Today I'd like to celebrate a great pioneer of feminism who, in my opinion, is given way too little respect by the feminist establishment.
I rarely (if ever) see Mary Baker Eddy mentioned in the same context as the leaders of the suffragette movement, such as Susan B. Anthony, or even among other great woman pioneers, such as Amelia Earhart or Elizabeth Blackwell, who became the first woman doctor in the United States in 1849. Yet Mary Baker Eddy's accomplishments stand as tall, if not taller, than any of these other women.
In a world where preachers, pastors, and priests were men, Mary Baker Eddy established her own, successful, religion. Christian Science is still a viable, mainstream religion, even though, like feminism in general, it is widely disparaged and misunderstood. In an outstanding example of subverting and destroying patriarchy, she established a church that is as close to being without hierarchy as I can imagine. The Christian Science church is decentralized and run democratically. The nominal leaders (First Reader and Second Reader, co-equal) are elected annually by the church membership. Whenever possible, one is a woman, one is a man – it doesn't matter which is which. In the Mother Church leadership, qualifications and ability trump sex or race, every time. And anyone who does the requisite study and practice is eligible to become a Christian Science Practitioner or Teacher, regardless of sex, gender, or race. In fact, I know of very few organizations that base their structure to a lesser extent on privilege and position, and more on ability. (The exception would be in the LGBT arena. It's interesting to speculate on what might be different if Mary were writing today, and was not a product of her Victorian era.)
But just establishing a religion where sexes were equal in a man's world was not enough for Mary Baker Eddy. She also established a newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, that is still one of the most respected news sources in the country. Unlike Faux News, whose mission is to further the agenda of multinational corporations, arms dealers, and the Republican Party, the Monitor's mission is "To injure no one, but to bless all mankind," and it is well known for unbiased, reliable reporting.
Not a bad accomplishment for a woman operating where women were not reporters and didn't even have the right to vote, but she didn't stop there. She made major inroads in the field of alternative medicine, as well. Her study of homeopathy led to her discovery of Christian Science treatment, which, contrary to mainstream opinion, is not "faith healing," or even, in any conventional sense, "healing through prayer." It is a scientific, proven system, practical and teachable, which is as effective (and sometimes more so) than acupuncture, homeopathy, or even allopathy, and it works on anybody, not just Christian Scientists. The record of Christian Science healing stands by itself. I know from experience. I have been healed, instantaneously, of a badly infected cut while I was out at sea on a fishing boat.
Christian Science healing has taken some serious hits from a few spectacular failures, especially among children, but that isn't Mary Baker Eddy's fault; rather, it is the fault of the culture within the religion that has developed in her absence, where if one doesn't heal with Christian Science treatment, one is often considered a failure. Mary Baker Eddy, in fact, stated that if someone is not able to effectively treat the disease or injury through Christian Science, they should seek medical treatment first. I have great respect (and gratitude) to my mom, who, when she developed cancer, did exactly that. She treated it with CS for awhile, and, when that wasn't effective, she sought medical treatment. She went through the chemo and so forth, and the speed and effectiveness of her recovery is, if anything, yet another testament to the effectiveness of Christian Science.
Mary Baker Eddy's philosophy and practice was not only non-hierarchical, it celebrated femininity. In her seminal book, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," she says, "Union of the masculine and feminine qualities constitutes completeness. The masculine mind reaches a higher tone through certain elements of the feminine, while the feminine mind gains courage and strength through masculine qualities. … Both sexes should be loving, pure, tender, and strong." (I might argue a bit with the specifics of this – I think femininity itself exhibits courage, and trans women prove it again and again.) She referred to God not as patriarchal, judgmental "Father," but as "Father-Mother." The overall meaning is clear: No patriarchy need apply. Masculinity and femininity are co-equal and are not opposites, but complementary aspects of our universal humanity.
It's true that her advocacy of women's suffrage was rather weak: "Civil law establishes very unfair differences between the rights of the two sexes. Christian Science furnishes no precedent for such injustice… Our laws are not impartial, to say the least, in their discrimination as to the person, property, and parental claims of the two sexes. If the elective franchise for women will remedy the evil without encouraging difficulties of greater magnitude, let us hope it will be granted." However, it's not in Mary Baker Eddy's advocacy of equal rights that she was a pioneer of feminism – it is in her example of overcoming systemic sexism and patriarchy to prove that women can be spiritual leaders, medical healers, and effective editors. She did so with outstanding courage and strength, and impeccable femininity, belying the myth that those qualities are masculine in nature and male in possession.
Mary Baker Eddy also had the courage of her convictions. When her first husband, a slaveholder, died, she impoverished herself by freeing all his slaves. Compare that to our great Founding Father, who penned those immortal words, "We find these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…" The only slaves he freed were his mistress and his children.
I am not a Christian Scientist for a number of reasons, including the fact that it did absolutely nothing to affect my gender dissonance, but I am grateful to have been raised on the teachings and writings of Mary Baker Eddy. In a community where blacks were often called "niggers" and Mexican-Americans were often referred to as "spics" and "greasers," my parents continually, by example, showed that all people, regardless of race, creed, religion, sex, economic privilege, or ability, are equally valued, equally beautiful children of God. For instance, one of my neighbors, "Benny the Jap," was welcomed into our house and always treated with respect, despite his race and poverty. In fact, not only was he treated with respect, my parents always referred to him with respect (and his name was always "Ben Shibata"), even when he wasn't anywhere around. And in a world where trans people are often disinherited and kicked out of home or family for being trans, when I came out as a woman to my mom, she didn't turn a hair. She looked across the table at me and spoke straight from her dedication to the religion that Mary Baker Eddy founded: "Your identity is intact, and it doesn't depend on gender."
Whenever I see a list of great women leaders in the feminist movement, I always look for Mary Baker Eddy's name. I rarely find it. She deserves better. Regardless of what one thinks of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy deserves a place of honor in the feminist canon. We feminists deserve to have her in that place of honor, too. We deserve better access to her example of courage, strength, grace, and yes, femininity, in overcoming legal and cultural barriers against women that were almost insurmountable. She played an important role in laying the groundwork that enabled the success of Susan Anthony and the other suffragettes, as well as the success of the feminist movement that began in the 1960's. We should recognize that, and celebrate it.