Some favorite books in honor of Women's History Month

Carol Faulkner
"Progress of Woman," Library of Congress

Several years ago, Kelly Baker published a series of posts (here, here, and here) on favorite scholars of gender and American religion for women's history month. Inspired by her example, I decided to put together a special post for this month (though, really, every month is women's history month for me). In order not to duplicate Kelly's lists, I asked a group of colleagues to name their favorite book on women and American religion. While I stuck with "American," I tried to consult scholars with different specializations and time periods.

The scholars, and their choices, follow the break. Readers, I hope you will add your favorites, and tell us why, in the comments section.

Rachel Cope is Assistant Professor of Church History at Brigham Young University, and the author of numerous articles on the religious experiences of women during the Second Great Awakening, including "'I feel My Soul is Advancing Toward Heaven': The Daily Quest for Sanctification" and "'I Cannot Refrain from Testifying': Edith Turpin's Observations about Mormonism and Plural Marriage." 

Book: Catherine Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 

RC: I read this book as a young history student, and was mesmerized by it - at that point, I had never read a book that made women a viable (and central) part of history, let alone religious history. After completing it, I knew I wanted to focus my own work on women and American religious history.

Emilye Crosby is Professor of History at SUNY Geneseo, and the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The African American Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi. She also edited the collection Civil Rights History from the Ground Up: Local Struggles, A National Movement.

Book: Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

EC: Barbara Ransby’s wonderful biography of Ella Baker addresses and draws on religion in several particularly useful ways. She describes the multiple ways Baker was influenced by her mother Anna Ross Baker's immersion in a Black Baptist women’s missionary world that provided a space for Black women’s leadership, was cross-class, and engaged with secular issues as well as Christian charity. Ransby observes, this “was an activist religion that urged women to act as positive agents for change in the world.” (17) Years later, Ella Baker was among those who encouraged Martin Luther King Jr. and others to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and she served two stints as temporary executive director of the organization. The relationship between Baker and King/ SCLC quickly became strained, in part Ransby argues, because of the different ways they identified with Black religious traditions. She explains, “Ministers were trained to be shepherds of their flocks,” while “the socialization of women missionaries meant that they practiced a more democratic and decentralized style of religious service than male ministers did.” (193) These differences extended to Baker’s and King’s beliefs about social change as Baker was firmly wedded to a non-hierarchical, collective vision, while King believed “leadership never ascends from the pew to the pulpit, but . . .  descends from the pulpit to the pew.” (p. 170) Ransby offers a nuanced and complex portrait of the ways Black Baptist traditions influenced key people and organizations in the larger Black Freedom Struggle.

Laura Leibman is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College, a contributor to RiAH, and a prolific author. Her publications include Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life, A Cultural Edition of Experience Mayhew's Indian Converts, and "Early American Mikvaot: Ritual Baths and the Hope of Israel."

Book: Pamela Nadell and Jonathan Sarna, Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives

LL: One of my favorite books on women and American religious history is Pamela Nadell and Jonathan Sarna's Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives (Brandeis UP, 2011). The book underscores the important contributions women made to American Judaism from the colonial era to the present. One of the things I like best about the book is its methodological range and its attention to changes in American Jewish ritual. A must read for anyone interested in women and American Judaism.

Monica Mercado is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow at Bryn Mawr College, where she directs The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. She is currently revising her dissertation, Women and the Word: Gender, Print, and Catholic Identity, for publication, and working on an article, “Catholicism in Black and White: First Communion Portrait Photography in Puerto Rican New York, 1940-1960."

Book: Leslie Woodcock Tentler, Catholics and Contraception: An American History 

MM: When I began graduate school in U.S. history, I never imagined that my research would focus on American Catholicism--I was interested in religious histories of women, and everything I had read to that point focused on Protestant movements and reformers. But then I fell into a colloquium dedicated to the topic of "Catholics as Americans," which set so much of my future course. It was in that colloquium that I first read Leslie Tentler's Catholics and Contraception --not simply a women's history, per se--but the book that I still, a decade later, refer to anyone who asks me for a recommendation in Catholic history, or about how to integrate Catholics into their U.S. history courses. Taking the issue of birth control, so often seen as only a women's issue, and exploring its long Catholic and American history, Tentler's writing was a revelation to me. What I assumed was simply a history of Catholic lay women, I learned from her, was, in fact, also a history of the priesthood, and, as her subtitle points out, even an American history. "This book is not about Catholics alone," Tentler argues in the introduction of Catholics and Contraception , "but about the American experience of rethinking sex in the twentieth century." I teach sections of the book in U.S. women's history, in the American Catholic history survey, and also in my introduction to sex and sexuality in modern U.S. history course (link). As a text that takes seriously the intertwining of histories of women, gender, family, and sexuality, it continues to influence so much of the work I aspire to do.

