Female Agency and Religious Practice

Rebecca Henriksen

Rosemary Skinner and Rosemary Radford Ruether write in 1995 in In Our Own Voices that “hardly anyone would dare write a survey of American Christianity or religious history without making some semblance of including women’s experience and contributions in it” (Skinner and Ruether, 1995, 4).  Catherine Brekus’ introduction to The Religious History of American Women (published in 2007), however, proves otherwise.  She writes, “[r]ecently, I was so eager to read a new dissertation on American religious history that I ordered an online copy from my university’s library.  Given the author’s topic, I assumed that this new work would help me with my own research on early American women.  Hoping for a preview, I typed the word “women” into the search engine so that I would not have to scroll through four hundred pages of text.  Almost immediately, a message flashed on my screen: ‘Search term not found.’  Surprised, I tried other words—female, feminine, gender, woman—but always with the same results” (Brekus, 2007, 1).  Much research has been done and much scholarship produced on women as actors in the past trajectory of religious history in the early modern Atlantic region.  Still, much more remains to be done as is evidenced by Brekus’ introduction.  It is not that women’s voices have never been heard or that women have not written their own stories, but these stories have not always been included in telling of U.S. religious history.  Lawrence Levine, past president of the Organization of American Historians argues that this has resulted in telling ourselves and other an incomplete history of ourselves.  He writes, to “teach a history that excludes large areas of American culture and ignores the experiences if significant segments of the American people […] is to teach a history that fails to touch us, that fails to explain America to us or to anyone else” (Tweed, 1997, 2).

The rise of second-wave feminism re-invigorated an interest in women’s history, paralleling a similar interest during and following the era of first-wave feminism (Weisner, 2008, 2).  Merry Weisner notes that in the 1930s, there was a shift away from focusing on “political developments, diplomatic changes, military events, and major intellectual movements” in history, “to investigating the lives of more ordinary people” (Weisner, 2008, 1).  This shift in the field more broadly was expanded in the 1960s by feminist scholars to include first questions about women specifically, and later gender, race, class, and sexual orientation.  Writing a revisionist history—attempting to re-imagine the questions, subjects, and sometimes the methodologies—of history is not an easy task.  Scholars desire to maintain a sense of overarching narrative structure—but concern about using the approach “add women and stir” arises—because they also want to take seriously various methodological concerns about how history is researched and written. There are profound limitations in “simply trying to fit women into historical developments largely derived from the male experience” (Weisner, 2008, 6).  As a result, there has been a large segment of women’s history that focuses on women’s experiences of such as domestic labor and family devotional practices.  This too has been challenged as uncritically accepting notions of a public / private divide which some scholars argue can ultimately be unhelpful and essentialist.  Some historians then “see the primary task of early modern historians as the investigation of how divisions between what was considered ‘public’ and what was considered ‘private’ were developed and contested.  Some scholars hold that this period is one of the exclusion of women from many areas of public life and power at the very time larger groups of men were given access, though other emphasize that this exclusion was more theoretical than real” (Weisner, 2008, 6).  In scholarship on women in religious history, I see three broad trends in terms of approach: rewriting narratives, writing biographies of particular women or groups of women, and transcribing manuscripts of historical texts written by women (i.e. books, diaries).

Weisner notes that recent scholarship focused on the lives of women “has called into question many basic historical categories and paradigms—class, modernity, capitalism, and even how historical periods are divided and designated” (Weisner, 3).  In her influential essay, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” Ann Braude examines what it would mean to write history if the starting point becomes the fact that women have made up the majority of churchgoers in the United States.  She reexamines three overarching structures that have narrated American religious history: declension, feminization, and secularization.  As Braude looks at the presence of women in this history, she contends that their voices demand a shift in the telling of the narrative even while maintaining (at least some of) the same historic events and chronology.  She argues that the story shifts “as women move toward spiritual equality with men in the colonial period [from this perspective religious participation did not decline], as they assume public roles because of their positions as guardians of private morality and piety during the nineteenth century [from this perspective, religion became ‘masculinized’ / of the public sphere, and not feminized], and, in the twentieth century, as women exercise public moral authority first as voters and as shapers of the welfare state during the Progressive Era, then as members of the ordained clergy following the rise of feminism in the 1970s [women’s participation increased rather than decreased in the church, complicating a notion of a secularization of society]” (Braude, 1997, 88).  In this essay, Braude challenges a variety of normative assumptions regarding strict gender roles and the historiographic trends in American religious history, showing how such assumptions both create and perpetuate an absence / silence of women.

