Why We Need Female Spiritual Leaders

I spent the last two weeks meditating for several hours a day, maintaining silence, and chanting a hell of a lot — such is the drill at my Zen temple’s annual summer retreat. It’s 24/7 spiritual development on hyperspeed, thanks to the lack of chatter, the lack of internet and smartphone use, and the endless amounts of time spent staring at a wall to center oneself in the moment. And yet, nothing provoked more thought in me during this particular year’s retreat than two of the tiniest details that have all but escaped me in the past: an occasional chant we do in which we name the female Buddhist leaders of the past (what we call the “Matriarchs’ Lineage”) and a throwaway line in one of our daily services in which the Zen student leading the chant dedicates its merits (we’re very big on dedicating merits) to “the women and men” at the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

These two little, mundane liturgical occurrences couldn’t help but make me think, this time, of Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois and the chruch’s recent threats to excommunicate him because of he’s been agitating for the ordination of women. The reason our group, the Manhattan-based Village Zendo, made these two tiny changes in our services years ago, of our own accord, was because we were founded by, and are still led by, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, both women. Of our top tier of four senior teachers, two are women. None of this is a coincidence; it’s exactly why female leadership is needed in any organization, because women see the ingrained inequalities and right them intuitively. The Matriarch’s Lineage was a Village Zendo creation, and took quite a bit of meticulous research to get correct — but our female leadership knew it was worth the effort. It’s not always men’s faults that they don’t see such slights as the fact that many chanted lineages are completely male, and that women have surely contributed to the building of many religions, whether or not their contributions were recorded as meticulously as men’s. That aside, just hearing “women” before “men” in the bit about West Point always warms my feminist heart a little — what a Zen miracle! Not only do we count, but we can come first sometimes!

Of course, having female spiritual leadership goes beyond these superficial — if welcome — liturgical niceties. Much of our retreat time includes one-on-one guidance from teachers, and this year, three of my four individual talks were with women. Debates over female ordination tempt one to mention women’s allegedly inherent nurturing qualities and the saintliness often ascribed to femininity, but I don’t believe in any of that. (Roshi, for one, is very warm and welcoming, but also quite no-nonsense and practical — qualities that attracted me to her in the first place.) For me, talking with these women who are guiding my spiritual development simply gives me a much-needed feeling that I, too, can aspire to be as enlightened as they are. Will I be? That’s a far off time. But it’s a little easier for me to imagine — and when you want to genuinely, truly practice a religion, you need to feel that some level of wisdom is attainable, is, in fact, available to you. You can’t feel like even your very own congregation, or synagogue, or temple, or mosque, or whatever your spiritual group of choice may be, doesn’t think you’re quite worthy of its wisdom (or of imparting it to others).

I also happen to be fortunate enough to have yet another strong female spiritual leader in my life, an old friend who used to be my fellow newspaper reporter and now is an ordained Episcopalian minister. Nobody in the world gives more grounded, sane, spiritually-based-but-not-necessarily-denominational advice than this lady. I never call her unless I have a few hours available to fill with new insights, soulful debates, and the kind of perspective that only comes from having a true calling. If the world had been deprived of her brilliance, commitment, and faith because she’d happened to be Catholic, we’d be the poorer for it. There are likely thousands of Catholic versions of her out there right now who could give the church, quite frankly, a rather overdue new image. When scandals and controversy erupt, particularly of a sexual nature, it’s beyond necessary to have female leadership on hand to lend a balanced perspective.

But church politics aside, it’s well past time for girls to grow up seeing women in robes up there on the altar, creating a matriarchal lineage to equal the far-too-patriarchal one. And it’s time for all of us to support leaders like Father Bourgeois, who follow their truest of callings, even in the face of a wrathful church patriarchy.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong


  1. Thanks Jennifer – for being out there about the need for more women in spirituality!


  2. Kliton says:

    Thanks for your mental power. I don’t get the west point remark though, The rest is understandable. I think that we don’t know of follow the great woman of history, 1. because they weren’t published? 2. their works weren’t copied as much because most scribes were male. 3. in the dark ages the church leaders being male, wanted to repress women so they destroyed most of the works by women. I like reading most any writing by women to broaden my mind. I figure I’ve read enough by men in my life and am trying to balance my head. Also most women are much easier to read, they’re not beating you over the head with their views. You are able to reach to right conclusion on your own. well mostly if you reach the wrong conclusion then they beat you over the head. ;-p

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