- The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past
Forty years ago there was little writing on the history of women in religion. But in recent decades there has been an enormous outpouring of research that has demonstrated how central women are in the actual practice of religions, especially in Christian congregations. In spite of the ample availability of excellent studies on women and religion, Catherine Brekus, professor of the history of Christianity at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, finds that women still continue to be ignored in mainstream histories of America. History is seen as primarily about elite men in public life. Women, non-elites, and people other than white Protestants are still marginalized. Religion also is marginalized. Women historians share this bias, often ignoring religion and women of color.
Catherine Brekus has edited this collection of twelve essays on women in American religion in an effort to demonstrate the importance of greater inclusiveness. She argues that one cannot understand American history without seeing the importance of religion, or American religion without seeing the importance of women. These twelve essays by leading women historians cover four centuries from the seventeenth to the late twentieth century. They include four that focus on white Protestants, one on Black Protestants, four on Catholics, which include blacks, whites, and Mexican Americans, one on Mormons, and one on Jewish women. A twelfth essay challenges the presumed split between religion and the development of feminism in the late 1960s, showing how religiously committed women predominated in its development. [End Page 173]
The four essays on American Catholic women are striking for their diversity. One, by Emily Clark of Tulane University, focuses on the centrality of white and black religious women in the evangelization of blacks in the city. Another essay, by Kathleen Cummings of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, details the struggles of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to found Trinity College in 1897–1900. This was the first Catholic women's college to be founded as a college rather than evolving from an academy. The Sisters' proposal to found such a college raised fears of Catholic conservatives in the United States and in the Vatican that this was a capitulation to Americanism, feminism, and co-education, all anathema in some circles. Cummings shows how Sister Julia McGroarty steered a difficult course between conflicting forces to found the college.
A third essay, by Amy Koehlinger of Florida State University, lifts up the racial apostolate of American nuns in the 1960s that not only pioneered new work with African Americans in the rural South and the inner cities, but was able to use the gender and racial ambiguity of habited nuns to cross racial and gender boundaries. A concluding essay, by Kristy Nabhan-Warren of Augustana College, focuses on a Mexican American lay woman of South Phoenix who successfully translated her personal experiences of apparitions of the Virgin Mary into an international movement of Mary's Ministries that founded a K–12 charter school and created a powerful practice of empowerment of women that combines feminist and conservative values, Catholic and evangelical styles of piety.
These twelve essays make fascinating reading. Together they make clear how much we miss of American religious history if we ignore the role of women of many ethnic and religious backgrounds.