While Braude clearly argues for a shift in the overarching narratives through which history is told, Brekus argues for a more moderate approach.  Some of the assumptions that history focused on women has made are divergent from ‘mainstream’ history, from the more obvious task of taking women’ lives as serious subjects of study to expanding what can count as evidence.  She also notes, however, that most historians of women “have paid little attention to theoretical debates about such foundational concepts as agency, freedom, experience, selfhood, and truth” even while incorporating these as framing concepts in their scholarship (Brekus, 2007, 10).  Brekus believes historians focusing on women—while perhaps aligned politically with deconstructionists—are actually aligned more conservatively with empirical methods of writing about history.

Much criticism has been written against historians who study women because, the argument goes, history is not about private, mundane activities of which most women’s lives have consisted.  Historians who follow this line of argumentation also discount the activities of most men and strove to focus solely on public and political life of prominent, powerful men.  Working against this line of argumentation, and implicitly asserting that history consists of more than military conquest and the creation of nation states, many scholars have taken as their main goal to increase both the number and kind of voices in play.  A proliferation of biographies of religious women began anew in the 1980s, chronicling the lives and work of such women as St. Theresa of Avila, Anne Hutchison, and Mary Bake Eddy, and such groups as the Devotes and female Quaker preachers.  By examining individual women and particular groups of women, historians can show how these women’s lives were influenced by notions of gender: how did they conform to societal notions of femininity?  And / or, how did they challenge these notions?  How did their particular religious tradition influence their ability to act in various roles?

The work transcribing manuscripts comprises the last methodological category; this work is important because it is through women’s own written words that we can start to piece together some of the ways that women conceived of themselves, how they thought about their work, and some of their thoughts on pushing against various authoritative bodies within their religious traditions.  While some works had been widely published before (i.e. St. Teresa of Avila’s writings), others are newly transcribed (i.e. the writings of Sister Mary Bernard Deggs and Martha Ballard).

Another shift occurred in scholarship in the 1980s that sought to ask questions about how gender is constituted: how have people and societies thought about what it means to be female and male?  What societal implications have been layered on top of biological differences and how does this influence people’s roles in history?  The main difference between women’s history and a history that is looking through the lens of gender is that structures of gender are constantly changing: “this instability, combined with an emphasis on differences among women [i.e. race, class, ability], has led a few historians to assert that there really is no category ‘woman’ whose meaning is self-evident and unchanging over time.  They note that what are usually described as the ‘biological’ differences between men and women are themselves influenced by ideas about gender, with a single gender polarity (man/woman) so strong in western culture that individuals born with ambiguous genitalia are generally simply assigned to one category or another.” (Weisner, 2008, 3)  This practice is problematic and contradictory: even when presented with greater diversity in biology, we allow our notions of a gender binary system to influence how we deal with intersex bodies, often assigning them to one gender or the other and utilizing surgical intervention on healthy bodies to make them fit into constructed notions of gender.  Thus, “in this view, gender determines sex rather than the other way around, or better said, there is not such thing as true sex difference, only gender difference.” (Weisner, 2008, 3)  The study of gender in a historical context has also resulted in an exploration of the lives of men in history as men specifically and not as gender neutral humans.


European Women

Hufton, Olwen.  The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, Vol. 1, 1500-1800.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

Olwen Hufton’s book, The Prospect Before Her, is not focused solely on religious practices in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, but it does provide an impressive overview of the status of women more generally within western Europe.  Seeking to expand the methodological approach of microhistory, which is commonly used by historians of women, Hufton attempts to create an overarching narrative structure of gender norms, ideologies, and relations.  Thus Hufton examines many of the same events and movements as other historians of this time period, but specifically explores material culture and focuses on the “lives of the many” rather than those of the exceptional (8).

