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.

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  1. Chuck Sims wrote:

    All I can say is thanks for a really well intentioned and written article. I am a member of an all-male quartet, but we work with so many fine ladies in this business and I have always considered them as equals in our work. They should be recognized equally with the great men of our craft.

  2. Dean Adkins wrote:

    I’m curious — which deserving females are missing from the HOF?

  3. Pseudo Rachel wrote:

    I’m really glad this article was written and finally focused on yet another issue that has been ignored in SGM. From the very first time I attended the NQC back in 1990 I wondered why there were no women on the big bad board. And 16 years later, I’m pretty sure that hasn’t changed, right? Similarly, has a female EVER won songwriter of the year from the Singing News Awards? I know Rodney Griffin is the automatic winner now, but there have been amazing women writers including Kyla Rowland and Dianne Wilkinson. Sometimes I think the only reason there are the categories of Favorite Alto and Favorite Soprano is just so that no one will accuse the SG powers that be of sexism.

    There have been many powerful women in SG over the years and hopefully the numbers will increase exponentially going forward. But despite the Gloria Gather/Vestal Goodman/Eva Mae Lefevre/Mom Speer/Fay Shedd/Dottie Leonard/Beckie Simmons/Libbi Perry Stuffle/Kathy Crabb contributions to the industry, the recognition is still unbelievably slow in coming. I’m not sure this article will start any sort of revolutionary change, but to have the issue recognized and presented in a reasonable, intelligent manner is certainly a start.

  4. Tom wrote:

    Avery, I agree with just about every sentiment you have to say here. But there’s a pragmatic question that Dean briefly touches on but which I think is the answer to why there aren’t more women in the SGMA Hall of Fame. Inductees are generally those persons whom the masses of sg fans know and recognize. For better or for worse, in a field that was dominated by male quartets in the early years, it just so happens that there are a whole lot more familiar male names as fan favorites than there are female names–perhaps something akin to the reason that there are a whole lot more males than females in the Baseball Hall of Fame, even though there were surely some very important females working in the background.

  5. Tara wrote:

    Just FYI…this article is from the Nashville Scene. I was just completely shocked that they even wrote an article about Southern Gospel. Usually, they end up bashing most anything that comes out of the Christian music industry in general, but I was pleased that they took the time to write this informative article.

  6. Blah wrote:

    Pseudo Rachel had my attention until she mentioned Kathy Crabb.–

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