Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Was religion feminised in the 19th century?

Young ladies at the Summer School attending High Mass
A good deal has been written on the feminisation of the Church, and of all Christian denominations, since the 1960s. In the Catholic case, there are a number of easily-identifiable markers which date to the liturgical reform and the following decades: the loss of silence, ritual, and reverence, the preoccupation with community, emotion, and spontaneity, and the filling up of Catholic sanctuaries with altar girls, female lectors, and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, while parish ministries such as looking after the 'children's liturgy' and catechism are run almost exclusively by women.

This is the picture we get from the American Jesuit sociologist Patrick Arnold, and English Dominican sociologist Anthony Archer, about both of whom I've written on this blog. The statistical evidence for the female domination of congregations and parish ministries come from the highly respectable CARA in the USA and the British Social Attitudes Survey in the UK. Leon Poddles, another author who has written on the problem, by contrast locates the key moment of feminisation with the rise of bridal mysticism in the high Middle Ages. I've also discussed this, and the extent to which he has a point. I've just finished reading a more recent expert treatment, The Death of Christian Britain by Callum Brown, which focuses on the evangelical British experience. (Hat-tip to the Evangelical blogger Alastair Roberts who recommended the book in a comment on this blog.) Brown is extremely interested in gender, and locates a key turn of religion into the feminine realm at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries: around 1800. His book is so helpful and interesting, even though I disagree with some important points in it, that I want to clarify my own thoughts by means of a few blog posts about it.

Brown is interested above all in 'discourse' as a source of data. So he looks at religious tracts, fiction, autobiography, obituaries, and oral history archives. He wants to understand how people saw themselves and each other. The main thesis of the book can be summarised in a few points.

First, before 1800, women were 'religiously problematic'. They needed to be criticised and controlled. It isn't hard to think what Brown has in mind. Going back to the 16th and 17th centuries, in Evangelical (Puritan) contexts, we see a great deal of concern about women, and a great emphasis on the importance of male leadership. Brown says disappointingly little about this period, because he starts his study at 1800, but we need to establish the contrast. Just think about witch-burnings. The alleged witches were women (with, I think, few exceptions); this is the monstrous tip of a very large iceberg of focus on female depravity, which carried on for a good while after the burnings stopped.

Second, after 1800, men were 'religiously problematic'. This may seem surprising, but the case Brown makes is overwhelming. The focus of religious tracts, obituaries, etc. etc. is not on female vices, but male ones, above all drinking and gambling. Female vices cease to be mentioned. Were there any, you ask? The elephant in the room was prostitution, which 19th century evangelical activists steadily ignored. The 19th century evangelical model was for a sinner to repent, with tears, and although such display of emotion might come more easily to women than men, a good evangelical man really had to go through this process, while for women it was not so necessary. The stories they told about men and women didn't include 'conversion' for women, because they didn't need it. On the other hand, men were by nature 'rough', inclined to promiscuity, drink, gambling, and a neglect of their religious duties. Particularly on Sundays, good men and boys had to behave like women: 'rough' and active sport and games were forbidden; reading and walking were allowed. Boys and girls were put into elaborate 'Sunday best' which the girls loved and the boys hated.

Third, for all the criticisms one might make of this religious ideal, the 19th century saw an awe-inspiring effort of evangelisation of Britain, and a steady rise in indicators of religious practice and affiliation. One of Brown's most striking theses is that this period, of urbanisation and industrialisation, was not a period of secularisation. One point he makes is that official statistics from the early and mid 19th century understate urban church-going by a big margin because the data-gatherers missed the more informal and ad hoc worship going on by evangelicals in new urban centres. The 18th century, for a number of reasons, was not a good century for British religion, but in the course of the 19th century the penetration of religion into the lives of the population went probably about as high as it was possible to go. The two world wars disrupted things, but in the 1950s a major religious revival took things back to a level not much lower than the peak at the beginning of the century: on some measures, higher.

Fourth, religious self-understanding changed somewhat in the early 20th century. The huge efforts of the temperance and anti-gambling movements collapsed, taking the heat out of the call to repentance. Instead of getting (or at least waiting for) their men to repent, women were now simply to create the ideal home environment ('the angel in the house'), as well as upholding religious practice. Church-going declined somewhat, partly because of the decline of 'twicing': going to church twice on a Sunday (morning and evening). On the other hand, affiliation continued to rise, as indicated by the steady rise in the number of religious solemnisation of marriages (peaking at well over 90% of all marriages in Scotland), baptisms, confirmations, and so on. It was necessary for respectability, particularly female respectability, to be a believer, even if church attendance was irregular, and denominational allegiance flexible. People sent their children to Sunday School even if they didn't attend church themselves.