Roper, Lyndal. The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lyndal Roper argues that while many have seen the Reformation as beneficial for the status of women in society—encouraging progressivism, individualism, and modernization—it did not encourage “individual spiritual lives for women” but rather re-cemented women’s role as subservient wife to her husband.  Taking Augsburg as the backdrop, Roper engages with the economic politics of master craft guilds, which became critical sites of Protestant reform.  The politics embedded in these guilds, Roper argues, was mirrored in married men leading and controlling their family units.  He examines how a domestic life was encouraged for nuns as convents were closed as well as for prostitutes; women from such divergent backgrounds were corralled towards marriage and family life.

Weisner, Merry.  Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

In the Introduction to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Weisner traces the development of both women’s history and gender history, illuminating the differences between the two, women’s history focusing on those who identify as women while gender history examines how notions of gender have influenced the roles of both men and women—and even goes one to question this gender binary system.  Weisner’s focus is broader than only religion, but it gives crucial theoretical context to questions about women’s involvement in the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Reformation, and Jewish and Islamic practices.

American Religious Life

Braude, Ann.  “Women’s History Is American Religious History.”  ReTelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A Tweed.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

In her influential essay, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” Ann Braude examines what it would mean to write history if the starting point becomes the fact that women have made up the majority of churchgoers in the United States.  She reexamines three overarching structures that have narrated American religious history: declension, feminization, and secularization.  As Braude examines the presence of women in this history, she contends that their voices demand a shift in the telling of the narrative even while maintaining the same historic events and chronology.  She argues that the story shifts “as women move toward spiritual equality with men in the colonial period [from this perspective religious participation did not decline], as they assume public roles because of their positions as guardians of private morality and piety during the nineteenth century [from this perspective, religion became ‘masculinized’ / of the public sphere], and, in the twentieth, as women exercise public moral authority first as voters and as shapers of the welfare state during the Progressive Era, then as members of the ordained clergy following the rise of feminism in the 1970s [women’s participation increased rather than decreased in the church, complicating a notion of a secularization of society]” (88).  In this essay, Braude challenges a variety of normative assumptions regarding strict gender roles and the historiographic trends in American religious history, showing how such assumptions both create and perpetuate an absence / silence of women.  She seeks to provoke further research towards hearing and understanding the voices of the female majority within American religions—and not merely the few men who were preachers and pastors.

Brekus, Catherine A. ed. The Religious History of American Women: Re-imagining the Past.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2007.

The Religious History of American Women is a volume of essays edited by Catherine Brekus’ and attempts to explain why women’s history is fundamental to American religious history, challenging those who find such a topic easily dismissed.  Brekus reviews the state of the field in 2007, writing that even though tremendous strides have been made, women’s history has still not gained full, mainstream acceptance as an area of serious research and scholarship.  She also answers a crucial question about methodology: is it different for studying women?  The answer is both “yes” and “no”—often historians who study women have asked different questions than “mainstream” historians; they have also broadened their use of archival evidence and questioned the theory that knowledge creation and transmission is a neutral and objective practice.  However, often due to attacks that they are promoting a feminist agenda (as if this were a horrible thing to do), historians of women often tend to be especially attentive to “factual accuracy and interpretive fairness,” thinking about how their own personal biases might be influencing their work (9).  Through a series of case studies, Brekus’ book re-imagines how an inclusive history might look towards the end goal of re-creating a narrative structure of history.  A compelling counterpart to the volumes edited by Skinner and Ruether, these essays think broadly about important topics in religious history: for example, “Puritanism, the Enlightenment, the women’s rights movement, the rise of the ‘black church,’ and social reform” (30).

