavior are
    changed by their experiences in the CEBs. It may also lead us to ask whether this
    experience changes women’s perceptions of themselves, their roles, and male-female
    relations—whether women’s religious and political experiences in the CEBs may not
    contribute to changing patriarchal as well as political and cultural values

    Religion as a Shaper of Gender Relations

    There is little doubt that religion is important in defining gender role attitudes and
    behavior. A variety of studies, particularly in the United States and other industrialized
    countries, have demonstrated that even in arguably more secularized countries, religion
    continues to play a key role in defining appropriate gender roles and relations. The fact
    that religion is most often identified with the private sphere may be particularly salient
    in legitimizing gender roles for women, since they are also culturally identified with
    that sphere.

    Feminist writers have advanced a number of theories about the ways in which religion,
    particularly Christian religion, may maintain unequal, traditional gender roles and
    relations. Religious language that uses the "universal male" form, religious
    symbols that reflect ambivalence about women, male dominance in hierarchically organized
    religious institutions, and even the focus on a male God may exclude and delegitimize
    women as authorities. In addition, religious teaching often directly addresses the
    appropriate model of family life and in doing so has typically stressed a family division
    of labor in which women are identified with the private sphere.

    This list is not exhaustive, but it demonstrates that feminist scholars have found
    numerous reasons to believe that religion reinforces traditional role expectations and
    women’s subordination. Yet a closer examination of the list suggests that religions may
    differ greatly with respect to these features, so that some may offer greater
    opportunities for women to reassess traditional roles and empower themselves than others.
    Indeed, cross-denominational research carried out in North America indicates that
    Christian religious groups vary considerably in the extent to which they reinforce
    traditional gender role models (Porter and Albert 1977; Brinkerhoff and Mackie 1984 and
    1985; Heaton and Cornwall 1989). More over, a static model of religion as a source of
    gender-role traditionalism ignores religions’ evolution. Religious institutions, like
    others, accommodate and sometimes encourage changing social trends, including changing
    gender roles (Thornton 1985).

    Finally, as others have noted with respect to religion’s political impact, religious
    traditions and symbolism are rich, complex, and multifaceted. Their very complexity may
    facilitate women’s use of religious symbols and concepts for personal and political
    empowerment, even within male-dominated churches. Feminist spirituality is only one
    possible religious route to personal empowerment for women. Women take advantage of the
    complexities and contradictory messages in even quite conservative religions to map out
    and legitimize new and empowering dimensions for their lives. Women "returning"
    to orthodox Judaism, for example, may utilize its rigid constructions of gender roles in
    ways that empower them rather than reaffirm patriarchal values and practices (Kaufman
    1985). Similarly, American women Pentecostal preachers exploit the "tension between
    the God-given inferiority of women, submissive to men and the belief in equality before
    God" to pursue nontraditional roles (Lawless 1988b, 145-46). Latin American
    Pentecostal women also seem to follow such a path (Brusco 1986).

    Reform Catholicism, as embodied in liberation theology, cannot simply be dismissed as a
    bearer of patriarchy. In order to assess a religion’s potential for empowering women, we
    must seek to understand the messages and opportunities it provides for them, and the space
    it may provide for women to develop their own critiques and variations on religious
    themes. Returning to the feminist critiques of religion outlined above, we can see that
    there are two broad mechanisms through which religion is thought to shape gender roles:
    ideas and organizational structures.

    We need to look at each of these areas systematically in order to see what
    possibilities the Popular Church offers for women’s empowerment. Specifically, we need to
    ask about ideas: what messages does religious symbolism convey about gender roles? What
    are the religion’s overt teachings concerning gender and family? In regard to structures:
    what roles and opportunities are available for women within the religious organization?
    What kinds of extra religious roles does the religion encourage women to take on? Are
    these in the private or public sphere? Answering these questions with respect to the
    Popular Church produces a portrait of mixed messages, but it is also one that opens at
    least some possibilities for women to redefine their gender roles.

    Women in Christian Base Communities: The Debate

    There are, then, theoretical as well as empirical reasons to analyze the interaction of
    religion and gender in the base communities. As the foregoing discussion suggests, that
    analysis may usefully be approached from two directions. First, what role does gender play
    in the interpretation of religious ideas and activism in the CEBs? Second, how, if at all,
    have the base Communities contributed to the development of gender consciousness and the
    empowerment of women?

    The two questions are related in a variety of ways. For example, gender may affect
    women’s mobilization in CEB-sponsored political and social movements; at the same time,
    participation in such public-sphere activities may have an impact on women’s roles and
    self-image. It is also important to pay attention to the possibility of differences in
    women’s religiosity and to ask how the nature of their religious lives and beliefs may be
    reflected in their attitudes toward gender relations. For these deeply religious women, it
    would be a mistake to assess a degree of "gender consciousness" in a vacuum,
    just as it is a mistake to make assumptions about CEB members, political consciousness
    without considering their religious beliefs. Daniel Levine’s admonition to "take
    religion seriously" and "work outward from religious beliefs" applies as
    much to the assessment of gender attitudes as to the assessment of political beliefs.

