Throughout history women have found power and position in spiritual communities. They have acted as leaders, priestesses, oracles, mediums, disciples, preachers and more. And yet these roles and positions of power are often overlooked in the story of women, and the general story of humans.
Still today many women function as leaders in a variety of spiritual disciplines, yet they do not receive the attention, respect and clout that men in similar positions do. More often women who hold roles of power in spiritual communities are dismissed or discredited.
If their spiritual community is not considered a formally accepted religion where their position was bestowed to them by a man ranking above them, women spiritual leaders are often ignored. This marginalization goes unquestioned.
Are women who take leadership positions in spiritual traditions outside of mainstream religion an extra special threat? If so, why is that? Is it because they are not bending to any authority but their own?
The nineteenth-century Spiritualist movement’s contribution to, and subsequent erasure from, the feminist history of that time is a good place to try to understand this phenomenon.
Read Nasty Women Writers’ other posts on women spiritual leaders and movements.
Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits
In her book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Ann Braude writes:
“Like the woman’s rights movement, Spiritualism dated its inception to 1848 in upstate New York. The two movements intertwined continually as they spread throughout the country. Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists advocated woman’s rights, and women were in fact equal to men within Spiritualist practice, polity and ideology…
At a time when no churches ordained women and many forbade them to speak aloud in church, Spiritualist women had equal authority, equal opportunities, and equal numbers in religious leadership. While most religious groups viewed the existing order of gender, race, and class relations as ordained by God, ardent Spiritualists appeared not only in the woman’s rights movement but throughout the most radical reform movements of the nineteenth century”(3).
Not only were these powerful women allowed to speak but they were also leaders, many of them becoming well-known mediums. And yet even today in popular movies and art forms, these women are mocked and depicted as frauds, swindlers or at the very least, silly.
The power of their cultural and political achievements as well as the positive changes they brought to American society are not mentioned or recognized. Just a bunch of silly women moving tables and pretending to talk to ghosts is how they are portrayed. They are mocked and erased.
“Feminist scholars have found that women have been able to exercise leadership where religious authority derives from direct individual spiritual contact or experience rather than from office, position or training”(6).
In the Spiritualist movement power was decentralized. Anyone could be a Spiritualist and anyone with the mediumship ability could stand before a group of people and allow the spirits to speak through her. These women drew large crowds and many became highly sought after.
One could be a Spiritualist and not be a public figure. Though Spiritualism had no rigid hierarchical organizational structure, which is why women had a chance at playing a part in it, Spiritualists had a variety of shared beliefs. They believed life continued after death, that one could interact with people after they died, including ancestors and spirits of place. They believed in equality and equity for peoples of all genders and races and promoted freedom and personal autonomy above all.
Spiritualists believed in the power of the natural world and all the creatures in the shared environment. They believed in angels and spirit guides. They promoted healthy diets and clean living. Some preached Christian tenets and channeled Christian saints while others allowed the voices of ancestors or deceased to speak through them or to a loved one who asked.
Women were not allowed to speak in public at this time. Because Spiritualists were considered to be channeling the voices of others, they were allowed. Through the Spiritualist movement many women found their voices and Americans became accustomed to seeing and hearing women speak powerfully in public. After that there was no going back to a silenced female populace. Women had taken to center stage. Through the Spiritualist movement women gained a voice in the United States of America.
“Spiritualists became a major—if not the major—vehicle for the spread of woman’s rights ideas in mid-century America”(57).
Why did Spiritualism become so popular?
In Radical Spirits, Braude discusses how the strict Calvinist teachings dominating the land were hard on the new Americans especially the teaching that they were inherently bad, would be saved only by God and that only a select few would be given that honor. There was also a backlash against the teaching that children and babies who died were going to hell.
Spiritualists believed that souls continue to grow after death and described them going through six celestial spheres of growth once they passed. They also believed that death was a kind of birth and it should be seen as a celebration. They encouraged people to wear white to funerals instead of the dark color previously required. Spiritualists also offered people the ability to contact loved ones after they died. All of this appealed to the populace greatly. Braude emphasizes that Americans were missing connection to their ancestors. Spiritualism helped to fill this void.
Spiritualism was not class based like many of the other traditions arising as alternatives at the same time. Intellectual snobbery and classism were present in Transcendentalism and Unitarianism. Many Transcendentalists disliked Spiritualism. Emerson and Thoreau argued against it with disdain in spite of the fact that many of Emerson’s teachings and beliefs in communion with nature were embraced and promoted by the Spiritualists.
