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Margaret Lamberts Bendroth and Virginia Lieson Brereton
Frances Willard's Secret Diary . . .
Alot has changed since the days when American religious history was written mostly by and about men. Over the past 15 years, an abundance of new literature has brought to light the central role of women in every kind of religious endeavor: in lay and ordained leadership, in missions, religious education, social reform, music and hymnody, revivals, and, of course, innovative and vigorous fundraising. Add to this the fact of women's numerical superiority in nearly every religious setting, and it really begins to seem true that, to quote the title of Ann Braude's recent essay, "Women's History Is American Religious History."1
Central to this provocative essay is Braude's assertion that the overwhelming "presence of women" in churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques demands new interpretive narratives of religious history. Her implication is that we have paid too much attention to singular women, those who were first to be ordained or to sit in a theological seminary classroom.2 Obviously, this "top-down" history is important, but it has tended to slight other--admittedly more ambiguous--dimensions of "women's presence," especially their roles in sustaining popular religion.
This can be difficult material for historians to get at, and not only because the vast majority of women didn't leave written records. As many emerging studies have already shown, women's spiritual "ways of knowing" sometimes coexist uneasily in a late-twentieth-century world that prides itself on being skeptical, unsentimental, and "street-smart." One obvious way to get at women's inner religious experience is through diaries, biographies, and (for women in the present) ethnography. From these works we get fresh perspectives on familiar subjects; the landscape is permanently altered.
On the face of it, Writing Out My Heart, a recent volume of selections from the journals of Frances E. Willard, would hardly strike most readers as a "good read," nor would one suspect that such a preeminently public person ...