Review: The Woman I Am
Melody Maxwell. The Woman I Am: Southern Baptist Women’s Writings 1906–2006. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2014. 269 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-1832-1.
Melody Maxwell’s The Woman I Am: Southern Baptist Women’s Writings 1906–2006 examines the magazines published over the past century by the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), an auxiliary organization of the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Yet as the title intimates, the book does not focus on missiology but on what the mission-motivated publications of the WMU revealed about appropriate women’s roles. By examining these magazines—beginning with Our Mission Fields in 1906, renamed Royal Service in 1914, joined by Contempo in 1970 (for younger audiences), and combined to form Missions Mosaic in 1995—Maxwell gauges significant changes during a century in which women offered their money and sometimes their lives to foreign and domestic missions. Maxwell begins with an introductory chapter, helpful for readers unfamiliar with the general outlines of the modern Protestant missionary movement and women’s centrality in it. She then traces shifts in expectations for women through five concise chapters, and summarizes in a conclusion.
In the early twentieth century, Our Mission Fields promoted women’s work uplifting women and children at home and abroad. Magazine writers exhorted Baptist women to participate fully as supporters and missionaries in the wider Protestant missionary movement. As long as Christian mission was the goal, Southern Baptist women could embrace a certain ecumenism with other mission-minded Protestants. In the next period (1919–1945), women reading Royal Service were expected to be more self-consciously Southern Baptist, focused more on evangelism rather than on providing services such as education and health care. The postwar period (1946–1967) featured restricted women’s roles, stressing women’s Christian influence in their own homes as the most important contribution they could make to missions. A significant shift came, however, during 1968–1983, when Royal Service and Contempo together voiced a self-consciously pro-woman, activist stance. Yet by 1984 through 2006, theological and social conservatives took control of the SBC and tried (with mixed success) to exert more control over the WMU. In this period, the magazines’ emphasis turned inward. Editors and writers responded to the denomination’s espousal of conventional gender hierarchy by focusing on spirituality, prayer, and one-on-one evangelism. The WMU maintained a calculated silence on theological conflicts roiling the SBC.
Some aspects of this discussion call for more complete development. Maxwell’s descriptions of key background concepts such as the mainline and secularization are thin. She also assumes that readers will understand how she uses the term “conservative” in reference to Southern Baptist theology, only defining her meaning in a note in chapter 5. She notes the WMU’s episodic engagement in discussions about race, but could bring more texture to her account by comparing the WMU’s expectations to those of the Women’s Convention of the predominantly African-American National Baptist Convention, which carried out its own prodigious domestic program of uplift. The interactions of race and gender, especially in the SBC, cannot be separated as neatly as Maxwell separates them here. Indeed, another area where her study would benefit from holding these two discourses together—bound by the powerful adhesive of Southern religion—is in her understanding of “Southern womanhood,” a concept invoked but not explained.
Maxwell’s book also exhibits the perennial problem faced by historians who take published accounts as indication of an entire group’s position. Readers may come away convinced that what appeared in the pages of these magazines accurately reflected all Southern Baptist women’s opinions on women’s status. Maxwell includes only a few letters from unhappy subscribers to the WMU magazines, expressing disagreement with certain editorial positions. Maxwell also leaves any disagreements among the editors and writers themselves obscured. The WMU magazines expressed an important perspective, but not the only one.
Maxwell could also clarify her views on how her subjects interacted with the broader culture. Through the course of this study, she makes increasingly frequent claims that the WMU magazines reflected positions about women current in popular culture. But why not acknowledge and explore the influence that the WMU exerted on that culture? Does influence run in only one direction? If Maxwell thinks so, she does not explain why. Her chapter on the conservative takeover of the SBC comes closest to noting the WMU’s shaping of the culture, but in other places, Maxwell does not take full opportunity to show Baptist women molding the world outside the church. Making the most of that evidence would give historians of U.S. religion and women’s experience more information about the underacknowledged twentieth-century religious roots of feminist consciousness.
A major strength of Maxwell’s narrative, however, rests in its revelation of ironies worth appreciating in Southern Baptist history. The WMU’s founding in 1888 as an auxiliary of the SBC signaled an intention to “assist, not compete with” men’s denominational efforts to evangelize the world (14). The WMU, therefore, maintained a certain independence from male control even as it occupied a subordinate role in the Baptist landscape. The structure protected and marginalized, by turns, and WMU leadership seemed shrewdly politic in taking advantage of this status. Maxwell does a nice job of exploring how the WMU’s silence on late-twentieth-century theological conflicts helped the organization maintain and even expand its influence. The trade-off that the WMU’s leaders made—an exchange of complete frankness for a modicum of independence—was not always palatable, but Maxwell’s discussion is instructive for readers interested in the political calculations demanded of women in religious leadership. This narrative thread also suggests how the story of women’s missionary societies—which thrived in the later part of the nineteenth century, but were largely taken over by male-led denominations by the early twentieth—might have turned out differently. For these other organizations, success led to their dismantling. For the WMU, success fed an enduring struggle to balance independence with relevance.