The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (ORSL) has chaplains that use Wellesley’s engaged and open-minded student body to practice religion in unique ways, normalizing women in positions of power. It isn’t common for female religious leaders to have the opportunity to make change and working at a women’s college can be especially empowering.
For example, Amira Quraishi, the Muslim chaplain at Wellesley, is one of a handful of female Muslim chaplains in the country.
“I lead Friday prayers in the same fashion that anyone would experience at a mosque. And I perform all of the elements that are typically, or always, done by men in a mosque,” she said. “I feel very lucky to be able to be in a space to do this, where it’s not about gender politics — it’s about supporting spiritual development of the individual and the community.”
Rabbi Dena Bodian, Wellesley’s Jewish chaplain, appreciates the college’s openness toward new ways to interact with Judaism.
“I’m much more open to experimentation here … Whether that is liturgical experimentation [or other kinds]. It’s a much less judgmental space for thinking about different modes of prayer and being open to more singing stuff and incorporating poetry into the service and I’ve really been grateful for that,” she said.
For many chaplains, this flexibility has as much to do with the pervading attitude of acceptance and the willingness to engage with material at Wellesley as it does with the majority female population.
Sarah Robbins-Cole, the Protestant Chaplain, has worked at a selective all-boys’ school in London before coming to Wellesley and sees a lot of similarities.
“For them, like Wellesley College students, I think [engaging students is] always a challenge. They’re very high achieving and [we ask] how do they use this amazing gift that they have been given, whether it’s ambition, drive, intelligence, talent — but how are you going to use that in the service of the world?” she said.
Having women in traditionally male roles of power has an effect on female empowerment in religious institutions. Students at Wellesley College have benefited directly from having such powerful role models.
Celine Christory ’21, a Catholic leader on the school’s multifaith council, emphasizes the importance of finding women as leaders in religion.
“I think the [ORSL] has been wonderful. The Office and the multifaith student council have been amazing communities and such a support system. It’s been a powerful experience where there are so many women on the multifaith council and to see so many women’s experiences within their own faiths,” she said.
As Bodian explains, it’s not just about women seeing other women in leadership positions; it’s about getting everyone else used to it as well.
“If you’re a minority you need to see yourself reflected in society, and it’s really important for everyone else in the society to see women in positions of power. So I think it’s really important for men to have female religious leaders too,” she said.
In Judaism specifically, bringing new perspectives to women’s experiences help make the religion more applicable to other women.
“They bring women’s experiences that men can’t capture,” said Bodian. “So something you’ll see a lot of is developing rituals around miscarriage. Which is usually sort of brushed aside, but as there are more women in positions of leadership there are more people who have had the experience of having a miscarriage to help other women frame that experience.”
It has taken a while for society to realize the new perspectives diversity in leadership can bring. The Church of England, for example, didn’t start ordaining women into priesthood until the late 1970s, and this was considered extremely progressive, especially for a Christian institution.
“I was ordained in the Church of England … And at the time that I moved they were not ordaining women into priesthood,” said Robbins-Cole.
Two years later, the Church began ordaining women and Robbins-Cole was one of the first.
“I really witnessed the challenges of women starting to move into an area that was explicitly male for 2000 years and that was tough,” she said.
Even if the religion or society that the religion is practiced in creates barriers for women to accept roles alongside men, they often find ways to affect change in new and innovative ways.
“I have found women can have leadership even if it is not where they are expected. Just because they cannot be priests doesn’t mean they can’t be leaders in the congregation,” said Christory.