February 11, 2021
One typical criticism of traditional religion is how it treats or views women, especially in family relationships. Evidence, however, points to the opposite conclusion: Religious participation most often means greater gender equality in the home.
In a recent Deseret News column, journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley remarked on the contrast between the argument that traditional religion puts “men in the driver’s seat,” with her own observation that religion “may actually serve as a hidden feminist advantage that helps religious women to balance career and family life.”
She pointed to Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Christian, who attributed some of the opportunities she was able to pursue to help from her husband:
“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.”
It turns out that this is not an isolated anecdote. A recent study found that “increased religious participation at the individual and cultural zone [i.e., countries where a high proportion of the population share the same religious affiliation] levels [was] associated with greater participation in some housework tasks and time spent on housework” by husbands.
An important caveat is that it is religious participation, rather than mere affiliation, that is associated with this outcome. Family researchers have noted that this distinction is an important one: Determining the influence of religion on other indicators requires looking at whether an individual is engaged in religious practice rather than if they are members of a denomination or describe themselves as religious.
The study of husbands’ involvement in household tasks parallels the findings of other research that shows men who attend church regularly “are more likely to devote themselves to spending quality time with their wives.” This, in turn, is correlated with wives’ reports “that the housework is ‘fair to both’ husband and wife.”
A 2019 report from the Institute for Family Studies found that “highly religious women were more likely than their less religious counterparts to report making joint decisions” in their marriages.
Shared religious practice is also associated with women’s reports of being “very happy” or “extremely happy” in their relationships. Similarly, a Wheatley Institution study found “women in relationships where both partners worship at home were twice as likely to report being emotionally close to their partner” and that “Women in Shared Home Worshiper Couples [where a couple has similar patterns of active worship] are twice as likely as women in Shared Secular Couples to report high relationship quality.”
W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, in their groundbreaking study, “Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage Among African Americans and Latinos,” give a reason why women can benefit from religious participation: “Religious faith makes for better men. Black and Latino men who attend church are more likely to be employed, to steer clear of substance abuse, and to avoid incarceration. This men’s effect lends indirect support to higher quality family relationships among black and Latino families.”
We are familiar with the many ways that faith-based charities and people of faith advance important social goods by caring for the poor, responding to emergency needs, and ministering to vulnerable people and communities. Religious practice also contributes to well-being at the micro level, and though it counters a familiar narrative, it appears that women are key beneficiaries.
So the next time you hear religion accused of being bad for women, remember the facts. Traditional religious participation, on average, affirms women and encourages both men and women to view each other in relationships as equals. If we want to promote gender equality in our families, one of the best ways may be to get religion.
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