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by David Mislin

Amid recent conversations about perceptions of women in the historical profession – best exemplified by #WomenAlsoKnowHistory – I’ve found myself reflecting on how I approach historical women in my own work.

My primary research field is the history of religious ideas in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. Not surprisingly, most of my work, involves reading the works of dead white men, primarily the ministers and theologians who developed and articulated religious concepts.

As I’ve thought about how women fit into my scholarship (my work focuses primarily on American Protestantism, and there were few women clergy/theologians before the mid-twentieth century), I recently recalled one of my favorite archival finds: a diary of a young minister who was wondering about his wife’s birth control.

In the fall of 1931, Bernard Taylor, a young Presbyterian minister who had recently graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York, took his first job as a pastor in a small town in western Pennsylvania. By all accounts, Taylor liked the town—except for one thing. As he noted in his diary, “buying contraceptives” in a rural community was “a harrowing thing”  (at this stage, birth control consisted of fairly rudimentary devices that were sold at drug stores). The young clergyman worried that his wife would need to “have a baby right away just for fear of what they will say if we don’t have one and are found out practising birth control!” [1]

Although written from the perspective of a man, this candid glimpse into one of the most personal aspects of the life of a minister and his wife is illuminating for several reasons.

First, this diary entry is a reminder that issues important to women – reproductive rights, family planning, etc. – could be central in the clash of cultures that occurred when urbane, educated ministers led churches in small towns. As historians, we’ve long known such clashes existed. But we tend to assume they occurred over abstract, heady concepts such as the theory of evolution or the inerrant truth of scripture. Here, we see anxiety about a potential conflict of a far more personal sort: the freedom of a young minister and his wife to have access to birth control without the intrusive judgment of church members.

Second, this diary entry suggests an even more important conclusion: that the minister’s wife is a central figure in the history of American religion – and perhaps American history more broadly. As historians, we have tended to consider these women only when they have assumed a semi-official role, such as when they went abroad with their missionary husbands.

The more common experience of the wife of a minister who stayed in the U.S. has been less well documented. But it seems likely that there are extraordinarily rich stories waiting to be told. Often, these women had lived in urbane, cosmopolitan cities, and then moved with their husbands to more religiously and culturally conservative regions. In these new environments, they faced potential criticism for things far less dramatic than using birth control.

9781452827001-us-300The novelist Harold Frederic captured this phenomenon in his 1896 novel, The Damnation of Theron Ware, which portrays the demise of a bright, up-and-coming Methodist minister after he is placed in a church in a backwater community. In one early scene, Ware is chastised by ornery church trustees for the flowers that his wife wore in her hat to the Sunday service. The message was clear: for the minister to enjoy the support of lay leaders (and thus to have continued employment), his wife would follow their standards of propriety.

As the Taylors discovered with their birth control, such a scenario was not limited to fiction.

Unfortunately for historians, ministers themselves often did not make it easy for us to learn about their wives. In fact, the Taylor diary is something of an aberration in this regard. Many of the ministers that I’ve studied have seemingly gone to great lengths not to mention their wives.

Still, we would do well as a profession to make the effort to find the stories of these minister’s wives. Just as women also know history, women also experienced it – even in the seemingly male-dominated realm of institutional religious history.

[1] Taylor’s diaries are housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia.