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date: 17 April 2024

Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United Statesfree

Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United Statesfree

  • Catherine A. BrekusCatherine A. BrekusHarvard Divinity School


Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.


  • Colonial History
  • Women's History
  • African American History
  • Religious History

Scriptural Views of Women in Diverse Religious Traditions

Historically, women in America have belonged to a wide variety of religious traditions. Before the conquest of America in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were hundreds of Native American tribes with their own distinctive rituals and beliefs. Many, including the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Cherokee, were organized along matrilineal lines, with women at the center of kinship networks. Though Native American women had different duties and responsibilities from men, they had significant political and religious authority. Rather than imagining God in masculine terms, many Native American tribes traced their ancestry to female deities. According to the Haudenosaunee, for example, all humans are descended from Sky Woman, who created the earth.

All of the world’s major religions have been represented in America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when large numbers of white, British Protestants emigrated to the original thirteen colonies, the majority of women belonged to Protestant denominations, especially the Congregationalists and the Anglicans. Enslaved African women may have tried to preserve their tribal religions, and others brought their Muslim faith to America with them, but even though Vodun and conjure persisted into the 20th century, most women of African descent eventually converted to Christianity. During the 19th century, the religious diversity of the nation grew as large numbers of Catholics and Jews emigrated to America, and as spiritual seekers founded new religious movements like the Shakers and New Thought. During the 1840s a few Buddhist women settled in the far West, but after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished restrictive immigration quotas, significant numbers of Buddhist as well as Muslim and Hindu women settled in the United States, creating a more pluralistic nation.

From the 17th century until the present, women in these religious traditions have differed in terms of their beliefs and practices. With the exception of Native Americans, however, who seem to have enjoyed relatively egalitarian gender roles before the European conquest, women have shared similar experiences of subordination because of their gender. All of the major world religions are based on scriptural texts that reflect the male-centered worldview of the times in which they were written. In the Torah, for example, Genesis 2 depicts Eve being formed out of Adam’s rib, which suggests that men were the norm and women secondary in creation. Most of the main characters in the Hebrew Bible are men, and the biblical story revolves around patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, and David. According to the halacha (Jewish law), men and women have different religious obligations. Women must obey certain rules of modesty—for example, covering their hair and sitting separately from men—and they do not count toward the minyan, the quorum of ten adult men required for communal worship. Nor can they serve as witnesses in a rabbinical court. Before the late 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were virtually unanimous in the belief that scripture forbade women to become rabbis.

The New Testament also includes texts that emphasize women’s subordination to men. Based on the account in Genesis 2, many Christians have argued that Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden brought sin and suffering into the world. According to this interpretation, God ordained women to submit to the authority of their fathers and husbands because of Eve’s disobedience. Christians have also been influenced by several texts from the Apostle Paul, including First Corinthians 14:34–35, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak,” and First Timothy 2:12, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Throughout American history, many Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) have used these texts to argue that women cannot be ordained as priests or ministers. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which extended suffrage to women, Christians also used the Bible to argue that women should not be allowed to vote or to hold positions of political authority.

The Qur’an’s representation of women is similar to what is found in the Bible. Women are presented as subordinate to men in terms of their legal and economic status, and several hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) suggest that women must be sexually modest and should not pray side by side with men. According to one hadith, “A woman may not lead a man in prayer.”

Unlike Christianity and Islam, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism have a single, authoritative religious text, but they, too, are based on traditions of gender hierarchy. According to some of the Hindu Upanishads, woman’s greatest religious duty is to serve her husband. In Buddhism, several sutras in the Theravada and Mahayana canons suggest that women cannot attain Buddhahood, the highest degree of spiritual enlightenment.

From the 17th century until the present, these scriptural traditions have been used to limit women’s authority. Among other things, scripture has been used to argue that women should not be educated, that they should not be allowed to own their own property, that they should not be permitted to show their faces in public, and that they should not be allowed to speak publicly. In colonial America, Christians argued that women’s weakness made them particularly susceptible to witchcraft. Tainted by Eve’s sin, they were supposedly easy prey for the devil. Although a small number of accused witches were men, the vast majority were women. Apart from the two major witchcraft scares that took place in Hartford in 1662–1663 and Salem in 1691, women numbered 83 percent of those accused and 94 percent of those convicted. During the outbreaks at Hartford and Salem, seventeen of the twenty-three people executed for witchcraft were women.1

Figure 1. Cotton Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Trials of Several Witches, Lately Executed in New England, 1693.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-75554.

Yet all religious texts can be read in multiple ways, and women have often used scripture to defend their dignity and humanity. When reading the Bible, for example, Jewish and Christian women have been inspired by the stories of women like Esther, who saved the Israelites from destruction, and Deborah, a prophetess. In The Promise of the Father (1859), a comprehensive and influential defense of female preaching, Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), a founder of the Holiness movement, reminded the American public that Miriam, Huldah, Anna, and Mary of Magdala had all been public evangelists.

Similarly, 20th- and 21st-century Muslim feminists have taken a historical-critical approach to the Qur’an, and they have argued that it does not require women to be subordinate to men. Not only did the Prophet Muhammad appoint a woman, Umm Waraqah, as imam over her household, but his wife A’isha was responsible for the transmission of more than 2,000 hadiths.2

Many historians have argued over whether religion should be understood as either liberating or oppressive for women, but these terms are too dichotomous. Though women have been constrained by scripture, they have also been empowered by it. When women have invoked scriptural texts to defend their rights or to criticize discrimination and abuse, they have grounded their arguments in the highest authority possible: the authority of God.

The Female Majority

The multivalent quality of scripture may help to explain why women have been such strong supporters of their various religious traditions. Though records are fragmentary, women seem to have made up the majority of most religious groups in America since the 17th century. Writing in 1692, the Reverend Cotton Mather claimed that there were “far more godly women in the world than men.”3 In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, women made up the majority of new members admitted to the First Church between the 1680s and the 1980s.4

A central reason for early American women’s dominance in the pews may have been their experiences in childbirth. At a time when maternal mortality was much higher than it is in the modern world, women confronted the possibility of death every time they gave birth.

