Lisa Mason comforts one of her friends on the phone as she paces through her home near Five Points in Athens, Georgia. On the shelves in her kitchen stand blocks spelling out the words “pray” and “faith.” Natural light pours in through the windows as she walks over to the bookcase and pulls out a well-read Bible and opens it to a familiar verse. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” she recites through the phone, words of security. A sign in her kitchen reads “it is well with my soul.”
In September 2007, Lisa and her husband, Lee, moved to Athens to plant the Classic City Church, a nondenominational church. For the past ten years, Lee has served as the Senior Pastor and Lisa has served as the Women’s Pastor, working as a team to build the church from a tiny seed to a flourishing congregation.
Lisa, like many other women in the Athens, has a strong faith that guides her life. In a time where women are marching through the streets to protest misogynistic culture and Abrahamic religions are seen as backwards and patriarchal, where do the religious women fit in? Are faith and feminism compatible? The answer can be found in Athenian women who are navigating male-dominated religion, defining their spirituality for themselves and figuring out what faith means to them.
According to the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of adults in Georgia identify as religious which include Christian and non-Christian faiths and the other 18 percent identify as unaffiliated. In the United States overall, 69 percent of women believe in God and are absolutely certain about it as compared to the 57 percent of American men who answered the same way on the survey for the Pew Research Center in 2014. In the same study, the percentage of American women who place an importance on religion in their lives, attend religious services and pray frequently were all higher than American men.
Data from the Pew Research Center.
Sisterhood in Faith
“In the twenty first century, it is much easier to be a woman who participated in His purposes, but there’s always hurdles. It’s not easy,” Mason says, tucking her bare feet under herself while sitting on a chair in her kitchen, completely relaxed. Mason recognizes that women have gone through a lot of struggles since Christianity’s beginnings, but even throughout her time participating in “His purposes,” things keep getting better.
Mason was born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother and grew up in Iowa. She found her faith in her early teens when her mother’s faith began to grow after seeing a visiting pastor speak. She says that the women in her mother’s Bible study were “instrumental” in the formation of her faith. She laughs remembering the “firecracker” nun who led the Bible study. Today, she hosts Bible studies in her own living room, inviting young women to push the furniture out of the way and sit in a circle on the floor to discuss the Bible.
For Melody Montgomery, a 19-year-old advertising and political science major at the University of Georgia, her path as a Christian has similarly been paved by strong women. She was taught her faith by her mother and the first pastor she can remember was a woman.
“I never really interpreted the predominantly male language in the Bible as the religion’s exclusion of women but rather as indicative of the humanly faults of some of its authors, editors and translators over the years,” Montgomery says.
Montgomery identifies as both a Christian and a feminist. She doesn’t see this combination as a contradiction because it’s who she is. She tells an anecdote of a time in middle school when a boy recited a verse from the Bible that said women shouldn’t talk in church.
“My identity as a headstrong woman has been challenged by other Christians,” Montgomery says. “But never successfully.”
Montgomery voices concern that the Christian “voice” that the world hears is a “negative and judgmental one” but for her, the Christian voice has always been about “love and grace.”
In the Mason’s church, collaboration to create that positive Christian voice is crucial. Lee and Lisa work as a team to make sure that everyone has a voice and men and women’s voices get taken into account equally. She says that her church board has recently had discussions about women in ministry, and it is a topic that is frequently on Mason’s mind since she was called to service.
“It is more what our hearts know and what our minds know than what the world says,” Lisa says.
Mae Eldahshoury, a third year journalism major at UGA, is the president of the Muslim Student Association at UGA and a part of the less than 1 percent of Georgians who identify as Muslim. Eldahshoury joined the Muslim Student Association her freshmen year at the urging of her older brother who was the treasurer at the time. Eldahshoury is from Alpharetta and was raised in the Islamic faith, attending Sunday school and studying the Quran and the Sunnah.
“The transition to college wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated, but it was definitely a change,” Eldahshoury says, referencing her move to UGA. “I’ve learned a lot about myself since I’m not surrounded by the comfort of the community I grew up with.”
During her time in Athens, Eldahshoury has frequently been put into the position of speaking for other Muslims. A responsibility she says she’s “not fond of but still willing to do.” “I don’t find my male counterparts to be put in these positions as often because of the stereotypes about Muslim women such as being oppressed by male figures in our lives, or forced to wear a headscarf, or even that we are not allowed to speak out in public.”
