Religion, Politics and Gender Equality in the United States

By Janet R. Jakobsen and Elizabeth Bernstein

By Janet R. Jakobsen and Elizabeth Bernstein

September 2009


Despite the official separation of church and state in the U.S., religion and politics are greatly intertwined. This intertwining can be attributed both to the profound influence of religious organizations on the political process and to the secular institutions of public life which operate by presuming Protestant norms and values.

The authors of this paper argue that the problem for gender equality in the United States is not the influence of religion alone, but Protestant hegemony in terms of both religious influence and secular presumption. They demonstrate this through two contrasting cases studies: policies around human trafficking during the Bush and Obama Administrations and “welfare reform” during the Clinton years.

In the case of trafficking, they show how the Bush Administration’s coalition of secular feminist and conservative religious groups has given way under President Obama to a different coalition of faith-based and secular actors characterized by certain continuities of policy aims and method. The most important continuities are the persistence of carceral feminism and militarized humanitarianism.

In the case of “welfare reform,” which was supported by a bipartisan coalition of conservative evangelicals and secular advocates, all of the parties used a conservative rhetoric of gender, race, and sexuality to support the policy. This coalition of conservative evangelicals and secular neoliberals easily overwhelmed the direct religious influence of both Catholic and mainline Protestant groups who stood in opposition to “welfare reform.”

In both of these cases, it is argued that the major policy alternatives are those that raise not just the issue of religious influence on policies affecting gender equality, but also question neoliberalism and its impact on gender relations and women’s lives. In forming political alliances, the authors emphasize, feminists should situate gender within a broad array of political and economic concerns while challenging Protestant dominance in both its religious and secular guises.




  • Janet R. Jakobsen
    Janet R. Jakobsen is Director of the Center for Research on Women and a professor of Women's Studies at Barnard College. Beginning in 2009, she is also serving as Dean for Faculty Diversity and Development. She is the author of “Working Alliances and the Politics of Difference: Diversity and Feminist Ethics” and editor (with Elizabeth Castelli) of  “Interventions: Activists and Academics Respond to Violence”. With Ann Pellegrini, she is author of “Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance” and editor of the forthcoming “Secularisms”. She has been a fellow at the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of Arizona, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University and the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. Before entering the academy, she was a policy analyst, lobbyist, and organizer in Washington, D.C.
  • Elizabeth Bernstein
    Elizabeth Bernstein is Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her research and teaching interests lie with gender and sexuality, law and policy, social theory, culture and political economy as well as ethnographic methods. Her publications include “Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex” (2007), “Sexual Commerce and the Global Flow of Bodies, Desires, and Social Policies” (2008) and “Regulating Sex” (2005). Further, she was co-author of the “Final Report of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution” (1996) and holds lectures such as “Strange Bedfellows? Feminism, the Christian Right, and Contemporary U.S. Policies Against the ‘Traffic in Women,” (Columbia University, 2009).

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