Cott, Nancy.  The Bonds of Womanhood: ‘Woman’s Sphere in New England, 1780-1835. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

In The Bonds of Womanhood, Nancy Cott takes the valediction “thine in the bonds of womanhood” as her starting place, attempting to illuminate why the American feminist Sarah Grimké would have signed her letters as such.  Why would she have seen womanhood in the 1830s as holding the “double meaning that womanhood bound women together even as it bound them down” (1).  Cott focuses on the fifty years between 1780 and 1830, which she argues were a period of intensified change in women’s experiences, much of which was due to a ‘modernization’ of society.  In terms of archival resources, she examines women’s personal documents (mostly letters and diaries) in order to understand how shifts in family structures and sexual patterns affected women’s roles in society: depending on how they were interpreted, these changes could restrict women’s autonomy or provide an avenue for increased social power (5).  Cott’s cavalier dismissal—“this study must exclude the poor and the illiterate”—is problematic, but one understands her desire not to speculate given the lack of archival material (10).  She divides her chapters into broad categories such as “work,” “education,” and “religion,” which is helpful to an extent, however the chapter on “religion” specifically addresses evangelicalism and so could be misleading.  In this chapter, she explores how various entities (i.e. pastors, women’s religious voluntary associations) both encouraged women to participate and act but within a limited role or sphere (154).

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks.  Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920.  Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1994.

In Righteous Discontent, Evelyn Higginbotham acknowledges that much has been written about importance of the black Baptist church in the lives of black Americans.  Little has been written, however, about the role of women in this institution.  Specifically, Higginbotham argues that “women were crucial to broadening the public arm of the church and making it the most powerful institution of racial self-help in the African American community” (1).  Higginbotham’s contribution to this history is that she moves away from earlier scholarship in the field focusing on prominent women preachers and seeks to uncover the voices of women not in such preaching roles.  She focuses on the forty years between 1880 and 1920, illuminating how an intersectional lens which examines race, class, and gender can most cogently get at the “multiple consciousness and multiples positionings” of black women in the Baptist church in the Jim Crow era and the “Woman’s Era” (14, 1).

Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, eds. Women and Religion in America.. Vol 1: The Nineteenth Century: A Documentary History. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

In this volume Skinner and Ruether illuminate how women moved into leadership positions in the church that were outside the home.  This edited volume includes essays on Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish women and within these traditions, examines the experiences of racial and ethnically minority women alongside Anglo-Saxon women.  This book focuses on “the struggle of females to be ordained, to gain professional lay status, and to create voluntary societies ‘for women only’ in mainstream Protestantism” (viii).  These essays examine the ways in which religious notions of femininity—through a widely believed idea at the time about the complementarity of the sexes—expanded women’s agency while restricting it to certain realms (domestic) and roles (maternal, subservient).  Although they include some, Skinner and Ruether acknowledge the lack of attention in this volume to the experiences of many minority groups, but they hope that this recollection and recovery of some women’s stories is viewed as a first step followed by many more.

Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, eds. Women and Religion in America. Vol 2 : The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. New York: Harper Collins, 1988.

In Volume 2 of this series, Skinner and Ruether explore the colonial and revolutionary periods of the United States, just before the nineteenth century, which is covered in Volume 1.  They seek to chart women’s roles in various Christian factions—Spanish Catholic, French Catholic, Puritan, Quaker, and German Pietist—who were all vying for converts.  They ask such questions as, “[w]hat the role that each of the dominant visions of religious renewal assigned to women?  In what ways did each vision offer conflicting messages, at once encouraging and repressing new egalitarianism?  How did this Christian zeal affect women among the Indians—or women among the Africans, brought to the Americas in chains?” (xiii).  Skinner and Ruether are transparent about the difficulty in archival research from this period, arguing that even when there are written sources by women, one must read between the lines in order to try to understand “the actual meaning of these religious expressions” because they were written in such a restrictive and subordinate rubric (xiv).  When these “hopeful stirrings” are found, both implicitly and explicitly, they assert that women were “betrayed by church and political leaders who wanted to rally the support of women for reforms, renewals, and revolutions, but did not want to extend the benefit of these changes to them” (xiv).  This collection of essays is more diverse ethnically and racially than their first volume, but it still only  focuses on Christian religious history.

Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, eds. Women and Religion in America. Vol 3: 1900-1968. New York: Harper Collins, 1986.

In the third volume of this series, Skinner and Ruether examine women’s roles in American religion from 1900-1968.  The methodological problems are starkly different, however, than in their previous two volumes—now there is an overwhelming amount of material written by and about women as actors in religious spheres.  In this volume, Skinner and Ruether include essays on Judaism and Indian religions.  They ask how women’s roles shifted from the Victorian era through the first and second world wars and ending with the rise of second wave feminism.