“In place of faith in a savior, Spiritualists saw God in the harmony and beauty of the natural world and in the inherent goodness of human beings. Unlike their evangelical contemporaries, who believed that the natural person was separated from God by sin and needed to receive a new nature through conversion to be transformed into a Christian, Spiritualists believed that human nature did not need to be transformed, that human beings were born good, each reflecting the image of God, and therefore did not need to be saved. This view came as a welcome relief to Spiritualists raised in the evangelical milieu of early nineteenth-century America” (41).
Spiritualism began with two young girls, the Fox sisters, hearing knocking sounds in their home near Rochester, N.Y . They determined the knocking to be coming from a man who was murdered and buried under their home. The knocking was soon categorized into an alphabet out of which seances began. In seances groups of people gathered and put their hands on a table while asking questions of ancestors who made themselves known by rapping and knocking in response. Next, mediums in the form of young women speaking the answers of the dead as the bereaved asked them questions, emerged. Instructions were disseminated on how to be a medium and how to run a seance. The movement took off.
The movement was largely white, northern Protestants but other ethnicities were involved. The Black population may have influenced the arising of these practices with traditions brought with them from West Africa.
In fact, the Black population allowed the mediums and Spiritualism into their churches in a way the white Protestants did not. Spiritualist beliefs and practices could likely get one expelled from a white Protestant church. While the Spiritualists were abolitionists and professed freedom for all, there was a disconnect in fully understanding the intersectional nature of discrimination. Some white women in the movement ignorantly professed to be suffering oppression as bad as the enslaved Black population.
In her post on the Shondaland website, Dianca London writes:
“Untethered from the limitations of patriarchal dominance, the body became a conduit capable of bridging the gap between the seen and unseen.
With the Fox sisters as its poster girls, Spiritualism quickly became an attraction for women of all races. No longer solely dependent on domestic work, men, or grueling shifts in the factories birthed by the Industrial Revolution, women gained mobility as trance lecturers, mediums, and prophets. By communing with the dead, women willing to reject unreformed, unenlightened modes of knowing — like canonical theology and patriarchal politics — became vessels capable of possessing the power of oration, foresight, and political influence. And though there were male spiritualists, women largely dominated the movement. Armed with the authority of their gifts these women practiced a new form of political resistance”(https://www.shondaland.com/live/a23652668/legacy-of-spiritualists/).
London’s post focuses on Black Women Spiritualists Sojourner Truth, famous orator and women’s rights advocate, Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free Black Woman who formed her own Shaker community and held seance circles in her home in Philadelphia, Harriet Jacobs, author of the 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Wilson, trance speaker and writer.
Radical Spirits informs us about Mary Fenn Love, a feminist and Spiritualist leader, Cora Wilburn, a Jewish woman feminist turned Spiritualist writer and Elizabeth Peabody and Georgiana Bruce Kirby, both Transcendentalists who became Spiritualists.
Unfortunately, many scholars of feminism and indeed many feminists, have written these women out of the movement and its history, exposing yet another layer of bias in the feminist movement.
Spiritualism and feminism
The spiritualists were very clear in their views that women’s rights issues must come first and they pushed their agenda often and were eventually shut down by the more “classical” feminist movement that eventually decided to only focus on suffrage.
“When Spiritualists applied their individualist convictions to women’s situations, they found a need for drastic changes to allow women to express their true natures as human beings. They found that the norms imposed by society dictated both an immoral theology and an immoral structure of relations between human beings. In response, they argued that women needed to be freed from limited education that restricted the development of their intellects, from unjust laws that denied them access to their property and custody of their children, from unequal marriages that subjugated them to men, and from economic restrictions that forced them into dependence”(56).
Feminists who were also Spiritualists:
Rhoda De Garmo
Mary Ann McClintock
Sarah Anthony Burtis (cousin of Susan B. Anthony)
Sarah D. Fish
Catherine Ann Fish Stebbins
Harriet N. Greene
Mary Thomas Clark
Abby Kelly Foster
“With spirit guidance, women spoke in public, wrote books, and went on lecture tours. Mary Dana Schindler, for example, visited a test medium in New York and asked the spirits, “Do you wish me to write the work I am thinking of?” “Yes—go on; it will sell well,” was the encouraging reply. She took the spirit’s advice and wrote A Southerner Among the Spirits. As mediums, women became sources of religious truth and, as such, assumed the authority of religious leaders. Spirits, it seemed, encouraged women to do things that other forces militated against.
Mediumship circumvented the structural barriers that excluded women from religious leadership. By communicating directly with spirits, mediums bypassed the need for education, ordination, or organizational recognition, which secured the monopoly of male religious leaders. While men might bar women from church councils or from theological education, human authority could not supersede that given to mediums by the spirits who spoke through them. Spirit communication carried its own authority. If one accepted the message, one had little choice but to accept the medium”(84).
