Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism

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Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism. Edited by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth and Virginia Lieson Brereton. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002. xv + 350 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

What is the quality of "progress" for women in American church life in the twentieth century? This is the dominant question the essays in this volume address. Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism is the culmination of a three-year program of historical research, "The Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism Project," which began in 1995 and was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The sixteen essays were first presented at a three-day conference at the University of Chicago's Cleacher Center in 1998. Building upon scholarship concerned with women's religious experience that has come to light over the past twenty-five years, sometimes referred to as the "recovery" of American women's religious history, this volume of essays challenges the dominant narrative of achievement by asking new questions, examining different historical texts, and exploring familiar historical narratives not only from the perspective of white, middle-class women, but also from the perspectives of women from varied racial and ethnic groups.

The editors' brief but provocative introduction addresses interpretive issues that the essays reveal. First, what constitutes Protestant identity? More directly, what is Protestant? Additionally, Bendroth and Brereton discuss two other important themes in this volume: secularization and the intersection of feminism and Protestant women. If one comes to this volume expecting a traditional narrative, especially regarding ordination as the only means of religious empowerment and indicator of women's access to leadership, one will be delightfully surprised by more nuanced analyses. However, as the editors state, these essays raise more questions than they answer.

The volume is divided into five sections: "New Dimensions of the Separate Sphere: Women and Religious Institutions," "Religion, Modernity, and the Protestant Domestic Strategy," "Constructing Women's Religious Experience," "Women and the Professionalization of Religious Work," and "Women and Modernity." Each section consists of three chapters and includes a brieF overview by the editors. As the editors contend, each essay reflects a distinctive, more original approach to topics that may have been examined previously using interpretive frameworks that are no longer salient. These essays offer "interpretive themes to guide future exploration of women's religious experience" (p. xii). For example, Susan Yohn's essay, "Let Christian Women Set the Example in Their Own Gifts: The 'Business' of Protestant Women's Organizations," addresses the need for historians to take account of this in studies of American economic history. …


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