‘I wanted to give a voice to all of this experience that has generally been disregarded.’
Historian Cynthia Grant Tucker (© Christopher L. Walton)
Etta Eliot felt stung.
Her first published essay—a fiery reprimand of liberal Trinitarians for not standing up to arch conservative attacks—was about to be reprinted in the Unitarian Christian Register in December 1873. To hide that Henrietta Robins Mack Eliot was a woman, the byline would be simply “H.R.E.” That was the exciting news.
But she knew sharp Unitarian readers would figure out her identity. The daughter of a line of sixteen ministers’ wives going back to the Pilgrims, Etta had married into the revered Unitarian Eliot clan. She had to alert her father-in-law, the Rev. William Greenleaf Eliot, and her young husband, the Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot, about the publishing she had been quietly doing on the side of her ministerial wifely duties.
The elder Eliot was on record as believing “that some women would foolishly try to do more than God had intended for them, and once they had failed, they would be more content to sit quietly at their spindles.” But he had only praise for her essay and for being “a wife and colleague in one” to his son. Tom, however, offset his compliments on her writing by invoking the Eliot family motto: Tace e Face, roughly translated, “Let your good works do the talking instead.”
Her husband’s rebuke hurt. She protested, but in the end pledged to give up publishing, a promise the talented, articulate young mother of eight found impossible to keep.
Etta Eliot is one of eight women Cynthia Grant Tucker profiles in her recent book No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World, winner of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2010 Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.
Tucker has spent nearly two decades digging deeply into the Eliot dynasty, uncovering family stories not told in the official history of the patriarchs. Many in the family are well known as UU forebears: “Mr. Unitarianism,” Frederick May Eliot, under whose presidency the American Unitarian Association (AUA) nearly doubled in members in the mid-twentieth century; Earl Morse Wilbur, a founder of Starr King School for the Ministry; William Greenleaf Eliot, a founder of First Unitarian Church of St. Louis and Washington University; and Thomas Lamb Eliot, a founder of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, and Reed College. (The family’s branches also extend to poet T.S. Eliot, who rejected both the religion and his family.)
But the way Tucker tells the tale, they’re all backstory. She zeroes in on the wives, mothers, and sisters of the men whose names are engraved in the institutions they founded—the women who held together families, and often churches, putting aside their own ambitions and needs. She raises up the “church lady,” not for ridicule, but to appreciate the heavy lifting women did, to examine personal and institutional flaws, and to consider what their history says to liberal religious women today.
“I wanted to give a voice to all of this experience that has generally been disregarded,” she says, “that’s actually the foundation of who we are as religious liberals.”
An English professor at the University of Memphis, Tucker specializes in women’s studies and biography. She was raised Christian Scientist—which she calls “institutionalized denial”—and was forbidden to speak of being angry, or ill, or worried. But she has always been a talker, she admits, and had a need to tell stories, especially those “that have been abridged, silenced, and distorted.”
While the Eliot men left behind sermons and scholarship from which history was written, the women kept diaries and letters, revealing family disputes and deep emotions, worries over money and children, alcoholism, and classism. When Tucker contacted Warner Ayers Eliot, explaining her No Silent Witness project, he sent two boxes of original letters. The letters became the basis for a heartbreaking chapter on Minna Charlotte Sessinghaus Eliot, who gave up her own scholarly ambitions to marry William Greenleaf Eliot Jr. and later suffered a series of breakdowns.
Letters written by Dorothea “Dodie” Dix Eliot, were shockingly frank about her rapid-fire succession of miscarriages, referring to her “good-for-nothing uterus.” UU seminarians all know the definitive history by her husband, Earl Morse Wilbur, tracing Unitarianism’s Socinian roots back to the fifteenth century, Tucker says. But even close family knew nothing of this side of their life. Nieces told Tucker, “When I read in the same sentence, Uncle Earl and Aunt Dorothea and sex, I fell off my bed.”
Tucker clearly feels great affection for all her subjects. She labored over her prose so the men didn’t come off as the “fall guys,” wanting to show human beings who could be both gentle and rigid, inspiring and flawed. “It’s good to demystify our leaders,” she says. “I’m not interested in papacy or hierarchy. And I wasn’t interested in playing the game of counting how many women, or making them our poster women.”
Tucker’s 1990 book, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1880–1930, is required reading for those seeking ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. The stories it tells of women who founded thriving churches on the western frontier and who redefined church as home rather than just sanctuary have left a deep imprint on the current generation of women ministers. Their reaction has been both joy to learn of these pioneers and anger that once women ministers had done the hard work of founding congregations, the AUA often recalled them and replaced them with men or closed the churches.
“I don’t think any of us thought we were the first,” says the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, senior minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church, “but to really know, and to hear, and to imagine their stories was a profound experience, sort of like learning there was other intelligent life on the planet. That sense of feeling lonely, being out in front, inventing it all, dissipated.”
Today about 50 percent of UU ministers are women, according to the UUA’s Ministries and Faith Development staff group. That statistic should not be too quickly interpreted as the end of gender inequality, Tucker says. For her next project, in collaboration with the Rev. Marti Keller, president of the UU Women’s Federation, she wants to dig behind the numbers and get at some underlying questions, such as: Do female ministers and seminary professors really have equal access to the best-paying, full-time positions? Has the profession become pink collar, so that men are less drawn to it and compensation has not kept pace? If congregations and ministerial positions declined again, would mostly women’s jobs be eliminated? Are women’s collaborative and nurturing styles in ministry being appreciated, and are women’s theological needs being met? How well do we recognize the worth of laywomen’s ministries?
“I would really like to know,” she says, “how well our clergy and clergy partners are doing and how well women are served in all parts of our congregational life.”
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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