Jean McDonald, “Mary Baker Eddy and the Nineteenth-Century ‘Public’ Woman: A Feminist Reappraisal,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2.1 (Spring 1986), 89-111.

From a groundbreaking article in a scholarly feminist publication. The editors commented that “McDonald’s paper raises basic questions about feminist criticism…. How often… do we offer traditional male arguments in new guise?”

“Recent feminist scholarship on Christian Science – a religious movement founded in the nineteenth century by Mary Baker Eddy – has offered an intriguing and plausible explanation for the movement’s development and striking success in that particular period. Women scholars have generally theorized that Eddy and other women of the period gravitated toward Christian Science, not for its theological worth but for its personal utility – because it satisfied their needs for status and power in a male-dominated society that largely closed off other avenues of achievement….

“This explanation is especially enticing to women scholars because it appears to be uniquely theirs, born of the insights developed in the discipline of Women’s Studies….

“One thing about it, however, should give us pause: the resulting feminist portrait of Mary Baker Eddy – a ‘public’ woman leading a religious movement – matches in striking detail the traditional male portrait of ‘public’ women who have left their ‘proper sphere’….

“In a perceptive observation on the masculine portrayal of women in literature, Hilda Smith notes that female characters are almost uniformly depicted as preoccupied with male-female relationships, usually sexual. We do not, find them wrestling with the awful moral, philosophical, intellectual, or religious dilemmas of a Faust or a Job. Thus we ‘have come to believe that there is something ludicrous about a woman viewing herself against the background of the universe, agonizing over the meaning of her existence….’

“If we accept [the Christian Scientist] converts’ own words and the genuineness of their existential and religious dissatisfaction with the nineteenth-century theological status quo, then we have to concede to them a genuine religious motivation at least equal to the other motivations put forward….”