Colonial women may have also prized church membership because it was the only avenue of authority open to them. Although 17th-century Anglicans allowed anyone to join the church, Congregationalists restricted full church membership to “visible saints” who claimed to have experienced conversion. Church membership was not only a sign of religious sincerity, but also a mark of public distinction.

Women continued to outnumber men as the members of most religious groups in the 19th century, when religion was increasingly imagined in feminine terms. Although older ideas about female sinfulness never entirely disappeared, women were increasingly praised for their qualities of piety, goodness, and compassion. The common wisdom was that women were inherently more religious than men.

How did this happen? First, the creation of the new republic had a profound effect on women’s religious and political authority. In the wake of the American Revolution, women were elevated as “republican mothers” with an important political role. According to both ministers and politicians, the new nation would not survive unless patriotic, intelligent women devoted themselves to raising virtuous citizens. Female reformers like Emma Willard (1787–1870) and Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) founded female academies and seminaries to educate women, and ministers argued that women were crucial guardians of religious and political virtue.

Second, economic changes heightened the association of women with morality. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism increasingly took men away from family farms and crafts into a separate world of work. As men were encouraged to pursue their own individual interests in the marketplace and to cultivate an ethic of competition and self-reliance, women devoted themselves to preserving the traditional religious virtues of humility, charity, self-sacrifice, and nurture. In an industrializing economy, women were expected to soothe the ills of the modern world by standing apart from it.

Women helped create this “cult of domesticity,” as historians have called it, because it enhanced their authority within their families. Before the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a consumer economy, women played a central economic role in the household: for example, spinning wool, churning butter, and sewing clothing. But as the factory rather than the home became the center of production in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women placed a new emphasis on their role as nurturers. Instead of earning wages like men, women would provide a haven from the cold and impersonal world of the factory or the office.

Only white, middle-class women were imagined as “naturally” virtuous, while black, Native American, and lower-class white women were viewed as morally suspect. Black women in particular were denigrated as naturally licentious, a stereotype that helped to legitimate their sexual exploitation as slaves. Yet African-American women fought back against these stereotypes. In Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (1831), Maria Stewart (1803–1880), a free black abolitionist and woman’s rights activist, exhorted African-American women to nurture virtue within their families. “O woman, woman,” she wrote, “would thou only strive to excel in merit and virtue, would thou only store thy mind with useful knowledge, great would be thine influence.”5 In the decades after the Civil War, black women in the Baptist Church echoed this language by urging one another to strive for respectability.6 Committed to racial uplift, they created schools and settlement houses to help African-American women fit into white, middle-class culture.

Women’s association with religion only grew stronger in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1911–1912, the Men and Religion Forward Movement responded to what they perceived as the “feminization” of Christianity by encouraging men to become more actively involved in churches. In his book The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Bruce Barton, an advertising executive, portrayed Jesus as a “manly man” who had built one of the most successful businesses in history. In 1990, Billy McCartney, the head football coach at the University of Colorado, founded Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s group, in order to give men a place to cultivate a distinctively masculine form of Christianity. Yet despite these efforts, American women have remained more committed to religion than men. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of women say that religion is “very important” to them, compared to 47 percent of men.

Not all religious groups in the United States are dominated by women. Men make up 65 percent of Muslims and 62 percent of Hindus in America. Yet sociologists have found that when world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam are transplanted to the United States, immigrant women often become more active in their religious communities. In the United States, women are expected to be religious.

Religious Practice and Everyday Life

Religion has structured virtually every aspect of women’s lives in America, from their understanding of suffering to their views of marriage, motherhood, the body, and sexuality. For many women, religion has been an orienting force, a map or compass that has helped them to understand their place in the world.

As women have tried to worship in accordance with their understanding of God (or the gods), they have organized their lives around devotional practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, and religious reading. Despite denominational differences, all religious women have been linked together by their willingness to discipline their time around the demands of their traditions. In the 18th century, for example, Sarah Osborn (1714–1796), a schoolteacher in Newport, Rhode Island, rose early every day to pray, to read the bible, and to write about her spiritual life, composing both a memoir and over fifty volumes of diaries.7

Figure 2. A page from Sarah Osborn’s memoir describing her second marriage and her hope that her children—her three stepchildren and her own son—would be born again.

Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774–1821), the first American to be declared a Catholic saint, was born sixty years later and belonged to a different religious tradition, but she, too, ordered her life around her faith, attending Mass regularly and taking Communion. When significant numbers of Muslim women emigrated to the United States in the wake of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, they added to the diversity of American religious practices by praying five times a day.

Women’s religious beliefs have shaped the most intimate parts of their lives, including their attitudes toward the body and sexuality. Influenced by scripture, early American Christians and Jews portrayed women’s bodies as inferior and impure, and they placed strict controls on women’s sexuality. Although both men and women in colonial America were expected to remain celibate before marriage, in practice women bore the brunt of punishment for sexual sins.8

Concerns about women’s religious purity in early America were closely tied to menstruation and childbirth. Among the Cherokees, women withdrew into a special building during their menstrual periods and were not allowed to touch men or prepare food for them. Similarly, Jewish women were expected to abstain from sex during menstruation (niddah), and to take a ritual bath after its end (mikvah). (This custom continues today among Orthodox as well as many Conservative Jews.) In Catholic and Anglican churches until the first half of the 20th century, women were required to give thanks in a ceremony after childbirth (known as “the churching of women”) before returning to the congregation. For women, the ritual was experienced not only as a moment of thanksgiving, but also as purification.

