On April 22nd, I interviewed Olga Rasmussen about religion (specifically Roman Catholicism and Hinduism) and women. Below are the questions I asked, and Dr. Rasmussen's answers. Enjoy!
Could you tell me a little about your background? What made you interested in religion?
I worked in Campus Ministry at a couple of universities and taught theology at various schools for 25 years. I have a Doctor of Ministry degree in Spirituality and Education and Curriculum from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. I have an MA from St. Louis University in Systematic Theology and Spirituality, and a BA in Religious Studies and Psychology from Barry University.
I have always had an interest in Religion – but primarily in spirituality – and especially the spiritual practices of other traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism and yoga.
For further information on me – check out my web site which details all this further:
Historically, how have women been involved in the Roman Catholic church? How has the church received them?
Women have been involved in the Church from the very beginning. There are references to women in the Pauline epistles, and the work of Paul himself, and his many journeys could not be undertaken without support from others. His journeys were underwritten by women. In fact, wealthy widows financed the activities of the early Church. It is also believed by many scholars – though refuted by others – that women were ordained as priests in the early church. In the catacombs in Rome there are paintings of what are discernibly women in the “orans” gesture – hands upheld while praying – which priests commonly do at Mass. We know for sure that women were ordained deacons in the early church – since scriptural references support this. There are also tombs and graves of women who are referred to as priests, buried in Rome. But as in everything, this is debated. However, there is a growing body of scholarship that supports much of this.
Historically, we have had prominent women, particularly Hildegard of Bingen in the 12the century, who as an abbess of a large monastery, possessed the power of a bishop. She wrote theological texts, composed music, catalogued herbs and their medicinal properties among other things. Had she been a man, she would have single-handedly shaped the theology of the church in a way that Thomas of Aquinas did.
There have been other significant women such as Catherine of Siena who was responsible for getting the Pope to move the papacy back to Rome from its exile in Avignon. And of course, there is Teresa of Avila, who is considered a Doctor of the Church along with Aquinas and Augustine.
After the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, positions of leadership opened up for women. When I studied theology in the early ‘70’s, everything seemed possible for women. Though there are women who run dioceses and parishes – they are still denied ordination on what I believe is weak theological grounds.
How has this changed in the past few decades?
See previous paragraph.
I would also add that from the 90’s on – a much more conservative movement has taken over the church and we’ve lost a lot of ground. I am not very optimistic about positive change and have chosen to distance myself from issues that were once very important to me.
What are the positive and negative aspects to Catholicism when concerning gender and equality?
Women are technically second-class citizens. They cannot currently be ordained. There are no women in power at the Vatican – only in roles of subservience. However, the church has had a very rich history of spirituality which has nourished women throughout the centuries – including the present era.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the future – since women have traditionally encouraged their sons to become priests – but generally no longer do so. I believe this will have a tremendous impact on the future.
How are women viewed in Hinduism? Has this also changed over time?
Women have had a similar role in Hinduism as they have had in the Catholic Church. However, like their Catholic sisters, there are many instances of women playing a more prominent role.
In excavations that have been done in India going back to 2600 BCE, in the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro – there is evidence that the ancient cultures were matriarchal. However, with the rise of the Vedas and the Brahminical culture (that of the priests) the women faded into the background. You can see this all throughout history in all cultures with the rise of patriarchy.
There is some evidence that some women were wandering ascetics – though most were married off at the age of 10, and the texts, such as The Laws of Manu, dictated their role. So, Vedic culture and religion generally subjugated women.
Other works, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, broke out of the Vedic stronghold and perspective – and were works for lay people that offered a wealth of techniques and practices for living rich spiritual lives. And, these works were more inclusive as well.
With the emergence of Tantra as a philosophy in the middle ages, we see a re-emergence of the Feminine. Tantra teaches the body is sacred and a place where one can encounter the Divine – that is viewed as Consciousness as an aspect of Shiva – and energy or power – as an aspect of Shakti – his consort. Thus, the Divine is both – Consciousness and energy.
Hindu philosophies are very complex and also interrelated. There is a renaissance going on in regards to these philosophies. Scholars in this country are translating and seeking to preserve ancient works for the future. There are many women today that are teaching some of this philosophy (such as myself) to a diverse population that often includes Indian women.
What are the positive and negative aspects to Hinduism when concerning gender and equality?
Historically, women did not have any powers or rights – and they generally went from being somebody’s daughter to somebody’s wife. At her husband’s death, a woman was often thrown onto his funeral pyre. Many of these attitudes still exist in rural areas, where a son is more highly prized than a daughter. However, with globalization and education, much is changing in India, particularly for women.
