The University of Chicago News Office
Sept. 17, 2003 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421

What Difference Did Women Make? Rewriting the History of Religion in America

Women make up the majority of churchgoers in the United States, but we know surprisingly little about their influence and leadership. On October 8-10, 2003, more than forty historians will gather at the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Swift Hall to share groundbreaking research on “Women and American Religion: Reimagining the Past.” Speakers will introduce us to a group of women who have been largely absent in the story of American religious history, including slave evangelists, Mormon wives, "witches,” Protestant health reformers, Native American converts, Black nuns and women rabbis. Most important, speakers will explore how understanding women's history changes our picture of America and its religious life.

According to Catherine Brekus, Professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School and organizer of the conference, “The formal leaders in American religions were mostly men, but the informal leaders were mostly women. Yet these people, who ran many of the churches’ vital functions and filled the pews, have usually been ignored by historians.”

This three-day conference will reveal women who were often at the heart of our most important religious controversies-and just as often forgotten The speakers will introduce attendees to historical characters they may have never imagined and raise questions they may never have thought of, including:

  • Why did ministers accuse Colonial American women of being “addicted to revelations?” Elizabeth Reis will explore how these women’s experiences of God threatened male preachers’ authority, provoking one of the first great controversies in the American church.
  • Did Catholics sing Spirituals? We often think of Catholicism arriving with Irish immigrants. Emily Clark will introduce us to the southern black women who made up the majority of America’s first Catholics.
  • Why were women of the Church of God in Christ known as ‘unrespectable saints’? Anthia Butler will look at where the stereotype of African-American women as religiously ‘frenzied’ came from.
  • Who was ‘the girl rabbi of the golden west” and why doesn’t anyone remember her? Pamela Nadell will talk about discovering the women who made American Jewish history.

Brekus said that “We want to ask how women’s history changes our understanding of religious history in America. Our complaint is that so much of this important work on women’s history still hasn’t made it into the textbooks. This will be a concentrated couple of days when people working in the field can explore what difference women’s history makes.”

The conference is free and open to the public and the press is invited, but attendees are requested to register in advance. A full program and registration information are available at Most speakers will be available to journalists for interviews the week of the conference. The conference will be held on the third floor of Swift Hall, 1025 E. 58th Street, on the University of Chicago campus.
Last modified at 02:50 PM CST on Saturday, October 04, 2003.

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