Until recently, virtually all religious denominations in America emphasized the importance of marriage and motherhood, and they demanded that women be heterosexual. In the 19th century, for example, Catholics and Protestants argued over whether the Virgin Mary had been born without sin (a doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception), but they agreed that she was a model of the ideal woman: selfless, maternal, and utterly devoted to her husband and her son.9 Although there were certainly women before the mid-20th century who were attracted to other women or who felt as if they had been born as the wrong gender, they rarely expressed their feelings publicly. For lesbian and transgender Mormons, whose tradition teaches that the highest degree of heaven is reserved for husbands and wives who have been sealed for time and eternity in celestial marriages, the emphasis on heterosexual norms has been particularly painful. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (1995), the Mormon hierarchy explained, “THE FAMILY is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.”

Religion has been so deeply integrated into women’s lives that it has shaped even their decisions about how to dress. Until the late 19th century, Christian, Muslim and Jewish women wore long skirts as an expression of their sexual modesty, and even after fashions changed, some denominations continued to enforce strict codes of women’s hair and clothing. In 1942, John Rice, a Fundamentalist minister, published Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, which insisted that Christian women should wear their hair long as a sign of their submission to their fathers, husbands, and God.

Traditionally, Catholic sisters have covered their heads with veils, and until Vatican II (1962–1965), which changed the rules for worship at Mass, lay Catholic women were also required to cover their heads in church as a sign of their humility and submission to God. Today Orthodox Jewish women continue to cover their hair by wearing a scarf, hat, or wig, and many Muslim women choose to wear hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest, or a burqa, which covers the entire body except for the eyes.

Religion has not only shaped women’s actions, but also their sense of selfhood. Phillis Wheatley, a slave in 18th-century Boston, lived at a time when most Americans assumed that slave women were ignorant, but drawing on the resources of the Christian tradition, she strongly defended her humanity. Kidnapped from Africa when she was seven or eight years old, Phillis became the property of the Wheatley family, who quickly recognized her sharp intelligence. In 1773 she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first African-American woman to become a published poet.10 Since no American publisher would distribute her works, the book was printed in London, and it included a testimonial from eighteen of Boston’s leading male citizens swearing that she had actually written the poems herself. Aware of the controversies swirling around her, Wheatley took pains to emphasize her piety, respectability, and education. In a portrait that appeared on the title page of her volume, she is presented in modest dress with her head covered, a pen in her hand and a book at her elbow, perhaps a New Testament. She gazes slightly upward as if waiting for inspiration from God.

Figure 3. Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley and title page of Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, 1773.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56850.

Like Wheatley, whose Christian beliefs helped her to make sense of her suffering, many other women in different historical periods have turned to their faith in times of trouble. In the 19th century, for example, Methodist women explained the existence of suffering by emphasizing the reality of free will, while Calvinist women insisted that everything, even affliction, had been ordered by God. Abigail Abbott Bailey (1746–1815), a Congregationalist in New Hampshire, feared that God wanted her to submit to the abuse of her violent, manipulative husband, but inspired by Scripture, she eventually found the courage to leave him.11 In the 20th century, Catholic women poured out their troubles to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, when facing challenges like childbirth, mental illness, or the death of loved ones. Hoping that Saint Jude would intercede with God on their behalf, they sought solace in God’s mercy.12

Religious Reform

Women have not only found structure and personal meaning in their religious traditions, but also the inspiration to create social change. Ever since the early 19th century, large numbers of American women have brought their faith into the public sphere in the hopes of building America into a more religious and moral nation.

The turning point for women’s religious activism came in the wake of the American Revolution. At the same time as women were praised as republican mothers, the separation of church and state changed the place of religion in public life. After 1791, when the Bill of Rights declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” states gradually stopped collecting taxes to support Protestant churches. In 1833, when Massachusetts became the last state to repeal religious taxes, churches became simply one more kind of voluntary association competing for members. One of the unintended consequences of disestablishment was that it removed some of the barriers to women’s activism and leadership. As churches lost their formal connection to the state, they no longer seemed as much like public institutions that should be governed by men alone.

Convinced of their importance as the guardians of religious and political virtue, 19th-century women became involved in public movements for reform. Countless numbers of women in the 19th century—white and black, northern and southern, Protestant, Catholic, Latter-day Saint, and Jewish—organized home mission societies, distributed religious tracts, and founded charities. Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869) founded the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819, and Margaret Prior (1773–1842), a devout Methodist and a member of the Female Moral Reform Society in New York City, visited brothels to encourage women to convert.

Other Protestant women founded Sunday schools, handed out Bibles and temperance tracts, and raised money for widows and orphans. Determined to help the thousands of poor Catholic immigrants who flooded American cities in the 19th century, Catholic sisters built schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, created the Female Relief Society in 1842 for “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes.” All adult Mormon women were members. (The Relief Society continues to exist today.)

Figure 4. “Representative Women of Deseret,” circa 1883. Augusta Joyce Crocheron created this poster to counter negative stereotypes of Mormon women. A year later, she published a book with the same name that celebrated Mormon women’s accomplishments.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-89018.

Many Protestant women in the North, both white and black, were actively involved in the antislavery movement. According to Frederick Douglass, “When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.” Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) and her sister Angelina (1805–1879), the daughters of a South Carolina planter, gained notoriety when they moved to Philadelphia and began speaking and writing against slavery. Angelina’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) and Sarah’s Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836) condemned slavery as sinful and anti-Christian. Pleading with Southern women to speak out against slavery, Angelina discussed the biblical heroines who had fought against oppression, including Miriam, Deborah, and Esther.

Figure 5. Sarah Moore Grimké.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1608.

Figure 6. Angelina Emily Grimké.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1609.

No book was more popular before the Civil War than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which portrayed a suffering slave, Tom, as a Christ figure. Stowe (1811–1896) insisted that the spirit of Christianity was opposed to slavery, even if particular biblical texts seemed to sanction it.

At the beginning of the war, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), an escaped slave from Virginia, published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), a harrowing account of her treatment at the hands of a cruel and immoral master. Her book skewered her master’s hypocrisy in claiming to be a Christian while subjecting his slaves to sexual and physical abuse.

