Women in American Religion

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Even though it is only recently that women have been permitted to hold official roles in many religions, they have always been central to American religious life. Unofficially, women have often been the primary carriers and creators of religious culture.

Religion has also been an arena for American women activists. Many abolitionists and other early social reformers were motivated in part by religious belief. Beginning in the 1800s, numerous Christian women, black and white, and Jewish women founded religious schools and aid organizations. Many of the African-American women who helped power the civil-rights movement in the 1860s drew strength from their religions and organized through their churches.

Here are some notables in the history of women and American religion.

  • First community of nuns in the Thirteen Colonies: A Carmelite convent near Port Tobacco, Maryland, established by Mother Bernardina Matthews, in 1790.
  • First woman minister in a recognized denomination: Antoinette (Brown) Blackwell, in 1853. She was ordained in the Congregational Church but later became a Unitarian.
  • First major religion founded by an American woman: The Church of Christ, Scientist, established by Mary Baker Eddy, in 1879.
  • First U.S. citizen to become a saint: Mother Maria Frances Cabrini (1850-1917), in 1946. She was born in Italy
  • First native-born American to become a saint: Elizabeth Ann Seton, in 1975. She had established the first American community of the Sisters of Charity, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1809.
  • First woman rabbi: Sally Priesand, in 1972. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati
  • First Episcopal bishop: Barbara Harris, in 1989. She was also among the first African-American women ordained as Episcopal priests.
  • Largest religious women's organization in the United States: The Relief Society (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), founded in 1842. It is also one of the largest women's organizations in the world.
  • First Bishop of the Episcopal Church: Katharine Jefferts Schori, 2006.
  • First African American female rabbi: Alysa Stanton is ordained 2009.
  • First Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in North America, 2010: the Vajra Dakini Nunnery in Vermont.
  • First elected female bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2013: Elizabeth Eaton.

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