Women’s Christian Heritage by Elise M. Edwards

elise-edwardsIt is difficult to carve out time in a course that covers Christianity from the past 2000 years to address material beyond the standard textbooks.  But yet, I must because the visual and material culture, the worship practices, and the daily activities of women and men who have called themselves Christians or followers of Christ throughout history also comprise the story of the Christian heritage.

Over the past several weeks, I have been developing material for a historical and theological survey course called “The Christian Heritage.” In the multiple sections of this course taught at my university, and I imagine similarly at schools across the country, students are assigned a course reader.  The reader we use is a collection of texts that have shaped the Christian faith from the first century to the 21st.  It is a good collection, and I have no objection to using it.  However, for the way I would like to teach the course, I will need to supplement the reader with other material.  I have two interrelated concerns: the reliance on texts as a way of determining theological history and the absence of women in that history before the medieval period (and even then the number of women included is small).

As many of us know, most of the major figures attributed with shaping Christianity throughout the centuries have been male: The Church Fathers, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and all the Popes.  We may hear of the contribution of women like Clare of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, but overall, women’s presence in theological history is small.  One explanation for this, is that we are receiving a tradition shaped largely by the writings of skilled language users who predominantly male in centuries where women’s education was devalued. (I do not mean to suggest, of course, that women have not been skilled in language – rather that they were not often educated in the way men were taught to communicate with other men in positions of power and privilege were given equal access to Christian circles in which theological writing was conducted.)

Therefore, an emphasis on texts to reveal the trajectory of Christian heritage will primarily overlook contributions of women.  This is why in Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture, Margaret R. Miles provokes us to look beyond the words: “We must find the methods and the materials that reveal the story of contemporary and historical persons who have not been recognized as participants in historical and theological work because they were not skilled language users” (xii).

It is difficult to carve out time in a course that covers Christianity from the past 2000 years to address material beyond the standard textbooks.  But yet, I must because the visual and material culture, the worship practices, and the daily activities of women and men who have called themselves Christians or followers of Christ throughout history also comprise the story of the Christian heritage.  More women present in churches?  In homes and other places where “great” minds were shaped?  Are women featured in art with Christian themes?  Did they participate in the formation of communities and the controversies within those communities that shaped the formation of early doctrine?  Yes.  It is also true that women were the victims of persecution by the church, as in the witch hunts, long before those we identify as feminist began their work to address the inequality of women to address the inequality of women and mistreatment.  This, too, is part of the Christian heritage.

So my task has been one of recovery, as many feminists before me have done. (Immediately, I think of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work in In Memory of Her.)  It is too soon to know how successful I will be in incorporating women’s contribution to the Christian faith.  But it is my responsibility to try.

Update on my previous post: I received such a positive response from my previous post (July 11, 2013) on my difficulty as a feminist to visit new churches.  I not only received encouraging comments and suggestions in this forum, but I also received numerous emails and responses through other social media channels.  Additionally, I have had follow-up conversations with several people, including a woman I met at a church in the following weeks.  Her response was empathetic and enthusiastic.  I am delighted to report that my churchgoing experiences improved dramatically, and I am confident that I will find a church “home” soon.  Thank you for your prayers, blessings, and positive thoughts.

Elise M. Edwards is a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University, where she received a PhD in Religion with an emphasis in Theology, Ethics, and Culture. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

Author: Elise M. Edwards

I am a Lecturer at Baylor University and a registered architect in the State of Florida. My academic and professional career is interdisciplinary. I work between the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express various commitments of their communities.

10 thoughts on “Women’s Christian Heritage by Elise M. Edwards”

  1. Hi Elise, you’re looking very widely – and wisely – at this. Do you have to strictly include only women mentioned in the Bible? I found a great site, which lists early Irish/British saints, including many women. http://www.oodegr.com/english/istorika/britain/British_saints.htm

    Of course, just like Mary Magdalene, some Christian women had their own funds and land, founding monasteries, or endowing them, like Lady Godiva in Coventry. http://www.historiccoventry.co.uk/history/history.php. (The cathedral there is one of my favourites, rebuilt after bombing in WWII, and the centre of the ‘Cross of Nine Nails’ the international peace & reconciliation movement.) Hope this helps!


  2. Thanks Elise, for an excellent post, sounds like a fabulous project. May you succeed magnificently!!

    If not in their own time, in modern times, some of the great historical women mystics in Christianity have had a fairly profound impact, I think, including St. Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” basically unread before the 20th c. Likewise, quite powerfully, Hildegard of Bingen (born 1098), her mystical writings, but especially her music has inspired a whole lot of contemporary women’s choral groups singing medieval Christian chants. Regarding literature, there’s an online, annotated bibliography, collected for a number of years by Dorothy Disse, titled “Other Women’s Voices” — it includes several faith traditions, but your topic is well-represented, worth a look (the site went offline in 2012, a copy of it continues here):

    (click the small snapshots in the margin to access copies of the original pages)


    1. Thank you for the resources. I am definitely incorporating some of the mystics and I’ll look into the literature, too.


  3. Elise: I don’t understand your quest. Frankly, I am happy that I, a woman, was not included in the misogynist christian religion.

    I frequently tell women that the 10 commandments were not written for us, thus we don’t need to be mindful of them. We need to write our own. Of course, there are universal commandments we would include. But we need about 5 others (the 5 on the dropped tablet?).


    1. Thank you, Dakota, for your comment. I believe I understand your perspective. However, my point was that even though women are not often recognized for making contributions to Christianity (with the exception of a few mystics and reformers), they were a part of the tradition. This gets overlooked due to our reliance on texts to determine what the tradition has been and how it was shaped.


  4. You can always remind your students that it’s only because of a woman that we know that Jesus the teacher arose “from the dead.” Mary Magdalen went to the tomb to check on things while all the male disciples were still hiding. Good luck with your course.


  5. Recovery work is DEFINITELY important. I absolutely appreciate and support your efforts, since, being both a PhD student and a Christ-lover, I yearn for women’s voices and experiences to draw on in my studies and faith.


  6. Dear Elise,
    I appreciate what you are attempting to do, and want to suggest a perspective that may diversify your resources. I am working on women have transforming the church in Canada since the second wave of feminism. What I am learning is that the “change agents,” have been lay women, who will likely not ever be recorded in a history of religion or a history of Christianity. The occasion for change in the Anglican Church of Canada happens to be responding to sexual misconduct, beginning with the abuse of children, but followed quickly by exploitation of women. The women enabling this transformation are committed to their faith community, but professionally social workers, church administrators, lawyers and educators…… lay leaders. In the larger context of second wave feminism on justice in Canada there were, and are, women who brought their faith into social and political action. I think of Doris Anderson, for decades the editor of Chatelaine, Canada’s leading women’s magazine. My research and experience of faith among second wave feminists has allowed me to appreciate their importance in the women’s movement in North America. I wonder if the true contributors to faith history are women lost to its recorded history because the religious faith of women and the history of religious institutions are not necessarily the same. Social justice movements are often where women of faith have been able to exercise their faith in search of justice. Perhaps you and your students can bring forward these stories. It depends on how and where you look for them! .

    (The Rev.) Mary Louise Meadow
    Victoria, British Columbia
    (occasional Community Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society,
    University of Victoria)


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