Conservative Religious Movements and Female Empowerment

20 Mar

Historians who have written about purity movements in the nineteenth century have typically argued that they were repressive capitulations to male power.  Judith Walkowitz, for example, describes Ellice Hopkins’ work on prostitution as failing “to connect prostitution to larger feminist issues” and argues that her work placed at the male patriarch at the head of the family, appealing to him as a father and husband to protect the virtue of dependents.[1] Likewise, Robert Bristow has described such movements as being anti-sex, anti-pleasure, and anti-vice.  He describes Hopkins and Sarah Robinson as “sublimated and suffering evangelical spinsters… driven to do good in unusual ways.”  His text makes clear that the word good should be placed within quotation marks.[2]

In her book A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the late-Victorian Church, Sue Morgan reconsiders the purity movement as a whole and the work of Hopkins in particular.  Far from denigrating pleasure, she argues, Hopkins employed the idea that Christ had been God incarnate to develop a positive image of the body that emphasized the importance of sex within marriage while at the same time forcing men to take responsibility for their sexuality.  She also argues that Hopkins challenged Victorian understandings of purity, arguing that the emphasis on purity within marriage and the willingness of the upper and middle classes to delay entering into the institution had forced men to satisfy their sexual desires outside of marriage, sacrificing working class girls to sustain middle class purity.[3]

Morgan’s work raises questions about the relationship between religion and politics.  It cannot be assumed, she argues, that religious politics are always conservative and retrogressive.  If we take them seriously, we may find that what appeared initially to us as conservative and cow towing may have radical import.  Of course, her argument here has implications for the way we think about religion in contemporary contexts.  R. Marie Griffith has written about Women’s Aglow and Anthea Butler on the power that sanctification provided to women in black congregations.  In so doing, they have tried to rethink the relationship between conservative religious movements and the empowerment of women.[4] For them, as for Morgan, the decision of women to join religious movements can be about fulfilling inner needs and finding a space for empowerment and is not necessarily a retreatment from the world.

[1] Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 238.

[2] Robert Bristow, Vice and Vigilance (New York: Gill and MacMillan, 1977), 96.

[3] Sue Morgan, A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the Late-Victorian Church (Bristol: University of Bristol, 1999).

[4] R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000) and Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2007).


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