Simone de Beauvoir theorized that religion oppresses women in much the same way as it oppresses the proletariat in Marxist theory.
‘There must be a religion for women as there must be one for the common people, and for exactly the same reason’ (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949).
According to de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status.
De Beauvoir argued that historically, men, who have traditionally controlled most institutions in society, also control religion. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify their control of society.
De Beauvoir writes:
‘For the Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians, among others, men is master by divine right; the fear of God will therefor repress any impulse towards revolt in the downtrodden female.’
However, in modern societies, religion is more of a tool of deception than of direct control. Religion deceives women into thinking that are equal to, or even better than men, despite their inferior status in reality.
For example, the role of mother is given divine status in most religions, and thus encourages women to accept the role of ‘mother’ in society. Religion also provides psychological rewards for women who content themselves with being ‘good mothers’: simply being a ‘good mother’ is ‘divine’, and this effectively carries its own psychological and status rewards for women who accept this role.
However, according to radical feminist theory more generally, the motherhood role is one of the most oppressive for women: it means that women become financially dependent on men and end up doing a lot more work in society, especially in reproducing the next generation.
In fact, de Beauvoir says that those women who accept their religiously sanctioned roles as mother actually benefit religious institutions. This is because they socialise them into religious belief: thus reproducing power inequalities.
Finally, for de Beauvoir, the compensations women receive from traditional religious institutions for accepting their inferior status are not adequate.
Adapted from Haralambos and Holborne: Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.