“Imagine what it must have been like to ride the trains like those early women did,” my ministerial student says. “They were very brave and it makes me feel special to be a part of that history”.
As she speaks, I can feel myself beginning to glow with pleasure. Any history teacher wants her students to appreciate the past, and I believe New Thought history and its connection to the rise of women’s rights is especially relevant. I am proud of the part women played in New Thought history and I want my students to be proud, as well.
My interest in the role of women in New Thought history goes all the way back to when I was training to be a minister. In those days, we had to write a thesis and I chose to write about Women and New Thought. That early thesis morphed into a book called New Thought – New Woman which I am now rewriting.
Ministerial students also had to give a public lecture based on their topic. I talked about women’s lives in the 1880’s and how difficult it was just to get dinner on the table and the weekly washing done. Housework was a full time job for most women.
The women who worked outside the home were always poor and usually not considered respectable; they were slaves, prostitutes, or servants. There were a few school teachers and some small business owners who had been lucky enough to inherit from fathers and husbands.
New Thought teachers were an anomaly. These pioneers, were respectable, educated women who included some well-known figures such as Emma Curtis Hopkins, and many others whose names we no longer remember. They usually chose to live independent and quite solitary lives as practitioners and teachers of New Thought.
Those early teachers were often widowed or divorced and they struck out on their own, riding trains from town to town and staying in boarding houses while they taught in one town and then another. Some of them, like Hopkins, started schools that were fairly big establishments but most were doing small works in small towns, spreading the word, one small group at a time.
The New Thought teaching was something that was open to them as a way to earn a living and they took advantage of that fact. It was a healing teaching and that probably seemed natural to some. Women were accustomed to healing and teaching work. Perhaps it felt as though they were simply expanding their boundaries as time and women marched onward.
Many of the travelling practitioners and teachers were widowed or divorced women. Additionally, women were accustomed to healing and teaching work and they simply expanded their techniques and boundaries as time and women marched forward.
In New Thought, our understanding of God is much grander than a human-like figure. It has no shape and no gender but is the creative energy of the Universe. In that way, we were like the Quakers, who also allowed women to speak, because they believed the Inner Light is in all persons.
How could we say that only men can be ministers if we said that God created all of us and lives within everyone? If God is present everywhere all of the time then we must acknowledge that women should have an equal voice everywhere – even in the pulpit.
One of the greatest strengths of our religion is that we describe God as the Creative Energy of the Universe. Our founder, Ernest Holmes and the other New Thought writers use many names for God including; Universal Mind, First Cause, Divine Mind, Infinite Mind, Divine Givingness … and the list goes on.
We sometimes use the word God but we never intend it to describe an Old Man who lives in the sky and looks down upon us, judging what is right and wrong.
The fact that God has no gender is probably the major reason so many women were so important to the New Thought movement from the very beginning. The founders of Divine Science were women. The founders of Unity were a married couple. The first president of the International New Thought Alliance (INTA) was a woman.
There were also important women writers and some of them are still quite well known. Emilie Cady’s book, Lessons In Truth is still well read in Unity. Ella Wheeler Wilcox is no longer considered a great poet but her verse is still read and she is still taught in poetry classes. Most writers have faded from our current lists but not all of them. The Game of Life and How To Play It by Florence Scovell Shin is still in most New Thought bookstores.
Emma Curtis Hopkins, often called the “Teacher of Teachers” is definitely better known now than she was twenty-five years ago. There are new classes based on her old books. She taught the woman who taught the Divine Science founders and the Fillmores who founded Unity plus Ernest Holmes who founded Religious Science. In her lifetime, she spoke to and taught thousands of people.
The other factor in the importance of women in New Thought is that the women’s movement was rising at the same time New Thought was developing into a distinct denomination. In the 1880’s through the turn of the Century, women were on the march. They were interested in a variety of causes. Those interests included women’s right to vote, abolishing alcohol consumption, rational clothing (remember Amelia Bloomer?) public hygiene, prison reform, and helping poor people.
Some New Thought leaders who were women were interested in more than one of these subjects. There were several early suffragettes in Hopkins’s classes. She had a boot in the Women’s Pavilion of the World’s Fair. Other women leaders reserved all their energy for healing endeavors.
The important thing to know about this period in history is that more women were much more active outside the home and in the public forum as lecturers, writers and teachers than in any other field. We should be very proud of our feminine heritage.
What does history have to do with my life?
What is one courageous thing I might do today?