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Good and Mad: The Elusive Anger of Protestant Church Ladies | Righting America

by Margaret Bendroth

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; and, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (UNC 2015).

Black and white photo of a women dressed in the traditional protestant church clothing.
Courtesy of Margaret Bendroth.

I am working, rather ambivalently I confess, on another book about women and religion. This time it is about mainline Protestants, a basic “what happened” between 1920 and 1970. 

Even people who have not spent time in a denominational archive can guess at the enormous potential for boredom. The subjects are not exotic in any conceivable sense of the word, and though I personally find them admirable, I do not assume for a moment that others will too. I have decided that this project is as much an artistic challenge as an academic one. 

I suspect, though, that there is more to my incipient writer’s block than the materials I’ve chosen to work with. (What historian couldn’t make a similar complaint, at least once or twice? It’s kind of what we do.) I am beginning to think the psychological issue isn’t actually mine at all—it’s those churchwomen I’m trying to write about, ladies with pillbox hats and big corsages, smiling gamely from the pages of denominational magazines. How can you tell a compelling human story with so much of its emotional valence buried out of sight?  

I cannot believe that they were not angry—i.e., furious beyond measure at being belittled, patronized, and ignored, many years of education and prodigious talents wasted, while they watched feckless male bureaucrats rise through the ranks and then write books about their own accomplishments. But somehow these churchwomen were too canny, too repressed, too loyal, or too artful to make more than a mild fuss.

I remember being surprised, many years ago, when I made my first presentation about women and fundamentalism to a small group of male scholars. It was nerve-wracking to be both young and female in that gathering, and I worried about what kind of response I’d get. The question that took the air out of the room, however, was one I should have anticipated but did not: Given all the nasty things fundamentalist men said about women, why in the world would any self-respecting female go anywhere near one of their churches?

Looking back, I am beginning to understand why I did not ask that question myself. It just never occurred to me. As a recent Ph.D. and a young mom, I was already adept at bracketing out negativity, from the baby throwing a bowl of oatmeal onto the floor to the patronizing contempt of male academics. It wasn’t as simple as repressing rage—it was about being a mom. Every day I had to practice maintaining emotional balance in impossible situations. I learned that there is no “win/win” when a toddler is melting down in the produce aisle—you cut your losses and get the hell out of the store. That peculiar mortification of the flesh had become so second-nature that I barely recognized it; it’s an inner discipline that shaped most of my life decisions going forward.

What’s interesting in retrospect is that it took a man to pose the “why” question, to recognize and call out the sheer effrontery of the fundamentalist men I was writing about. Why would anyone stand for that?

Once, when I was a staff supervisor at a Christian summer camp, I was told that higher ups were deciding if I could be included in a particularly important prayer meeting. This was on behalf of an unusually troubled young woman, who I knew fairly well.  I shared a bunkroom with her, in fact, and had witnessed several (of what I know now to be) panic attacks. I had held paper bags to her mouth to help her breathe when she was hyperventilating, tried to keep her from hurting herself when she pounded her fists up and down, prayed for her when she was on her bunk stiff and unresponsive as a washboard. But somehow praying for her, in public, was a problem. It might somehow sully something holy. 

At some semi-conscious level I considered whether or not to be pissed off about this, and I decided not to be. Let’s be clear: I was no pious pushover. This was in the 1970s and I had my own copies of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, I wore overalls and worked on the maintenance crew. Some boys, I knew, were afraid of me, and I enjoyed that. I did not for one minute believe that anything St. Paul said about first-century women applied to me. But I also knew enough to do some calculating, to consider the costs of getting angry, not just in the abstract but in the concrete, in that particular setting. First of all, I figured (wondrously) that the men would be hurt—I counted them as dear friends and I knew they felt the same about me. I did not want an “issue” to hang over all of us for the rest of the summer, or perhaps ultimately, to lose the power and freedom I had gained by my honest commitment to our common spiritual goals. I was young enough to believe that my invisible act of self-abnegation would work toward the good of the whole, that in some way it would benefit people I cared about deeply.

I was, and am, still angry, of course, about lots of things by now. And I suspect, my mainline churchwomen, and their fundamentalist cousins, were too.  But there’s no map for this. It’s relatively easy to track rebellion among the spiritually unconventional, the outspoken women who demanded what they knew was theirs. And, it’s a fairly short leap to conclude that an angry woman must be a feminist, even if just in the making. But what if your sources do not cooperate? 

A lot of religious women’s anger isn’t righteous or revolutionary. It’s not feminist, either. It’s the underside of loyalty—to God, to church, to husband or friends. It struggles to find its object. Far too easily the anger of religiously loyal women dissolves into contempt or hardens into stubbornness. It manifests as irritation, a prickly demeanor that alienates would-be allies. It becomes unlovely, the tendency to moan and complain, or the silent enjoyment of another person’s idiocy. In every case, a lot of rage ends up as a shrug of the shoulders. “What, me angry?”

All this reminds me of an article I came across, written in 1951 by sociologist Helen Mayer Hacker, about women as a minority group. (Gunnar Myrdal did something similar, in an Appendix to An American Dilemma.) Why did women refuse to see themselves this way, she wondered? There was certainly good reason: Hacker recited a litany of the systematic ways that men had wronged women over the past century, excluding them from decent-paying jobs and then cranking out “ceaseless propaganda to return women to the home and keep them there.” Yet especially since the 1920s, Mayer observed, outright conflict had been minimal. Instead, the “dissociative process between the sexes” had devolved to “rebuffing, repulsing, working against, hindering, protesting, obstructing, restraining, and upsetting another’s plans.”

My churchwomen were rarely angry in the abstract. They were, I think, acutely attuned to institutions, understanding what made them work, and also so hard to change. They lived in a world where it was better to be smart and at least outwardly loyal—to persist in fact—than to rail. In our world, on the other side of the 1960s, their doggedness looks like repression, their cooperation like capitulation. So much of their emotional language is familiar: they were white, middle-class Protestants, kind of like me, but it’s a dialect, an inflection, that I’m struggling to understand.