Figure 7. Harriet Beecher Stowe, c. 1880.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-11212.

After the Civil War, women continued to channel their religious energies into reform work. Hoping to gain acceptance in white society, black Baptist women developed a “politics of respectability” that emphasized morality, sexual modesty, and hard work. Committed to racial uplift, they created schools and settlement houses to help freedpeople gain access to education and decent-paying jobs. In 1909, Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC, to provide black women with vocational training.

Figure 8. Nannie Helen Burroughs, between 1900 and 1920.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-79903.

At the same time, Catholic sisters continued to help Catholic immigrants adjust to their new lives in the United States. In 1869 in New York City, the Sisters of Charity established the Foundling Hospital, an institution that cared for thousands of poor Catholic children. Some of these children were permanent wards of the state, but others lived at the asylum only temporarily while their parents struggled to find stable employment.13 In 1914, Jewish women founded Hadassah, a Zionist organization that engaged in charitable work in both Palestine and the United States.

Although much of women’s religious activism was admirable, some of it was motivated by condescension and racism. The same white Protestant women who crusaded for women’s rights also criticized African-Americans and immigrants, especially Catholics, as unfit to vote. Some women joined the Ku Klux Klan, determined to protect the privileges of white womanhood against movements for racial equality.

Figure 9. Triangle Studio. First public appearance of women of the K.K.K. on Long Island, c. 1924.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-36658.

Even women who tried to protect Native American rights treated Native American women as inferior, trying to “civilize” them in boarding schools. The Woman’s National Indian Association, founded in 1879, encouraged Native American women to imitate white, middle-class norms of women’s domesticity.

Figure 10. Harris & Ewing. Native American women, 1924. Native American women were pressured to give up their traditional dress and traditional religions in order to assimilate into American culture.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-hec-32247.

The most influential women’s religious organization in late 19th-century America was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Devoted to “home protection,” the WCTU argued that alcohol was responsible for many social ills, including domestic violence. Frances Willard (1839–1898), the second president of the WCTU, was a Methodist who strongly defended women’s rights, and she adopted a “do everything” policy to improve women’s lives. In addition to advocating prohibition, women’s ordination, dress reform, and married women’s property laws, she argued that women should be able to vote.

Figure 11. Bain News Service. Frances Willard, portrait bust.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-02864.

While a few leaders of the suffrage movement were indifferent or hostile to religion, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose Woman’s Bible sharply criticized the Bible as patriarchal and oppressive, Willard helped to make suffrage a religious issue by linking it to the protection of women in the home. The WCTU, with chapters in every state, was crucial to the passage of both the Eighteenth Amendment (outlawing the sale of alcohol) in 1919 and the Nineteenth Amendment (granting women suffrage) in 1920.

Women’s religious activism continued in the long civil rights movement stretching from the 1930s until the 1960s. Many African-American women were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including its first executive secretary, Ella Baker (1903–1986). Following in the footsteps of her mother, who had been active in the women’s missionary movement of the black Baptist church, Baker insisted that the Christian faith did not support segregation, and she quoted Scripture to defend black equality.14Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), a Baptist and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also believed that her faith called her to work for social justice. She spent much of her life sharecropping in Mississippi, but when she learned about the civil rights movement, she embraced it as a religious cause. Despite being badly beaten by white police officers after trying to register to vote in 1963, she refused to stop protesting. A gifted singer, she often led demonstrators in spirituals like “I’m on My Way” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” “When I was a seeker,” she sang, “I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And he showed me the way.”15

Figure 12. Warren K. Leffler. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267.

Many religious women also became leaders of the women’s rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The National Organization of Women (NOW), which was founded in 1966, brought together women from many different religious traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and Judaism. Its founding board included Pauli Murray (1910–1985), the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest; Anna Arnold Hageman, a member of the National Council of Churches; and Sisters Joel Read and Austin Doherty, Roman Catholic religious.16 Because many women of color felt as if the feminist movement privileged the concerns of white women, they eventually formed their own groups, many of them religious in nature. While black religious women identified themselves as “womanists,” a term they borrowed from Alice Walker, Latina women pursued their goals through Las Hermanas, the national organization of Latina nuns. Native American women coupled their demands for women’s equality with arguments for Native American sovereignty. In 1993 Muslim feminists founded Karamah, an organization that uses Islamic law to promote women’s rights.17

Religious feminists encountered opposition from other religious women during the 1970s as the women’s movement became increasingly identified with reproductive rights. Catholics were the first to protest against the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which legalized abortion, but they were soon joined by large numbers of evangelical Protestants and Mormons. Resolving to fight against both abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly (1924–2016), a Catholic, founded the STOP ERA movement in 1972, and Beverly LaHaye (1929–), an evangelical Protestant, founded Concerned Women for America in 1979. Both women also opposed same-sex marriage.

Figure 13. Warren K. Leffler. Activist Phyllis Schlafly wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, DC, 1977.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ds-00757.

Ministry and Leadership

Arguments over women’s rights in America have often revolved around women’s religious status. Despite affirming the spiritual equality of women, major world religions like Christianity and Islam have debated over whether women should be given the same rights and opportunities as men, especially the power to serve as religious leaders. The history of women’s leadership in America is a history of both transformation and resistance.

Though Catholics in early America restricted the priesthood to men alone, they encouraged women to devote their lives to the Church as sisters. Catholic sisters took vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, and they promised to serve God through prayer and works of mercy. Although most of the settlers who founded the original thirteen colonies were Protestant, Catholics lived in Maryland and in the French and Spanish territories that would later become part of the United States, and Catholic sisters were crucial to spreading the faith. In 1727, a missionary community of Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans to evangelize Native Americans, and soon they also began preaching to enslaved women. As Marie Madeleine Hachard, a novitiate from France, wrote in a letter to her father in 1728, “I cannot tell you the joy I will have to pronounce my vows in a foreign land where Christianity is almost unknown.”18 The Ursulines helped to create a thriving community of Afro-Catholics in New Orleans.

