For thousands of years, women have participated in religious observance and worked to support religious institutions — often in greater numbers than men. Unfortunately, women in leadership roles have too often been discouraged, resisted or prohibited in all religious traditions.
Yet there was a time when women were some of the most central and powerful figures in religions around the world, even changing the course of entire nation’s histories through their leadership and resilience. Sometimes women pretended to be a man to obtain an education and even get high position in the religious institution.
Who were some of the women who helped shape modern religion?
1 – Pope Joan. Mystery of pregnant pope
For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has tried to bury her story. But of all the legends suppressed by the Vatican over the years, this is one that refuses to go away. in In 2010, a film “Pope Joan” produced by Bernd Eichinger has brought to life the story of the only female pope.
And it is a pretty extraordinary story: a woman of devout faith disguises herself as a man to become a priest and is then elected pope.
Only when she gives birth in the street while in a procession in full papal regalia is her true identity revealed – after which, inevitably, she meets a grisly end. What is more, the legend has it that she was English.
Catholics have long been told there has only been one English pope – Adrian IV in the 1150s. But according to many medieval chronicles, John Anglicus – John the English – reigned from AD855 for two years, seven months and four days before the astonishing revelation that he was, in fact, a she called Joan.
Many of the medieval Books Of Popes, the principal source for the history of the papacy during the Dark Ages, record the tale of a young girl born of English missionary parents.
Raised in Germany at Fulda – the final resting place of St Boniface, who had travelled there from his native Devon to convert pagans – it is said she was clever and spent all her time in the libraries Boniface had established.
They stoned the treacherous mother and child to death
When she was 12, she was told she could not continue her studies alongside the boys in her class, but had to marry and have children.
She refused and, donning a monk’s cowl and ankle-length tunic to pass herself off as a man, ran away in the company of what some chroniclers say was her teacher, others her lover.
They headed for Greece, a centre of learning, and Joan is said to have impressed all of Athens with her learning. By the 840s, she set off again – for Rome.
It was there that she caught the eye of Pope Leo IV, best remembered for building the defensive Leonine walls that still surround part of the Vatican.
Believing, like everyone else, that she was a man, he promoted her to his inner circle and, as he lay dying, recommended her as his successor.
Popes at that time were often elected by popular acclaim of Roman citizens and, thanks to Leo’s patronage, Joan got the nod.
By all accounts, she was a virtuous ruler, powerful orator and even found time to compose church music. Her downfall came when she became pregnant and ended up giving birth in a papal procession.
Some accounts say that a bishop in her entourage – possibly the father of her child – tried to convince the horrified crowds that this was an act of God, who had the power to allow men to have babies.
But the Romans were wilier than that and – depending on which chronicler you read – in their outrage they stoned the treacherous mother and her child to death, or tied her to the legs of a horse to be dragged through the streets of the city until she was dead.
A minority of writers say she was treated with a crumb of Christian forgiveness and – in traditional fashion – was locked away in a convent with her child.
2 – Theodora – The Christian Heroine
How did a common prostitute become co-ruler and one of the most influential figures in ancient history?
Theodora was an actress at the Hippodrome in Constantinople before she married Justinian I, then emperor of the Byzantine Empire.
Through her strong Christian philosophy, she helped implement a set of pivotal laws and regulations in the empire, focused on empowering women.
Such was her influence over her husband, in fact, that many still confuse her as the outright ruler of the Empire.
3 – The Mother of Islam
Khadija bint Khuwaylid was the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and widely regarded as the “Mother of Islam”.
She claimed her place in history by becoming the first person to convert to Islam, and her subsequent influence on the religion, through her dedication to the faith, is revered by followers even today.
4 – The Buddhist Empress
Despite being born into a society dominated by male authority, Wu Zetian rose through adversity to become the only female emperor in Chinese history.
Through her devotion to the Buddhist faith, she brought prosperity to the Tang and Zhao Dynasties, leveraging her power to support the lives of women in one of ancient history’s largest empires.
5 – Mary Baker Eddy
Born in 1821, Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science in New England in the late 1800s. In 1875, Eddy wrote the textbook of Christian Science, entitled Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, which has undergone numerous revisions over the decades. In some ways, Eddy’s Christian Science emphasizes the use of what has been called “faith healing.”
Her religious denomination was also often associated with Spiritualism, another movement popular in those days, though Eddy claimed she was never a believer. Be that as it may, in Eddy’s early days in the 1860s, she was known as a trance medium while living in Boston, Massachusetts. She sometimes gave séances for money and also practiced automatic writing. Nevertheless, once Eddy introduced Christian Science, she denounced spiritualism until her death.
These days, the Christian Science Publishing Society, an offshoot of Eddy’s teachings, publishes the Christian Science Monitor and other periodicals.
6 – Helena Blavatsky
A world traveler to far-flung locales such as India, Tibet, Cyprus, and Greece, Russian-born mystic Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875.
Based on esoteric ideas and principles going back many centuries, the Theosophical Society promotes the eclectic study of comparative religion and philosophy and science, hoping to reconcile such knowledge with the metaphysical possibilities of humankind and doing so without any political or religious connections. The Society’s motto is: “There is no religion higher than truth.” Based on this weighty interpretation, Blavatsky wrote her primary work, the Secret Doctrine, published in two volumes in 1888. She also edited the magazine, The Theosophist, and wrote many other highly influential books regarding esoteric and occult concepts.
The present day New Age Movement owes much to Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and utilizes many of its tenets and ideas. Blavatsky was also instrumental in the Western revival of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest branch of Buddhism.
featured image: POPE JOAN, Johanna Wokalek, 2009. ©Magnolia Pictures (source)