This is a topic I could write books about, but I will do my best to keep this short and to the point.
The best way to determine the role of women in the Orthodox Church is to look at the lives of our female saints. I will confess, I know very little about the Mothers of the Church (if you’re interested in a book about the Desert Mothers, click here), but I will bring to light those that I do know and hopefully they can give you an idea of what women in the Orthodox Church should/do look like.
St. Emilia: Often called the “Mother of Saints” because five of her children are now commemorated in the Orthodox Church as saints: Sts. Macrina, Basil, Peter of Sebaste, Gregory of Nyssa, and Theosebia. She was a mother who dedicated her life to raising her children in the Faith and as a result of her zealous devotion to God and her family, five of her children grew up to be saints and she herself is now a Saint.
St. Katherine of Alexandria: One of my personal favorites, an extremely intelligent and beautiful woman who was able to hold her own in debate with 50 of Emperor Maximian’s greatest pagan philosophers. She received an excellent education and was able to study the greatest philosophers and teachers of antiquity and used her knowledge for the cause of Christ. She was a strong woman who was eventually martyred for her faith in Christ.
St. Nino: Called “Equal to the Apostles” and “the Enlightener of Georgia”, St. Nino is quite the interesting character. The title “Equal to the Apostles” is only given to a Saint whose work in spreading the Gospel of Christ is comparable to that of the original twelve Apostles. She was sent by the Mother of God to Georgia on her own to preach Christ crucified and she did, all on her own, and was quite successful. She even baptized the Princess of Georgia.
St. Mary of Egypt: Probably one of the most well known female Orthodox Saints, St. Mary of Egypt’s story is miraculous. Having spent most of her life as a begger and prostitute (often refusing money for sexual favors because she was so driven by her passions), she one day attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and was stopped from entering by an unseen force. Knowing this was due to her impiety, she immediately repented and spent her life in the desert as a hermit in penitence.
St. Mary the Mother of God: The most obvious of all, and the greatest Saint of the Orthodox Church, is the Blessed Virgin Mary. A woman whose entire life is marked by humility and obedience to God, she is the greatest example of what every Orthodox woman should strive to be.
There are so many more saintly women in the Orthodox Church, if you would like to read about more of them, click here. As you’ll see we have a wide variety of women: martyrs, scholars, mothers, empresses, evangelists, etc. You will find a variety of vocations, but a similar spirit among each of them: that of humility and obedience. Our women are empowered in a way that Western society has not and can never empower her women. Our women are empowered by the Spirit of God to live a life of obedience to Christ. St. Katherine of Alexandria and the rest of our Virgin saints teach those women who are called to chastity how to submit to Christ as their Husband, while St. Emilia teaches wives and mothers how to raise their children in the Faith and submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ. And of course, the Theotokos teaches us of virginity, motherhood, and submission.
How do Orthodox women relate to men? If our Saints are not enough, St. Peter in Scripture paints the perfect image of our women:
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives— when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
St. Peter the Apostle
He also says to the men:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
St. Peter the Apostle
St. Paul also gives us a beautiful picture of marriage, an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
St. Paul the Apostle
And I won’t quote the whole thing here, but Proverbs 31:10-31 gives you a picture of our women as well. St. Gregory Nazianzus in a letter to his newly wedded spiritual daughter writes of the role of women in marriage, if you are interested you should check it out.
Our women are not oppressed, quite the contrary, they are quite strong, intelligent, and empowered. But not in the way Western society has told you they should be. Our women serve in various ways, but they serve the same Lord and they strive to serve with the same humble and obedient spirit that our Women Saints have done before us.
I hope this helped, if you have any further questions please feel free to ask.
How does the Orthodox church see women and their role in society? And what does it say about their position in relation to men?