- Feminism and Secularization
Both Laura Schwartz’s Infidel Feminism and Lesley Hall’s The Life and Times of Stella Browne are books about the history of feminism and freethought, but both of them also contribute in crucial ways – both implicitly and explicitly – to ongoing debates over the history of religion in modern Britain and the revision of what has come to be known as the ‘secularization thesis’. Secularization – understood here as a political project rather than as an abstract historical process1 – was itself the main goal of the secularist movement in nineteenth to twentieth-century Britain. At the same time, one result of the success of that project – among historians and sociologists who embraced the ‘secularization thesis’, if not necessarily within society more broadly – has been to obscure and marginalize the history of secularism itself. The belief that secularization was a natural and inevitable result of modernization, and that a secular attitude was therefore against an appropriately historical understanding of ‘the secular’. This has been particularly complicated in women’s history and especially in the history of feminism, where the secularity of feminist politics has, for a long time, simply been taken for granted and therefore, paradoxically, rendered invisible where it actually existed. Further, these texts assist us in the ongoing effort to revise and refine the revisionist case itself, illustrating the rich possibilities of an approach which emphasizes a more dynamic and dialogic historical relationship between ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’. [End Page 291]
As Jeffrey Cox has recently pointed out, the ‘secularization thesis’ – the notion that religion in the modern world is somewhere near the end of a steady decline in social and political significance – has proved remarkably durable among historians of Britain, a durability ‘all the more remarkable for the beating the idea has taken in the last three decades, largely from a recognition that beyond the boundaries of Europe, the United States is not the only part of the world where the theory of secularization makes no sense at all’.2 At the very least, it is clear that among both the defenders and the critics of that thesis, the tendency to dismiss religion is much less confident today than it was a generation ago. Prominent voices have called for a re-thinking of the timing of secularization, which has now been pushed well into the twentieth century, and – in the case of Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain, to give only one example – even as late as the 1960s.3
According to David Nash, ‘Probably one of the most important disservices the theory of secularization has performed upon the subject it purports to explain has been its insistence that it alone constituted the solitary explanatory framework within which to embrace the long-term history of religion’. Only once religion is disembedded from that narrative of decline can its fate ‘cease to be taken for granted’.4 So too, I would argue, with secularization itself: perhaps paradoxically, given that secularization was believed to represent the success of the secularist project, the theory of secularization has also made it difficult for historians to grapple with the history of secularism, which came to seem like a natural response to modernity and therefore not in need of explanation.
Gender has been especially central to the revisionist case against the secularization thesis. As Jacqueline deVries has argued, ‘After decades of both benign and hostile neglect, feminist historians have rediscovered Christianity as an important site in the historical construction of gender’.5 This was also one of Callum Brown’s central contributions to the debate: ‘Gender is emerging as possibly the single most important definer of the timing and content of long-term change to the Christian religion of Europe’.6 Perhaps surprisingly, this ‘religious turn’ in the history of gender has also enabled a better...