1, Fall/Winter 1997
Work on Women in
Historical analysis of women in twentieth-century Protestantism is in many ways just beginning. As a glance through any library catalogue or dissertation index will attest, studies of present-day issues (female clergy, feminist theology, women’s spirituality) are multiplying rapidly. And a bit more looking around will turn up many excellent studies of women and religion in earlier periods of North American history.
But the same search will also uncover relatively few historical analyses that extend past the beginning decades of the century. And it is likely that those references will be more valuable as primary rather than secondary sources, since many celebrate the achievements of particular women’s organizations, or support one side or the other in an ongoing debate about women’s ordination.
The persistent researcher would be harder pressed to locate much critical historical analysis of twentieth-century Protestantism that takes women fully into account—or of twentieth-century women’s history that deals adequately with religion. It is perhaps telling that the best and most widely read historical account of women and twentieth-century religion, volume three of the Ruether and Keller series, is basically a collection of primary source documents, not a sustained narrative.1
In part, the gap in historical analysis reflects the intellectual distance between women’s history and the recent history of American religion.2 For a long time, neither field has had much to say to the other. But, as this essay will demonstrate, the distance is closing slowly but surely.
We cannot, in the limited space of these pages, offer an exhaustive list of all the recent material that pertains to women and twentieth-century Protestantism. This essay is best read as a preliminary guide to a subject which is taking off in many new directions at once. And it is also an invitation to other students in the field to share their work and ideas with us and with a growing audience of interested scholars.
Women in Church-Related Institutions
Denominationally-based narratives are often a good place to begin a study of women and twentieth-century Protestantism. The present list of studies includes Presbyterians3, Lutherans,4 Methodists,5 Episcopalians,6 black Baptists,7 and Quakers.8 At their best, these books are far more than just insider accounts and suggest ways in which different religious cultures have mediated women’s experience in modern society.
Roughly parallel to these denominational histories are analyses of women’s roles in modern sectarian movements. The literature on fundamentalist,9 holiness,10 and pentecostal11 women is fascinating, if not yet fully historicized, for in these settings gender-related issues often emerge with more force and clarity than they do in older white mainline denominations. The literature on women in conservative Protestantism also addresses important questions about the impact of theology upon practice. Differences in biblical interpretation between holiness and fundamentalist believers, for example, might look like minor theological nuances to outsiders, but they go a long way toward explaining why the former group tolerated female preachers and the latter one prohibited them.
Scholarly biographies of female religious leaders also suggest important correctives to standard, male-dominated historical narratives. Very often these accounts illustrate the complex interplay between feminine religious vocation and institutional denominational boundaries.12 Oral histories also provide valuable information about the lives of women with limited access to traditional avenues of power in Protestant churches.13
Church-based ecumenical and missionary organizations also form a large part of the story of women and twentieth-century Protestantism. On women’s ecumenical interdenominational efforts work is only just beginning.14 The story of women’s missions, which is now being told increasingly in terms of its cross-cultural dynamics,15 also falters around mid-century. Many missionary groups were formed after the Civil War and lost their independent status in the 1920s, when they were absorbed into male-dominated "parent" mission boards. Most histories of women’s missionary organizations end there, perhaps reflecting disappointment, or a larger ambivalence about modern missions among liberal Protestants. As a result, little is known about the role of liberal Protestant women in more recent stages of missionary outreach, and how their approach (which had always emphasized education as a means toward conversion) differed from that of their male counterparts. Emerging work on evangelical and fundamentalist female missionaries working in independent "faith missions," and on African American women missionaries, also underscores the necessity of looking beyond the older narrative dominated by women in nineteenth century white mainline denominations.16
The problem of women’s ordination has, of course, dominated twentieth-century narratives.17 Sometimes it has been handled polemically and has unnecessarily obscured the importance of laywomen’s work. But the ordination issue is important both symbolically and practically, and deserves more systematic, dispassionate analysis. A recent study by sociologist Mark Chaves points the way.18
Studies that specifically address gender, as opposed to women’s progress in the twentieth-century church, are also beginning to appear. Ann Braude’s argument that "Women’s History Is American Religious History"19 should temper the tradition of chronicling women’s "contributions" to various religious institutions. Braude and others have called attention to the central fact that American religion has been numerically (and very often culturally) dominated by women, a trend which has shown few signs of reversing in the twentieth century. Women’s historians can also benefit from many fine new studies on religion and masculinity, and from studies that examine gendered religious language and practice.20
