Gender, history, and southern gospel
Via Martin Roth, an “absorbing” (his apt word) look both at Mary-Tom Speer Reid’s life and career and at gender and the SGMA Hall of Fame inductees on the occasion of Speer Reid’s induction. This is a much tougher issue to plunge into than you might think at first (there’s the competing values systems of conservative evangelicalism and secular contemporary journalism and there’s always the challenge, secular or religious, of honestly assessing the past good and bad alike without imposing our own standards on it), and the article does a generally good job of letting the concerned parties and various perspectives have their say without either reducing the whole thing to a SGMA press release or writing a clueless “outsider looks in” piece about the quaint and curious evangelical land that cultural time forgot.
I was especially smitten with this bit from Lily Fern Weatherford, describing how her husband came ‘round to integrating his previously all-male vision of a quartet with his wife’s voice:
“My husband heard me sing, and he just wanted me to sing with him,” says Weatherford. “He’d always wanted a male quartet. When he’d get a male tenor, well, he would put me out and bring in the male tenor until he played out, and then he’d bring me back in. One day I said, ‘Look, I’m either in or out of the group. So what do you want to do?’ So he said, ‘Well, I’ll keep you in.’”
There’s a deeply admirable moxie to this kind of toughminded realism, the sort of survivability that you sense in the Eva Mae LeFevres and Lily Fern Weatherfords and Mary-Tom Speer Reids of the gospel music world when you see them on stage (can you imagine, for instance, Mary Tom or Eva Mae doing Karen Peck’s little breathy sing-talk thing?).
That said, for all its successes, the article soft-pedals the extremity and legacy of what we now know and understand as a form of religious sexism endemic in southern gospel. Indeed, the piece is at its weakest when it ceases reporting what others say and implicitly adopts as its own position the official, and somewhat dubious, historical explanation for exclusion of women from the hall of fame: Thus the article:
Until the 1950s, traveling gospel groups such as the Speers faced a severe lack of privacy in transportation and lodging. There were no tour buses—just crowded cars—and groups mostly stayed in private homes.
So that’s it huh? So few women in the hall of fame because it was considered inappropriate for women to travel in close quarters with men who weren’t their husbands or fathers. Uh huh. The article does try later to grapple with some of the deeper paradoxes in southern gospel culture and conservative Christian life when it comes to women and leadership. But it’s striking how this close-quarters bit gets reported as widely accepted fact, the prevailing and generally understood reason for the male-domination of gospel music, when of course it is (or ought to be) obvious to anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes in southern gospel music and evangelical Christian culture that talk of “privacy” and “propriety” in gender relations are symptoms or effects – not causes – of gender inequality in the quartet bidness.
When it’s Professor James Goff’s turn to explain the reason why there were so few women in prominent positions of leadership and innovation in gospel music, he implicitly recognizes this, but artfully dodges the underlying gender problem in gospel music history:
“You’ve got to look at [women and their role in gospel music] within the context of what was possible. They may very well have been just as important in keeping that group on the road as their husband, but they didn’t always get the credit because their husband got the credit. In other words, what they’re looking for [in hall of fame nominations] is somebody who maybe formed a group or somebody who did something really unique for the industry.”
This may be the official line the SGMA takes on why it disproportionately inducts more men than women (and Goff is the official historical consultant for the SGMA, so in part he may be earning his consultancy fee here), but I would like to have thought the historian and intellectual in Goff could or would have refused to let this kind of specious argument stand unrebutted. We now know and can acknowledge, as Goff says, that women did just as much as men in furtherance of gospel music even if the somewhat sexist assumptions of another era prohibited women from leading and innovating, and/but, as Goff also seems to say, we’re still officially using those same sexist assumptions of another era to determine who gets in the hall of fame these days.
But why should we? Indeed, don’t we risk bad faith if hindsight gives us clearer vision of the past than the principles had at the time and we still refuse to adjust our actions and behavior accordingly? One function of museums, commemorative societies, and historical associations is to help us understand, to interpret the past on its own terms without repeating or legitimizing its mistakes – in this case, enshrining in the name of “fame” the same well-intentioned but condescending treatment of conservative Christian women that has for so long cast them as behind-the-scenes help-meets. We do a disservice to these women’s self-possession, talent, and strength to describe their contributions in the old patronizing terms of “behind every great gospel group is a strong woman,” which is what Goff comes really quite close to saying, it seems to me (just as Darlene Graves does in her essay, “When Mama Prayed,” in the book More Than Precious Memories). To say as much is not only to diminish the courage and resilience of these women, but also to minimize the costlier effects (in real human, usually female, terms) of conservative Christianity’s less than stellar record when it comes to gender relations.
True, women like Mary-Tom Speer probably were just doing what came naturally - and if not naturally, compulsorily - to them in their historical moment and cultural position (as Mary Tom says, “We learned to sing with daddy’s razor strap across his lap,” boys and girls alike), and probably they thought not of themselves as being above averagely strong or courageous. But of course we now know that what they did – they raised families, served as primary caregivers and providers for children and extended families on the meager earnings of gospel singers and players, and on top of that these women established themselves as musicians and performers in their own right – all this did indeed require above average strength and courage.
Honesty, integrity, and good faith would, it seems to me, require that we find a way to honor both those leaders and innovators of the past who were recognized as such in their own time, and those who weren’t. In trying to rationalize why the hall of fame remains male-dominated, even though we know women played a bigger role in the success of gospel music than one would have known at the time, we also betray the degree to which we continue to repeat – rather than learn from – history’s mistakes.Email this Post