In her essay in Thomas Tweed's edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History, Ann Braude makes a convincing and historically astute argument that the presence of women is an important theme for the story of American religion. "Women's History Is American Religious History," is Braude's historiographical critique of the conventional focus upon the absence of men, rather than the presence of women (88).
Braude notes that women are the majority of particpants in religion in the U.S., and that they always have been the majority. She challenges the conventional "narrative fictions...of American religious history," namely declension, feminization, and secularization, none of which can be supported by empirical evidence (92). If we reject assumptions about women's powerlessness, she argues, then women's participation can be viewed as a positive contribution to American religion.
Braude lists the many active roles that women played in the church, from missionary organizations to social outreach to prayer groups. It is crucial for Braude to communicate that women's groups played a role in the "public" arena, and indeed, this is a long-neglected fact in the history of women in U.S. religious history. And yet Braude's critique could be extended further. As my classmate Derek pointed out, Braude seems to accept the public/private distinction, ultimately privileging the supposed realm of the "public." Braude's assertion that the historical narrative should be about "female presence" is indicative of this. Female presence where exactly?
Well, it's not in the home. By relegating motherhood to the realm of the private, Braude unfortunately undermines the great work of religious formation carried out by women in regard to their children. Instead, the valued arena is the more formally institutional. In other words, Braude accepts the conventional categories; she looks at women's presence in a supposedly male "public" arena but misses out on women's presence in a traditionally female "private" arena.
It is ironic, then, that when Braude asks "Which men go to church?" she answers that they are the men who have been influenced by their mother's piety (103). Power is an important issue here. Braude might strengthen her account by acknowledging that power comes not only in the form of church leadership but also in the faith formation of children. While raising children to be good Christians may not conventionally be described as "power," we might think of redescribing mothers' influence as such. This seems to me further indication of a need for an expansion of the retelling of women in U.S. religious history, namely, one that even further challenges the assumptions about women's powerlessness. Such an expansion would value the time and effort that mothers have spent both to form their children in the Christian faith and their work in more institutional organizations.