Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy


The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.


After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

I received dozens of suggestions in response to this post, which I’ve compiled here, along with a list of the next 10 books I’m going to read:


56 thoughts on “Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy

      1. Specifically her “Making Room: Recovering the Christian Practice of Hospitality” is phenomenal (this is not a book about entertaining). Pohl is an ethicist who teaches at Asbury.


      2. I had simply taken it to mean that men were better writers. But then i wondered are they simply better thieves? Dismissing the latter and realising that maybe because of the generally nurturing nature of the female species, she might be found in a different genre like children’s books. But yes I noticed my skewed library from 2004.


  1. Hi Ben, great post. My bookshelves have the same problem. I do have a couple academic works (Bible commentary) by Lynn Cohick and Karen Jobes, but I don’t think my theology section has a single female.

    I do think this is the lingering effect of patriarchy, as your title states. And also reflective of how evangelicals handle women in the church – such as sequestering off women into women’s groups and the pervasive focus on “Christian womanhood”. Women can only see themselves (and speak, write, etc) through the narrow lens of wife or mother or some other distinct aspect of their feminine self. Instead of expressing God’s truths as a female, they can only discuss distinctly female issues. As you state, “women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.”

    I wrote a rambling, and perhaps slightly incoherent post, entitled “Women need a broader vision of their place in the Body of Christ” – where I share some of my frustrations. http://lightenough.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/women-need-a-broader-vision-of-their-place-in-the-body-of-christ/


  2. I look forward to seeing what emerges from this. Here are a few female authors or books I recommend –

    Barbara Brown Taylor
    Anne Lamott
    Diana Butler Bass
    Phyllis Tickle
    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
    Joan Chittister
    Rosemary Radford Ruether
    Rita Nakashima Brock
    bell hooks

    The Women’s Bible Commentary edited by Carol Newsom
    Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (Library of Theological Ethics) by Katie Geneva Cannon, Emilie M. Townes and Angela D. Sims
    She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson
    A Feminist Ethic of RISK by Sharon Welch
    En la Lucha Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Kimberly! BTW, although you may not have written a book (yet??), you are nonetheless among the women whose writings have made it past my patriarchal blinders and shaped my thinking. So…thanks!


  3. I also have noticed recently how hard it is to find a female theologian! I’m in the process of launching a book on the parables of Jesus and I was looking for people who might be able to provide a little review blurb for me. It was easy enough finding (straight, white, North American) men to read it, but I’m sort of embarrassed to only have one woman reviewer, and a complete lack of other minority voices as well. Thank you for this list of resources!!


  4. I used to have a page on my blog for my top 10 recommended books. I think at the time I took down that page – just because it wasn’t worth it to maintain as it never got any hits – Rachel Held Evans (Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Phyllis Tickle (Great Emergence) were the only women on the list. Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ would definitely also make the list now, which would also probably be the only non-white author on the list.

    After reading that book and its emphasis on learning from diversity, I made the commitment that at least half of my book reading would be from non-white or non-male authors. Since then I did Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist, Rachel Held Evans’ Faith Unraveled, and am currently reading Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness. I’ve added some others to the Kobo shelf like Barbara Brown Taylor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Lauren Winner, but haven’t gotten as far as reading them yet since I tend to read at about half the pace that I buy. I’m not doing as well with the non-white side of the goal.


  5. This post was excellent. Daisy Osborn was not what you would classify as a theologian, but she and her husband took the gospel to the nations in something close to 90 nations over a forty or fifty year span. I may be wrong about the numbers. She, along with her husband wrote many books, they are wonderful and life changing


  6. I quote from Charles Darwin The Descent of Man.
    If two lists were made of the most eminant men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music, history, science and philosophy the two lists would not bear comparison.
    Since men are capable of a decided pre- eminance over women in many subjects, the average mental power in men must be above that of woman.
    Shocking stuff for such a learned man but he believed the evidence rather than what he hoped or felt should be true.


  7. Not being a follower of religion per se……. but the trends over the millennia have not been kind to women especially those that present better than the average mental faculties.


  8. Awesome insight and thank you. As a woman, mother, and wife who has no academic background other than a love for theology and deep thinking this has inspired me to keep going. I just started blogging my thoughts so I am not yet great at it but, my love for reading and writing has found a home here.


  9. Hi Ben, I stumbled across your blog totally by accident this evening and I wanted to say thank you! It always means a heck of a lot when the male voices in the Church take time to own up to this inequality and say something about it when the women have grown tired of shouting about it. Thank you for an insightful and generous post.


  10. It is in large part due to the effects of the patriarchal dominance and oppression of women (which necessarily then oppresses all aspects of society and community therefore oppressing men as well), that I’ve not embraced organized religion, but I thought your bringing attention to the lack of equality in the church was interesting so I read your post…
    Elaine Pagels is a must read for students of christianity I would think. She wrote the Origins of Satan and the Gnostic Gospels among others.
    Jay Macpherson was a poet (Book collection I like is Poems twice told: the boatman and welcoming disaster) and teacher… (she taught and mentored Margaret Atwood in writing… although Margaret is an atheist she writes science fiction type books that depict the patriarchal church at it’s darkest possible tyranny… so perhaps she would be an interesting female counter balance-view of religion for your reading shelf?) Jay Macpherson came from a Christian background but wrote about mythology (Book: Four Ages of Man) and I think introduced ideas that Joseph Campbell probably failed to credit her for.
    Isabelle Eberhardt (translated by Paul Bowles) The Oblivion Seekers is an obscure fascinating book by & about a female Sufi… which isn’t really allowed by that patriarchy, so she dressed and acted as a man.
    I agree with the bell hooks and Ann Lamott recommendations listed by one of your readers.
    Anyhow, I appreciate your reading lists and links and the learning very much. 🙂


  11. This was a great read, and thank you for writing about it. When I was attempting to go to Catechism classes, I loved the teacher who was a woman and dared to suggest (out loud) that women might be priests some day. After that year, she was gone with a slew of criticism trailing behind her. I never finished the classes and I don’t want to, not just because of her leaving but also because I feel left out and kicked to the side.


