Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Sabrina Marsh

Religious Women in Modern American Social Reform:
Evangeline Booth, Aimee Semple McPherson, Dorothy Day and the Rhetorical Re-construction of Female Moral Authority

The twenty-year period between World War I and World War II was marked by social and political upheaval of the sort which set the stage for the multiplication of debates among political and social actors advocating for new public policies and social systems to improve the conditions of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized members. This American “humanitarian sphere” generated an array of plans, visions, and rhetorics: some scientific and experimental, some radical and religious, some built on humanitarian traditions of the past, some sharply breaking with tradition. Religious women made up one group of humanitarian advocates for whom the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century shift in favor of crafting modern social reform strategies based in scientism and statism posed challenges. Still, religious women continued to promote female moral authority as vital to the advance of social change in modern early-twentieth-century America. This dissertation will examine how, in the midst of the economic and social crises of the 1920s and 30s, three prominent women religious leaders engaged in constructive, rhetorically powerful, yet distinctive efforts to re-conceive female moral authority in ways that not only suited the modern era but also posited women’s religious influence as necessary to the full achievement of modern social aims. Evangeline Booth, the American Commander of the Salvation Army from 1904 to 1934, Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, each constructed a new mode of female moral authority that relied on traditional notions of women’s religious virtue, while simultaneously positing female religiosity as advancing modern social reform. Booth’s, McPherson’s, and Day’s humanitarian rhetorics thus indicate how women religious leaders re-constructed women’s religiosity, even as the rise of scientism and statism in the humanitarian sphere challenged the Victorian cultural values on which the previous era’s models of female moral authority were based. In this sense, these women religious leaders articulated not just trenchant responses to deprivation, dispossession, and destitution, rather they also demonstrated the various ways that female moral authority continued to influence, shape, and construct America’s social fabric as the early-twentieth-century progressed.

Sabrina Marsh
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

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