Feminist theology and scholarship are now widespread. Yet they still have power both to inspire and unsettle. How much more so was this true a hundred years or so ago?! Lacking the substantial range and depth of feminist scholarship now available, that which was produced fell like drops of rain on a parched people…
Above all first-wave Christian feminist scholars was Mildred Anna Rosalie Tuker (1862-1957). Educated privately before studying moral sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge, she was first published in 1887 and continued to work as a writer for over fifty years. A first class scholar, as well as a firmly committed militant suffragette WSPU supporter and generous backer of the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, she lived for many years in Rome, which became her second home. There she shared life with Hope Malleson, with whom she wrote the well regarded Handbook to Christian and Ecclesiastical Rome (1897-1900). Her other most important works were The School of York in 1887, The Liturgy in Rome in 1897, Cambridge in 1907, Ecce Mater in 1915, The Liturgy in Rome in 1925 and Past and Future of Ethics in 1938. Her articles on Catholicism were also published in a wide range of periodicals such as Hibbert’s Journal and the Fortnightly Review. She was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Arcadia, Rome and a Lady of Justice of the Order of St John of Jerusalem as well as being on the expert advisers panel of the Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women in 1927.
Within the suffrage movement, Mildred Tuker took part in many marches and lobbying of MPs, and contributed a large number of articles to suffrage papers, especially on the historical position of women, particularly in the Christian religion, and the theological and ethical rationale (or lack of it!). Such publications typically brought floods of appreciation and enquiries for more information from women of various denominations. Indeed, she played a considerable part in helping the Free Church feminist pioneer Hatty Baker find material for her own eagerly received work Women in the Ministry. Especially welcomed was her book Ecce Mater, which, in tracing early Christian history, made a powerful case for the opening up of church ministries to women. Fulsome tributes came in from all quarters. ‘We owe you so much’, wrote Emmeline Pankhurst for example, ‘for showing so clearly the real place of women in Christianity’. Other leading women campaigners such as Charlotte Despard then made wide use of the book in their speeches, whilst requests for precise references and further information increased.
What was particularly helpful and telling about Tuker’s work was its scholarship. As even the establishment Church Times conceded, in reviewing her article in The Nineteenth Century and After:
Miss M.A.R.Tuker’s article on Women Preachers is a more serious attempt than Miss Turberville’s to defend this argument. With a great array of learning, she illustrates the extent to which the ministry of women was recognised in the earlier ages of the Church. (Church Times, 9 Dec 1916)
As the suffragette Mary Richardson concluded:
I felt I should write.. and say how I, and I know other militants, appreciate all you do in your writings for the movement. I know no one else who can help in this way and it so needed now. (one of many such letters in the Tuker Papers)
Significantly however, as still happens today, more conservative churchwomen worried about whether her work might rock the boat too much. More ‘advanced’ Catholic women like Alice Abadam may have considered that women’s status within the Church was initimately linked to resistance to women’s advance in other spheres, and might even have pleaded with Mildred Tuker to consider such work as a new translation of the Scriptures. Others saw such endeavours as too threatening, if not to themselves then to weaker brothers and sisters. Alice Abadam thus found that when she suggested ‘Miss Tuker’s Ecce Mater‘ as a title for one of her speeches for the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society:
I was begged not to speak on the subject, as it was too controversial.
The CWSS press secretary Blanche Smyth-Pigott wrote to Mildred Tuker in similar terms, expressing the tensions within which Church feminists had to work and the dynamics within Christian feminism as a whole. Again her letter resonates with the kind of difficulties Christian feminist scholars still face today within the Churches, even when they are warmly received for their insightful and well-grounded work more widely:
Our Society (wrote Blanche Smyth-Pigott) is meant to attract the Catholics not discourage them or still worse scandalise them… Do let me only remind you how head and shoulders you are above the average Catholic, and that unless you step gently your influence and your prestige and even your noble motives may be wrongly interpreted to their own hurt by the stupid, at present embittered regarding suffrage, and on the other hand by bigoted enemies of our Faith. (in Tuker Papers, 30 Dec 1912)
Mildred Tuker worked for a much bigger vision and resisted such collusion with patriarchal interests. As she wrote, in The Vote (29 Sept 1916), after restrictions on women’s involvement were imposed by the Church of England in the National Mission of Repentance and Hope, this was just another classic example of the ‘millinery’ aspect of male-dominated Christianity:
the straining after the very petty and ineffectual while barely permitting the great and the spiritual… sex considerations take precedence over theological, and… even bishops are males first and bishops afterwards, so that customs are wrongly dubbed ‘Christian’ tradition, which are really masculine tradition.
Source of truth and enlightenment,
we give you thanks for Millicent Tuker,
and for all female scholars who have advanced women’s causes.
Strengthen we pray all women who study, write and teach today,
and open the minds and hearts of all your people to their work,
that we may be drawn into a deeper and clearer understanding of life and faith.
through the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, Amen.