Mack, Phyllis.  “Religion, Feminism, and the Problem of Agency: Reflections on Eighteenth-Century Quakerism.” Signs, Vol. 29, No. 1.

Phyllis Mack’s fascinating essay begins with a theoretical overview of how ‘agency’ and ‘autonomy’ have been used in the scholarship on women in various religious communities, arguing that one does not necessarily need to have autonomy to act agentially.  Mack then switches to examine eighteenth century Quaker women as a case study for how women took initiative within this religious community—somewhat of anomaly in that a gendered church hierarchy was abolished in favor of one based on communion with the holy spirit.

Midgley, Clare.  “Can Women Be Missionaries?  Envisioning Female Agency in the Early Nineteenth-Century British Empire”  Feminism and Empire: Women Activists in imperial Britain, 1790-1865.  London: Routledge, 2007.

In Feminism and Empire, Midgely explores how the rise of the British Empire provided opportunities for women to exercise agency while still working within accepted spheres of the home and education.  Part of this larger work, her essay “Can Women Be Missionaries?” argues that women were an integral part of the missionary movement in the early nineteenth century as both single women and missionary wives.  Midgley contends that this activism—occurring much earlier than often thought—played a formative role in shaping the feminist movement within England.

Porterfield, Amanda.  Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Amanda Porterfield combines a sociological approach with a literary critical analysis and relies on Emile Durkheim’s belief that societal structures produced by participation in religious rituals gave fundamental insight into their beliefs about and experiences of God.  She focuses on the bond of marriage as the primary structuring relationship in Puritan society—as it was a model for church and state, it was also the principal way through which believers referenced their relationship to God.  Porterfield examines the Puritan’s unwavering commitment to domestic stability and explores how female piety fit into these attempts at social cohesion.  Female piety, then, “represented the humility and control of anger, pride, lust, and greed that allowed Puritans to establish and sustain a society that conflated grace with human affection and divine Providence with New England history (13).  Building on the work of Sacvan Bercovitch who analyzes imagery of female suffering as affirmations of their humanity in Puritan sermons and other writings, Porterfield examines these notions specifically within the context of marriage.

Nadell, Pamela S. and Jonathan D. Sarna eds. Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001.

Nadell and Sarna begin their introduction by citing Ann Braude’s revisionist essay on women’s history being American religious history and then ask, “is women’s history also the history of Judaism?” (1).  They conclude that while women’s history might not be the history of Judaism, women have formed and continue to form a critical part of Jewish history in the United States.  In an expansive temporal span from the colonial period to the twentieth century, Women and American Judaism examines how women and men negotiated their respective, changing places within religious traditions and practices.  Specifically, this collection of essays looks at the changing roles of women in four arenas: the home, the synagogue, the Jewish community, and the larger (mostly) Christian society.

Westerkamp, Marilyn J.  Women And Religion in Early America, 1600-1850: The Puritan and Evangelical History.  New York: Routledge, 1999.

In Women And Religion in Early America, Marilyn Westerkamp explicitly challenges Amanda Porterfield’s assertion that as the family unit grew in importance—and in particular the woman’s role as housewife—in Puritan New England, women’s social status overall improved.  Westerkamp contends that both Puritans and later Evangelicals deal paradoxically with women’s subservient role in the home and the belief that in a nonhierarchical priesthood of all believers, all could attain union with the Holy Spirit.  Believing the “only way that women could overcome their disabilities was through the intervention of the Holy Spirit” and that “the voice of the Spirit was so powerful that the only way male leaders could maintain their patriarchal headship was to silence, or at least limit, that voice,” she traces the difficulties that charismatic women faced in these communities (7).  Westerkamp is transparent about her methodology being somewhat biographical in order to demonstrate how such tensions played out in the lives of individual women, but she also concedes that the most archival records are available for what she calls “extraordinary women” (8).

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher.  Goodwives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750.  New York: Random House, 1980.

