When I consider the role of women in the social reforms of the late 19th century and early 20th century, I am struck by the boldness of those women in a society that is often essentialized as a quintessential model of patriarchy where all the women were too busy swooning under the pressure of corsets into the hands of handsome gentleman callers. But if we take the time to read closely about what activist women did during the late 19th century I believe that it becomes apparent that they developed much of the model by which we not only operate but also judge social reform; those reforming women set the standard by which we measure change. The reforming women of the 19th and 20th centuries altered the landscape of theU.S.in the way that they challenged the status quo of acceptability for the roles that women could play, both in the home and in public, and in the way that they challenged normative gender roles. In these we not only see the impact that was affected on their own societies, but also the legacy that has guided and continues to guide women and men who work for social reform today.
The women of that era challenged gender roles in various ways, in both public and less public ways. Utopian orders, for instance, that began to form in the mid 19th century were not only founded by women, like the Shakers, but were also directed by them and women enjoyed equal status with men in all affairs. The Salvation Army is another group in which women reinterpreted ‘womanly’ behavior in order to advance what they saw as their call to mission and evangelizing and took to the streets, going into areas that were “unsuitable” for women. The reforming women of the second half of the 19th century were boldly questioning and challenging the notions of social ordering that dictated the ways in which women were “allowed” to behave. Reading the contemporary responses of non-Protestant faiths in the ways that they sought to “properly feminize” their own female membership gives clues to the level to which the challenge on gender roles had reached.
While the motivations and goals of those early reformers were often religious it cannot be denied that the legacy they left behind has reached into nearly every aspect of society. And yet, there is a caution as we look back and attempt to learn from those trailblazing women. At that time the concept of the “new woman” was a popular one, it was a caricature that depicted women as acting in ways that were outside the domestic arena, and thus against their nature—they were perceived as manish. And yet, the underlying assumption was, and is, that for a woman to be taken seriously she must behave more like a man is expected to, even though she is criticized for doing so. We see this today in the 2008 media sensationalism behind presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. What we often find in our own day, whether in the business, political, or religious arenas, is a “neutralization” of gender roles that in reality simply conforms to culturally constructed expectations of male behavior.
The danger that I see in seeking to play the political gender games in the fight for equality is that we risk cementing one set of character traits over others—character traits that are part of the patriarchal landscape. And here I begin to arrive at my larger point; in a western context that prizes the bourgeois, queers of color (often raised in families and communities that exist at, or below the poverty line) find ourselves in a struggle to resist the need to look straight, white and well-off which is too often the signal of gay success. And so my trepidation as I contemplate feminism and religion, activism and scholarship, and seek to reframe the discourse on gender, sexuality and the multifarious intersections of identities, comes from the danger of superimposing essentialized heteronormative and white norms on all queers. (Too late?) The question at hand for myself in my own work is how to learn from those bold women who in playing the political gender games of their own context inadvertently reified patriarchal power structures. How do we help things “get better” when “getting better” for the LGBTIQ community has become synonymous with white-looking, straight-modeling, well-off, urban living?
One aspect of the legacy of those reforming women according to Rosemary Radford Ruether is that we are reminded that reformers are those who continually push the boundaries of what society will accept. Reformers are always at the forefront of the line, pushing politics, theology, and society forward into new imaginations for inclusion, justice, and peace. As Ruether writes, those who came before were “reformers by necessity and by conviction.” So I ask, what is our necessity, what is our conviction? Those reforming women perhaps did what they felt they had to do and maybe they realized that they were complicit to reifying patriarchy, or maybe they didn’t. Still, they did work. So, too I do work. I may not be aware of all the ways that my actions will reify the very structures that I hope to dismantle. But there is necessity and conviction. Right now, that’s good enough for me.