-by Virginia Lieson Brereton
Your Daughters Will Prophesy
"You Have Stept Out of Your Place": A History of Women and Religion in America
By Susan Hill Lindley
Westminster John Knox Press
599 pp.; $35
Susan Hill Lindley's survey of American women and religion arrives on the scene at an auspicious moment, after two or three decades of vigorous scholarship in women's history in general and in women's religious history in particular. It reflects where scholars find themselves at this juncture--both in its strengths and its roads not yet taken.
The book is the most comprehensive attempt to date to synthesize the diverse literature of the recent decades, covering the various forms of Protestantism (mainline, evangelical, and African American), sectarian and utopian groups, Mormonism, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and even, in the final chapter, sections on women in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Goddess religions. Where religious traditions are unfamiliar to most readers (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam), Lindley offers brief descriptions. She is also sensitive to variations according to region, acknowledging the ways in which women's experience in the South or West differed from that in the Midwest or Northeast. Moreover, Lindley demonstrates an astonishing grasp of the literature and of the major historiographical controversies, both in women's religious history and in American religious history more generally. For instance, she reminds us that, in the nineteenth century, women's ambitions to preach were not precisely the same as their aspirations to ordination; women could preach without being ordained. Her footnotes are good guides for anyone wanting to explore a particular topic or issue further.
Most important of all, Lindley goes a long way toward organizing this vast body of heterogeneous material, tracing unifying themes such as that of "True Womanhood," the nineteenth-century ideal that constructed women as primarily mothers and wives, more moral, private, virtuous, and spiritually minded than men, and confined mostly to home. This is a particularly valuable connective theme since almost all varieties of Christian groups--and some non-Christian as well--subscribed to that ideal in the nineteenth century. (In fact, not a few religious groups have continued to do so, to one degree or another, throughout the twentieth century.)
Inevitably "You Have Stept Out of Your Place" resorts to many of the conventional ways of ordering the material: by denominational or ethnic tradition (Roman Catholics, Native Americans, African Americans, for example), and in terms of losses and gains made by women in their movement toward lay leadership and clerical office in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Within this scheme, Lindley links denominations in sensible ways, rather than tracing each singly (this could be extremely tedious where denominational histories resembled each other in regard to women). For instance, in the twentieth century she groups those denominations that have granted formal equality to women (most of mainline Protestantism and Judaism except for the Orthodox); those that started by giving women greater leadership scope and then partially retracted it (the conservative evangelical Protestant denominations); and those that have more or less stayed the course (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy). Where other themes have been developed in the recent literature--for instance, the great foreign missionary movement of the late nineteenth century; attempts to "masculinize" institutional religion; and women's intimate involvement with social reform and benevolence--she has made fruitful use of them.
The volume might be faulted in certain respects, though probably the fault lies more with the state of the scholarship than with Lindley herself. First, her treatment of some groups is necessarily thin. Her sections on Native Americans reflect the youth of the field of Native American religion. And she must hurry over the complex stories of women in Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism (though, again, the footnotes will come to the rescue of those who want to know more).
Second and more important, Lindley seems less comfortable with the twentieth century than with the nineteenth (one symptom of this is that eight or nine chapters deal almost entirely with the nineteenth century, two with the turn of the century, and only four or five devote themselves wholly to the twentieth century). Her account of the nineteenth century is thematically richer. This, I would argue, is no accident, for the interpretive lines are yet to be set for the twentieth century. For the time being, for the twentieth-century narrative Lindley must rely primarily on the standard story of the progress (or lack of progress, as the case may be) of women's formal leadership in American religious institutions. There is no doubt that issues of ordination, the acquisition of lay rights, and access to theological education have been crucial parts of the twentieth-century story, but thus far other significant parts of the story have been eclipsed by the efforts to tell the "leadership" narrative.
How might Lindley's volume best be used? It is more for dipping in and out of, I think, than for reading from cover to cover. There is simply too much to absorb. It would serve as a wonderful companion volume in a course on women and American religion, perhaps supplementing the documentary texts collected in Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller's Women and Religion in America. (It would add some coherence to the stories those disparate documents tell.) Or it might help tie together a reading list featuring the books that are emerging as classics in the field, such as Margaret Bendroth's Fundamentalism and Gender and Evelyn Higginbotham's work on National Baptist women. In comprehensiveness, Lindley's survey surpasses the two volumes edited by Catherine Wessinger on women in mainline and "marginal" religious institutions, focusing as they do mainly on issues of leadership.
No doubt the next survey volume, maybe a decade down the line, will benefit from further interpretive work on the history of women and religion and therefore will cover ground somewhat different from Lindley's. In particular, I hope it will reflect coming advances in our understanding of twentieth-century women's religious history. (At the risk of sounding self-serving, let me mention the Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism project, funded by Pew and operating out of Andover Newton Theological School, which is intended to widen our grasp of this period.)
I trust a future survey will go beyond the question of women's "leadership" to a richer consideration of what is now being referred to as "lived religion," that is, to the varied forms of female devotion and piety. Women's prayers, fiction, meditations, arts and crafts, autobiographies, and hymnody all need more attention than they have received thus far. So do a multitude of other topics that are thoroughly entangled with religion, such as women's role as nurturer and educator in the family, and women's physical existence--their sexuality, their experience of giving birth, and their health concerns.
Further, a future survey might tackle some still unanswered questions: Given the increasing options for women outside the home in the twentieth century, what is it that has impelled women to persist in working through religious institutions and/or through a religious understanding of what they are about? Indeed, what is it that lies at the core of women's religious experience in the twentieth century? There is probably a variety of answers depending on which women we are looking at: Are liturgy and ritual central? Rules for living? A morality expressed particularly in a concern for social justice and equality of persons? More theology than we commonly recognize?
Finally, with any luck, a prospective survey would be in a better position to tackle the question of the relation between "secular" and "sacred" women's history. For instance, the recent excellent scholarship on the female origins of the welfare state (e.g., Linda Gordon, ed., Women, the State, and Welfare ) has pretty much omitted the religious dimension in favor of concentrating on women who embraced the discourse and outlook of the social sciences. I suspect there is a religious dimension to the story of the rise of the welfare state, but it has not yet been explored or articulated. To cite another example, feminism in most of the twentieth century has been assumed to be largely secular in its outlook, sometimes even anti-religious. Is it possible that by a closer examination of the styles and discourses of the women's movement we might discover more of a religious legacy than hitherto suspected?
The scholars who explore these questions and, eventually, the historians who attempt the next surveys will surely build on Lindley's work and pronounce themselves grateful that she has laid out so much material with such sophistication, care, and clarity.
Virginia Lieson Brereton is codirector of the Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism project at Andover Newton Theological School.
Copyright(c) 1996 by Christianity Today, Inc/BOOKS & CULTURE, journal
November/December 1996, Vol. 2, No. 6, Page 33