Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism: An Interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Paul Putz

When the semester ended in May, I had a stack of books on my to-read list. Fortunately for me, the first I chose to pick up was Kristin Kobes Du Mez's A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Problem of Christian Feminism (Oxford, 2015). I enjoyed it so much that I reached out to Kristin to see if she would discuss the book and give RiAH readers a taste of her work, and she graciously agreed. Kristin is an associate professor of history at Calvin College. You can follow her on twitter @kkdumez.

P: As a grad student I’m constantly told that I’ll need to distill my dissertation project down to the impossibly short “elevator talk.” So what is your elevator talk for Katharine Bushnell? To the uninitiated, who was she and why is she important?

K: In today’s parlance, Katharine Bushnell was an internationally-known anti-trafficking activist, a feminist theologian, and an evangelical Christian who believed the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God. She was one of the global leaders in the “first wave” of Christian anti-trafficking activism in the late 19th century, and it was this activism that opened her eyes to the fact that the men perpetrating acts of violence against women were, more often than not, Christian men—a realization that ultimately led her to write her remarkable feminist theology. What makes her theology so compelling is that even as she challenged traditional patriarchal readings of the Scriptures in dramatic ways, because she relied on retranslation as well as reinterpretation, she was able to do so while scrupulously upholding the authority of the Scriptures. Much of her theological work holds up well even by today’s standards, and she has a small but devoted following to this day among evangelical Christians, in America and around the globe.

Yet outside of these circles, she remains largely unknown. Sometimes I like to think of Bushnell as the most important American evangelical you’ve probably never heard of. She certainly is one of the most fascinating. If you’re interested in Christianity and feminism, in connections between Christian patriarchy and abuse, in feminism and evangelical purity culture, or in “evangelical feminism” more generally, Bushnell’s story really is essential reading. In short, Katharine Bushnell is important for who she was and for what she did, and for her continuing influence today. But as a historian I also think that part of her significance lies in the fact that she was for so long forgotten—by Christians and feminists alike. That’s part of her story, too, and a very instructive part—and that’s really the story of A New Gospel for Women.

P: You mention that it was a “winding footnote trail” that led you to Katharine Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women. Can you talk more about that footnote trail – how did you first get interested in Bushnell and God’s Word to Women, and how did this book project develop over time?

K: I was digging around in all sorts of obscure books to try to get a better sense of what Christian women were up to in the early 20th century. What happened after the controversy had died down in the aftermath of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible, and after Frances Willard’s death in 1898? By the 1920s you have this notion that feminism and Christianity are incompatible, and that’s the narrative you still hear from many people on the right and the left today, so I was looking for a window onto this critical period in the relationship between Christianity and feminism in modern America.

To make a long story short, I ended up with a copy of Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women in my hands. It’s not an easy read—it’s extremely dense, often repetitive, and doesn’t lend itself to casual perusal. But if you stick with it, it becomes apparent that she’s deftly recasting the entire biblical narrative as a story of women’s liberation. As I was drawn in by her work, I couldn’t fathom why I’d never heard of her before, and why she wasn’t a major figure in our narratives of the history of women and Christianity in America.

I began to investigate her story because I needed to know for myself who she was. What I learned—that she was an internationally-known reformer who was instrumental in the global purity movement, that she took on the British empire and won (at least for a time), that she penned a remarkable feminist theology that holds up well even under modern scrutiny, and that she nonetheless died in obscurity, a forgotten and marginalized figure—made clear to me that her story illuminated in pretty profound ways the bigger story of Christianity and feminism in modern America.

At the same time, it was daunting to write a book about someone most people have never heard of. I toyed with the idea of writing more generally about Christianity and feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Bushnell loomed so large that I finally allowed her to take center stage. I also faced the challenge of wanting to introduce Bushnell to multiple audiences—to academics in an array of fields, and to popular readers. It took a lot of editing to find that balance, to situate Bushnell within larger academic conversations while telling her story in a way that was accessible and engaging to the general reader.

Now that the book is out I’ve been contacted by a number of people who discovered Bushnell at some point in their lives, and who are thrilled that she’s finally getting wider attention. At the same time I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from others who, like me, wondered how it was they’d never heard of her before. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter in Bushnell’s legacy will be.

P: One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the interplay between small-town Midwestern, national, and international contexts in shaping Bushnell’s life. In regards to the first, what made Evanston, Illinois, unique and important to Bushnell’s career? Later in life, after years of world travel, did Bushnell continue to have a sense of connection to Illinois as “home”? As for the global, can you discuss a bit how Bushnell operated within an international framework, and also how that experience shaped her theology and her activism?

K: I’m glad you asked this question. I’m a Midwesterner, born and bred. But probably for that reason I had no real appreciation for the Midwest as a place, at least initially. But in researching Christianity and feminism in the late 19th century, the Midwest is where things happen. So I started to pay attention. It had to do with the expansion of Methodism in the American Midwest, the related rise of the middle class, greater educational opportunities available to women and men, and an adventurous women’s culture that developed in Midwestern communities like Evanston, a culture that was in instrumental to empowering many women of Bushnell’s generation. So I tried to make the importance of place explicit whenever possible. What was interesting to me was the way that Evanston provided a launching pad of sorts. With her Evanston connections, Bushnell rather effortlessly stepped onto the national, and then the international stage. It really was a hub of Anglo-American Protestant women in the 19th century.

But the global is also a critical context for understanding Bushnell. Her Evanston connections positioned her well, but it would be her global encounters, first as a missionary to China, and later as a purity activist in British India and beyond, that helped her break free from conventional thinking and develop what really is an innovative understanding of the Christian faith.