In Goodwives, Ulrich focuses not on “outcasts and witches,” but on the definition of a role of the “good wife” in northern New England during 1650-1750, a time of “political upheaval, religious conflict, and four devastating wars” (4).  While these three broad themes have had much written about them, Ulrich pushes to examine the individual and material lives of women in these hundred years.  This proves to be a formidable task as there are virtually no diaries written by women before 1750, but Ulrich finds “significant evidence of female life […] buried in sermons, account books, probate inventories, genealogies, church records, court records, paintings, embroideries, gravestones, and the private papers of husbands and sons” (5).  Ulrich takes a sociological approach of examining how normative assumptions of the role of the good wife function and also how behaviorally women responded to such assumptions.  She clarifies though that female roles were defined by myriad duties and thus a single definition or role specification was not sufficient; Ulrich examines the meaning and roles of housewives, deputy husbands, consorts, mothers, mistresses, neighbors, and Christians.

Biographies / Microhistories

Bilinkoff, Jodi.  The Avila of Saint Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Bilinkoff explores the life of Saint Teresa and “her reform of the Carmelite order in the context of the religious and social changes that transformed European society in the sixteenth century, as experienced in the city of Avila” (xii).  She situates Teresa within the broader social, political, and aristocratic milieu of the time as well as traces Teresa’s personal family history.  Bilinkoff’s overarching goal is to explore the “flesh-and-blood” experiences and her lived realities that have been overwhelmingly overshadowed by her miraculous powers and her image as “ecstatic mystic” (200).

Coburn, Carol K. and Martha Smith.  Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Coburn and Smith use the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet as a case study to explore how Catholic women influenced the shape of religious life in a predominantly secular / Protestant United States.  They argue against notions of traditional notions of women only acting in the domestic sphere as well as stereotypes of nuns as naïve and completely sheltered from the world outside of the convent.  They write, “although historically almost invisible, American sisters were some of the best educated and most publicly active women of their time” (3).  Coburn and Smith seek to highlight the myriad ways in which these American sisters contributed to society through their leadership and involvement in educational, charitable, health care, and social service organizations.  Helpfully, they also compare and contrast the experiences among secular women, Protestant women, and Catholic nuns during 1836-1920.  This book takes the reader through the multi-cultural story of this congregation and illuminates how gendered notions of religious piety also confronted democratic ideals of societal work.

Diaz, Monica.  “Native American Women and Religion in the American Colonies: Textual and Visual Traces of an Imagined Community” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Volume 28, Number 2, 2011.

In this essay on Native American women, Moncia Diaz illuminates the lives of two indigenous female converts to Catholicism, Sister Antonia de Cristo in New Spain and Catherine Tekakwitha in New France.  Diaz writes that these two case studies reveal the roles that native women played in “the expansion and definition of popular Catholic beliefs and practices in the colonial Americas” (205).  She highlights the notion of gender alliance across ethnic lines, which often led to written accounts of both of their lives and work.

Finley-Crosswhite, S. Annette.  “Engendering the Wars of Religion: Female Agency during the Catholic League in Dijon.”  French Historical Studies.  Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 127-154.

In her essay “Engendering the Wars of Religion,” Finley-Crosswhite examines the role of women in the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion.  Although women did not fight in the armies, they were not only victims in these wars.  Often acting in order to protect their families, women took on such roles as agents, informants, and conspirators.  Often women of high social rank, they acted in both peaceful and aggressive ways.

Gillian, Gill.  Mary Baker Eddy.  New York: Perseus Books, 1999.

In this extensive biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the Mother of the Church of Christ, Scientist, Gillian Gill explores the heretofore mostly unexamined portion of Eddy’s life: the some sixty years before her work founding the church.  Gill also notes two main reasons why Eddy has been largely neglected by historians focusing on women: first, Eddy wasn’t known for her achievements in ‘acceptable’ arenas: suffrage, abolition, temperance movement, but rather the founding of her own church; and second, the archival materials related to Eddy are incredibly difficult for anyone outside the community to access.  Gillian deftly examines how Eddy’s talent and gifts for “inspirational leadership and religious doctrine, organizational planning and structure, law and finance, propaganda and public relations” were not recognized nor encouraged for most of her life—while contrasting this experience with the broader social praise that was given to men who possessed these qualities (xxii).  Gillian proclaims that she wants to “give a sense of Mrs. Eddy’s strangeness, her energy, her charisma, her power, to tell the story of her spiritual pilgrimage, and to show what it was about her that evoked both so much love and so much hate.  Hers is a story that demands retelling, hers is a voice that asks to be heard” (xxiii).