Expanding Spheres of Protestant Women’s Activities
A second category of literature surveys women’s religious work outside traditional church settings. It includes national organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the YWCA. While the origins and past history of the WCTU, the largest women’s organization of the nineteenth century, are well-documented, relatively few accounts have dealt with its decline as something other than a historical inevitability after the failure of the Prohibition experiment.21 Recent work on the YWCA suggests reasons for paying closer attention to the modern-day fortunes of nineteenth-century women’s organizations. In the twentieth-century the YWCA became, in the words of one historian, the "oldest and largest women’s multiracial association in the world"22 and set a significant religious precedent for the emerging civil rights movement.23 As Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s study of black Baptist women has shown, turn of the century constructions of gender allowed black and white Protestant women to achieve some critical distance from the racial politics of their respective denominations, even during the so-called "nadir" of American race relations.24
Other studies of women’s ostensibly secular activities, especially in urban settings, promise to modify many common assumptions about secularization. For example, the literature on women and settlement house movements has tended to downplay religion; the assumption is that as women reformers learned the secular discourse of social science, their spiritual motivations declined.25 But recent studies, particularly those which look beyond the activities of white, elite professional Protestant women, have uncovered a deep well of religious energy.26 This work suggests the important culture-creating role of women of color. It also points toward the necessity of more attention to the religious (as well as the gendered/female) roots of the so-called secular modern welfare state.27
Many of the organizations and projects of African American women with no formal ties to churches have actually been thoroughly shaped by religious motivations.28 This is true, for instance, of the National Association of Colored Women (founded 1896), the anti-lynching movement, and women’s activity in the NAACP.29 The religious connections of black women have been downplayed in recent histories,30 but it seems likely that scholars will soon rewrite these stories with a firmer grasp on religion.
Finally, it seems reasonable to assume that many women have brought their religious commitments to their callings and vocations and to their ways of seeing the world. In some cases their Protestant experiences may be radically deinstitutionalized and modified; their religious expressions may be quite unconventional.31 Or they may emerge in more conventional forms of spiritual autobiography and devotional literature.32 One particularly fruitful way to explore women’s religiosity is to look at their contributions to the twentieth-century arts--music, the fine arts, literature, film, and dance. This territory is almost totally unexplored, since one legacy of the avant-garde is a presumption of the separation of conventional religion and the arts, although this is less true of African American musicians and fiction writers. Some of this exploration may have to await the emergence of a twentieth-century narrative (so that we’re more likely to recognize religion at work when we see it). But the areas of black gospel written and sung by women and the novels of African American experience (e.g., Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison) fairly beg for analysis in terms of gender and religion.33
Clearly, the study of women and twentieth-century Protestantism opens entirely new directions in the study of both women and of American religion. And although this essay offers some testimony to the diversity of sources available to students of the subject, we are certainly aware of the many areas in which it is silent—regional studies, newer immigrant groups, congregational studies, to name only a few. Many of our funded projects are specifically designed to fill in these gaps; but there is still ample room for more contributions. We look forward to hearing about this new work as it arises.
1Rosemary Ruether and Rosemary S. Keller, Women and Religion in America, Vol. 3: 1900-1968 (New York: Harper and Row, 1986). See also Susan Hill Lindley’s useful synthesis, "You Have Stept Out of Your Place": A History of Women and Religion in America (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996).
2See, e.g., Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: New Questions and Old Models in the Religious History of American Women," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53 (1985): 465-471. Other good overviews include: Catherine A. Brekus, "Studying Women and Religion: Problems and Possibilities," Criterion 32 (Autumn 1993): 24-28; Ann Taves, "Women and Gender in American Religion(s)," Religious Studies Review 18 (October 1992): 263-270; Delores Carpenter, "Black Women in Religious Institutions: A Historical Summary from Slavery to the 1960s," Journal of Religious Thought 46 (Winter-Spring 1989-1990): 7-27; Jualynne Dodson, "Power and Surrogate Leadership: Black Women and Organized Religion," Sage 5 (Fall 1988): 37-42; "Forum: Female Experience in American Religion," Religion and American Culture 5 (Winter 1995): 1-21.