Later in life she didn’t have a strong connection to Illinois. She settled in Oakland, CA, but also returned to China for a while, as she no longer felt at home in her home country. She lived to be nearly 91, and so she outlived all of her old friends, and really the world in which she had made her mark.

P: Bushnell provides a really useful and interesting lens through which to view shifts in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century women’s movement. Would you elaborate on how those shifts affected Bushnell’s place in the movement – how Bushnell went from “crusader to crank,” as you put it – and the role that Bushnell’s theology had in that development?

K: As a historian of women and religion, I was both appreciative of and frustrated by the way Christian feminists used history. On the one hand, establishing a longer history of Christian feminism made perfect sense, especially when many of their opponents sought to discredit Christian feminism as a spinoff of the “secular feminism” of the 60s and 70s (itself a more complicated story, I should add). Not surprisingly, the vast majority of their historical examples tended to be drawn from the 19th century. This, too, made sense—it was in many ways easier to be a “Christian feminist” then than it would be in later generations.

But as a historian, I thought it was important not only to look to inspirational forebearers, but also to take a careful look at what changed over time, at what’s tested the relationship between Christianity and feminism, and what’s led to the polarization that often characterizes discussions of Christianity and feminism today. (Changing understandings of sexuality and morality are especially significant in this regard). “Christian feminism” isn’t a static construction, because neither “Christianity” nor “feminism” are in any way static over the course of American history. American Christianity and feminism underwent profound change from the 1890s to the 1920s, and so what it meant to be a Christian feminist changed as well.

This, really, is Bushnell’s story. Her theology, which probably would have had a great popular reception in the 1870s or 1880s, had she published it at that time, really didn’t make a big splash when it came out in 1916, and in various editions through the 1920s. At the same time, views that placed her in the mainstream of American Christianity and the women’s movement in 19th-century America ended up placing her on the fundamentalist fringes by the 1920s and 1930s, at least in the eyes of many 20th-century feminists.

This book, then, is in some ways an effort in recovery, in bringing to light a long-lost, inspirational “Christian feminist” foremother. But I hope it also provides a more useful history for Christian feminists today.

P: One of the most surprising revelations in the book for me came from the critical reception that Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women received. For example, you note that a reviewer for Moody Bible Institute Monthly praised the book. Did that reception surprise you as well? Can you briefly discuss the way God’s Word to Women defied easy categorization as “liberal” or “conservative”?

K: Yes, I was incredibly surprised at the reception of her book among conservative scholars in the 1920s. Because she rejected “the evils of modernism” and staunchly upheld the authority of the Scriptures, they saw her as one of their own. And many of them heartily agreed that it was time that women had a hand in interpreting the Bible. Yet I was disappointed that they didn’t grapple with the implications of her teachings to a greater extent. Her view of Scriptural authority placed her within the fundamentalist fold, but her views on the emancipation of women, which she located at the very heart of the gospel, really called for radical change, in church and society, and I wish they’d engaged those claims at a deeper level.

P: In recent decades Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women has gained a growing international audience. What audiences are reading and being impacted by Bushnell’s work today, and why? In your view, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Bushnell’s work for today?

K: Bushnell’s teachings were initially kept alive among Pentecostals, Methodist women, and others who, like Bushnell, believed that Christianity was not only compatible with feminism, but actually demanded women’s social and spiritual emancipation. Since the 1970s, Bushnell has found a growing audience with “biblical feminists” looking to alternatives to both “family values Christianity” and “secular feminism.”

What’s most intriguing, given Bushnell’s own global influences, is the reception her work is encountering in the global church. If you’ve read Mark Noll’s The New Shape of World Christianity, this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Many Christians in the Majority World hold high views of Scriptural authority, and often adhere to more traditional views when it comes to issues of sexuality. And yet women and men alike are finding in the Christian Scriptures themes of liberation that challenge the patriarchal traditions of their own cultural contexts. Bushnell’s teachings speak powerfully to these audiences.

Finally, Bushnell has been gaining popularity in recent years among Christians working in social justice and anti-trafficking ministries. The International Justice Mission and the Salvation Army Anti-Trafficking efforts have both pointed to Bushnell as an inspirational precursor. Just as William Wilberforce has been plucked from relative obscurity in recent years, I think Katharine Bushnell has the same potential to resonate with a generation of evangelical Christians drawn to biblical theology and social justice activism.

As far as strengths and weaknesses, her work is most meaningful today to those who share her commitment to the authority of the Scriptures. For others, who are okay with dismissing portions of the Scriptures that make them uncomfortable, her work, while intriguing, wouldn’t be as essential. As far as weaknesses, I really try to bring out how Bushnell was rooted in her time. Our context is different in many ways from hers, and we need to take that into account, lest we too quickly attempt to apply her teachings to contemporary situations. Yet particularly at a time when many evangelicals like to hark back to a mythical Victorian age, and even advocate a new purity culture, her work has some pretty powerful things to say.

P: Now that your book is in the hands of the public, what is next for you? Does Bushnell figure into your future research plans?

K: I hope this isn’t the last book written on Bushnell—I’d love to see someone write a critical edition of God’s Word to Women, for example—but yes, I’m moving on from Bushnell to write about another progressive Methodist woman from the Midwest…Hillary Clinton. I’m currently writing a book on Clinton’s religious formation. It might seem like a bit of a leap, but it was my research into Bushnell and other early 20th-century Methodist women that initially led me to this topic. Time is obviously of the essence for this one, but I can say that thus far the research has been fascinating.

P: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and also for writing such a readable and insightful account of a fascinating activist, reformer, and theologian.


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