Sue Morgan and Jacqueline de Vries (eds.) Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.

Sue Morgan and Jacqueline de Vries (eds.) Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800-1940, Routledge, London and New York, 2010.  ISBN 0 415 23213 9 (paperback), pp. ix + 244. 



Reviewed by: Nancy Christie, Department of History, University of Western Ontario, March, 2011. 

This volume of essays seeks to place the themes of women and gender at the forefront of questions of religious change.  The aim of investigating the way in which religion and gender intersect is particularly timely in the wake of Callum Brown’s pathbreaking work which consciously situates gender as an explanatory framework in exploring changing patterns of religious change in Britain.  Although the editors and the authors generally accept the importance of Brown’s emphasis on discursive religion, one of the aims of this book is to challenge the polarities between secular man and spiritual woman which Brown has erected in his work.  While gender is theorized in the introduction and conclusion, many of the essays focus more particularly on the ways in which women have created their own religious cultures and explore the paradox raised by Jacqueline deVries in her essay which delineates the ongoing tension as to whether religion created oppressive ideologies for women or whether religion functioned as a stimulus for female activism.  This volume of essays, therefore, is itself the product of a deep theoretical tension between a gender approach to the study of religion and one driven by older questions of feminist historiography.

The essays are very wide ranging and consider the role religious women played in family life, evolving theological discourses, philanthropic and reform networks, missionary organizations and sisterhoods.  Each article provides a survey of the field, largely from the British perspective, and some are crafted within broader transnational and comparative trajectories (especially that of Clare Midgley which provides a complex theoretical approach which particularly lends itself to a comparative perspective), and conclude with suggestions for further research.  Because each article functions as a summary of the latest historiography and the central themes across denominational boundaries, this volume will be particularly useful to undergraduate and graduates courses in women’s and gender studies.  However, many of the essays were more focussed on the active role of woman but did not always clearly show how the inclusion of women might alter the narratives of religious history.  In this respect, they will be less useful for courses on the history of religion.

The opening article by Sarah Williams challenges historians to move beyond the notion of feminized piety adumbrated by L. Davidoff and C. Hall in Family Fortunes, urging new work to reintegrate working class culture into theories of social change.  By shifting the focus away from the institutional church to the study of how families regulated the formation of religious cultures, Williams builds on Brown’s notion of discursive religion, while criticizing him for not moving beyond gender polarities.  However, it should be noted that Williams herself assumes that women had heightened religious authority in the family without considering the active role men played in the religious socialization of children in the family, nor did she address how tropes of death and illness intersected with themes of gender and religion within the domestic sphere.  Given the critical importance placed by historians such as Hugh McLeod upon the changing role of familial socialization of children to post-World War II processes of dechristianization, it would have been valuable if Williams had pushed her analysis forward several decades.  Julie Melnyk provides a very illuminating essay on a much-ignored aspect of women’s religiosity, namely their participation in theological networks, an essay which must be read beside that of Pamela Walker which takes as its focus the changing role of women in preaching, which explains why so many women did in fact establish their own religious newspapers as noted by Melnyk.  While Melnyk’s contribution is very strong in recovering these hitherto hidden theological networks I would have liked to know more about what these women wrote in order to ask how women altered the terrain of discursive religion so emphasized by Brown, and further, given the gender theme of the issue, it would be valuable to know how their interests different from those of other laymen and from the clerical elite within various denominations.    Susan Mumm and Clare Midgley’s essays are critical to the volume and are very good at showing how important religion was to the establishment of charitable and reform networks both in Britain and abroad.  Like Sue Morgan, who focuses upon the important role religious women in sexual purity movements, these authors argue that religion should not be assumed to be a conservative force but that women’s religious sensibilities were critical in defining the modern although we need to know how these different from those of men.    Carmen M. Mangion on religious sisterhoods and Rhonda A. Semple on woman missionaries, both explore the critical role women played in religious institution building and how they used these to forge counter cultural moments of what Mangion terms “feminist practice” (87).  One of the great strengths of Carmen Mangion’s work is that it is more firmly situated in terms of gender history in that she explores the way in which sisterhoods struggled to be created in the midst of resistance from a patriarchal church hierarchy and further her essay was one of the few in a volume whose timeline is 1880-1940.  This chronology enables her to actually trace developments well into the twentieth-century which is critical since Callum Brown and Hugh McLeod have now so decisively shifted the timeline of the meta-narrative of British religious history towards the 1960s.  I would have wanted to know whether this was also a critical decade for Catholic convents in Britain as it was in modern day Quebec, for example.  One of the most innovative essays in the volume is that by Sue Morgan who, through her fine exploration of the contribution of religious women to modern sexual cultures, reminds us that there were sexual revolutions prior to the critical decade of the sixties.  The volume concludes with two excellent theoretical essays:  Joy Dixon explores alternative religious cultures and the large presence of women within these, but the most important part of her very thoughtful essay was to ask historians who embrace Callum Brown’s reframing of the secularization debate around questions of gender, to be very specific as to exactly how gender was important (211-12).  “We need to find ways to write the history of religion and gender without allowing our analyses to collapse back into the Victorian binary of the ‘secular man’ and the ‘spiritual woman’”(212), writes Dixon, but, because so many of the essays in this volume focus only on spiritual women, without considering either how female religiosity different from that of men, or alternatively, the degree to which male and female religious sensibilities and identities overlapped, this volume does not challenge notions of gender polarity as forcefully as it could have done.  The volume makes a larger contribution to what Jacqueline de Vries theorises as the contribution religion made to women’s cultures and feminism, than it does to revising our ideas of how including narratives of female religiosity alters the master narrative of religious change.