How highly religious women are redefining feminism

A serious religious commitment seems to more adequately prepare women — and their husbands — to face working motherhood than liberal feminism

Try spinning a dozen plates above your head while keeping them from crashing on the kitchen floor. For pandemic-era moms jumping between sinks, stoves, home schooling and (remote) work, this is closer to reality than metaphor. 

COVID-19 hasn’t exactly been good to women, particularly moms. Sure, we have a better chance of surviving the actual virus (two X chromosomes may boost our immune response); but juggling work calls and grocery runs — all while keeping masks tightly secured to tiny faces lest we incur the scorn of fellow shoppers — has us on edge.

Women are drinking a lot more and, right now, are three times as likely to be suffering from mental health challenges. According to just one of a handful of recent studies, women in 2020 reported 41% more heavy drinking days than in 2019.

The pandemic exacerbated an already impossible situation. How are moms supposed to lean in at work and helicopter parent at home? Why don’t men do more housework or child care? Is the answer really subsidized day cares and Scandinavian-style taxes?

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When Justice Amy Coney Barrett was first nominated to the Supreme Court in September 2020, some concluded she was simply superhuman. No mere mortal could ascend to such Hyperion heights in her career with seven children and a law-partner husband.

But, in addition to her obvious abilities, Barrett’s traditional religion — which has often been criticized for putting men in the driver’s seat — may actually serve as a hidden feminist advantage that helps religious women to balance career and family life.

“We just each shifted and assumed different responsibilities as it made sense. At some point, (my husband) Jesse started doing most of the cooking and grocery shopping,” Barrett explained. She said she resisted at first, but Jesse prevailed. “I think this will make your life less stressful,” he told her. “I’m going to take this on.”

Barrett’s experience reminded me of things I heard while I was working on a book about religious colleges in America in the early to mid-2000s. I spent time on about two dozen campuses from Brigham Young University and Baylor to Notre Dame and Yeshiva. Even some 15 years ago, I was surprised that despite the stereotypes of religious communities and female subservience, these young women had similar aspirations to their peers at secular schools.

What I was finding aligned with the American Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA since 1973. According to its 2019 data, roughly the same percentage of students at secular and religious schools want to be business executives, lawyers or “authorities in their field.” One of the biggest differences, however, is among students who consider having a family “essential” or “very important”— 79.5% of students at four-year Catholic colleges said family was very important or essential to them, compared to 66.5% of students at public universities.

“Religion — which has often been criticized for putting men in the driver’s seat — may actually serve as a hidden feminist advantage that helps religious women to balance career and family life.”

I found through my interviews that the female religious students often exuded a kind of “calm pragmatism” regarding their futures and families. I noted at the time that their personal goals were more directed by God “than their husbands or fathers.”

In the wake of the Barrett nomination, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked whether there can be a “conservative feminism that’s distinctive, coherent and influential?”

I think the answer is yes insofar as a serious religious commitment actually seems to more adequately prepare women — and their husbands — to face the competing demands of working motherhood than liberal feminist ideology.

For one thing, family for these women is not really a choice. It’s a given. Which means that religious women and their partners start thinking and planning for family much earlier in life. This puts them at a distinct advantage over those who are trying to juggle the most demanding years in their career along with finding a husband and entering the most labor-intensive period of motherhood.

Additionally, religious women are more likely to find themselves embedded in communities that expose them to the realities of navigating work and family life before they have children of their own. It also provides them with a robust support network when they need help.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a shared spiritual life often provides the foundation for mutual respect, affection and burden sharing in marriage. As a recent study from the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University found, couples who attend church and participate together in religious rituals in the home are more likely than others to report shared decision-making, along the lines of say, the Barretts.

Douthat suggests that conservative feminism doesn’t really play a role in our politics because “it hasn’t been distilled into a policy agenda — pro-woman, pro-mother, pro-work-life balance — by our increasingly male-dominated conservative party.” But these conservative feminists (who may not describe themselves as such) have found a formula for success on their own that doesn’t require imported policies from Scandinavia. And perhaps that’s the most feminist thing of all.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on child welfare issues. She is a former writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal, as well as the author of six books.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.