The largest and most powerful Protestant denominations in the original thirteen colonies—the Congregationalists in New England, the Anglicans in the South, and the Dutch Reformed and Presbyterians in the Middle Colonies—forbade women to become ministers or priests. Women were expected to fulfill their Christian duty by being good wives, neighbors, and mothers, not religious leaders. When Anne Hutchinson (1591–1643), a merchant’s wife in Massachusetts Bay, held large religious meetings at her house in which she criticized her ministers, she was condemned as an “American Jezebel” and forced to leave the colony.

The only Protestants who allowed women to preach in early America were the Religious Society of Friends, more popularly known as the Quakers. Because of their belief that every person has an inner light that allows them to communicate directly with God, they abolished an ordained ministry. All believers, whether male or female, could speak publicly as “witnesses” to the divine light within them. Between 1600 and 1800, hundreds of Quaker women traveled in both America and abroad as “Public Friends” whose mission was to spread the faith. Preachers such as Jane Fenn Hoskins (1694–1764), Sophia Hume (1702–1774), and Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713–1755) became renowned for their eloquence.

Female evangelism began to spread outside Quaker circles during the religious revivals that took place during the 1740s and 1750s in New England and the Middle Colonies, and from the 1750s until the 1770s in the South. The Baptist and Strict Congregationalist churches (also known as the “Separates”) represented the most radical wing of the revivals, and they allowed women as well as lay men to “exhort.” Unlike ordained clergy, exhorters did not have any formal institutional authority, and rather than delivering formal sermons explaining biblical texts, they testified about their personal religious experiences. Nevertheless, some women exhorters were so charismatic that they became influential religious leaders. Sarah Wright Townsend (1719–1780), a Long Island schoolteacher, exhorted in her Separate church on Sundays for more than fifteen years. In Virginia in 1770, Margaret Meuse Clay and eleven other Baptists, all men, were sentenced to a public whipping for unlicensed preaching. She was spared only when an unnamed man paid her fine. Although the evidence is fragmentary, slave women may have also served as evangelists on their plantations. Later generations of slaves passed down stories of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers exhorting in the slave quarters.19

In a culture that denigrated women as inferior to men, women tended to justify their religious authority on the grounds that they had transcended their gender. Like Anne Hutchinson, who claimed to have received a direct revelation from God, many women exhorters claimed to have been divinely inspired. They did not speak as women, but as the instruments of God.

In an extreme example of this trend, Jemima Wilkinson (1752–1819), who founded a community of more than two hundred converts in western New York, justified her leadership on the grounds that she was neither male nor female. After an illness in 1776, she awoke and declared that “Jemima Wilkinson” had died and gone to heaven, but her body remained on earth as the “tabernacle” for a perfect, genderless spirit. She was no longer a woman, but the “Public Universal Friend,” a being without gender. For the rest of her life, Wilkinson refused to be addressed as “she.”

Ann Lee (1736–1784), the founder of the Shakers, never denied that she was a woman, but she, too, based her religious authority on her transcendence of the female body. Although she encouraged her followers to call her “Mother Ann,” she valued spiritual more than biological motherhood. Criticizing the body as corrupt and lustful, she embraced a strict code of celibacy.

Protestant women’s opportunities for religious leadership expanded after the Revolution. As states began to disestablish the colonial churches, new and radical sectarian groups—including the Methodists, the African Methodists, the Christian Connection, and the Freewill Baptists—began to compete for converts. These groups were visionary, anti-intellectual, and relatively egalitarian, and in the first decades of their existence they allowed unlettered white men, enslaved men, and even women to become religious leaders. By allowing women to preach, they symbolized their dissent from the religious mainstream: the sight of a woman in the pulpit was proof of their countercultural identity. More than one hundred evangelical women served as itinerant preachers between 1790 and 1845, including Jarena Lee (1783–?), an African Methodist from Philadelphia who courageously risked her freedom by traveling to Maryland, a slave state, to share the gospel with the enslaved. Harriet Livermore (1788–1868), the daughter of a Massachusetts congressman, preached in front of Congress four times, in 1827, 1832, 1838, and 1843, each time to large crowds.

These remarkable women were eventually forgotten as their denominations became larger and more respectable, but future generations of American women continued to demand the right to preach. After the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Protestant women began to demand radical changes in the power structure of the churches. Hundreds of female “spirit mediums” spoke publicly in the Spiritualist movement, which began in 1848 when the Fox sisters claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825–1921) was ordained by her local Congregational Church in South Butler, New York, in 1853, and ten years later, Olympia Brown (1835–1926), a Universalist, became the first woman to be ordained by full denominational authority. Although the Methodists did not grant women the full authority of ordination until 1956, they gave local preaching licenses to several women, including Maggie Newton Van Cott (1830–1914), who was licensed to preach in New York in 1869.

As waves of Catholic immigrants arrived from Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland during the 19th century, Catholic sisters played a crucial role in building an American Catholic Church, especially because they vastly outnumbered priests. Although sisters could not administer the sacraments, they built hundreds of Catholic schools, hospitals, and orphanages. The Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first black religious order in America, taught free black children to read. According to nativists, Catholic sisters were a danger to the republic because of their loyalty to Rome, and in bestselling books like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836), sisters were portrayed as the victims of aggressive, sexually voracious priests. (This book was later determined to be a fabrication.) In reality, however, Catholic sisters were among the best-educated women in America, and they willingly chose the convent over marriage and motherhood. By 1920, 90,000 women belonged to Catholic religious orders.20

Two 19th-century women founded new religious movements that continue to endure today. Ellen Harmon Gould White (1827–1915), hailed by her followers as a prophet, emerged as the leader of the Seventh-day Adventists during the 1840s, and along with several men she founded the first Seventh-day Adventist church in 1863. Mary Baker Eddy, another prophetic woman, established the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879. Both religious movements gained followers around the globe. In 2013, according to the Seventh-day Adventists, they numbered more than 18 million members.

