Rachel graciously shares autobiographical reflections in the first profile of the “Women in the Academy” series. These reflections show the ways in which she has been shaped by women in and out of the academy, from her great-grandmothers to Gerda Lerner to Louisa May Alcott. As she shares her journey, Rachel reveals pieces of her vision for women in and out of the academy in America and around the world. Rachel’s thoughts serve as an exciting window into the “beautifully transformative” effects of study and creation, for men and women alike.
Education: BA (history, BYU); MA (American history, BYU); PhD (American history—women’s history and religious history—Syracuse University)
How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?
My academic journey commenced when I was a little girl. I was fortunate to have a mother and grandmother who had graduated from college and who referred constantly to great works of literature. I believed I was Jo March by the age of seven or eight. While the other girls read The Babysitter’s Club, I made my way through Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, and the Bronte Sisters. Although I did not understand everything I read, I learned to love to read, to write and to think (to the point that I didn’t want to take dance lessons because I feared it would cut into my reading time).
In second grade, I read two biographical pieces in the Weekly Reader that inspired me. One told the story of Deborah Samson, a young woman who wanted to be a soldier. Because females were not allowed to serve in such positions, she cut her hair and disguised herself so she could fulfill her dream. The other article detailed the experiences of Helen Keller, a woman who overcame physical and gendered limitations. I stood in awe of both and realized women could do anything. Before I had entered my teens, I had decided that I wanted to earn a PhD.
My intellectual quests were defined further at Brigham Young University. The blossoming of personal interests in the religious past and an epiphany-like moment led to a previously unexpected direction: I became a history major. From BYU I went to Syracuse University, where it became obvious to me that women’s history had to be a part of my academic focus. In fact, it seemed rather odd that it took me so long to realize the obvious. Women’s religious history fit me perfectly, and led to a dissertation topic I found intellectually and spiritually enlightening. While dissertating was certainly difficult, it was also beautifully transformative. I treasure that time and anticipate the opportunity to pursue other meaningful projects in the future.
What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects (papers, books, dissertations, etc.)?
Each of my research projects contributes to the idea that accounts of female religiosity are not appendages to American history; they are American history (an insight I gained from Ann Braude, of course). I discovered this, most poignantly, when I became acquainted with the personal writings of Catherine Livingston Garrettson. Because I wanted to know everything about her, I traveled to her house, stood at her gravesite, visited her church, and explored her hometown. During this time, she became more real to me, and, consequently, so did her contemporaries. As I continued to read women’s journals, diaries, and correspondence, I saw more than I had seen before. How women worshiped, what they read, how often they prayed, what they wrote in their journals, with whom they interacted, to what extent they shared their beliefs and served others—these things mattered to them. Indeed, the daily as well as the weekly, the private as well as the public, impacted their personal lives and their cultures.
When I discovered the writings of Catherine Livingston Garrettson, I did not realize that her religious experiences and spiritual reflection would seep into my consciousness, transform my perspectives, connect my interests to one another, and ultimately capture and influence the overarching theme of my broaching academic career—how women lived and expressed their religiosity in nineteenth-century America, and how these experiences impacted conversion and shaped and reshaped their identities. Consequently, my research interests are connected to my desire to continue identifying and examining female religiosity in such a way that the larger narratives of American religious history can shift in new directions.
Currently, I am finishing an article about women as religious seekers. In April, I will be a visiting scholar at the Manchester Wesley Research Centre in England (and in my free time I will be exploring the English countryside with my little cousins Rosie and Tilda, wandering through fantastic cemeteries and old churches with my uncle, and “eating for England” with my gran; I love being a historian!). Oh yes, I will also be perusing journals and correspondence written by early Methodist women. In particular, I will be searching for their conceptions of sanctification. Future plans entail lots of research and writing about women, revivalism and conversion, as well as a project that focuses on the ways in which antebellum women relied on religion as a means to deal with domestic violence and abuse. I have yet to determine where that project is going.
What has your experience been like as a woman in the academy?
When I was in elementary school, I learned that my great-grandmothers, Irma Shumway Cope and Elizabeth Jackson Parry, had given similar answers to the same question: If you could change anything in your life, what would it be? Both expressed deep regret that they had been unable to receive a formal education. Struck by the parallel responses given by two very different women—one an Irish Catholic raised in the bustling seaport of Liverpool, England, and the other a Mormon raised in a tiny community in southern Utah—I decided that I wanted to become well educated and that I would educate other women. I thus came to understand, rather early on, that education creates a myriad of choices that empower women to make a difference in and beyond their professions. In grad school I realized I could do this, in part, by including women in the historical narrative. To be told that there are no limits on what women can accomplish is encouraging, but to recognize the many ways women have engaged in the human experience over the course of time is transforming. As Gerda Lerner so aptly stated, “Not having a history truly matters.” And, thus, having a history—having roots—confirms that women can indeed accomplish anything.
For me, personally, “femaleness” has been a central part of my academic experience: it has influenced why I study, what I study, how I study and what I want to do with my studies. Initially, it was a catalyst. As I have mentioned, my mom and my grandma, Deborah Samson and Helen Keller, Elizabeth Jackson Parry and Irma Shumway Cope, Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen taught me that women can be educated and that they can educate. They can think and write. They can dream and achieve. Women can do and become. Although most little girls from Spanish Fork, Utah, do not go on to get PhDs, I had internalized these lessons enough that the occasional discouraging or judgmental comment stung but did not defeat. Other women had taught me that I could, spiritual promptings confirmed that I could, and I knew that I could, and nothing else mattered. I met my goal. Now what?
In terms of gender in the academy, a lot of progress has been made. To claim it is enough or that it is no longer an issue, however, is ignorant at best. Has society—has the world—really changed enough? I think the question that needs to be asked is how the academy is using “knowledge” about gender to improve life outside of intellectual theorizing. A recent trip to India has only convinced me further that changes need to occur. As long as women are discouraged from pursuing dreams, as long as female infanticide rates remain high, as long as domestic violence and abuse are rampant, as long as rape is someone’s awful reality, as long as child pornography remains a thriving industry, as long as little girls are convinced that thin is never thin enough, as long as personal worth is based on the exterior rather than the interior, as long as torture and murder are real, as long as mouths remain unfed and hearts and lives continue to be broken, we cannot say we have done enough. I do not know all of the answers, but I do believe that writing women back into history and encouraging women to pursue education is an important first step. I hope to contribute to that step, and to find ways to help with the second and third steps.
In your field who are some women (living or dead) you admire? Why?
I feel indebted to and admire the work of some of the first historians who had enough courage, passion, and insight to write women back into history: the scholarship of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Gerda Lerner, most specifically, has had a profound impact on me as an individual and as a scholar. I have also been influenced by the work of Ann Braude and Catherine Brekus. Both have made women’s religious history a viable field.
For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books you would recommend on the subject?
A random sampling:
- Robert H. Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination.
- Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Ninteenth-Century America.
- Catherine A. Brekus, Stranger and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845.
- Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880.
- Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England.
- D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England.
- Elaine Lawless, Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries of Wholeness through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography.
- Gerda Lerner, The Creation of the Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy.
- Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought.
- Phyllis Mack, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England.
- Robert Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.
- Richard Rabinowitz, The Spiritual Self in Everyday Life: The Transformation of Personal Religious Experience in Nineteenth-Century New England.
- Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865.
- Mechal Sobel, Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era.
- Scott Stephan, Redeeming the Southern Family: Evangelical Women & Domestic Devotion in the Antebellum South.
- Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James.
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.