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Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism

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Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, by Betty A. Deberg

Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, by Betty A. Deberg

Most people realize that one of the central features of modern American fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is a distinctive vision of gender roles both in society at large and in the family in particular. When fundamentalists are criticized, it is often on the basis of their perceived reactionary ideas about women, sex, and gender. What many may not realize, however, is these ideas aren’t simply central to fundamentalism, but were in fact key to its original formation.


Title: Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism
Author: Betty A. Deberg
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress
ISBN: 0800624394

• Extensive use of primary literature

• None

• Analysis of early fundamentalist concerns with gender and sex
• Argues that fundamentalism developed as a reaction to changing gender roles in society

Book Review

Most explanations of the development of American fundamentalism focus on things like a reaction to “higher criticism,” science and evolution, or even industrialization. All of this, however, has been based upon a contemporary perspective which tends to ignore what fundamentalists at the time were saying about themselves and their society — not the theologians writing in academic journals which the average believer never read, but in pamphlets, sermons, and newspapers.

To understand how and why fundamentalism formed, we have to understand what fundamentalists at the time were thinking about themselves and Christianity. This is what Betty A. Deberg focuses on in her book Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism.

She explains that titanic shifts were underway in American society in how women behaved and interacted with others — shifts which horrified religious traditionalists and propelled them to call for radical changes that would restore a “traditional” order that was actually more the product of their own imaginations than of history.

Questions about human sexual identity and behavior dominate religious conservatives’ discourse and agenda today because they dominated the discourse and agenda of the original fundamentalists in America. The core issue was that men were losing their ability to be dominant over women; fundamentalism proposed an explanation for why it was happening and a solution for reversing the changes.

By the late nineteenth century, American life had been divided into separate male and female spheres of influence. No longer able to define their masculinity by being warriors or by hunting, men defined it by being breadwinners and workers. Women, in turn, were restricted to the home and church — they were given the responsibility of defending virtue, morality, and civility. This may have seemed reasonable at the time, but it had several serious and unforeseen consequences.

In the first place, it caused the churches to be come highly feminized, something that worried preachers. Secondly, it gave women a cause to fight for. They were told that they were responsible for defending virtue and so they did, organizing against vices like alcohol and delinquency. Over time, they also began to organize politically and even to insist on basic political rights for themselves, such as the right to vote. If they were responsible for defending virtue in the home, why not shoulder some of the responsibility for defending it in politics?

This helped create a stronger sense of self and self-empowerment in women, something which in turn led many to rebel against the Victorian constraints that had been placed upon them. The results were more than Christian traditionalists were willing to accept. Women moving into traditionally male spheres of activity undermined men’s ability to define themselves and this threatened their very identities.

They sought to reassert male dominance in the churches by promoting a “manly” Jesus who embodied masculine virtues like toughness and aggression. They sought to limit the ability of women to organize politically.

Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, by Betty A. Deberg

Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, by Betty A. Deberg

And, of course, they fought hard against the growing social and sexual liberties which women were availing themselves of.

It’s amazing just how similar some of the complaints at the beginning of the 20th century sound to the complaints at the beginning of the 21st. Arguments against dancing don’t exist today, of course, but the fears of what is happening to “Christian marriage,” concern about sexual license, disagreement with the scientific study of sexuality, and complaints about “modern” music sometimes sound like they could have been written yesterday rather than a century ago.

To some extent, this helps show that the more things change, the more they stay the same. More importantly, though, it helps show just how fundamental the nature of sexuality and women’s roles continue to be for American fundamentalism. This isn’t simply one aspect of their critique of modernity; in many ways, it constitutes the whole of their critique, and everything else simply derives logically from it. That’s what DeBerg’s book is about and why it’s such an important contribution to our understanding of religion in America.

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