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Knowing More
Women in American Religious History

One of a series of articles posted in 2004, also including
Exploring the Legacy of the Gnostics
The Mystery of Mary Magdalene
Discovering Lost Christianities

By Marcia Ford


At a recent event at the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity in Boston, Beyond Belief author Elaine Pagels and Harvard Divinity professor Ann Braude discussed the significant role women—particularly Mary Magdalene—played in the early church. A number of contemporary scholars believe that had the church not suppressed certain early Christian writings, including Gnostic literature, women would never have lost the leadership positions they once enjoyed. Decisions made by church leaders as far back as the third century affected Christian women in the United States since before its founding. In the third article in this series, women’s studies scholar Braude offers a glimpse into the diversity of feminine voices whose stories have too long gone untold. She begins by responding to an audience member who asked her to identify those women whose voices need to be heard.

“Who are the women who have been left out of religious history? The answer is every one,” said Braude, who’s clearly not one to mince words. “Women are the majority of participants in virtually every large religious movement in this country’s history starting in the Puritan era and continuing today… Women in the U.S. have been the backbone of the mainline churches and also the leaders of dissent and innovation. That makes a lot of sense, because if you’re excluded from authority, go someplace else and suggest some new ideas.”

Among those who have made strides in mainline churches are two of Braude’s favorites among contemporary examples: Pauline Murray and Sister Madeleva Wolf. Murray, the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in the mid 1970s, made a move that exemplified both courage and commitment.

“She was a distinguished civil rights attorney, a tenured professor at Brandeis University, when she did something almost unheard of,” Braude explained. “She resigned her tenure to become a student of theology, because she reached the conclusion that the most important issues for women were theological issues.”

An important figure in the civil rights movement, Murray had originated the legal theory that allowed the use of the courts to pursue women’s equality. “Theology, she ultimately concluded, was the place she needed to go,” said Braude.

The name of Sister Madeleva Wolf, a sister of the Holy Cross and former president of St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame University, is not one that most Americans are familiar with, but her impact has had significant ramifications for women in the Roman Catholic Church. Wolf, whom Braude describes as “a poet, a humanist scholar, a woman of letters,” was instrumental in establishing the first doctorate of sacred theology program open to women in the Catholic Church.

“She was the first one who not only had the belief that women could be Catholic theologians, but she put it into practice. That was the beginning of opening the doors today to a huge lay population of women theologians in the Catholic Church,” Braude said.

It’s hard to realize today how unimaginable a concept that was even in the early 20th century, much less any earlier. As Braude pointed out, America has a long history of silencing women who dared to promote the radical notion that women had a right to study and teach theology. It’s a history that dates back to the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and finds its first expression in the person of Anne Hutchinson, who invited women into her home to study the Bible following Sunday services and challenged some of the teachings they heard in those services.

“She is the first of what becomes a really important model in American religious history—which is that women, in order to speak in public, must confront the biblical texts that [require] women’s silence as the sign of their morality,” Braude said. Hutchinson rejected that interpretation of the Bible and was brought up on charges of rebelling against authority.

Ironically, it was the same faith that the male authorities were using against Hutchinson and her followers that empowered the women to resist and contradict what those male authorities were saying. “Generation after generation, there will be examples of women like Anne Hutchinson who are empowered by the Spirit to exceed the limitations on the common understanding of women’s nature that exist in the society around them,” Braude said.

The Apostle Paul’s admonition against allowing women to speak in church has been used throughout American history to keep women from speaking out in public, whether on biblical issues or social issues. Sarah Grimke, an early female voice in the effort to abolish slavery, found Paul’s words used against her in the 1830s. And, according to Braude, the problem is not one that has gone away.

“It has been impossible for women to play a public role, to achieve a public voice, without confronting the biblical prohibitions which were understood to prohibit that or at least to render it immoral if women tried to do those things,” said Braude, pointing out that the term “public women” was used to describe prostitutes—implying that any woman who had the audacity to participate in public life had to be immoral.

“Women are looked at first and foremost through the personal and have to justify having a public role before we can even get to what they want to talk about,” Braude said. “We see women over and over again bumping up against these [biblical] texts…even though we have been raising questions about them, raising questions about did Paul mean in every church or just in that church, what’s the context, all these kinds of questions have been coming up for well over a hundred years. But nevertheless those texts are still asserted authoritatively in the very same way that they were against Anne Hutchinson. They haven’t gone away; they have a life of their own that we still need to confront.”

Another forgotten woman: Antoinette Brown, who in 1853 became the first woman to be ordained in the U.S. That was a milestone for certain, but Braude is quick to point out that Brown was ordained in the Congregational Church, in which each individual congregation ordains its clergy. “There didn’t need to be denominational sanction or broad agreement,” she said. “There was widespread opposition to what she did.”

A final forgotten woman is one that Braude calls a “stunning example” of a female religious leader whose contributions have been overlooked: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist and the namesake of the library that hosted the event. Just recently, the library’s archives, representing tens of thousands of original documents, were made available to the public.

“There’s been an inordinate focus on her personality and aspects of her personal life rather than on viewing her as part of the development of religious thought in America. I have to hope that…the opening of her papers for thorough investigation by all kinds of people will provide a model for how all women public figures can be approached to have their thought and their actions represent them rather than their personal attributes.”

Marcia Ford (www.marciaford.com), author of Memoir of a Misfit and 11 additional books, is a journalist who has covered religion and spirituality for 30 years. You may contact her at misfit@marciaford.com.



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