Figure 14. Mary Baker Eddy, 1916.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-215.

During the 20th century, both Protestants and Jews expanded women’s opportunities for religious leadership. In 1956 the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., two of the largest Protestant denominations in the country, gave women the full rights of ordination. Since relatively few women in the 1940s and 1950s were enrolled in seminaries, the Methodists and Presbyterians seem to have endorsed women’s ordination as a symbolic gesture—a demonstration of their progressive attitude toward American culture. Inspired by the feminist movement, however, large numbers of women during the 1960s and 1970s began to pursue careers in ministry. The Lutheran Church in America ordained its first woman minister in 1970, and the Episcopal Church accepted women priests in 1976. After decades of debate and controversy, Reform Jews ordained Sally Preisand (1946–) as the first woman rabbi in 1972, and Conservative Jews ordained Amy Eilberg (1955–) in 1985. Hindus do not practice ordination, but many American Hindu women gained renown as gurus. By 2010, 12 percent of all Christian clergy in the United States were women.

Not all religious groups in the United States supported women’s ministry. Even though many conservative Protestant churches (including Holiness and Fundamentalist churches) allowed women into the pulpit in the early 20th century, they regretted their support of women’s ministry after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As women’s preaching was increasingly linked to women’s rights, conservative Protestants asserted men’s authority in the home and the church. Even the Seventh-day Adventist Church, founded by Ellen White, began to push women out of leadership positions after her death in 1915. Similarly, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Holiness churches denounced women’s ministry as unscriptural.

In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution insisting that “women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church.” (They were quoting Corinthians 14:33–36.) Women’s religious leadership no longer seemed countercultural, but like a capitulation to liberal social norms. In 2000, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published an editorial in the New York Times explaining that Southern Baptists restricted formal ministry to men in order to resist “modern” values: “In essence, Southern Baptists are engaged in a battle against modernity, earnestly contending for the truth and authority of an ancient faith.”

In response to the women’s suffrage and feminist movements in the 20th century, Catholics also affirmed their resistance to women’s religious leadership. Even though the Catholic Church continued to encourage women to become sisters, they insisted that women could not become priests. According to the 1987 Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry…. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” The Catholic Church has also argued that women are disqualified from the priesthood because of biological difference; only a man can physically represent Jesus in the Mass. In 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, pronouncing that there should be no further debate about women’s ordination: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In May of 2016, however, Pope Francis announced that he would create a commission to consider the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, which could signal a new openness to the question of women’s ordination.

Orthodox Jews and Muslims have also refused to allow women to serve in positions of formal religious leadership. In 2009, after Rabbi Avi Weiss, head of an Orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, took the radical step of ordaining Sara Hurwitz (1977–) as a “rabba,” other Orthodox Jews responded with outrage. Agudath Israel of America described Hurwitz’s ordination as “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition” and protested that “any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” According to Rabbi Herschel Schacter (1917–2013), a respected Yeshiva University professor, women’s ordination is such a fundamental violation of Jewish law that it is yehareg ve’al ya’avor: in other words, Jews should choose death rather than permit it. Similarly, many Muslims were angered in 2005 when Amina Wadud (1952–), a Muslim and an American scholar of Islam, led Friday prayer and delivered the khutbah (sermon) to a mixed audience of men and women in New York City. Yet even though Wadud has received death threats, she has continued to lead mixed gatherings for prayer.

The battles over women’s religious leadership in the 20th and 21st centuries have not only involved conflicting interpretations of scripture, but conflicting attitudes toward the modern world. Gone are the days when female preaching stood as a symbol of protest against the religious mainstream. Today, in contrast, religious conservatives condemn women’s religious leadership as an acquiescence to modern, secular values.

Discussion of the Literature

Before the emergence of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, relatively few scholars focused on women’s history, and even fewer wrote about women and religion. Since the 1970s, however, thousands of books and articles have been written about women’s religious leadership, women’s religious organizations, and lay women’s religious experiences.21

Historians writing about women and American religion have been deeply influenced by the larger field of American religious history. During the 1960s and 1970s, when American religious historians argued that white Protestants had played a particularly powerful role in shaping the nation, women’s historians were particularly interested in recovering the stories of crusading Protestant reformers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Beecher, and Frances Willard.22

During the 1980s and 1990s, however, as the field of American religious history expanded beyond a focus on white Protestants, women’s historians began to recover the stories of African-American, Native American, Asian American and Latina women, and they also published important works on women in American Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Spiritualism, Shakerism, and New Thought.23 Influenced by the rise of cultural history, women’s historians also became increasingly interested in the experiences of lay women, especially because women seem to have dominated the membership lists of most religious groups from the 17th century to the present.24

Beginning during the late 1990s, women’s historians turned their attention to women in global religions in the United States beyond Christianity and Judaism. Yet despite a growing interest in immigrant faiths during the 2000s, relatively few historians have explored the lives of American women who practice Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.25

Scholars have asked several questions about the history of women and religion in colonial North America and the United States. How have women defended their call to religious leadership?26 How have they interpreted scripture?27 How and why have women’s religious beliefs inspired them to become involved in movements for social reform like abolitionism and temperance?28 How have women’s religious convictions shaped their attitudes toward politics, especially women’s suffrage and the feminist movement?29 How have women’s personal lives, including their attitudes toward the body and sexuality, been shaped by their religious traditions?30

Some of the liveliest debates have focused on whether religion has empowered or disempowered women. Because the field of women’s history emerged in dialogue with the women’s rights movement, historians writing during the 1960s and 1970s tended to be particularly interested in recovering the stories of religious feminists. During the 1980s, however, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of conservative women’s groups like Concerned Women for America, historians began to ask new questions about politically conservative religious women. Why did some women choose to belong to reactionary religious groups like the Fundamentalists, and how did their religious beliefs shape their political commitments?31

In recent years, most historians of women and religion have tried to move beyond simplistic questions about whether religion has been liberating or oppressive for women—questions that always yield the answer, “both.” Instead, historians have tried to explore women’s religious beliefs and practices in all their complexity.