Kostroun, Daniella and Lisa Vollendorf, eds. Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600–1800). UCLA Clark Memorial Library series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

In Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600–1800), Daniella Kostroun and Lisa Vollendorf assert that they seek to transcend the restrictive binaries that have often beset Atlantic world studies: “Old versus New worlds, Catholicism versus Protestantism, or indigenous people versus Europeans” (4).  They have taken as their focus women and religion in a field dominated by political, military, and economic histories which have by and large been focused on the lives and actions of men.  They have compiled essays that take a microhistory approach to Atlantic Studies, asserting that they see the “micro approach as a means of developing macro understandings of the complexities of the Atlantic world, and we also see women’s studies as a fruitful model for probing questions of alliances and community” (10).  Kostroun and Vollendorf divide this book into three sections: Theoretical Reflections on Women and Religion from an Atlantic Perspective, Negotiating Belief and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Basin, and Authority and Identity in the Catholic Atlantic.  They posit that an exploration of the role of women in religion fundamentally changes notions of who can be studied under an Atlantic Studies rubric, including, “missionaries in Asia, refugees from India, and freed slaves who migrated of their own accord to Germany” (19).  Following in this vein, they leave their readers with a challenge to take seriously interdisciplinary research and all of it complex implications for scholarship: “indeed, the interdisciplinary, transgeographical, and expansive claims  of Atlantic Studies run the risk of devolving into mere lip service if we do not bridge the divide that continues to leave scholars of women and gender on the margins of the field” (20).

LaPlante, Eve.  American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Eve LaPlante introduces American Jezebel by writing that she is a descendant of Anne Hutchison.  Used as a model for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, LaPlante laments that most biographies of Hutchison have tended towards either “disdain or exaltation” (xvii).  LaPlante chooses Hutchison as her subject not only because of her personal relation to her, but because of Hutchison’s fascinating personal and professional life—even going so far as to assert that because “early New England was a microcosm of the modern western world, the issues Anne Hutchison raised—gender equality, civil rights, the nature and evidence of salvation, freedom of conscience, and the right to free speech—remain relevant to the American people four centuries later” (xvi).  While John Winthrop called her this “American Jezebel,” attempting to align her with “the most evil and shameful woman in the Bible,” LaPlante reclaims this epithet for Hutchison.  In hopes that Hutchison will be able to claim her place as America’s founding mother, LaPlante asks such questions as “how did she emerge boldly to question the leading men of the day as to the nature of salvation and grace?” and “where did she find the strength of character to stand for hours before scores of seated men, parrying their every Gospel quotation, replying again and again with wit?” (xxi).

Larson, Rebecca.  Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Rebecca Larson’s book, Daughters of Light, focuses on the lives of Quaker women preachers from 1700 to 1775.  In contrast to Puritan beliefs about male-only preaching, the Quakers believed that both women and men could be guided by the holy spirit in the practice of preaching.  Crucially, Larson explores how Quaker women preachers in England and the American colonies had incredibly close ties with each other, with traveling across the Atlantic a common occurrence.  She asks, “who were the eighteenth-century women acknowledged as Quaker preachers?  How did their ministerial role affect their families?  How did these women cope with the dangers and difficulties of eighteenth-century travel?  What ideas and practices did they transmit across the Quaker transatlantic community?” (12).   Larson uses a biographical approach in order to understand how these women navigated their roles of as leaders, travelers, mothers, and preachers.

Plane, Ann Marie. Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000.

Colonial Intimacies explores how the primacy of the marriage relationship among Puritans affected Indian communities in New England—how did they both resist and adopt practices of the British colonialists?  Plane’s contribution to the scholarship on Puritan ideals of marriage is particularly important because of her focus on Indian voices, stories, and perspectives; taken together with those of colonial voices, “the experiences of many individuals reveal the range of relationships and the changes to natives ways that occurred over the first century and a half of English colonization in New England” (xi).