What are the leadership positions that women are allowed to hold in both religions?
I am not aware of any in Hinduism. Though there are many women who are regarded as living saints or manifestations of aspect of the Divine Feminine and being in their presence one receives darshan – or spiritual blessings or gifts. I have had the opportunity to receive such blessings from both Ammachi and Mother Meera.
Catholic women can hold positions of leadership in Chanceries, dioceses, and parishes.
Violence is a tragic reality for many women (and men), both here in the United States and abroad in other countries. To provide some context, I did some research on domestic violence here at home, but also in China and Russia (a comparison amongst major global players). This is what I've found.
According to an article in the China Daily, Chinese authorities receive about 50,000 complaints of domestic violence a year. Violence occurs in all walks of life; it affects people in both urban and rural areas and is present across all levels of society. There isn't, however, adequate legislation to deal with the issue. According to Sun Xiaomei (professor at the Chinese Women's College), who was interviewed for another China Daily article, in 2000, there were only 2,000 reports of domestic violence.
That number has climbed dramatically.
Sun states, "Society is well aware that domestic violence exists, but there are no guidelines in law to clarify when judicial departments can get involved or how the perpetrators should be punished". She argues that the government should clarify what domestic violence is and what the consequences are.
According to Women's News, 14,000 women are killed by their husbands or partners annually, and 1 in 4 Russian families has experienced domestic violence.
Like China, the government has not taken the steps needed to rectify this problem. According to Amnesty International, offenders are not likely to face consequences.
There is also a cultural element; women in Russia are pressured to remain married, even if they are in an abusive relationship. The stigma associated with being alone is strong enough that women shy away from divorces.
Statistics provided by the American Bar Association show that about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are assaulted by their partners annually. About 1,247 women are killed, while domestic violence claims about 440 men annually.
The number of assaults in the US is much higher than that of the other countries, but the number of deaths appears to be lower. Additionally, the US government has made steps that Russia and China have not by creating legislation to define domestic violence and its consequences.
For the actual statutes, please click here.
The long and the short of it is that, no matter what the statistics say, domestic violence is unacceptable. Some countries have taken more steps than others to address the problem, but there are still many people who need help.
If you are in trouble, please seek help from a local organization or hotline.
The US National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799- SAFE (7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
Some people may ask why we need so many organizations promoting women's rights and supporting women-related issues. Isn't it the 21st century? Haven't we fixed all the gender-related problems that our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers faced?
The simple answer is: no.
While progress has been made over the past few decades (suffrage was granted not even a century ago, so I can't say centuries), there are still discrepancies between the treatment and protection men and women receive under both social rules and legislation.
That is why I am starting a series on this blog that highlights the reasons why women's organizations, like A Woman's Bridge, are still very much needed.
I'll kick this off with the topic of health care. By this point, someone would have to be living on the moon in order to avoid hearing about health care reform. And a New York Times article that was written by Denise Grady on March 29, 2010 points out some interesting (and surprising) information about the newly passed legislation:
Being a woman was a pre-existing condition.
Grady writes, "Until now, it has been perfectly legal in most states for companies selling individual health policies - for people who do not have group coverage through employers - to engage in 'gender rating,' that is, charging women more than men for the same coverage, even for policies that do not include maternity care. The rationale was that women used the health care system more than men. But some companies charged women who did not smoke more than men who did, even though smokers have more risks."
The result? Women often wound up paying hundreds more than their male counterparts, and only because of their gender.
But the new law has changed that, making this piece of legislation another positive change in gender equality.
The fact that until last month, women often had to pay more than men for health insurance is an example of why we do this - why we work to make sure that every woman has a chance to succeed.
This opens up a much larger topic concerning women and finance, which not only will be a future post, but is also a main focus of A Woman's Bridge. AWBF is partnering with ARCH in order to create a financial literacy program. It's in the planning stages, but promises to be a very exciting opportunity.
Welcome to the new blog for A Woman's Bridge Foundation.
A Woman's Bridge Foundation is an umbrella organization that works with other DC-based groups to protect women by fulfilling basic needs, such as providing supplies to local shelters or promoting financial literacy.
This blog, combined with the Foundation's website, Facebook fan page and Twitter account, will announce the events that A Woman's Bridge is involved with and highlight the needs of local women's shelters.
Interviews with organization leaders and the women they serve will be posted, as will analytical research about issues that affect women today. The goal of these pieces will be both to inform readers about why women's services are so desperately needed, but also to promote discourse about women's issues.
Please feel free to add us to your RSS feed and check back often to see what A Woman's Bridge is doing and how you can help reach out to women in the DC area. And as always, your comments are welcomed!