Women have been operating in leadership roles since Eve took a bite of the apple. However, religious history has been most defined by the leadership of men while women's leadership roles have been that of leading in the home, leading other women or pioneering for women's causes. While revolutions may be less frequently led by a woman, strong women of faith have peppered religious history, leaving their marks and challenging traditional thinking while ushering in lasting change across all faiths.
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Israel's Queen Esther lived around 450 B.C. ruling alongside the Persian King Xerxes while the Jews were held captive in Babylon. Although she was Jewish, she was chosen as queen from among the most beautiful women in the kingdom. She played a pivotal role in exposing corruption among the king's leadership, at the risk of her own life.
Born around 605 A.D., in Mecca (modern-day Saudi Arabia), Fatimah was the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, who originated the religion of Islam. Considered strong and humble, Fatimah was known to have devoted her life to domestic duties, setting an example for women of Islam to follow. She was married to Ali, the first male convert to Islam, and is considered the head of her father's genealogical line.
Mary was a young woman from Nazareth, a rural Jewish town, known for her strong faith in God and for her humility. When visited by an angel who told her she would give birth to and raise God's son, she felt she wasn't worthy of the task. She is considered a woman of strength among many faiths for her dedication to Jesus, even being by his side during his suffering and death on the cross.
Hildegard of Bingen lived around the turn of the 12th century, a time when women were respected very little. Known for her written works of theology and for her visions (later attributed to a persistent migraine condition) and great wisdom, she was also a musical composer and was consulted by kings and bishops for her ability to heal using natural remedies. She was recently granted sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI.
Susannah Wesley was the mother of clergyman John Wesley, the man credited with founding the Methodist faith. Though she endured a number of personal tragedies including the death of 9 children, and a complete loss during a devastating house fire, she was known for her kindness and devotion to God as well as for starting a Bible study during her husband's absences, even when he didn't approve, so people could learn from the Bible.
Amanda Berry Smith, a black woman born into a slave family in 1837, was an evangelist for the Holiness movement. After traveling as an evangelist for many years, she opened the Amanda Smith Industrial School for Girls in Harvey, Ill., published a newspaper and wrote her autobiography before her death in 1915.
Aimee Semple McPherson started the Christian Foursquare denomination and traveled the United States with two young children, praying for people and spreading the gospel at a time when women couldn't yet vote and were expected to settle down with a family. She also worked to help feed millions and used modern-day communication methods, such as the radio, to spread her message.
Known as a woman of tremendous faith and inner strength, Emma Smith endured the death of six children, poverty and the incarceration and eventual shooting death of her husband, Joseph Smith, a prophet for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
She led her family along the untamed American frontier on the "Mormon Trail of Tears" from Missouri to Illinois to flee religion persecution. In 1835, she compiled the first LDS Hymnal.
Mary Eddy Baker is the founder of the Christian Scientist movement, started in1866, which is based on the science of Jesus' healings as opposed to modern, science-based medicine. After spending much of her youth being ill, Baker became intrigued with the idea of mental healing. Because of her love of writing, she eventually initiated the start of the Christian Science Monitor.
Raised very wealthy, Elizabeth Seton suffered many hardships including bankruptcy and the death of her husband from tuberculosis. She became focused on the concept of "The Will" of God. Guided by Catholic friend who taught her their faith, she took a vow of poverty and founded Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's. Seton spent most of her life working to raise young girls and was the first American woman to be canonized as a saint.
Read more: Modern women of faith