Women Leaders in the Student Christian Movement, 1000-1920

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Thomas A. Russell
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , November
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982567.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Overall, Women Leaders in the Student Christian Movement 1880-1920by Thomas A. Russell has a simple but important message about women as leaders. The declaration that these women not only led other women, but led mixed gender groups and groups of men is stated over and over again with a somewhat constant sense of amazement that this happened during the era in question. Russell details in his brief descriptive biographies of these women leaders how often they were officially appointed or sent to work among women but nevertheless ended up speaking to, meeting with, and taking leadership actions among men. In the time period under consideration, at the rise of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) globally, it is certainly true that the majority of Christian religious bodies (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) did not recognize women as equal leaders in the pastorate or other official functions such as teaching, missions, and administration. Women typically spoke to and worked among women and those groups often juxtaposed as ancillary to women: children, the aged, and the sick. So Russell’s thesis is solid and his examples from decades of biographical and historical material soundly make his case. However, one wishes this book contained more solid grounding in the literature of feminism or gender to make the case for why female leadership of men in religious contexts is so startling and so significant in this time period and for the next century. More of the context should appear in the opening chapters to give readers with little background in the intersectionality of gender, religion, and leadership a foundation upon which to read this contributory work. 

Much of the first four chapters labor to lay out descriptively Russell’s understanding of how the women he highlights became part of the SCM in terms of the SCM’s organizational structure, functions, and operational procedures. It is not until chapter 5, “Introducing the Traveling Secretary,” that the significance to which Russell alludes up to that point is finally brought to light. It is not clear why he dangles before but does not reveal to the reader until this point his crucial argument that the appointment as a traveling secretary in the SCM was coveted by women because it provided somewhat unprecedented opportunities for women to travel and engage in professional ministry. The rest of the volume explores the evidence for how women’s roles as leaders of men in the SCM advanced the cause of women as leaders in the Church body overall and in those varied Christian bodies to which they previously connected and sometimes remained associated. Indeed, it is interesting that Russell does not mention denominational ties very often; this may mirror the lack of importance given to denominationalism overall within the SCM. Only in the light of a group such as the United Brethren in Christ, who already practiced ordination of women in this time, does the glare of women’s exclusion in other denominations become a central focus. 

This is a rewarding book to read for its analysis of the professionalizing advancements the SCM offered to women leaders. It is somewhat confusing in parts, as the same people are discussed in several chapters because the chapters are organized by job and function and several women held more than one position at different times. The continual reporting of income and monetary estate value for these women (and sometimes their families) seemed extraneous; perhaps another way to portray socio-economic class and its corollary social capital may have been employed? These comments notwithstanding, Russell has contributed to how we understand women’s roles and advancement in a crucial period of Christian mission expansion among laity and across the globe. He has also added to the literature on gender bias against women in professions in general, and religious positions in particular. Those who teach or research in the areas of gender, religion, and leadership (and especially where those things intersect) will benefit from reading this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barbara Jones Denison is Associate Professor of Sociology and the Director of Organizational Development and Leadership graduate program at Shippensburg University.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas A. Russell is a faculty member in in­terdisciplinary studies for University College, University of Memphis, and a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. He holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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