Contested Feminisms: Women’s Religious Leadership and the Politics of Contemporary Western Feminism


  • Kathleen McPhillips Newcastle University



Feminism, secularism, reform, politics.


Feminism is a relatively recent social movement of radical reform, emerging from the mass political movements of democratisation, secularisation and liberalism that swept across the western world from the 17th century onwards. The first wave of organised feminist political action was articulated in the abolitionist, temperance and suffrage movements in America and Europe in the mid 19th century and culminated in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in New York State where the women’s rights movement was born. Religion was a crucial influence in the work of first wave feminists enjoying close ties to the liberal movements of Protestantism, particularly the Quaker movement. However, as modernity progressed into the twentieth century and secularism became incorporated into statecraft, the influence of religion in the public sphere waned and humanist ethics came to the fore in political life. So, although Christianity had been a primary part of first wave feminism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the 1960s second wave feminism embraced secularism and situated religion as an inherently patriarchal institution, incapable of social change and has yet to acknowledge the pivotal part that women’s religious leadership played in establishing the grounds for contemporary feminist politics. Recently, a third phase of religious feminism, defined as post-secular feminism, shifts the ground yet again to open up new possibilities of engagement between religious and non-religious feminisms. Following on from the first two waves of religious feminism, this third phase holds potential for counter hegemonic action in transforming gender conservative religious institutions, theologies and social practices towards more inclusive, potentially transformative, religious cultures. It also provides space for a new articulation of religious and secular feminist politics.

Author Biography

Kathleen McPhillips, Newcastle University

Kathleen McPhillips is a sociologist of religion and gender and lectures at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She has written extensively on issues concerning feminism, religion and gender and has recent publications in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and Feminist Theology. She is Managing Editor of Seachanges, the journal of the Women Scholars of Religion and Theology (WSRT) association, and an Associate Editor for the Journal of Academic Studies of Religion. She is on the international editorial boards of Feminist Dissent and Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She was a founding member of the Sydney Women-Church group, and on the editorial board of Women-Church: An Australian Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (1987 2007) and has been engaged in feminism and religion issues for over thirty years.


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How to Cite

McPhillips, K. (2016). Contested Feminisms: Women’s Religious Leadership and the Politics of Contemporary Western Feminism. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 29(2), 134–149.

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