3Lois Boyd and Douglas Brackenridge, Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983). Though dated, Elizabeth H. Verdesi, In But Still Out: Women in the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976) is still a fascinating study.
4DeAne Lagerquist, From Our Mothers’ Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing Co., 1987).
5Hilah F. Thomas and Rosemary S. Keller, eds., Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981); Jean Miller Schmidt, "Denominational History When Gender is the Focus: Women in American Methodism," in Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays, ed. Robert Bruce Mullin and Russell E. Richey(New York:Oxford, 1994),203-221.
6Mary S. Donovan, A Different Call: Women’s Ministries in the Episcopal Church, 1850-1920 (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986); Catherine M. Prelinger, ed., Episcopal Women: Gender, Spirituality and Commitment in an American Mainline Denomination (New York: Oxford, 1992).
7Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993).
8Margaret H. Bacon, Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986); Elisabeth P. Braun and Susan M. Stuard, Witnesses for Change: Quaker Women Over Three Centuries (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1989).
9Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990); Margaret Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1993); Michael S. Hamilton, "Women, Public Ministry, and American Fundamentalism, 1920-1950," Religion and American Culture 3 (1993): 171-196. For a more complete bibliographic treatment of this subject, see Margaret Bendroth, "Women in Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism," Evangelical Studies Bulletin 13 (Spring 1996): 4-6.
10Cheryl Sanders, Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in Afircan American Religion and Culture (New York: Oxford, 1996); Cheryl Gilkes, "`Together and in Harness’: Women’s Traditions in the Sanctified Church," Signs 10 (Summer 1985): 678-699; Gilkes, "The Role of Women in the Sanctified Church," Journal of Religious Thought 43 (Spring-Summer 1986): 24-41; Susie Stanley, "The Promise of the Father: Women Called to Minister," Evangelical Journal 12 (Spring 1994): 35-40.
11Charles H. Barfoot and Gerald T. Sheppard, "Prophetic vs. Priestly Religion: The Changing Role of Women Clergy in Pentecostal Churches," Review of Religious Research 22 (1980): 2-17; Elaine Lawless, Handmaidens of the Lord: Pentecostal Women Preachers and Traditional Religion (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1988); Peter Goldsmith, "A Woman’s Place is in the Church: Black Pentecostalism on the Georgia Coast," Journal of Religious Thought 46 (Winter-Spring 1989-1990): 53-69; Maria Perez y Gonzalez, Latinas in Ministry: A Pioneering Study on Women Ministers, Educators and Students of Theology (New York City Mission Society, 1993).
12Biographies of pentecostal and fundamentalist women include Edith Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); Susie Stanley, Feminist Pillar of Fire: The Life of Alma White (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1993). On women in mainline churches, see Rosemary S. Keller, Georgia Harkness: For Such a Time as This (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992); Cynthia Grant Tucker, A Woman’s Ministry: Mary Collson’s Search for Reform as a Unitarian Minister, a Hull House Social Worker, and a Christian Science Practitioner (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1984); Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880-1930 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990). Biographies of reformers include DeAne Lagerquist, "Women and American Religious Pilgrimage: Vida Scudder, Dorothy Day, and Pauli Murray," in New Dimensions in American Religious History, ed. Jay P. Dolan and James P. Wind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 208-228; Jean Humez, "Pauli Murray’s Histories of Loyalty and Revolt," Black American Literature Forum 24 (Summer 1980): 315-336. On African American women, see Judith Weisenfeld and Richard Newman, This Far By Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography (New York: Routledge, 1996); Jacqueline A. Rouse, Lugenia Burns Hope: Black Southern Reformer (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1992).
13Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, "In Search of Unconventional Women: Histories of Puerto Rican Women in Religious Vocations Before Mid-Century," Oral History Review 16 (Fall 1988): 47-63.
