In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies of Female Practitioners
  • Constructive Feminist Theology
  • Models of Women’s Practice
  • Visual Culture
  • Advocacy
  • Debates over Women’s Ordination

Buddhism Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
Lori Meeks
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0060


Although much work on women in Buddhism undertaken today does not convey explicitly feminist aims, the study of women and Buddhism has been influenced by feminist goals and by larger trends in feminist studies. This entry includes both works that are clearly feminist in orientation and works that have been shaped by the broader feminist call to uncover and analyze the gendered discourses that underlie cultural and religious institutions. Early English-language studies of women and Buddhism (see General Overviews) were intimately tied to first-wave Anglo-American feminism, which fought for women’s suffrage and participation in public discourse. Work on women in Buddhism changed in the 1970s and 1980s, when a number of second-wave feminists in North America, seeking spiritual alternatives to Judaism and Christianity, began to look to Buddhism. Second-wave feminism, with its commitment to the recovery of women’s history, to promoting empowering images of women, and to creating more egalitarian cultural practices, gave rise to many studies often undertaken by scholar-practitioners who sought to separate a “usable” Buddhism from that influenced by the social and cultural realities of historical Buddhist communities. Second-wave feminism thus paved the way for feminist reconstructions of Buddhist theology and for Buddhist studies of women with clearly normative aims. In some cases, feminist writers and theologians writing during this period had less philological and historical training in the study of Buddhism than did traditional scholars of Buddhism. As a result, their interpretations of Buddhism were sometimes simplistic. Fortunately, studies of women and gender became increasingly common in Buddhist studies during the 1990s. Those who began turning their attention toward women, gender, and sexuality included not only those with theological or normative feminist aims but also those interested in the philological and literary study of Buddhist texts, in social and cultural studies of Buddhism, and in the social-scientific study of Buddhist communities. The advent of postmodern studies and third-wave feminism has also brought greater nuance and cultural sensitivity to more recent studies of women in Buddhism. In particular, we have seen important critiques of earlier studies that privileged the interests and activities of Anglo-American Buddhists. Recent scholarship has begun to take seriously the interests and subjectivities of Asian and Asian American Buddhist women, and many women active in these communities, in turn, have also begun to contribute to English-language scholarship on women in Buddhism. The field of women and Buddhism is quite rich today, representing a wide range of personal, intellectual, and political commitments.

General Overviews

Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids and I. B. Horner are commonly recognized as the founders of Anglo-American scholarship on women in Buddhism. Rhys Davids and Horner, both leading members of the Pali Text Society, were first and foremost philologists. While their political interests may have informed their decisions to study women in Buddhism, they did not convey overtly feminist aims in their writings. Rhys Davids 1909 is a translation of the Therīgātā (Songs of the female elders), and Horner 1930, inspired by Rhys Davids 1909, is a study of women in early Indian Buddhism. Although both of these women were, in many ways, guilty of romanticizing ancient India as a civilization whose ideas and practices might offer inspiration to the desires of Anglo-American women fighting for suffrage and other rights, their scholarship was nonetheless revolutionary for its time, and their work inspired many later generations of female converts and practitioners in the West. For celebratory views of Rhys Davids and Horner, see Boucher 2007, whose author writes from within a feminist, American Buddhist community. For more critical views, see Collett 2006. For a broader view of sex as a concept in Buddhist discourses, see Gyatso 2005.

  • Boucher, Sandy. “Appreciating the Lineage of Buddhist Feminist Scholars.” In Feminist Theologies: Legacy and Prospect. Edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether, 117–154. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.

    Helpful, if incomplete, historical overview of Anglo-American feminist Buddhist theology. Written from the perspective of a well-known American convert to Buddhism.

  • Collett, Alice. “Buddhism and Gender: Reframing and Refocusing the Debate.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 22.2 (2006): 55–84.

    DOI: 10.2979/FSR.2006.22.2.55

    Historical overview and methodological critique of European and American studies of women in Buddhist texts. Contains a useful list of Indian primary sources commonly drawn on in studies of women and Buddhism but does not address more recent work that incorporates the perspective of social history. Focuses primarily on studies of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.

  • Gyatso, Janet. “Sex.” In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Edited by Donald Lopez Jr., 271–290. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    This essay does not address feminism directly, but it does provide an excellent overview of discourses on sex as they appear in traditional Buddhist textual traditions.

  • Horner, Isaline Blew. Women under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen. The Broadway Oriental Library. London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1930.

    First substantive study of women and Buddhism written in English. As many others have pointed out (such as Collett 2006, Wilson 1996, and Collett 2009, the last two cited under Indian and Tibetan Texts), Horner’s reading of women’s roles in early Buddhist communities is explicitly positive and enthusiastic. Horner finds in scriptural accounts of ancient Buddhist communities a kind of egalitarianism she longed to realize in early-20th-century England.

  • Rhys Davids, Caroline A. F. The Psalms of the Early Buddhists. Vol. 1, Psalms of the Sisters: The Therīgātā. London: Henry Frowde, 1909.

    Thanks to this early translation, the Therīgātā has enjoyed great status among scholars of women and Buddhism. There are many studies of the text, and several additional translations have been published as well.Republished in 1980 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.