Catherine A. Brekus, The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0-8078-5800-4 (Paper); pp. 1-340; illustrations, notes, list of contributors, selected bibliography, index.
Reviewed by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, Purdue University North Central, October 2009.
When Anne Braude proclaimed in 1997 that ‘Women’s History is American Religious History’, many women’s historians sought out religion as a new category of analysis. These scholars discovered how religion liberated women and advanced the cause of women’s equality. While this was a positive step, according to Catherine A. Brekus, editor of The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, more work is needed. Religious historians, for their part, have yet to seek out women and gender fully as useful categories of analysis in religious history. Seeking to rectify this, Brekus and twelve other scholars studying both women and religion ask new questions about women’s roles in devotion and organized churches. They examine how faith inspired women to act, not simply as agents for change, or pious supporters of male clergy. They ask their readers to ‘reimagine the past’ by asking questions about women and consider what women’s spirituality and devotion reveals about the larger (and predominantly male) American religious history.
The Religious History of American Womendoes something remarkable, which may cause women’s historians to question in what decade they reside; it challenges women’s and religious historians alike to consider women’s agency and power. Brekus and her colleagues revisit the methodological approach, which investigates women’s agency in a new and frankly refreshing manner. These scholars seek “to reaffirm women as subjects of history,” even when they have occupied a subordinate role in organized religion.(33) This fact of the past often confounds feminist scholars, who wish to highlight women’s strength and efforts towards equality.
The essays compiled in this collection show how this is possible, primarily by examining women not normally found in traditional religious history narratives or textbooks. Beginning with colonial America, Marilyn J. Westerkamp, Elizabeth Reis, Emily Clark, Catherine A. Brekus, and Janet Moore Lindman focus on areas of history that have not been explored previous or revisit in new ways established subjects. Westerkamp in ‘Puritan Women, Spiritual Power, and the Question of Sexuality’, examines how Puritanism influenced every-day life of individual women like Anne Bradstreet, and how their faith inspired them to speak and act. She also explores how gender informed how dissenters, or heretics, were perceived by the male religious leadership. Reis also examines Puritanism, but focuses on witchcraft in a new way in ‘Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God’s Secrets’. This essay dovetails nicely with Westerkamp by highlighting the delicate and potentially deadly position women occupied if they dared to claim a religious authority over men. While Westerkamp’s Puritan leaders feminized male dissenters and exiled female ones (like Anne Hutchinson), Reis shows how women’s ‘spiritual knowledge…[was often believed] to come from Satan’.(76) Clark takes her readers to an often-overlooked area of colonial history: New Orleans. By studying black and white Catholic women in a French colony in the south, Clark in many ways turns the established historiography of both American Catholic Church and Southern histories. Brekus in ‘Sarah Osborn’s Enlightenment: Reimagining Eighteenth-Century Intellectual History’, joins Clark in questioning an established understanding of the past, but in her case, it is the Enlightenment and asks if women and evangelical Christians participated in this intellectual movement. Brekus provides a case study of Sarah Osborn to answer this question and concludes they did, albeit in a different way. By illustrating how one Christian woman engaged in the language of the Enlightenment, Brekus demonstrates how this elite intellectual movement had a broader and more democratic impact on American society. This ultimately is the point of the larger thesis of this volume: women’s religious experiences were different, but should not be discounted when considering the larger American history. Lindman rounds out this section on early America with her essay on personal spirituality and identity, ‘Beyond the Meetinghouse: Women and Protestant Spirituality in Early America’. She examines how women’s religious beliefs could not be separated from who they were and how they lived. As with other historians in this section, Lindman uses individual cases to illuminate a larger point.
Anthea D. Butler, Susanna Morrill, and Kathleen Sprows Cummings move the study of religious history of American women into the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, but continue to stress the importance of personal faith and women’s actions. Butler in ‘Unrespectable Saints: Women of the Church of God in Christ’ asks new questions about African American women’s involvement in churches following the Civil War. Butler challenges her readers not to overlook women of the Church of God in Christ’s faith. Their efforts to become ‘saints’ or sanctified in the eyes of their church reveals a more complex picture of African American women’s church participation than purely a means for public activism for racial equality. In the pursuit of sanctification, women asserted female authority, but embraced domesticity. Morrill in her essay ‘Women’s Popular Literature as Theological Discourse: A Mormon Case Study, 1880-1920’ challenges the historical assumption of theology as an exclusively male domain with her study of female Mormon authors. By broadening the definition of theology to include women’s popular literature, Morrill illustrates how women’s voices articulated for themselves their roles as wives and mothers within the larger Latter-Day-Saints (LDS) culture. In this case, as in Bulter’s essay, women freely made decisions for their own lives based on their religious beliefs, even within the context of a patriarchal church. Cummings’s essay, ‘The “New Woman” at the “University”: Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era’, echoes some of these same ideas. This study focuses on the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and challenges the established history that Catholic women were not New Women, nor were they Progressives. Cummings illustrates that Catholic women remained true to their faith, but also negotiated a place within the Progressive reform landscape, particularly concerning female higher education, with her study of the founding of Trinity College by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Washington, DC. The founding of Trinity occurred in the midst of the Americanism Crisis within the Catholic Church and caught the Sisters of Notre Dame in the middle of the controversy. Cummings shows how sisters fought for the creation of a modern university for Catholic women, but stood separate from the Americanists condemned by the Vatican by articulating traditional Catholic ideals of womanhood.
The Religious History of American Women concludes with four essays dealing with modern American history. Anne Braude, Amy Koehlinger, Pamela S. Nadell, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren examine women’s religious beliefs as they relate to feminism and civil rights. Braude’s essay ‘Faith, Feminism, and History’ looks squarely at the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and argues that it did not occur separate from women within organized religion and that history written in the subsequent decades has ‘distorted’ the relationship between faith and feminism. (234) Braude illustrates that women of faith advocated women’s equality within their seemingly patriarchal religions and they participated in mainstream secular feminist organizations. Faith and identity, as argued in previous chapters, could not be separated and historians of women and religion should not overlook these elements. Koehlinger continues this faith and identity as related to social movements with her examination of Catholic women religious and the civil rights movement in the south as well as the north in her essay, ‘”Are You the White Sisters or the Black Sisters?”: Women Confounding Categories of Race and Gender’. In this case, Koehlinger examines Catholic sisters who worked for racial justice in the Jim Crow South and the inner cities of the urban North. When Catholic sisters entered the ‘racial apostolate’ and lived and worked within black communities, they occupied a unique racial and religious space. Koehlinger shows how gender and race are not static categories of analysis. Where Koehlinger examines gender and race in a new way, Nadell urges scholars to look at Jewish women and faith, an aspect of religious history long overlooked. Including women’s experiences expands the history of American Judaism. Similarly, Nabhan-Warren examines feminism and faith by examining women not understood as feminist in the traditional way. She studies Mexican American Catholics and Mary Ministries to illustrate how women’s faith in the Virgin Mary, an often perceived as limiting devotion for women, actually liberates them.
The authors of The Religious History of American Womenseek to answer the question posed to Catherine Brekus in a conversation, ‘What difference does it make to include women in our narratives of American religion?'(319) They succeed as they illustrate that when women’s experiences are overlooked or discounted, our understanding of the past is incomplete.