The Westminster Handbook to Women in American Religious History offers clear, concise and detailed information of individuals, organizations and events whose contributions influenced the landscape of American Religion. The late Susan Hill Lindley and co-editor Eleanor J. Stebner teamed with an expansive group of contributing authors to create this affordable and accessible reference work. Its inclusion of notable work of women from an array of fields, give this book the depth and detail that make this a useful resource for the study of American religious history.
Lindley and Stebner largely succeeded in meeting the three aims of their editorial goals: (1) to emphasize lesser known women (2) to call attention to “the faithful” practitioners and leaders, and (3) to underline specific events and organizations.
Much of the focus is on lesser-known women that lived in the 18th and 19th Centuries. A special quality of this handbook is its inclusion of many widely unknown historical figures, whose contributions pioneered a “parallel church movement” of women’s work. Alongside the workings of male church leaders and social reformers (often their husbands), these women led efforts in their traditional spheres of influence such as ladies’ aid, missionary societies, children’s welfare and education. Some also broke beyond these spheres in their own right and emerged as social reformers, artists, and practitioners of church leadership. Entries such as Josephine Bateman (1829-1901) who advocated in 1888 for the “National Sunday Rest Bill” and Grace Lindley (1875-1955), a founder of theological education for women, are examples of the diverse achievements described in this handbook.
Another unique quality of this volume is that it not only emphasizes the women who labored in pioneering women’s leadership, but also includes women who lived to see the realization of their foremother’s dreams. This allows the reader to gain a sense of the step by step struggle for equality, as the handbook traces the various roles of religious women from the earliest equality movements to the realization of several “firsts” (included are first ordained minister, first doctor, and first to found and lead certain organizations, etc.). Among the pioneers included are several mainstream U.S. American figures (like Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1825-1921, the first woman ordained as a minister in the U.S.), but expands to include some women from a diversity of religious traditions and ethnic groups (as evidenced by its inclusion of Elizabeth Kwon (1922-1997), the first ordained Presbyterian Korean woman minister, and Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871), founder of a Shaker community for African Americans). In addition, this handbook references the arts through its inclusion of entries on hymn-writers, poets, and the works of art themselves. One example is the renowned sculpture “Crucified Woman,” created in 1976 by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey, which has inspired solidarity for the global movement of justice for women to live free of abuse.
A further impressive contribution to this volume is the inclusion of an assortment of organizations whose efforts were designed by or significantly led by women. The origins of several religious organizations of Catholic Sisters and many women’s groups, including the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism (1918), the Women-Church movement (1983), and the Women’s Ordination Conference (1975) are detailed.
A disappointing factor of this handbook is its disproportionate emphasis on the religious experience of the “dominant culture.” The majority of references come from the Christian tradition and from white, European descendent backgrounds. The lack of variety in religious tradition and worldview is certainly not representative of the vast diversity of the American religious experience. The women of color who are included, like Papago religious leader Maria Chona (1846-1936) and Cahuilla Medicine woman and anthropologist Ruby Eleanor Modesto (1913-80), while captivating, do not suffice to represent non-white American religious history. Another aspect of the book that is out of balance is the lack of contemporary women. Famous living women, such as Maya Angelou (1928-), Barbara Brown Zikmund (1939-) and Rosemary Radford Ruether (1936-) are present, but entries from the lesser known living women are few.
The volume includes a table of contents, but lacks an index and does not list entries by subject area or author. The handbook would be a valuable addition to a reference library or a pastor’s library. It is highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the impressive assortment of contributions women have made to American religious life.