Eldahshoury identifies as a feminist and believes that women should not only have rights but should also feel empowered to pursue and exercise those rights. Through her faith, she has learned about women in Islam who have “always been powerful champions for justice, brilliant scholars and accomplished entrepreneurs.” Eldahshoury explains that it is believed that some verses of the Quran were revealed specifically for women. All of these factors combine to inspire her to be a proud Muslim woman and feminist.
On the sixth floor of a red brick building on UGA’s historic north campus is where you can find Becca Steiner most of her days. Steiner is a 27-year-old Ph.D. student in communication studies originally from San Diego, California. For Steiner, it’s hard to be both a woman and Jewish in Athens. Throughout her life she’s navigated both Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. She attended public schools throughout her life while also attending Hebrew school and a Hasidic temple.
Steiner doesn’t share her Jewish faith with many people in Athens ¬– she’s never even been to a temple in Athens. She spends Jewish holidays with friends in Atlanta. Although she feels a sense of culture and pride, she wants to avoid anti-Semitism which she has experienced in the past.
Despite her traditional upbringing, Steiner identifies as a feminist, but has noticed some tension between her identity as both a Jewish woman and a feminist. In Steiner’s traditional temple, there is still a strong belief that women should wear “women’s clothes” and that pants are for men, but she still believes that “women’s role in Judaism and the world is changing.”
Mason recognizes a similar change in Christianity. The word that Mason uses frequently when describing what it’s like to be a Christian woman is “liberating.” Taking into account “culture and relativity,” she says that in her opinion despite all the misconceptions, being a Christian woman is “liberating.”
“The way Jesus treated women and the way they were allowed to minister. It’s freedom.” Some have used Scripture to hinder women and antagonize men, but in Mason’s opinion and throughout her years of studying she has found inspiration and power. She says that for her and other Christian women in her life, she has found “reconciliation” in all aspects of her life through her faith and supporting other women. She’s found a sisterhood through her faith.
“We as women are bombarded with so many lies and challenges, men do too, but we do in a unique way,” Mason says.
Stories from Athens
Ellen ‘rusti’ Klein is a 69-year-old clinical social worker and a modern Orthodox Jewish woman whose lived in Athens for the majority of her life. She’s a member of the Congregation Church of Israel Sisterhood in Athens.
In Orthodox Judaism, women are usually expected to cover their heads and wear long skirts, but Klein tells a story of her grandmother at age 65 coming down the stairs in a pants suit and her grandfather asking her “what are you doing?” to which her grandmother replied “I’m a modern woman and I’m 65 and if I want to wear a pants suit – I’ll wear it.”
When asked if she identifies as a feminist, Klein lets out a jovial laugh. The answer to the question is yes, and the laugh was sparked by a memory of her first date with her husband when she told him that she was a feminist and his misunderstanding of what “women’s liberation” meant. Klein affectionately talks about being a “women’s libber” and growing up in the era of the second wave of feminism. The reason she has always easily identified as a feminist is because of her parents who were also “huge women’s libbers.”
“You are equal to men, and whatever you do, do it well,” Klein recalls her parents telling her while growing up. As a result of her parent’s support and feminist view, she’s never felt a struggle between her identity as a traditional Jewish woman and a feminist because in her experience both identities can intertwine.
Being a Jewish woman living in Georgia has always made Klein a part of the minority. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, only 1 percent of Georgians identify as Jewish. Klein and her brother were the only students in school who took off school for Jewish holidays which meant that she had to catch up on work to stay on track with the other students. Today, she has to drive to Atlanta to buy Kosher food once a week.
“I’m repeatedly having to defend myself, what I do, and why I do it, and how I do it,” Klein says.
Over on UGA’s campus, Ingie Hovland, a 39-year-old adjunct professor, will teach a course in the fall about women in Christian history. The course starts with the women who were followers of Jesus and goes through history to the present day.
Hovland’s degrees are in anthropology, and she studies religion through an anthropologic lens. She became interested in women in Christianity as she worked on her second book about a missionary society in Norway and the women who worked for equality within the Christian organization.
She is interested in the tension between women’s roles in Christian circles and women’s role in overall society throughout history.
“Mary in some ways is extremely holy. She’s elevated,” Hovland explains. “And then you have the other side of that coin where women as a whole aren’t seen as holy. They can’t be Mary because she’s so holy. It leads to this two-sided effect where this one woman was elevated but women as a group are not elevated.”
It is the first time that she will teach the course, but she’s excited to dive deeper into the history of Christian women while teaching students.
When reflecting on what the value of faithful women is, a thought pops up into Mason’s head and she pads over to her bookshelf, grabbing her Bible and turning to Proverbs. “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future. When she speaks, her words are wise, and she gives instructions with kindness.”
Mason smiles, reflecting on the words that guide her life.