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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Busch

Early American Christianity and the Role of Women

Gerda Lerner, photo from

Gerda Lerner was a pioneering historian focusing on women's history. She is someone I look up to immensely, and in perusing her The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy, I noted a few particular ideas that she highlights as central to the role and idea of woman over time. I also found early American documents that demonstrate certain opinions that both perpetuate the oppression or disadvantage described by Lerner and demonstrate a deviation from the more widely held notions about woman's place in society and the world. Many of these conceptions are related to early American Christianity and embody a variety of attitudes toward the importance of women, their education, and their contributions to society. Here, we'll look at a few of them, place them in the context of our earlier conversations, and use them as a foundation for topics to come.



Gerda Lerner summarizes the education of women over time, writing, "As we survey the history of women's education in Europe and later in the United States, we can make two generalizations: women are almost universally educationally disadvantaged in comparison with their brothers, and education is, for those few women able to obtain it, distinctly a class privilege" (22). She goes on to describe the most common methods of education, that it was based in the household, "informal, utilitarian and individualized" (22). We've discussed Mary Wollstonecraft and her 1787 Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. This landmark piece did not stand alone on the topic of the education of women or the advising of the female character during the Enlightenment. In fact, some Americans shared similar thoughts on women, particularly Christian voices, like the Quakers and men of faith like Benjamin Rush.

Also in 1787, Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, published a pamphlet in support of the Young Ladies' Academy in Philadelphia, listing all the major reasons that American society, manners, and government would benefit from the education of young women. This pamphlet embodies a few different approaches to the topic. He begins the publication (which had already been presented in person at an earlier date) with a letter to a Mrs. Elizabeth Powel. He explains that his opinions may run "contrary to general prejudice and fashion" (4) and therefore hoped to appeal to a prominent woman to also lend credibility to his assertion. He recognized that female buy-in was important in this argument. He then transitions into the address he had shared with a group of "gentlemen." Here, there are a lot of justifications particularly suited for a male audience, which may seem repugnant to today's female readers, but as we still see today, in order to be persuasive on a topic that runs counter to many people's worldviews, one must find common ground from which to build an argument. Rush is an expert at this in his persuasion of the male board of directors. In this case, Rush perpetuates to the ideological role of women as secondary to that of men, but in his core arguments advocates for increased opportunities, rights, and other advancements of women. He begins his argument with this thesis:

Those circumstances are:

  1. The young age at which many American women are married. That age puts a ceiling on the window of opportunity during which a woman might be educated.

  2. American property rights and the management of property. Women often managed their husbands' property in the management of the household, and upon becoming widowed, a woman would become the sole proprietor of her husband's estate.

  3. Women were the primary educators of both boys and girls within the home, and the success of future generations required women to be further educated.

  4. Basic citizenship in the United States of America would require women to "instruct their sons in the principles of liberty and government" (7), which would require a basic foundational education.

He goes on to argue more specific subject matter that should be covered. He spends time addressing literature, poetry, philosophy, astronomy, grammar, history, biography, geography, and 'natural philosophy' or physical sciences. These may have been shocking for some of America's male readers, but other endeavors such as singing and dancing were also suggested by Rush to encourage physical health and well being as well as the ability to worship God in excellence through song. But more than any other topic, Rush focuses on the importance of religious instruction for women. He argues that religious and moral instruction among the young is actually easier to impart upon women and the more order and morality taught to young women, in conjunction with other educational topics, the easier they are to govern.

Rush shifts his tone as he addresses the young ladies directly. He motivates and inspires with these words:

"I know that the elevation of the female mind, by means of moral, physical and religious truth, is considered by some men as unfriendly to the domestic character of a woman. But this is the prejudice of little minds, and springs from the same spirit which opposes the general diffusion of knowledge among the citizens of our republics. If men believe that ignorance is favourable to the government of the female sex, they are certainly deceived; for a weak and ignorant woman will always be governed with the greatest difficulty [...] It will be in your power, LADIES, to correct the mistakes and practice of our sex upon these subjects, by demonstrating that the female temper can only be governed by reason, and that the cultivation of reason in women, is alike friendly to the order of nature, and to private as well as public happiness" (25).

This is an inspirational text despite its support for some of the subordinate positioning of women. It is more pragmatic in nature and incremental in the change it recommends. Those are the strengths of Rush's argument and why the motion was upheld and the school was established and maintained for some time.


