The Bechdel Test for Religion

The Bechdel Test for Religion July 26, 2010

If you’re an informed observer of media, you may have heard of the so-called Bechdel test, popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that’s used to judge the female-friendliness of movies and other media. For a movie to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) two or more female characters;
(2) who talk to each other;
(3) about something other than a man.

Despite this being such a low hurdle – it doesn’t establish that the movie is in any way feminist, merely that it treats women as something more than an appendage or love interest of the male characters – it’s amazing how many movies fail it. And once you’re aware of this test, it’s easy to notice when a movie doesn’t pass. This makes it a classic example of consciousness-raising: it highlights Hollywood’s tendency to create movies where women exist only in relation to men and not as individuals in their own right.

This is such a useful way of highlighting bias, I think it’s worth creating a similar test for religion, to help believers notice sexism in their churches they might have overlooked. My suggestion is as follows. For a religion to pass this test, it has to have:

(1) at least one woman in a position of authority;
(2) who plays a formal, recognized role in shaping doctrine or practice;
(3) that is binding on male members of that religion.

Let me further explain the meaning of these tests. The first asks whether a religion has any roles of authority – any official position within the church that carries power – that are open to women, or whether female members are restricted to being lay members with no power. The second asks whether that authoritative role confers any power to actually define what will be the canonical elements of that religion – to issue decrees, to define the correct interpretation of holy books, to vote on church reforms, to shape official practice – and the like, or whether the only duties of that position are to passively transmit preexisting ideas. If women do have such authoritative roles, the third test asks whether they can set doctrine that applies to men who are members of that religion, or whether their decisions apply only to other women.

If a religion categorically excludes women from all positions of authority, it fails. If it gives women positions of authority, but only so that they can teach and pass on doctrine created by men, it fails. If it permits women to create doctrine, but doctrine that’s only applicable to other women, it fails.

For instance, Islam, as it’s currently practiced throughout most of the world, fails at the first criterion; women aren’t permitted to be imams or to issue fatwas, or to do much of anything other than obey the dictates of men. The same is true of Mormonism, which deliberately bars women from its priesthood, of the Southern Baptists, and of Orthodox Judaism.

Roman Catholicism fails at the second criterion; it permits women to be nuns, thus passing the first test (if only barely). But cardinals, bishops and ultimately the Pope, the only church officials who can define what’s authoritative in matters of belief and practice for Catholics, can only be men.

The conservative Anglicans currently threatening to break away from the rest of their church, meanwhile, would arguably fail at the third test. They wanted to permit women to be bishops only on the condition that a separate order of male-only bishops be created to minister to their congregations. This would imply that no male Anglican could be subject to a female bishop if he didn’t want to be.

As with the Bechdel test, the mere fact that a religion passes this test doesn’t mean that it’s a feminist or egalitarian religion. It could still be appallingly sexist. It could still have rules that treat women as inferior to men. And it could still be harmful in any number of other ways. But I would argue that this test is the bare minimum – the first necessary, but not sufficient, step for any religion to genuinely treat women as equals.

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