Shifting gears from the 19th century where I spend most of my time to the 17th century, I have begun reviewing literature related to European women's religious experience in the British colonies. I am interested in exploring tensions between female believers in various time periods to see if I can tease out the contours of patterns that give rise to the strong conflicts between radical and liberal suffragists in the late nineteenth-century and which reemerged in contemporary America between Christian feminists and Goddess feminists. More specifically, I'm curious about the role motherhood plays in the development of these expressions of feminine/feminist spirituality both as lived experience and as symbol.
Honestly, I'm not sure how I'm going to do it. I have an idea that I might take the views of two (perhaps more) notable women in various time periods and compare and contrast their views. I had been working on a similar effort with Frances Willard and Matilda Joslyn Gage before I realized that I desperately wanted to go further back in time to provide myself with sturdier footing in this exploration. One could go back all the way to the mists of time, but I think, being an Americanist, I'll have to start with the colonial period. Limited, as historians tend to be, by the written record, my study will likely spend far more time on European American women than other groups whose lives are less well documented, but I foresee the need to consider indigenous American women's influence on the development of a feminist spiritual tradition fairly early on and to continue revisiting it as the history develops. I know, for instance, from my study of Matilda Joslyn Gage's spiritual writing that Haudenosaunee women play a critical role in the development of matriarchal theory. I am also curious to learn more about how African and African American women influence this history. I really have no idea at this point beyond the tantalizing bits of information I've gathered through the course of preparing lectures for my African American history classes. There are at least a few black female theological and spiritual thinkers to whom I can turn. Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and Jarena Lee spring to mind. Will I find their work tends to challenge or uphold the traditional evangelical Christian perspective? Will I find dissenting voices that aid in the development of a more radical gynocentric vision? I can't wait to find out.
There is a great deal to learn, and I hardly know where to begin. One has to start the research somewhere. My first stop was a short series of articles in Mathisen's Critical Issues in American Religious History, a satisfyingly fat text that I will be assigning to my (un?)fortunate students. Primary sources and articles on Roman Catholic and African experience were fascinating, but my focus remains on the Puritans and the Quakers in Mary Maples Dunn's article, "Saints and Sisters".
I'm pretty sure I've read this particular article before although I can't recall where. That's annoying, but it happens to me quite a bit. This is an older article so nothing too earth-shattering in its analysis of the differences between Quaker and Puritan women. Quakers and Puritans shared with the first century Christians a sense of living in the end of times. Living on a frontier in both geographical and spiritual terms meant that women found themselves caught up in the heady excitement and hard work of a beloved community fully cognizant of and engaged in their relationship to God and in the duties that relationship entails. There was work enough for all hands and therefore less fuss about whether or not those hands were attached to male or female bodies.
Puritans and Friends both acknowledge the spiritual equality of men and women despite the enormous social, economic, educational, and political inequalities of their respective societies. Because Puritans base their holy experiment on the Book, they are limited in their ability to develop this concept of spiritual equality. Biblical references to female sinfulness and inferiority, particularly as found in the Pauline epistles, did not give Puritans wiggle room. Despite this, Puritan women did test the boundaries of these limitations. Unfortunately, most of their efforts can be read in the records of heresy trials. What we know of their rebellion comes to us through the lens of their male accusers and judges. Anne Hutchinson's trial is most famous of these, but there were several. Dunn makes the sad observation that such brave women were "...more apt to perish than to publish."
Friends, on the other hand, did not take the Bible as their primary source of authority. Seeking more direct communication with their Source, they tended to either ignore or reinterpret texts in light of the Light. Friends were far less concerned with Paul's admonitions to female Christians believing they applied only to those who remained separated from the regenerating power of unity with Christ. In their assessment, the condition of inferiority and obedience to men required of women after the Fall no longer applied to those who were redeemed in Christ. Friends were more likely to refer to Hannah, Mary Magdalene, and Miriam to justify women's active roles in the ministry than to focus on Paul's advice that women maintain silence in the church.
Both Quaker and Puritan religious communities relied upon women's participation and highly valued female piety. After 1660, the Puritan congregational churches' membership shows greater female than male participation. Their numeric superiority did not translate to greater power. In fact, as the number of women relative to men increased, the power of women decreased. This is partially a result of the clergy's increased efforts to dominate all laypeople regardless of gender and partly a result of what Dunn describes as a tendency for women's activities to have less prestige than male activities. In the latter half of the 17th century decreasing piety in men leads to their absence from the churches which they abandon to the women who are expected to continue to guard the community's virtue even as the men turn their faces away from God and toward Mammon.
Quaker women not only attend church, they are among its most important ministers. Friends emphasis on indwelling Divine Light, spiritual rebirth, and the ministry of all believers leads Quakers toward acceptance of female public ministry. With their meetings' full support, women engaged in traveling ministry for prolonged periods of time under dangerous circumstances. Often such women left behind husbands and children to serve in this capacity. One is struck by the the contrast between a traveling female Friend risking death as a Publisher of the Truth with that of the housebound Puritan wife known in her church records only by her husband's name.
I am very curious, but not very hopeful that I will find more specific information about early Friends' attitudes regarding motherhood. The kind of literature that becomes more popular in the 19th century, a kind of maternal sentimental reflection, will come later. I'll have to work with the materials I have which, for early Friends, are much more God-focused than mama-focused. My own sensibilities, formed as they were by generations of Protestant piety, are shocked at the idea of a woman leaving her children on an errand to the wilderness, or even worse--to the scaffold. As I have not even allowed my children to be surrendered to the care of a babysitter for just one night, it is difficult for me to imagine leaving them for a year or forever...on purpose! My own sense of spirituality is firmly centered around my understanding of myself as mother. It is very exciting to see how definitions of motherhood emerge, assert themselves, and transform over time. My own family history partakes of multiple threads of this story. They are like strands of DNA. Physical traits seem to arise and disappear in cool and crazy ways. Likewise the traits of feminine spirituality in the British North American colonies and in the United States seem to appear, disappear, combine, and recombine over time in ways both expected and unexpected. It will be fun to trace this genealogy and fun to take a guess at what the next generation will look like.