    These two questions—how gender mediates religious belief and how religion
    influences attitudes about gender roles— have usually been treated separately. In
    part this may reflect a division of labor between scholars of religion, who focus on the
    first, and feminist scholars, who tend to focus on the second. In practice this division
    is not nearly so neat, but it may be useful to separate the two questions here in order to
    describe the range of conclusions advanced so far.

    Extremely little research has focused on the questions of whether and how gender might
    play a mediating role in the base communities. Yet these questions are crucial not only to
    understanding women’s experiences per se, but also to developing an interpretation of the
    Popular Church’s political and social impact. Thus far, two schools of thought have
    emerged in the literature. One suggests that women’s high level of participation in the
    base communities constitutes evidence of religious traditionalism. Women are historically
    the main constituency for religious groups of all types and have especially been the
    target of movements to reassert traditional religious values. Because they are the bearers
    of religious tradition, women’s higher level of participation may itself indicate
    religious traditionalism, if women are more likely to bring traditional conservative
    religious values to the Popular Church. From this perspective, gender is a mediating
    variable and one with specific consequences it deradicalizes and traditionalizes the
    Popular Church.

    Other scholars have also hypothesized that gender acts as a filter for liberationist
    messages, but as Daniel Levine points out, we have little evidence of just what this
    filtering process consists of (Levine 1991). Some studies have suggested specific ways in
    which women reinterpret liberation theology, usually noting that they do so in ways that
    make its political content more compatible with presumed female values such as
    cooperation, community, and nurturance of children (Drogus 1990; Levine 1992; Burdick

    Much more attention has been paid to the question of how participation in the base
    communities affects women’s gender consciousness. Three major positions have emerged. Some
    writers, including many liberation theologians, portray the base communities as a unique
    experience offering empowerment to poor women. They stress the opportunities for
    leadership and the egalitarian atmosphere that the communities offer women (see Hewitt
    1991, 63; Goldsmit and Sweeney 1988). Similarly, Daniel Levine points out that the groups
    certainly offer opportunities to otherwise marginalized women, and that these may lead to
    changes in their self-image and family lives (Levine 1992). Renny Golden concludes from
    research in E1 Salvador that faith motivates and empowers women, although she is not
    specific about the attributes of the base communities that contribute to this process
    (Golden 1991).

    In contrast, although feminist scholar Sonia Alvarez recognizes that the church played
    a role in the evolution of the women’s movement by gathering women together for political
    action, she contends that the church has stymied their development of gender consciousness
    She admits that the church may have empowered women as citizens. She argues, however, that
    church doctrine, symbols, and practices remain sexist, and that the church has openly
    hindered women’s discussion of feminist issues and has excluded women from leadership
    roles (Alvarez 1990, 1991).

    Finally, W. E. Hewitt stakes out a midrange position. He argues that the CEBs do
    provide substantial opportunities for women to develop leadership skills, new roles, and a
    nascent gender consciousness. While the Popular Church has not contributed directly to the
    empowerment of women and opportunities are limited, he finds that many women are able to
    overcome obstacles and use their experience in the CEBs to take on new roles. He concludes
    that women’s opportunities are limited, but more substantial "than many feminist
    observers would admit" (Hewitt 1991, 66).

    Thus, we have at least some propositions to consider with respect to both the gendered
    nature of religious belief in the Popular Church, and the church’s impact on gender
    attitudes. The research to date, however, has generally not been informed by the specific
    theoretical considerations outlined above. Moreover, the conclusions reached have often
    been rather reductionist in nature, in treating certain attitudes as typically
    "female," rather than exploring possible differences among women. Finally,
    commentaries have generally focused on the implications of the liberationist church for
    women’s liberation and have only rarely linked conclusions about the degree of women’s
    gender consciousness with insights about their religious beliefs and political
    convictions. Yet base communities, despite the predominance of women, are not
    gender-consciousness movements. They are religious organizations with political
    implications. It is impossible to draw valid conclusions about their members’ experiences
    and attitudes unless we appreciate fully the religious dimensions of their lives.

    This text was excerpted from the first chapter of Women, Religion,
    and Social Change in Brazil’s Popular Church by Carol Ann Drogus, University of Notre
    Dame Press, 1997, 226 pp.


    Buy it at

    Women, Religion,
    and Social Change
    in Brazil’s Popular Church
    226 pp.

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    Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing: Intermission Feature

    As a young and musically inclined adolescent of Brazilian descent, growing up in the ...

    Brazilian Web surfers get organized

    Brazilian Internet surfers are not alone anymore. They now have their own consumer-oriented organization ...


    There is a renewed interest in medicinal plants all over the world. The World ...


    Brazil Wants to Create a South American Interpol

    The Brazilian government is sponsoring the creation of a Mercosur police force similar to ...

    Brazil's JJ Cortinas

    A Small Brazilian Curtain Firm Trying to Make It Big Overseas

    JJ Cortinas, a curtain company from the southeastern Brazilian state of São Paulo, has ...

    A street reserved for camelôs, street vendors, in Brazil

    Brazil: More than Half of Sí£o Paulo Population Buys Pirated Products

    Music, film and publishing industries from around the world lose billions of dollars annually ...

    Biotech Crops Curb Erosion and Pollution in the US and Brazil, Says GM Crowd

    Since the introduction of biotech crops in 1996, farmers have reduced – and, in ...