Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Associate Professor of History at Calvin College. This interview is based on her book, A New Gospel for Women: Katherine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write A New Gospel for Women?
KKD: I have to go back many years to answer this one. Back when I was searching for a dissertation topic I was frustrated with the fact that so little had been written about the history of women in American Christianity. There were a few good denominational studies, a couple of well-researched histories of women and fundamentalism, of Puritan women, and of African American women, but I wanted to get a better sense of the lives of Christian women behind (or beyond) those well-worn narratives. And so I began an extremely unscientific search of archives and footnotes, casting a wide net for Christian women doing interesting things. That search led me to a study of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Methodist women. I inadvertently became a historian of Methodist women simply because they were doing such amazing things. Katharine Bushnell was one of these women.
When I first encountered Bushnell’s writings, I was stunned. Here was a woman I’d never heard of who had written a sophisticated feminist theology, as radical as anything I’d ever read. Her work turned much of Christian tradition on its head as far as what the Bible had to say about women and men. Most remarkably, she achieved her revisions through retranslation, while remaining staunchly committed to the authority of the Scriptures. For this reason her work speaks compellingly to Christians today who hold a high view of scriptural authority.
When I set out to write this book, I knew that Bushnell needed her own biography. Still, from time to time I was plagued with doubt. She had been an internationally-known figure in the late nineteenth-century, yet because she had been largely (but not entirely) forgotten by subsequent generations, I felt the pressure that many historians of women feel—to demonstrate the significance of my topic in light of a long history of neglect.
Thankfully, Oxford recognized her significance, and when people read the book, the most common response I hear is: “How could I have not heard of her before?” I’ve had “secular feminists” share that they might not have abandoned their faith had they come across Bushnell earlier in their lives; I’ve had elderly conservative Christian women ask me to write a version of the book accessible to high school girls, so their granddaughters can learn a different theology than they did. Bushnell’s theology, and her story, really can be life-changing, and it’s really been a privilege to give Bushnell’s teachings a second life.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A New Gospel for Women?
KKD: To understand Christianity and feminism we need to look to the past (long before the 1970s), but we need to do so without depicting either Christianity or feminism as static constructs, or with the simplistic purpose of addressing a contemporary agenda (i.e. trying to prove that Christianity and feminism are—or are not—compatible). A New Gospel for Women doesn’t simply tell the story of a remarkably influential and wrongly forgotten Christian woman, but it also examines the factors that contributed to her historical neglect—and both of these aspects are essential to gaining a better understanding of Christianity and feminism today.
JF: Why do we need to read A New Gospel for Women?
KKD: Bushnell became a theologian in response to her activism. She was a social purity reformer, or in modern parlance, a Christian anti-trafficking activist. She was compelled by her faith not only to “rescue” and “reform” prostitutes, but also to advocate for laws and practices that protected the rights of “fallen women” (a term she rejected, by the way, unlike the majority of her Victorian counterparts). She first worked in the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin and Michigan, and then she turned her attention to the British empire. There she worked on behalf of Indian women who suffered egregious abuses in British military brothels (and later on behalf of women trafficked in Hong Kong, Singapore, and on the West Coast of America). Over the course of her career, however, she was increasingly disturbed to find Christian men opposing her at every turn. This happened so frequently that she concluded that something within Christian theology itself must be to blame. It wasn’t simply that a few men were being bad Christians, but rather that Christian theology itself engendered the abuse of women.
It was this conviction that turned her to the study of theology. With meticulous attention to detail, she demonstrated how male bias had distorted centuries of biblical translation and interpretation. It was male bias, then, and not the word of God, that had declared women the weaker sex, instituted patriarchal marriage, and commanded women to be silent and to submit to men. Indeed, she translated the Scriptures in such a way that such teachings represented man’s rebellion against God; redemption, then, was linked to women’s liberation, in this world and the next. I spend 2½ chapters in A New Gospel for Women providing an overview of her revolutionary theology, and this is really my favorite part of the book.
Why should we read it today? First, it’s a great story. More importantly, Christians continue to struggle with many of the issues Bushnell was addressing a century ago: inequitable and unrealistic expectations of female purity; connections between Christianity and patriarchy, and patriarchy and the sexual abuse of women; the authority of women to preach and to lead. Because her analysis of these issues is rooted in a deep study of and respect for the Christian Scriptures, the answers she provides are compelling even today.
For Christians who are troubled by the prevalence of domestic abuse in Christian circles, for Christians wondering how sexual abuse could be condoned (or ignored) at Christian colleges, for Christians who cannot reconcile patriarchy with the spirit of the Gospel, Bushnell provides a resource for reform from within. Hers is not an attack on Christianity; rather, she offers a compelling and even revolutionary reinterpretation of the Christian Gospel, for women and for men.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KKD: I always loved languages and visiting other countries. However, growing up in a small town in Iowa, the world wasn’t exactly at my fingertips. And so in high school I became an exchange student to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag program. I attended a German Gymnasium (high school), and I later worked in Germany, and also in Ukraine. All of these experiences helped shift my understanding of American culture. At a certain point I stopped comparing other cultures against an American standard, and instead became more and more curious about the aberration my own country seemed to be. And that led me to American history.
JF: What is your next project?
KKD: Right now I’m working on another religious biography of a progressive Methodist woman—Hillary Clinton.
What sets this apart from other writings on Hillary’s faith is that it’s a religious history—it situates her firmly within the context of American religious history, and I employ traditional historical methods. (Lately I’ve been rummaging in rusty file cabinets in church basements and sifting through dusty boxes in church closets.)
At the same time, I can pick up the phone and conduct an interview at the drop of a hat. With Bushnell, every piece of information I was able to recover was a valuable source. With the Clinton project, it’s dizzying simply trying to keep up with the daily news cycle, let alone familiarizing myself with everything that’s already been written about her (over 70 books at last count). So I try to discipline myself to spend much of my time digging into the records of the past—that’s really where the fresh insights come from. And what I’ve been finding thus far is fascinating—clues that help us understand Clinton herself, and also stories that bring to light the often neglected story of progressive Christianity in recent American history.
JF: Thanks, Kristin