Is there a special spirituality in motherhood? Different religions have different answers. In Catholicism and Mormonism, motherhood is upheld as a special, sacred realm for women — a vocation or calling all its own. In other faith traditions, motherhood is acknowledged but is not often a focus of sacred texts, exegesis or preaching.
But virtually every world religion has some revered mother figure — Durga (Hinduism), Tara (Buddhism), Rachel (Judaism), Mary (Christianity), Khadijah (Islam) — and even some newer religions have strong female mother figures, such as the Heavenly Mother in Mormonism. Scholars say many are linked to the prehistorical idea of the “sacred” or “divine feminine” — the worship and reverence of the female.
Is there something intrinsically spiritual or religious in motherhood? In the feminine? How might this be a bridge between different faiths? What role does the ancient concept of the sacred feminine continue to play in contemporary religions? In the religious and spiritual lives of contemporary women who are — and are not — mothers?
The concept of womanhood has been at the center of several developments in world religions recently:
- In October 2015, officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, officially reiterated the faith’s belief in a Heavenly Mother — a feminine aspect of God. Some Mormons lamented that reverence for this idea had fallen away in recent years. Mormons have been struggling with the role of women, who are banned from the priesthood and high positions in the governing body of the church.
- Women’s ordination is still a hot topic in many faiths. Seventh-day Adventists voted in July to continue to reject it. Now some male Adventist pastors are protesting in solidarity with women.
- The Catholic Church recently held a conference on family — and did not invite any women speakers.
- The Parliament of the World’s Religions held an Inaugural Women’s Assembly, a day devoted to women’s issues in religion, at its meeting in Salt Lake City in October 2015.
- In February 2015, the first all-female mosque in the U.S. opened in Los Angeles.
- And let’s not forget that the Christmas season is on its way, when Christians will turn their focus to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.
- Read “The Magical Thing That Happens When Women Get Spiritual Together,” a story by Antonia Blumberg writing for The Huffington Post, Oct. 6, 2015.
- Read “Why Is Paradise at the Feet of Mothers?,” an essay by Deana Nassar as published on OnIslam.net, May 6, 2015.
- Read “Spirituality in Childbearing Women,” a 2010 study by Lynn Clark Callister and Inaam Khalaf, both nurses, as published in The Journal of Perinatal Education. The takeaway: The study found that women of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds saw pregnancy as a special time to “grow closer to God.”
- Read “The Quran and the Hadith on Mothers,” a collection of quotations from Soundvision.
- Read “The Eucharistic Adoration for the Sanctification of Priests and Spiritual Maternity,” a 2007 document of the Catholic Church that promotes the “special maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for each Priest.”
- Read “Numinous Experiences and Reflexive Spirituality in the Formation of Religious Capital Among Feminist Women,” a 2005 paper by Adair Lummis as published on the website of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
- The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. has a Women, Religion and the Family program. Among areas scholars there have explored are black Muslim motherhood, marriage and women’s leadership in religions. Katherine Marshall is the project leader.
- The Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University examines the relationship between women, religion and spirituality across cultures, time periods and faiths.
- The Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University focuses on feminism’s influence on religion.
- The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., has a program in women’s studies and religion.
- TheJewishWoman.org, a project of Chabad, maintains online resources for Jewish women and spirituality, including a page titled “Spirituality and the Feminine” and another on birth and parenting.
- The Spiritual Motherhood Sodality was established by Pope John Paul II to foster a sense of motherhood as a vocation for women within the Catholic Church. It was founded by the Rev. Joseph Aytona and is based in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Contact 800-818-0584.
- The United States Institute of Peace maintains a special section on its study called Women, Religion and Peace. Its website contains videos and interviews on the subject of women, religion, spirituality, peace and conflict resolution.
Women’s Spirituality Forum
The Women’s Spirituality Forum in San Francisco is a nonprofit group focused on Earth-based and Dianic religions and spiritualities and women. Contact via founder Z Budapest.