14Virginia Lieson Brereton, "United and Slighted: Women as Subordinated Insiders," in Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1950, ed., William R. Hutchison (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), 143-167.
15Susan Yohn, A Contest of Faiths: Missionary Women and Pluralism in the American Southwest (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1995).
16Joel A. Carpenter, "Propagating the Faith Once Delivered: The Fundamentalist Missionary Enterprise, 1920-1945," in Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880-1980, ed., Joel A. Carpenter and Wilbert Shenk (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 92-132; Sylvia M. Jacobs, "Their `Special Mission’: Afro-American Women as Missionaries to the Congo, 1894-1937," in Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa, ed. Sylvia M. Jacobs (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 155-176.
17For an overview see Virginia Lieson Brereton and Christa Ressmeyer Klein, "American Women in Ministry: A History of Protestant Beginning Points," in Women in American Religion, ed. Janet Wilson James (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1980), 171-190; G. Gordon Melton, ed. The Churches Speak on Women’s Ordination: Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1991).
18Chaves, "Ordaining Women: The Diffusion of an Organizational Innovation," American Journal of Sociology 101 (1996): 840-873.
19Braude, "Women’s History Is American Religious History," in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 87-107.
20Gail Bederman, "’The Women Have Had Charge of the Church Work Long Enough’: The Men and Religion Forward Movement of 1911-1912 and the Masculinization of Middle-Class Protestantism," American Quarterly 41 (September 1989): 432-465. See also Mark Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1989). For an overview, see David G. Hackett, "Gender and Religion in American Culture, 1870-1930," Religion and American Culture 5 (Summer 1994): 127-157.
21Ruth Bordin, Women and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1981); Carolyn DeSwarte Gifford, ed., Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855-1896 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995); Nancy G. Garner, "For God and Home and Native Land: The Kansas Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1878-1938" (Ph.D. diss.: Kansas State Univ., 1994).
22Adrienne Lash Jones, "Young Women’s Christian Association," Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 2., ed. Darlene Clark Hine (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993), 1299-1303. See also Judith Weisenfeld, "The Harlem YWCA and the Secular City, 1904-1945," Journal of Women’s History 3 (1994): 62-78; Nina Mjagkij, Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1994).
23Alice G. Knotts, "Methodist Women Integrate Schools and Housing, 1952-1959," in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965, ed. Vicki L. Crawford, et. al. (New York: Carlson, 1990); Susan Lynn, Progressive Women in Conservative Times: Racial Justice, Peace and Feminism, 1945 to the 1960s (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1992).
24Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Woman’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church.
25See, e.g., Allen Davis, Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford, 1967).
26Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement House Movement, 1890-1945 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1993); Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930(Urbana:Univ.of Illinois Press, 1992).
27On women and the welfare state see, e.g., Linda Gordon, ed., Women, the State, and Welfare (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1990); Seth Koven and Sonya Michel, eds., Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of the Welfare State(New York: Routledge,1993).
28Mary R. Sawyer, "Black Religion and Social Change: Women in Leadership Roles," Journal of Religious Thought 47 (Winter-Spring 1990-1991): 16-29.
29Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993).
30Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: the Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam, 1984); Giddings, In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement (New York: William Morrow, 1988); Dorothy C. Salem, To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 1890-1920 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990).
31See, e.g., Amanda Porterfield, Feminine Spirituality in America From Sarah Edwards to Martha Graham (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1980).
32Virginia Lieson Brereton, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women’s Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991); R. Marie Griffin, "A Network of Praying Women: The Formation of Religious Identity in Women’s Aglow Fellowship" (Ph.D. diss.: Harvard University, 1995).
33Hazel Carby models what can be done through a discussion of music in "‘It Just Be’s Dat Way Sometime,’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues," in Unequal Sisters: A Multi-Cultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, ed. Vicki Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 330-341. There is a growing body of literature on black gospel, in most of which women singers and composers figure prominently. See, e.g., Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times, 4th ed. (New York: Limelight, 1992); Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas A. Dorsey in the Urban Church (New York: Oxford, 1992); Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, DC: Elliott and Clark, 1995); Jon Michael Spencer, Protest and Praise: Sacred Music of Black Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
Back to Women in Twentieth-Century Bulletin