Thomas Clarkson

Benjamin Rush was not the only *enlightened* man of faith in early America. In fact, the Quaker faith, from its inception encouraged the involvement of and education of women. This is extremely evident in one particular 1806 book by Thomas Clarkson, M.A., A Portraiture of Quakerism; Taken from a View of the Education and Discipline, Social Manners, Civil and Political Economy, Religious Principles and Character, of the Society of Friends. In this book, he outlines all kinds of topics, from the taking of civil oaths to the overarching sovereignty of God above all nations, etc. At one point, however, he devotes a section to Quaker women. Although Thomas Clarkson was English and lived in England, his writings, most of them on the topic of abolition, shaped American Quakerism. Therefore, his thoughts on the role of woman in society are just as relevant for early American Christians as for the English Friends.

Feminism and Christianity have an interesting history. As Lerner points out, "Whatever route women took to self-authorization and whether they were religiously inspired or not, they were confronted by the core texts of the Bible, which were used for centuries by patriarchal authorities to define the proper roles for women in society and to justify the subordination of women: Genesis, the Fall and St. Paul" (138). She goes on to state that "male objections to women thinking, teaching and speaking in public were for centuries based on biblical authority" (138). I can attest to this kind of biblical teaching in my own life experience. However, that is not the case for every denomination, sect, church, or Christian individual. In fact, Quakerism, with its birth during the Age of Enlightenment, represented a new take on women's role. We know from early Quaker acceptance of women preachers that it was a breath of fresh air for women seeking a more public role in society. Clarkson sums it up beautifully in his Portraiture, writing (246):

Clarkson incorporated an interesting social history in this book which is well worth a read! He uses that vast understanding of history to place women within it. He writes,

"Now it generally happens in the world, that men have more literary knowledge than women, but this is not so generally the case in this [Quaker] society. As the women here are not taken from their books, like the men, at an early age, and put into trade, they have no bar, like these, to the farther improvement of their minds. They advance often in the acquisition of knowledge, while the latter, in consequence of their attention to business are kept stationary"(243).

Throughout the entire section on women, Clarkson demonstrates the equality exemplified by Quaker society despite the differences in the roles and responsibilities of the two sexes. Even in earlier times, as the Quakers moved into prominence in the Northeast, women dissidents from Puritan regions found safe havens for themselves and their thoughts among Quakers. In fact, Mary Dyer, who fell out of favor with the Puritans after standing up in support of fellow dissident, Anne Hutchinson, later recommitted her faith within the Society of Friends (Quakers).

I bring this up because the next religious figure I wanted to include in this conversation is descended from the Hutchinsons and the Mathers who were prominent religious name in the 17th century and beyond, Hannah Mather Crocker. In 1818, she published a piece called Observations on the Real Rights of Women, with Their Appropriate Duties, Agreeable to Scripture, Reason, and Common Sense. There's a lot to unpack in this title, and I will try to do it very quickly. The Age of Enlightenment placed great emphasis on nature and reason. Thomas Paine's Common Sense brought reason to the United States in many ways. In fact, even Mary Wollstonecraft found Paine's work fascinating. Not only did she write essays in response to his, she also crossed paths with him in France during the Revolution. But underpinning Crocker's goal in the book was to tie all those philosophical ideas back to Scripture and real life. She begins her book with an important inscription, "And God saw it was not good for man to be alone; and ahe made him an help meet for him."In Lerner's book Creation, she also notes that because the Bible was used as authority behind the subjugation of women, "the development of feminist Bible criticism can be seen as an appropriate and perhaps not unexpected response to the constraints and limitations imposed upon women's intellectual development by religiously sanctioned gender definitions" (138). In Observations, Crocker looks at different topics, including:

  1. Creation and the Fall

  2. Restoration of Equal Rights Under Christian Dispensation

  3. Writings of Illustrious Females, Both Sacred and Profane

  4. More on Equality

  5. Rights and Duties

  6. Happiness

  7. Order

  8. Charity

These sections are all rooted in scripture and faith, supplemented by philosophical and other literary elements, and applied to her contemporary culture. Since I focus on Woman's Place and the concept of equality, I chose to focus on those sections. The first deals with the restoration of women's equality through Mary's role in the salvation of mankind (13).

Crocker goes on to echo the cries of Benjamin Rush about the benefit of reason among women. She moves beyond Scripture while maintaining the notions associated with Christian women, using Martha Washington as a prime example of the influence exerted by an educated Christian woman. She goes on to assert success, saying (49):

I know I argue all the time about the amount of work still to be done to help women find equal footing and to elevate their voices to the same stature available to men. But, it is so important to sit back and take stock of those who have always believed in equality between the sexes and to observe instances in which the institutions so often credited with perpetuating inequality argued for equal opportunities and elevation of female voices hundreds of years ago.

In the coming weeks, as I promised earlier this year, we will delve into the institutions that helped women forge a place outside of the home. The first institutions to do so were Christian organizations doing charitable work. Keep your eyes open now that we've laid this ideological foundation to talk about the actionable goals of the women that would follow Crocker in the Christian church.

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