Sunday, July 24, 2011

17th Century Quaker and Puritan Women

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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Performance and Perfectionism

I write this post hours after my participation in the 163rd anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention.  Last night I dressed up in a late nineteenth-century suffragist suit and played the role of Anna Howard Shaw.   This morning, dressed as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I delivered a speech on the front porch of her old house in Seneca Falls then led a parade of women 88 miles to the Women's Rights National Historical Park where I later delivered the Declaration of Sentiments for the rededication of the Wesleyan Chapel.

For two days, cameras have seemed to me to be like a swarm of insects around me.  (And everyone who knows me well knows I am about the least photogenic human being who ever lived!).  I've been pulled into conversations and photo ops with congresspeople, mayors, historians, bureaucrats, business people and tourists.  When I'm in costume, people ask me all kinds of philosophical, political, religious, and historical questions.  They disclose details about their experience and even of their suffering to me or they swoop in and put their arms around me, touch the fabric of my costume, or peer under my bonnet.  Of course, I let them.  It is part of the deal. They want to touch history, and when I'm in costume, I become a tangible link to another time.

I'm strongly introverted with an aversion to being touched, so there is a certain degree of psychic pain that goes along with every public engagement.  On the other hand, I have made it my job to teach and perform.  Therefore, the task itself comes easily to me even if it leaves me emotionally depleted.   In fact, I'm pretty good at it.  My parents are both public speakers so I had the luxury ("luxury"?) of growing up in the wake of their charisma.  I learned their techniques and found plenty of opportunities to practice as I was expected to converse appropriately with their coworkers, clients, parishioners, and students.

But I'm not constitutionally well-calibrated for public life.  I can't eat on days when I'm teaching or performing.  I often do not sleep well the night before so I function on adrenaline.  When I come home, I chatter and gush to my family as a means of casting off the energy.  This is generally followed by a sense of exhaustion, depression, and headaches.  I need to be alone to recharge, and as I'm doing right now while writing this post, I often isolate myself for a period until I begin to feel more like myself and less like the character who possesses me when I'm in public.

Just a short time ago I was in a  hoops, petticoats, boots, and bonnet.  Now I sit here in my loose-fitting, ratty t-shirt and capris.  My glasses, which I never wear in performance, are back on the end of my nose.  I'm barefoot and curled up in my office chair.  I feel much more comfortable, but also just this side of tears.  It feels very much like I am just waking up from a kind of delirium.  I have vague memories of hundreds of faces, dozens of hand shakes, and what felt like a hundred thousand cameras.  Each person who spoke to me told me I did "an excellent job" that "it was really well done" and "just beautiful!"

But I know better.  Though I managed not to make it obvious, I can tell you in great detail every error I made.  My pages were out of order and a section of the speech was therefore neglected.  I was horrified when I realized what I had done.  Thankfully, after a couple beats as I realized that the next page before me did not follow the one I had completed, I simply moved ahead to the next section and concluded the presentation as if all was well.  I could not afford to do otherwise as I was speaking without microphone before a large group of folks including several dignitaries.  My voice could not falter.  I could not shrink into myself or run away from the podium no matter how much I wanted to.  I could not will the good earth to swallow me whole.  So I carried on knowing that I would just have to cry about it later.

I"m trying to comfort myself with the knowledge that I won't be the first or the last public speaker to make a mistake, mess up a speech, or fall on my face.  The autobiographies and biographies of the historical women I so admire make them look like giants of virtue, valor, and skill.  But having read their private correspondence as well as their public record, I also know quite a bit about their insecurities and embarrassments.  They were only human.  It seems that I am too.

I don't like to make mistakes.  Since childhood when I kept getting out of bed to recheck the homework I'd already spent several hours perfecting, I have feared failure.  In school I worked into the night to get everything just right.  Because my grades were so high,  my teachers thought to challenge me by separating me from the other students and giving me more advanced and difficult assignments.  It did not occur to me that getting a lower grade would ever be acceptable regardless of the complexity of the assignment.  If I missed even one question, mispronounced one word, misunderstood one concept, I did not forgive myself.  I just kept working harder and harder to perfect my performance so my teachers would not do that most horrible thing I could imagine which was to ask me why I made a mistake.  Any grade lower than a 95 indicated failure.  "What went wrong?" they would ask me and my entire little body just felt shriveled in shame.   Not surprisingly, with these standards coupled with the loneliness I felt in school, I woke up with knots in my stomach every morning and I was prone to tearfulness and anxiety.

That pattern did not let up when I went away to college.  It did not let up in graduate school.  I'm afraid it has not let up even today although it is certainly modified by the humbling realities of mothering.  Although I'm well aware of how damaging my attitude has been to my health and happiness, I find I have a difficult time letting go of my perfectionism.  It is just unacceptable, just inexcusable for me to screw up like I did today.  Granted, no one mentioned it.  In fact, people were full of praise.  My parents who watched me speak assured me that that error wasn't noticeable and that no one would care anyhow, but I was just beside myself.  As we sat discussing the event in a restaurant, I reflected upon my error, began analyzing how I had gone wrong, and found myself so close to tears that I could not swallow my root beer.

After I give a speech or teach a class, I like to come home and forget that I ever have to go out there again.  Just for a little while, I can relax into the comfort of being "just a housewife" with people who call me "Mommy" and "sweetie" and who don't care if I can give speeches or not.  What blessed relief that is!  I am sorely tempted to hide away for good this time.  On days like this, I feel as though I'd like to toss the boots and the bonnet right in the trash and be done with it.  I'm disappointed in my performance and I'm beating myself up about it.  In fact, I'm feeling pretty sorry for myself.

