Feminist historians have often portrayed the history of the first wave feminist movement as a history without religious influence. Any connections between early women’s rights advocates and their religious faith are often downplayed as nothing more than cultural ties to a religious heritage (Rupp 55-57). Yet, there is a strong connection between the beginning of the women’s movement in the United States and strong religious conviction. As Anne Braude notes “women’s history is American religious history” (87) There are strong ties between Methodism, the Quaker movement and the feminist movement that have been overlooked by revisionist feminist historians who doubt that organized religion could positively influence women’s lives and fight for gender equality. As Helen LaKelly Hunt notes in her book Faith and Feminism, “Many contemporary feminist historians have written the history of the women’s movement solely from the point of view of the secular academy. They have not entered into the reality of these earlier feminists, nor truly listened to their words,” (12). It is important that feminist scholars begin to revisit the writings of late 19th century feminists to candidly search and acknowledge the strong Christian faith many of these women possessed that fueled their quest for gender equality. Additionally, it is important the feminist scholarship not exclude the writings of Christian men who were also foundational in the early feminist movement.
So, why have feminist scholars been hesitant to examine the history of the women’s movement from a religious perspective? Part of the hesitation stems from fear of organized religion. Organized religion, such as Christianity, is viewed as promoting a patriarchal social order. How can a social movement that appears to oppress women really be a form of women’s liberation? The overlooked point is that an entire religion cannot be neatly wrapped up in a single definition. To define Christianity as oppressive to women and hegemonic implies that all Christians support male headship. Once you begin digging deeply into the theological and cultural divisions of Christianity you find that there are diverse opinions on gender roles. Egalitarian principles that are valued by feminists do align with Christianity. You cannot dismiss organized religion because of a few negative, unprogressive sects. As I’ve shown through the articles on this blog, women today and women in the 19th century Methodist tradition feel empowered by their faith. Their faith isn’t restrictive; it allows them to become independent, Godly women who through their testimony are able to make a difference in their community.
Feminist and rhetorical scholars are beginning to realize the importance of understanding faith discourses from a positive perspective – on the terms of the women and men who feel that faith is important. Slowly there is a shift happening in academia that is allowing a positive portrayal of Christianity. It’s still an uphill battle; but one that I’m going to enjoy fighting.
Rupp, Leila J. Worlds of Women: The Making of an International Women’s Movement.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.
Hunt, Helen LaKelly. Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance. New York: Atria, 2004.
Braude, Ann. “Women’s History Is American Religious History.” Retelling U.S. Religious History. Ed. Thomas A. Tweed. Berkely: U of California P, 1997. 87-107.