Fifth, religious 'discourse' collapsed spectacularly in the course of the 1960s. That is to say, the idea, found in popular magazines, songs, and autobiographies, that the goal of life necessitated religious belief and some degree of practice. The self-understanding of young women, in particular, which had involved notions of respectability, religiosity, and feminity, tightly woven together, dramatically changed, to a secular notion of self-fulfillment.

One difficulty in assimiliting and critiquing Brown's thesis is that the Catholic experience during this period partly follows the same pattern, and partly diverges from it. In the second edition Brown acknowledges the criticism he received for treating Catholicism, and other non-evangelical strains of Christianity, as if there were (in the phrase of a reviewer), just another form of 'conversionism'.

Another is that Brown's idea of giving an explanation of changes, is to point to the 'discourse'. But the change of discourse does not explain anything. For one thing, changes to the discourse reflect changing attitudes and practice as much as they drive them. They simply reflect each other. For another, even if we thought that discourse was in some mysterious way causally prior, we would want to know why the discourse changed. It might be that the discourse changed by a process of natural, internal development, but if so Brown doesn't explain this. But as well as following its own developmental logic, it would also be natural to explain changes in the discourse in terms of external factors, whether from other aspects of the history of ideas, or economics, or something else.

At the end of the 'Postscript' to the second edition, Brown becomes rather excited by the idea that women spontaneously threw over the traces of religious constraint in the 1960s, and that this act was feminism. The idea that feminism didn't derive from elite theorists is, of course, demonstrably false, as Brown would surely realise if he stopped to think. But we still want to know why women chose this moment to listen to elite feminists.

Just to illustrate this, a standard story told about the 1960s goes like this. The post-war baby boom combined with the prosperity of the 1960s put money into the hands of a very large number of young people. This, combined with modern means of communication (radio and television), and products (popular music, manufactured clothing, cars, etc. etc.) created for the first time a market made up of the monied young, with all the advertisers and producers wanting to promote themselves in this new market. This meant that young people no longer entered adulthood impecunious and numerically insignificant, with the high-status, desirable things in their lives being the things which their parents had developed and held dear. The young people of the 1960s didn't need to grow up: they didn't need to imitate their parents. This made rebellion, and subsequent social transformation, possible.

If true - and I think there is a good deal of truth in it - this still isn't the whole story. It tells us how a space opened up for rebellion and change, but these factors didn't necessitate it, and nor did they determine the form it would take. Callum Brown has nothing to say to help us here, or on the earlier transformation at the beginning of his period. With the help of other authors, I think I can fill in some of the gaps.

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  1. The Catholic Church I grew up in the UK in the 40s, 50s, a splendid Jesuit parish, was not feminised in any way that I or my pals noticed, and the priests were good.

    I went back about 4 years ago. The church was as splendid as ever. Mass attendance was sparse, the Jesuit priest was odd. At the sign of peace he ignored all my polite, then obvious, hints and behaved in an extremely rude and unmanly way.

    Had it been anywhere other than at Mass and in a Church, he might well have got something back to remember that occasion with.

  2. What a curious picture: males only in the sanctuary, females with heads covered in the congregation - a portrait of how the Church has faithfully mirrored the patriarchal nature of most human societies. Throughout history women have generally connived at their second-class citizen status in male-dominated societies and used other means to make themselves known and get their way, but they have always I imagine made up a majority of religious practitioners, certainly the Christian variety which supposedly gives them equal status with men - St. Paul said, in Christ there is no distinction of male and female, though being the inconsistent fellow he was he also said other things suggesting something very different. It is hardly surprising, therefore, if there is a strong feminine element in our churches. The difference now is that with the rise of feminism women are getting the confidence to ask why in the church too they should continue to be second-class citizens and rewriting patriarchal theology in the process. This may in the end prove a greater challenge to traditional religion than the soppy variety of feminisation.

    1. We all need to stop 'imagining' how the Church looked in former centuries, and start looking at the evidence.