The rise of gender studies during the 1980s has had a significant impact on the study of women and religion in America. Although many historians continue to focus on women, they have become increasingly interested in the way that religious experience is gendered.32

Primary Sources

Historians have published several collections of documents about women and religion in colonial North America and the United States. Anthologies include Keller and Ruether, In Our Own Voices, and Keller and Ruether, Women and Religion in America, three volumes.33 For collections of documents about women’s religious leadership, see Andrews, Sisters of the Spirit; Pope-Levison, Turn the Pulpit Loose; and Houchins, Spiritual Narratives.34

Many historians have focused on collecting the documents of women in particular faith traditions. On Catholic women, see Kane, Kenneally, and Kennelly, Gender Identities in American Catholicism, and Clark, Voices from an Early American Convent.35 On Mormon women, see Brooks, Steenblik, and Wheelwright, Mormon Feminism; Derr and Davidson, Eliza R. Snow; Derr, Madsen, Holbrook, and Grow, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society; and Bradford, Mormon Women Speak.36 On Jewish women, see Marcus, The American Jewish Woman, and Umansky and Ashton, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality.37 On Muslim women, see Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, ed., Living Islam Out Loud, and on Muslim and Hindu women, see Narayan and Purkayastha, Living Our Religions.38 On Buddhist women, see Tsomo, Buddhism through American Women’s Eyes.39 On the Shakers, see Humez, Mother’s First-Born Daughters.40

There are only a few archives that specialize in the history of women and religion in colonial North America and the United States. The Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston has collected Eddy’s writings in order to recover the founding of Christian Science. A group of researchers at Claremont Graduate University has been collecting Mormon women’s stories as part of the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project. These narratives are available at the Honnold/Mudd Library at Claremont Graduate University, California. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious of the United States Records are available at the University of Notre Dame Archives in Notre Dame, Indiana. The records of the Center for Women and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union are available at the Graduate Theological Union Library, California.

Other archival materials on women and American religion can be found at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, and the Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. Many other rare book libraries include sources about early American women and religion, including the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Links to Digital Materials

African-American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century is a digital collection sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. It includes writings by religious women.

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography includes articles about Unitarian and Universalist women.

Divining America: Religion in American History is an online resource containing essays and primary documents about American religious history. Some of the documents focus on women.

Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, includes many documents written by religious women.

Ellen G. White Writings, James White Library, includes the full texts of all of White’s writings.

Encyclopedia of the Jewish Women’s Archive includes biographies and other articles about Jewish women in America.

The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World,” Pew Research Center, provides a statistical analysis of women’s membership in religious groups in the United States and globally.

The Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston includes Eddy’s writings.

Pacifica Radio Archives includes radio recordings on “Women and Religion.”

The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, includes information about women who practice a variety of religious traditions in the United States.

Portraits of American Women in Religion, the Library Company of Philadelphia, includes sketches of religious women whose stories appeared in print before 1861.

Reforming their World: Women in the Progressive Era,” is an online exhibit organized by the National Women’s History Museum.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress, includes documents about early American women and religion.

Sacred Texts: Women and Religion includes many primary sources written by American women.

The Woman’s Exponent, a Mormon women’s publication, is available online (1872–1911) through the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.

Women and Religion, an online resource from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, includes links to articles about women and religious leadership in the United States.

Women and Religion, an online exhibit by the Barnard Center for Research on Women.

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000 includes documents about religiously-based activism.

Further Reading

  • Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-century America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
  • Braude, Ann. Women and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Brekus, Catherine A.The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Butler, Anthea D. Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Clark, Emily. Masterless Mistresses: The New Orleans Ursulines and the Development of a New World Society, 1727–1834. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2007.
  • Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion. New York: Knopf, 2010.
  • Coburn, Carol K., and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836–1920. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Cott, Nancy. The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England, 1780–1835. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Cummings, Kathleen Sprows. New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • Goldman, Karla. Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Griffith, R. Marie. God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore. Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Hanks, Maxine, ed. Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1992.
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Hyman, Paula E., and Deborah Dash Moore, eds. Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. 2 vols. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Juster, Susan. Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  • Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Lindley, Susan Hill. You Have Stept Out of Your Place: A History of Women and Religion in America. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
  • Nadell, Pamela S.Women Who Would be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889–1985. Boston: Beacon, 1998.
  • Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Pesantubbee, Michelene E.Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
  • Ulrich, Laurel. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650–1750. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
  • Weisenfeld, Judith. African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Westerkamp, Marilyn J. Women and Religion in Early America, 1600–1850: The Puritan and Evangelical Traditions. New York: Routledge, 1999.


  • 1. Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (New York: Norton, 1987), 48–49.

  • 2. Amina Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • 3. Cotton Mather, Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion; or, The Character and Happiness of a Vertuous Woman (Boston: Samuel Green, 1741), 48.

  • 4. Harry S. Stout and Catherine Brekus, “A New England Congregation: Center Church, New Haven, 1638–1989,” in Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities, vol. 1, American Congregations eds. James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 41. See also Richard Shiels, “The Feminization of American Congregationalism, 1730–1835,” American Quarterly 33 (1981): 46–62.

  • 5. Maria W. Stewart, Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 31–32.

  • 6. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  • 7. Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

  • 8. Kelly A. Ryan, Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700–1830 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 9. Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

  • 10. Phyllis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773).