  12. Ben, I appreciate your honesty about this. I’m afraid my own shelves have the same problem. It has helped to have a fine theologian, Brenda Colijn, in my church. I also find that women are doing some of the best writing in spiritual theology today–MaryKate Morse, Lynne Baab, Luci Shaw, Helen Cepero, Ruth Haley Barton, and more. There are classic writers like Theresa of Avila, Hildegard, and Therese of Lisieux. In theology, we often hear of the three Cappodocian fathers but rarely of Macrina, the sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, who held her own with her brothers. Thanks for your followup post on this as well, and congrats on the Freshly Pressed.


  13. Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, and Elizabeth Esther are all great places to start. And luckily they frequently post recommendations for other good books as well. I recommend Lauren Winner and Jonalyn Fincher.


  14. Reblogged this on Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker and commented:
    Check out this great post where a man examines why his “great books” list and most of his theological library is missing the voice of women. There are some great theology books written by women at the end. Do you have other favorites?


  15. Check out gulabi talkies by Vaidehi. I am not quite sure how you will get a copy of this but these short stories are a part of my women’s writing course and my o my they are something else.


  16. I left traditional Christianity years ago for many reasons. The limiting role that women were allowed to play in the church was among them. I am happy to see some introspection on this topic. Carry on!


  17. Theology and women? It should already be obvious why hardly any woman wrote books here: 99% 0f religions are dismissive with women. I don’t want to sound harsh, but dismissing religion is the best thing a woman could do.


    1. I’ve been tempted to dismiss religion – not God, just man-made misogyny and other nonsense. But I think the better thing to do is to stay and shine a light, keep the conversation going and be part of the solution. God is moving, restoring us to what He intended when He created us.


  18. It has long baffled me that there are so many books on theological subjects. Are there a few people who read enormous numbers of theological books? Or do many people just think they look impressive on a bookshelf? Beats me.


  19. Fantastic post. Though I am new at WordPress it’s posts like these that inspire me to write more. I hope you can take some time and go through my blog. It’s new but your critique can help me hone my art too. 🙂


  20. Brilliant post, hearing about your wife and you deciding to raise your daughter without all of the prejudiced patriarchy baggage in the world brings me extreme excitement. It’s people like you who are going to raise a generation of change!


  21. Right now, I think we must be more supportive of female writers in many genres. Not only those where men have been successful but nurture those writers whom we might have brushed off before.
    “Beach Reading” is usually reserved for good female writers but not quite John Grisham.
    We need to stop propelling this attitude that the topics women are so good at writing about are easily brushed off.
    Great post.


  22. Excellent post, Ben. I think almost all of our bookshelves confess patriarchy to some extent; men have just had a longer history of publication access. I wonder, though, if our e-shelves communicate the same bias. As Thomas Friedman reminds us, the world is becoming flat and old power systems are losing their grip.


  23. I assumed you were a woman. Shame on me. This post is my first introduction to your blog and because I’m using the WordPress Reader, I didn’t see your page header with your photo big as day. I read the entire article before scrolling to the top to follow you. It was then that I discovered your male photo.

    Real change begins when those of privilege (not of the minority group) recognize the signs of privilege and begin to take action to balance the scale. This is rare and the reason I assumed you were a member of the group and not in a position of power (as a white male). It is hard enough for those of us within the minority group to recognize that things could and should be different. For you to notice, begin a conversation, and take steps toward change is the path to balance.

    Thank you.


  24. Religion is not commonly a topic where women feel there is much equality. Religion throughout time has placed women in a subservient position with little regard for their role. It has been instrumental in the proliferation of the continued mistreatment of women in today’s world. As a Black woman, and with deep religious beliefs, I find many woman distrust the intent of religion as it is masculine based. Religion is one area time has forgotten to apply equal justice.


  25. As a young writer years ago I never even thought about patriachy in writing until years later when I started to read books that all had ‘he’ when talking about the writer… and it started to annoy me. So I made my own effort to write the term either ‘he or she’ or ‘they’, then I went through a phase of not even writing about writers and now finally I am at a point where I see that the nature of writing is just like the nature of the world around us. Some people relate to some, others relate to others and really it is up to the reader to decide what they like. Women often like female writers, and men like male writers, but not always. In terms of religion there are plenty of Islamic books written by female scholars, one of the most interesting is Karen Armstrong who wrote extensively about Islam, Christianity and Judahism. In fact her most interesting (must-read) book is called “The History of God”….it’s truly wonderful…..I would truly recommend it to anyone and should be on any ‘thinkers’ library shelf….by the way she used to be a nun!


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