Vivianne Crowley is a council member of the Pagan Federation and a priestess of the Fellowship of Isis. She is the author of Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World and A Woman’s Guide to the Earth Traditions: Exploring Wicca, Shamanism, Paganism and Celtic Spirituality. She was a professor of psychology of religion in the theology and religious studies department at King’s College, University of London, and is now a professor at Cherry Hill Seminary, a seminary in North Carolina dedicated to the pagan traditions, where she teaches paganism and goddess spirituality. She lives in London and blogs at Greening the Spirit.
Marianne Littlejohn is a nurse and midwife who promotes and teaches the idea of spiritual births. She teaches a spiritual birth workshop and classes at the Spiritual Birth Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.
Anna Parker is also known by her Sufi name, Zebunissa. She is the spiritual director of the Sophia Wisdom Centre in New South Wales, Australia, as well as an ordained minister in the Church of All. Her spirituality includes the divine feminine, the teachings of Jesus and Sufism.
Jenny Weisberg is a stay-home mother of eight children living in Jerusalem with her husband, a rabbi. She blogs about Jewish motherhood at JewishMom.com. Contact via her website.
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is an assistant professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. She specializes in American religious history and women and religion. She is at work on The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, in which she argues that Mary appealed to both American Catholics and Protestants at a time when the two groups were deeply suspicious of each other.
Ghazala Anwar is an associate professor of Quranic studies at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist school, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. She is also on the steering committee of GTU’s Women’s Studies in Religion program. Among her areas of interest are women in Islam and gender equality.
Ann Braude is director of the women’s studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. She teaches a course titled “Religion, Gender and Politics: A Transnational Perspective.” Her books include Sisters and Saints: Women and American Religion.
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the history of Pentecostalism and is the author of White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America.
Miriam Robbins Dexter
Miriam Robbins Dexter is a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is co-editor of Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries.
Cynthia Eller is a professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., where she specializes in women and religion and New Religious Movements. She has written several books on women and religion in prehistory and contemporary feminism.
Ruqayya Khan is an associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. She is an expert on women in Islam and Islam in the digital age. She teaches courses on feminism in the Quran and Islam and environmentalism.
Adair T. Lummis
Adair T. Lummis is a religion sociologist and a faculty associate in research at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. Her research focuses on denominational policies; gender, spirituality and leadership in communities of faith; and clergy concerns. Her books include, as co-author, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling.
Tammi J. Schneider
Tammi J. Schneider is a professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. She is an expert on Hebrew women in the Bible and is the author of Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis.
Susan Crawford Sullivan
Susan Crawford Sullivan is an associate professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. She is the author of Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty. She teaches courses in sociology of religion; Catholic thought and social action; women, religion, and poverty; and families and societies.
Anni Daulter is the author of Sacred Pregnancy: A Loving Guide and Journal for Expectant Moms and the founder of the Sacred Living Movement, a series of workshops on pregnancy, birth, menopause and other milestones of women’s lives, aimed at making them more spiritual.
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger and the author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she explored the meaning of “biblical womanhood” as it is understood by many complementarian and egalitarian Christians. She lives in Dayton, Tenn. Contact via her publicist.
Pat Gohn is a Catholic author and speaker whose subject is often the spirituality and calling of Catholic women. She lives in the Boston area and is the author of Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood.
Lesley Hazleton is a former psychologist and journalist and is the author of Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother. Hazleton lives in Seattle and describes herself as having “deep roots in both Judaism and Catholicism.”
Leslie Ludy is a Christian author and speaker and author of Set-Apart Motherhood: Reflecting Joy and Beauty in Family Life, a book that describes motherhood as a Christian calling. She is the mother of six children, four of them adopted. Her website, Set Apart Girl, is focused on what she describes as “Christ-centered femininity.” She lives in Windsor, Colo.
Kathe Schaaf is co-editor of Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power. She is co-chair of the Women’s Task Force for the Parliament of the World’s Religions and an artist, a poet and a marriage and family therapist based in California.