Rapley, Elizabeth.  The Dévotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

In The Dévotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France, Elizabeth Rapley examines the Catholic women who called themselves devotes—“deeply religious women, very often unmarried, and with time and leisure to devote themselves to piety”—who ultimately made up the ranks of a new class of uncloistered congregations (6).  These women took up vocations such as nurses, teachers, and catechists, with the catechists playing an important role in the Counter-Reformation.  Rapley investigates how this “promotion” occurred when seventeenth-century France was not particularly amenable to women in leadership or teaching positions.  Contrary to arguments made previously by historians that cast women as passive actors—Providence called forth the women and they came, or a secular version: “society needed nurses and teachers, so nurses and teachers appeared—Rapley posits that these women’s religious fervor came first and they then found ways to serve their communities.  Only then, after they had begun this work, did the Catholic church start to protect and support them.  This crucial difference between passive and active telling of history opens up the space for Rapley’s exploration of these teaching nuns.

Autobiographies / In Her Own Words

Avila, Teresa of. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1.  Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1976.

Includes The Book of Her Life, and two of her shorter works, the Spiritual Testimonies and the Soliloquies.

________ The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 2.  Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1980.

Includes The Way of Perfection (about her own practices of prayer and contemplation), Interior Castle (her understanding of her relationship with God), and Meditations on the Song of Songs.

________ The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 3.  Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1985.

Includes Book of Her Foundations (tells the story of founding her seventeen monasteries) and minor works.

Deggs, Sister Mary Bernard.  No Cross, No Crown: Black Nuns in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.  Virginia Meacham Gould and Charles E. Nolan, eds.  Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2001.

Written by Sister Mary Bernard Deggs, No Cross, No Crown, tells the story of the founding of the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1842.  It also tells us how Deggs and society felt about “the self-empowerment of society’s least empowered, its women of African descent” (ix).  Gould and Nolan detail the difficulty they had in transcribing the manuscripts and their sincere, tireless work to make Deggs’ prose accurate and readable.  Scholars of field ranging from religion to economics to politics will find this book incredibly useful as Deggs weaves together racial, gendered, and classed dynamics within the development of this African American religious community.

Lisieux, Therese of. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1996.

Originally published in 1898, Story of a Soul was written by Therese of Lisieux at the request of her Lisieux Carmelite sisters, exploring her spiritual transformation and religious practices.

Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, eds., In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing.  New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

While they are overly optimistic in their assertion that now “hardly anyone would dare write a survey of American Christianity or religious history without making some semblance of including women’s experience and contributions in it,” Skinner and Ruether remind their readers that the study of women in religious history has come a long way in the fifteen years since they first published volume one of Religion and Women in America (4).  In In Our Own Voices, they compile critical essays with transcriptions of primary sources of women’s writing, crucially including voices from Indian, Muslim, and Buddhist traditions.  In a spirit of recovery, revision, and reconciliation, Skinner and Ruether write that through this sharing of voices, writings, and cultural histories, they hope that a deeper understanding will emerge and flourish—and that this “will help all of us, both women and men, better analyze oppressive conditions and envision a transformed future of personal and social wholeness and well-being for all God’s people” (16).

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Random House, 1990.

A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Ulrich, combines both transcriptions of Martha Ballard’s diaries alongside her own description of Ballard’s life.  Ballard worked as a midwife in Hallowel, Maine—without her detailed accounts of her work in her diaries, all we would know definitively would be from her one sentence obituary: “Died in Augusta, Mrs. Martha, consort of Mr. Ephraim Ballard, aged 77 years” (5).  Ulrich highlights not only Ballard’s meticulous recording of the births she helped with but also her narrative skills; Ballard intersperses psalmic refrains with descriptions of her work and travel.  Ulrich’s book is an indispensable resource for understanding women’s roles in the everyday economy of this port city; she mines the diaries to understand Ballard’s own sexuality, her courage to work amid chaotic and sometimes dangerous conditions, and how her work as a midwife related to societal and familial structure more broadly.