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Journal of Women's History 17.2 (2005) 184-192
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Women, Spirituality, and History:
Beyond Paralyzing Polarities
Mary Farrell Bednarowski
The more we discover both about the powerfully creative and the relentlessly confounding realities that emerge from women's simultaneous roles as insiders and outsiders in institutions and culture, the less we are surprised that women's history is filled with paradoxes, contradictions, and ironies. Further, these discoveries cause us to long for nuanced, complex, and multi-angled interpretations of women's pasts that not only acknowledge these contradictions, but also seek the next insights or actions that might move us beyond some of the paralyzing polarities, such as essentialism and constructivism, language and experience, power and oppression, which at their worst can render women's history an enterprise more adversarial than collaborative and with more dead ends than open roads. The insider/outsider dynamic is particularly apparent in religion. Historically, women have outnumbered men in religious participation, at least in the West, thereby affording them an intimate knowledge of many aspects of their traditions. At the same time, women have been under-represented in publicly acknowledged arenas of religious authority. They have often been the interpreted rather than the interpreters of their own religious experiences, and their voices and their creativity have not been incorporated into their communities' historic self-understanding.
In these three books, the first about a nineteenth-century American historian who converted to Catholicism, the second about the theosophical feminist spirituality undergirding suffragist politics in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England, and the third about the appeal of medieval women mystics to French secular intellectuals during the last [End Page 184] half of the twentieth century, the authors are not only candid about the ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions that are a central part of the history of women and religion; they focus on these issues. They make it clear that religion, theology, and spirituality have neither categorically oppressed women nor have they, even in their most progressive and enlightened forms, fully liberated women at any of these historical moments. The authors make the case, as well, that an astonishing amount of spiritual and theological creativity resides on the reputed margins of religion and that this energy frequently makes its way toward and transforms the center, even if that transformation is obvious only in retrospect. All three books have stories to tell about women's varied experiences of direct access to the divine, however defined. It is in the interpretation of these experiences, by the women themselves and by others with a variety of theological and political agendas, that we encounter how the religious experiences of women can function both to enhance and to restrict women's autonomy as full human beings.
Abby Maria Hemenway, originator and editor of the five-volume Vermont Historical Gazateer, died isolated and in debt in Chicago in 1890, still working in the last days of her life on Volume V of the Gazateer, which was completed eventually by her sister. A fire destroyed the manuscripts for Volume VI in 1911. Hemenway began work in 1859 at age 31 on the massive task she had set for herself: a history of every town in Vermont. "Hemenway's conviction," says Deborah Pickman Clifford, "that she could manage such a vast and complex historical enterprise as a single woman on her own is astonishing" (95), and she was told by members of the Middlebury Historical Society, from whom she had been led to expect support, that this undertaking was...