I cried through writing this post, mostly just because I'm really tired and really overwhelmed and like a little kid whose had too much stimulus and not enough sleep, I'm just not in control of my emotions.  I wasn't even sure why I felt such a need to write at all.  Certainly, I'm not being logical so goodness knows what errors I have made in this post!  I suppose I wrote just to exorcise my demons.  That's as good a reason as any to write, I suppose.  But perhaps my demons are being exercised rather than exorcised with this obsessive compulsive rumination.  Enough is enough.


I'll end with just one thing that came into my head unbidden as I was busily thinking what a failure I am.  You see, there's this young woman who comes to Convention Days with her mother every year.  She's a woman with an intellectual disability who uses a walker to get around.  Most people seem to just ignore her and that's too bad because she knows pretty much all there is to know about the Convention, suffrage, and the fight for the ERA.  On top of that, she has a great sense of humor and a joyful gratitude about being there in that historical place that is contagious.  There were an awful lot of fancy-schmancy people who made an awful lot of fancy-schmancy speeches during Convention Days but I don't think any of them "get it" like she does.  Her whole heart is in it, and she is just alive with it.

Each year when I see her, I make it a point to stop my march to greet her and tell her how glad I am to see her.  After the march, I like to spend a few moments talking to her.  This time, I found her sitting in the back of the Wesleyan Chapel with her mother.  I was already beating myself up for being less then I thought I could be, but I walked back to where she sat with her mom and gave her the best smile I could muster.  Despite the oppressive heat and the jostling crowd, she was just radiant with enthusiasm.  She threw her hands up in celebration.  "Congratulations on the 163rd anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention!" she exclaimed with utter delight. 

I wish I knew that young woman's name.  I wish I could let her know how she ministered to me today in the midst of my self-loathing and perfectionism.    She was just happy to be there and I'm awfully glad she was there too.   Out of all the flashing cameras, the compliments, the hugs and handshakes, hers is the face I most want to remember.  I appreciate, I really do, all the other people who went out of their way to compliment my performance and thank me for my work.  But there seemed to be a lot of that going around today, you know?  We're all so political and polished in those kinds of situations ( you know, the ones with sound systems and hor d'oeuvres.)  I was doing my dance too, moving from person to person reaching into my bag of smiles and charming comments, but she was just herself.   She was on pilgrimage and fully appreciating the great good fortune of being there to celebrate one of the pivotal moments of human rights history.

I wish she could have marched with us under the suffrage banner.  I wish the organizers seated her up in front with the dignitaries.  It was for her and for all people who for a thousand reasons of birth, culture, or circumstance find themselves excluded from this nation's promises, that this long historic battle for human rights has been fought.  As the people milled about us rubbing elbows with the who's who of the community, dropping names, exchanging emails, fussing with their cameras, and ignoring her completely, she just beamed at me in glad appreciation of a wonderful day.   She was beautiful.

While writing this long, self-pitying post, it came to me quite suddenly that I was happy, really happy to be with her.  I hope I made her happier too.  I hope I enriched her experience.  That was why I started wearing the costume in the first place.  It wasn't to impress people, but to share my joy of history with them.  I hope I made her feel just a little bit more like she has a unique connection to Mrs. Stanton and the Convention.  I'm not sure what other people really thought about my contribution today.  Maybe they were being honest with me when they told me they were happy with my work,,, and maybe they were just being polite.   I  do know that my friend in the back of the building was happy with me.  She was happy with me.  She was happy about suffrage, and women's rights, and my costume, and the people, and the excitement.  She was just glad that she could be there to see it.

"Congratulations on the 163 anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention!"  You know what?  She's right.  We did it!  We started a movement for human equality in Seneca Falls 163 years ago and made the outrageous demand for female suffrage.  We stood up for equality and for each other.  We did it together.  We made lots of mistakes, and screwed up lots of speeches, and made lots of people disappointed and unhappy, by by God, we did it and we're doing it still.  Perhaps that's all that really matters.  So my speech wasn't perfect.  So I spilled a plate of fruit all over the floor while speaking to someone I greatly admire.  So I never can look anything but wooden and a bit frumpy in a photograph.  So what?  I can vote.  I can teach.  I can send my daughter to college, keep my own wages, and make my own legal decisions.  And why?  Because a whole lot of people decided it was better to look foolish and make mistakes than to sit home and feel sorry for themselves.

Maybe all that other stuff where we show off how important and clever we are is just bells and whistles.  My friend in the back knew what it was all about.  This woman who cannot live on her own, and who is more likely than any of us there to suffer the indignities visited upon women also can tell you just how much she is thankful for all that has been accomplished by people of good will, just how jubilantly she cheers for all of our continued efforts.  She is a natural born teacher who doesn't let her disabling conditions stop her from using her voice to tell the story of our long journey toward human rights.   I'm a bit ashamed that I allowed myself to brood about my imperfections and considered hanging it all up.  She would never do that.   So now, time to dry my tears and get back to work.  I'm still not thrilled with my performance, but I did my part, if not flawlessly, then at least enthusiastically.  I embarrassed myself a couple times, but it was worth it just to see her again and feel buoyed by her hopefulness.  I saw an awful lot of fine people today, but she was the most perfect.