Following are some of the most sought after Feminist Spiritualists who were mediums, also called trance speakers:
Achsa W. Sprague
Emma Jay Bullene
Spiritualists and women’s health
The Spiritualists added women’s health to their agenda. For the Spiritualists one of the pressing concerns was women’s dress requirements, including constrictive corsets and need to be heavily covered at all times. They encouraged bloomers and loose-fitting clothes. They argued against some of the practices in medical care of the time like bleeding and other “heroic” practices that “regular,” (allopathic) physicians, were providing.
Because many of the mediums were also healers, competition arose between them and regular doctors. Many people went to the Spiritualists for hands on healing. Spiritualists also embraced and promoted hydrotherapy. As they gained popularity, they were simultaneously attacked by the regular doctors and scientists as untrustworthy.
Above all, Spiritualists fought for women’s rights to their own choice and their own bodies and their own lives. Many of the mediums’ practices were welcomed because they actually listened to women and offered a different kind of healing, one more subtle and less invasive.
Some created herbal tonics and other remedies gifted to them by the spirits, Lydia Pinkham being hugely popular. Many medical mediums became the first women doctors (149-150).
After the Civil War and Abolition:
Spiritualism continued into the 1880s but it was drastically changed. Attempts to centralize power in the movement failed and those who wanted a more organized hierarchical structure moved toward Theosophy, headed up by Helena Blavatsky a Russian woman who immigrated to New York to participate in Spiritualism, subsequently creating her own esoteric sect and Christian Science developed by Spiritualist Mary Baker Eddy.
The radical feminist movement turned its focus to suffrage only and other causes were moved to other arenas. Spiritualist women who remained with the suffrage movement became some of their best speakers. In California many Spiritualists became the first women to present bills in favor of women’s rights to the California State Legislature. Laura de Force Gordon became the second female lawyer in California, also opening her own newspaper and working to amend the California Constitution to prohibit the state from disallowing women to practice any profession. Other women went on to form their own groups and associations based on other causes they still felt needed their attention.
“Women’s suffrage benefited more than any other movement from the self-confidence women gained in Spiritualism. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism and suffrage engaged in a two-way exchange. The heterodox religion attracted many women who had already come to prominence as leaders in the suffrage movement. Even as the woman’s rights movement drifted from its individualist origins and the political thrust of Spiritualism diminished, many suffrage leaders found meaning in a religion that reinforced the self-ownership of women. Although the mere advocacy of women’s rights no longer required divine sanction by the end of the century, devoting one’s life to the cause was still a risky undertaking. As suffrage narrowed, Spiritualism continued to validate a creative nonconformity for its leaders. The other side of the exchange occurred when the dynamic speaking mediums of the Civil War period transferred their talents to the suffrage cause. Most continued to speak in trance but spoke for suffrage in a conscious state as well. The ranks of the trance lecturers provided a corps of experienced female speakers for the suffrage campaign” (193).
In trying to appeal to the culture at large in their fight for suffrage, the feminists abandoned the Spiritualists in order to not be discredited by them, creating this split in woman’s history.
Spiritualists were an important and critical part of the woman’s rights movement of the nineteenth century. It’s unfair to exclude them in the telling of its herstory.
Though they have always been an important part of the women’s movement and women’s history, women of spirit continue to be written out which implies that the two—feminism and spirituality—are not compatible when it is exactly the opposite. Throughout history, women have been active and leaders in religion and spiritual movements. It is where they have made some of their most meaningful breakthroughs to equality and acceptance into positions of power.
“An important goal of Radical Spirits was to suggest the importance of religion as a factor in women’s history, and, therefore, in the project of writing a more inclusive and accurate account of America’s past. It seemed to me, then, and does now, that a certain squeamishness about religious faith on the part of some scholars (many feminists among them) obscured important aspects of women’s cultures. The rejection of religious belief and practice as analytic categories seemed, in some sense, to presuppose an opposition between faith and reason and to privilege the side of the binary historically associated with masculinity. By ignoring or downplaying the role of religious motivations, experiences, and meaning-systems, it seems to me, historians downplayed arenas of American culture in which women might be more important than in—say—politics, business, or international affairs”(xvii).
The Spiritualists pushed women’s rights in the nineteenth-century far beyond where they would have been without them. They taught women how to speak, passed reforms and elevated the consciousness of Americans on matters unheard of then that remain important to this day. They should be remembered and celebrated for that.
“My goal was not that readers should take spirit communication more seriously, but rather that they should take those who spoke to spirits more seriously, and that they should accept the belief in spirit communication as an aspect of those peoples’ worldview”(xvii).
Ann Braude, Dianca London and the Spiritualists are Nasty Women Writers and Activists.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Indiana University Press. 2nd edition, 2001.
Potts, Dianca London. “Holy Spirits: The Power and Legacy of America’s Female Spiritualists.” Oct 10, 2018. Shondaland.com