  • 11. Abigail Abbott Bailey, Religion and Domestic Violence in Early New England: The Memoirs of Abigail Abbott Bailey, ed. Ann Taves (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

  • 12. Robert A. Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

  • 13. Maureen Fitzgerald, Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York’s Welfare System, 1830–1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

  • 14. Rosetta E. Ross, Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 32–50.

  • 15. On Hamer, see Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 25.

  • 16. Ann Braude, “Religions and Modern Feminism,” in Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, eds. Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 1: 18.

  • 17. Ibid., 1: 17, 20.

  • 18. Letter of Marie Madeleine Hachard reprinted in Emily Clark, ed., Voices from an Early American Convent: Marie Madeleine Hachard and the New Orleans Ursulines, 1727–1760 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 82, 84.

  • 19. Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 59–60, 64–65.

  • 20. Carol K. Coburn and Martha Smith, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 2.

  • 21. Catherine A. Brekus, ed., The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

  • 22. Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973); Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986); and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, ed., Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855–96 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

  • 23. On Native American women, see Michelene E. Pesantubbee, Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Karen L. Anderson, Chain Her by One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France (New York: Routledge, 1993); Carol Devens, Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); and Allan Greer, Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). On African-American women, see Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent; Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996); and Judith Weisenfeld and Richard Newman, This Far by Faith: Readings in African-American Women’s Religious Biography (New York: Routledge, 1996). On Latina women, see Kristy Nabhan-Warren, The Virgin of El Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican American Activism (New York: New York University Press, 2005). On Jewish women, see Hasia R. Diner and Beryl Benderly, Her Works Praise Her: A History of Jewish Women in America from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic, 2002); Pamela Susan Nadell, American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2003); and E. Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore, Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 1998). On Mormon women, see Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson, Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Claudia L. Bushman, Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah, rev. ed. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997); and Jill M. Derr, Janath R. Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2000). On Catholic women, see Suellen M. Hoy, Good Hearts: Catholic Sisters in Chicago’s Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006); Julie Byrne, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); James Joseph Kenneally, The History of American Catholic Women (New York: Crossroad, 1990); Karen Kennelly, American Catholic Women: A Historical Exploration (New York: Macmillan, 1989); Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude. On Shakers, see Glendyne R. Wergland, Sisters in the Faith: Shaker Women and Equality of the Sexes (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011); and Jean M. Humez, “‘Ye Are My Epistles’: The Construction of Ann Lee Imagery in Early Shaker Sacred Literature,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 8.1 (1992): 83–104. On New Thought, see Beryl Satter, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

  • 24. Ann Braude, “Women’s History Is American Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Marla Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Anthea D. Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and Robert A. Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).

  • 25. On Hindu women, see Amanda J. Lucia, Reflections of Amma: Devotees in a Global Embrace (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Sheba George, “Caroling with the Keralites: The Negotiation of Gendered Space in an Indian Immigrant Church,” in Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, eds. R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998); Prema Kurien, “Gendered Ethnicity: Creating a Hindu Indian Identity in the United States,” The American Behavioral Scientist 42.4 (1999); Aparna Rayaprol, Negotiating Identities: Women in the Indian Diaspora (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Karen Pechilis, ed., The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). On Muslim women, see Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, and Kathleen M. Moore, Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); and Carolyn Moxley Rouse, Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). On Buddhist women, see Sandy Boucher, Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism (Boston: Beacon, 1993); and Sharon A. Suh, Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a Korean American Temple (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

  • 26. On women prophets, evangelists, sisters, and missionaries, see Dana Lee Robert, Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002); Elizabeth Elkin Grammer, Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Preachers in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Rebecca Larson, Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700–1775 (New York: Knopf, 1999); Susie Cunningham Stanley, Holy Boldness: Women Preachers’ Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002); Elizabeth Bouldin, Women Prophets and Radical Protestantism in the British Atlantic World, 1640–1730 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Leah Payne, Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Diane Batts Morrow, Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Paul B. Moyer, The Public Universal Friend: Jemima Wilkinson and Religious Enthusiasm in Revolutionary America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); Priscilla Pope-Levison, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon, 1989); Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); and Carla L. Peterson, Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830–1880) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

  • 27. Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton’s Bible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  • 28. Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Lori D. Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990); and Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).

  • 29. Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Woman’s Rights and Abolition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

  • 30. R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

  • 31. On conservative religious women, see Elizabeth Flowers, Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power Since World War II (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Leslie Dorrough Smith, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  • 32. Susan Juster and Lisa MacFarlane, eds., A Mighty Baptism: Race, Gender, and the Creation of American Protestantism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Janet Moore Lindman, Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Tanya Erzen, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

  • 33. Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000); and Rosemary Radford Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, Women and Religion in America, 3 vols. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981–1986).

  • 34. William L. Andrews, ed., Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Priscilla Pope-Levison, Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and Sue E. Houchins, ed., Spiritual Narratives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

  • 35. Paula Kane, James Kenneally, and Karen Kennelly, eds., Gender Identities in American Catholicism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001); Clark, Voices from an Early American Convent.

  • 36. Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Hannah Wheelwright, eds., Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Eliza R. Snow, Eliza R. Snow: The Complete Poetry, eds. Jill Mulvay Derr and Karen Lynn Davidson (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press / Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009); Jill Mulvay Derr, Carol Cornwall Madsen, Kate Holbrook, and Matthew J. Grow, eds., The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press 2016); and Mary Lythgoe Bradford, ed., Mormon Women Speak: A Collection of Essays (Salt Lake City: Olympus, 1982).

  • 37. . Jacob R. Marcus, ed., The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (New York: KTAV Publishing, 1981); and Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds., Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, rev. ed. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press/Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009).

  • 38. Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, ed., Living Islam Out Loud: American Muslim Women Speak (Boston: Beacon, 2005); and Anjana Narayan and Bandana Purkayastha, eds., Living Our Religions: Hindu and Muslim South Asian American Women Narrate Their Experiences (Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2009).

  • 39. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Buddhism through American Women’s Eyes (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2010).

  • 40. Jean M. Humez, ed., Mother’s First-Born Daughters: Early Shaker Writings on Women and Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).