Zsuzsanna Budapest — more commonly known as Z Budapest — is one of the founders of the revival of Earth-based, women-focused spirituality movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She is the author of more than a dozen books on women’s spirituality and Earth-based religions and teaches in San Francisco.
Rose Cole describes herself as a “visionary” and is frequently on television describing spirituality and womanhood. She promotes something she calls “rituality” — the creation of rituals for women based on their everyday lives — and offers private coaching and training for “high priestesses.” She offers coaching classes in “sacred motherhood.”
Phyllis Curott is one of the world’s first public Wiccan priestesses. She is founder and president of the Temple of Ara, a shamanic Wiccan community. She lives on Long Island in New York and is the author of multiple books on Wicca and goddess spirituality, including Book of Shadows.
Grandmother Flordemayo is on the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the wisdom of indigenous women. She is Mayan, originally from Central America, but now living in New Mexico. She is a trained curandero, or healer, and travels to speak about indigenous women’s wisdom and spirituality.
Heather MacFadyen is a Christian podcaster and blogger who writes about motherhood at GodCenteredMom.com. Contact via her website.
Anne Scott is a Sufi teacher and founder of the DreamWeather Foundation in Sebastopol, Calif. She develops and leads workshops and retreats on women’s spirituality in the United States and other countries.
Charlene Spretnak is one of the founders of the women’s spirituality movement in the U.S. She is the editor of The Politics of Women’s Spirituality and author of Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church. She is a professor emerita at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She lives in Ojai, Calif.
Kelli Bickman describes herself as a “spiritual warrior” and multimedia artist. Her art has been called part of the “Neo-Goddess” movement. She can talk about her expressions of the divine feminine through art. She lives in Woodstock, N.Y., which she describes as “the epicenter of peace and love.”
Lindsey Carlson is a Christian, a pastor’s wife and a mother of four who writes frequently about Christian motherhood on several blogs, including her own, Wisdomrejoices.com. She lives in Maryland. Contact via her website.
Kumkum Pareek Malik
Kumkum Pareek Malik is a psychologist originally from India who now practices in Wellesley, Mass. She focuses on the spirituality of motherhood, especially from a Hindu perspective.
Jeanmarie Dwyer-Wrigley is an actress who facilitates workshops for women based on the divine feminine in the Chicago area. She is the founder of Womens Wisdom Resource Support and Mentoring Center in Des Plaines, Ill.
Christine Johnson is a cradle Catholic who says she approaches motherhood as a “domestic vocation” and writes a blog of the same name. She lives in Virginia. Contact through her website.
Evelyn Ojeda-Fox is the founder of the Peaceful Birth Project and has written and taught about making birth a spiritual experience. She is based in Dunedin, Fla.
Laura Vance is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of Women in New Religions. She is also an expert on Mormon women.
Rabbi Leah Novick is the author of On the Wings of Shekhinah: Re-Discovering Judaism’s Divine Feminine. Shekhinah is a form of the divine feminine found in Judaism. She is Jewish renewal movement leader and lives in the Monterey, Calif., area.
Laura Paskell-Brown is a member of the Young Leaders Council at Women of Spirit and Faith. She blends social activism with spirituality and created a women’s circle at Occupy Wall Street. She can address issues involving women’s spirituality, the spirituality of birth and motherhood, and women’s sacred spaces. She is a birth doula in San Francisco.
Samantha Catalina Sinclair
Samantha Catalina Sinclair completed her MA in women’s spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she is researching love relationships and patriarchy. She considers herself a religious naturalist and “hiereia,” or sacred woman, and she invokes the divine feminine in rituals for planetary healing.
Karen Tate is an author, speaker, teacher, social justice activist and host of Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio. She is a member of the Fellowship of Isis and lives in Venice Beach, Calif. She can discuss the divine feminine and contemporary goddess worship.
Related source guides
- The female face of spirituality, posted October 2015.
- Women clergy: A growing and diverse community, posted August 2014, updated May 2015.