Marcia Robinson is Assistant Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, and the author of  many articles on Kierkegaard. She is currently writing a biography of African American poet, novelist, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper titled "The Noblest Types of Womanhood."

Book: Katherine Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity

MR: Catharine Beecher, like her more famous sister Harriet, was a living paradox, and so not exactly the most desirable figure for today's progressive mind, especially one exploring religious and politically-astute black women such as Frances E.W. Harper. I appreciate Sklar's insightful biography of Catharine Beecher because it captures the personality, the ambivalence, the irony, the creativity, the intelligence, and the resourcefulness of this influence woman educator. and it does so by contextualizing Beecher's development as an educator in a judicious selection of the details of her personal life and world. Perhaps most important to me is the masterful way that Sklar demonstrates how relgion was an integral part of Beecher's life. Sklar makes no apologies for this, nor does she try to sidestep religion as something distasteful. Rather, she shows us that a deep and nuanced grasp of Calvinist theology is absolutely essential for understanding Beecher. As old as this biography is, I have yet to dine another one on Beecher that surpasses it. Sklar's careful and balanced reading of Beecher as a religious leader--indeed one inspired by and ultimately equal to her famous father, Lyman--is just what is needed to help me interpret Frances Harper's rhetorical and political use and transformation of Catherine's and Harriet's ideas and strategies.

Connie Shemo is Associate Professor of History at SUNY Plattsburgh, and the author of The Chinese Medical Ministries of Kang Cheng and Shi Meiyu, 1872-1937. She co-edited the collection Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the Protestant Empire, 1812-1960.

Book:  Jane Hunter, Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China

CS:  My favorite book on women and American religion, and certainly the book that has been most influential to me, is Jane Hunter’s Gospel of Gentility. I read this book my first year of graduate school, in 1993.  The American women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States in the early twentieth century.  However, before the publication of this book, historians of women in the United States had largely ignored this movement (with a few important exceptions.)  The main source base of this book was the letters of American women missionaries who served in China from the 1880s to the 1920s.  The insight that struck me the most when I first read this book was how living abroad could force people to articulate thoughts and ideas about their home culture that went largely unexamined when they stayed home.  Having lived in the People’s Republic of China for a year as an undergraduate, and having taught English in Japan, this idea resonated strongly with me.

Finally, my own choice. I went through any number of possibilities (and I almost decided on several articles!), but this is a book I would recommend to anyone. In fact, I think I'll read it again.

Book: Megan Marshall, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women who Ignited American Romanticism

CF: Marshall explores the early lives of three influential sisters: Elizabeth, an educator and intellectual who came up with the term "transcendentalism;" Mary, a teacher and writer who married Horace Mann; and Sophia, an artist who married Nathaniel Hawthorne. I read this book ten years ago, when I was about to start writing a biography, and I was amazed and daunted by Marshall's skills as a writer and historian. Both Mott and Elizabeth Peabody were inspired by Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (and maybe I'll write a post about him at some point), but Elizabeth and Channing were intellectual and theological partners: Channing introduced Elizabeth to Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Elizabeth prepared Channing's sermons for publication. Through her own studies, as well as her conversations with Channing, Elizabeth argued "something quite radical for her time and place: that personal choice and individual freedom were innate, and fully consistent with social responsibility and a 'Godly' way of life" (165). Marshall shows how new ideas about the relationship between humans and the Divine, which are usually attributed to men like Emerson (a Harvard student when Elizabeth and Channing became friends), were formulated and disseminated by the Peabody sisters.



Unknown said…
This is great! I love reading about these books.

One of my favorites is Ann Braude's Radical Spirits, which, in addition to being beautifully written, brought the history of religious women to fore of the scholarship on the women's movement and feminist politics. I also love Bruce Dorsey's Reforming Men and Women, for the way it brings race, ethnicity, class, and age into the history of women and gender.
Carol Faulkner said…
Thanks Anthony! I wholeheartedly agree about both books.
Samira K. Mehta said…
Perhaps Mama Lola is coming to mind so sharply because of Karen McCarthy Brown's recent death, but it was certainly a formative book in my own education and one that I would love an opportunity to teach. It provides so very much conversational fodder, about ethnographic method, religious practice that makes students uncomfortable, and, of course gender. It offers insightful analysis of gender and embodiment, gender and authority.
esclark said…
I echo Anthony's choice of Radical Spirits and I'll add A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Ulrich. In that book, Ulrich reconstructs life in late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth Hallowell in full technicolor. She weaves the social history of the area with gender history, religious history, cultural history and presents a complex and detailed micro-history of Ballard’s life and context.
Ballard’s diary—and Ulrich’s expansion upon the excerpts—depict a world where the male and female spheres were separate and run by their respective genders but also overlapped. A Midwife's Tale also has a great exploration of New England premarital sex and marriage norms.

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