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Women in God’s Army

Interview with Andrew Eason

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What led you to write Women in God’s Army?

My interest in this topic grew out of my own background in the Salvation Army. I grew up in an environment where everyday life hardly reflected the Army’s professed commitment to sexual equality in ministry and leadership. Male and female Salvationists may have occasionally shared a preaching ministry, but their responsibilities off the platform were markedly different. Authority was typically a male preserve, while subordinate and domestic roles were most often female ones. Although the discrepancies between an egalitarian theory and actual practice were sometimes alluded to in Army circles, I soon discovered that no one had really explored the origins of this disparity. Had the Salvation Army departed from a more liberating past, or was this arrangement a reflection of an ambiguous heritage? As I began to research this question, I discovered that there was a fascinating story to be told about the Salvation Army’s earliest struggles with gender and equality.

Broadly speaking, what distinguishes your book from previous work on women in the Salvation Army?

First of all, my book represents a pioneering effort to critically assess the strength of the Salvation Army’s commitment to sexual equality. In past treatments of the subject, women’s equality with men in this organization has been assumed rather than proven. What has been overlooked in the process is the extent to which this issue had a bearing on the full range of women’s roles, public and domestic. A female Salvationist’s opportunities in public leadership and ministry, including the right to preach, were intimately bound up with the movement’s successes and failures in this area. Second, a serious engagement with this motif forces us to look carefully at the cultural and theological factors that promoted or undermined equality between the sexes. Women in God’s Army explores a wider range of these dynamics, and examines them in greater depth, than any previous study. Finally, my work covers a much longer time period than past scholarship on female Salvationists in Britain. The handful of studies that deal with Army women have analyzed very little of the material beyond the Victorian era. By extending the scope of my research up to 1930, I interact with a great deal of previously unexamined primary sources. The benefit of this approach is the opportunity it provides to assess how the thinking and practice of the earliest generation influenced that of the second.

What is the most important lesson arising from Women in God’s Army?

Essentially, this book suggests that we need to revise our understanding of early women in the Salvation Army. The romantic image of the single female lassie parading through the streets or preaching on the platform needs to be seen within a larger patriarchal and ambiguous context. This overall environment helped to shape the opportunities available to Army women in public and private life, and in the long run it worked against the preservation and expansion of female authority and leadership within the denomination. As the Salvation Army’s social programs expanded and in increasing number of its women married, the Victorian and evangelical tensions inherent in the organization became strikingly manifest. Women soon found themselves subordinated to men and confined to stereotypical assignments within and outside of the domestic realm. When the Salvation Army is judged in terms of the broad themes laid out in my book, it becomes apparent that it did more to promote than to challenge the dominant gender ideology of its age. In this particular area, Salvationists were more at home in their culture than set apart from it.

What audience do you hope to reach with this book?

Women in God’s Army should be of interest to a wide spectrum of readers. Given that it pursues its subject matter from a variety of angles - history, gender and feminist theology - it will appeal to historians, sociologists and theologians. Scholars with a specialized focus on women in religion or evangelicalism and culture will find this book to be especially useful. Salvationists themselves should appreciate this volume, since it sheds historical light on the recent debates about women’s roles in the denomination. Ultimately, however, this book can be read with profit by anyone who wants to learn more about the human struggle with equality in a religions setting.