On forces influencing and shaping womens' roles in early Bahá’i culture, 1898-1940. A group of Western women, associated with Maxwell through ties of faith and friendship, was one of the first to establish a transnational feminist reform network.
Abstract: This dissertation demonstrates that a group of western women connected to May Maxwell through ties of faith and friendship exemplified a distinct form of early twentieth-century feminism in their adoption and promotion of the transplanted Bahá’í Faith. In actualizing their doctrinal principles, they worked to inaugurate a millennial new World Order predicated on the spiritual and social equality of women. This group championed a unique organizational structure and transnational perspective that propelled them to female leadership, both as inspirational models and agents of practical change. By examining how Bahá’í doctrines shaped the beliefs, mythologies, relationships and reform goals of women, this dissertation broadens understandings of the ways in which religion can act as a vehicle for female empowerment and transformative identity. Together, western early Bahá’í women built individual and collective capacity, challenging gender prescriptions and social norms. Their millennial worldview advocated a key role for women in shaping nascent Bahá’í culture, and initiating personal, institutional, and societal change. Their inclusive collaborative organizational style, non-western origins and leadership, diverse membership, and global locus of activity, made them one of the first groups to establish and sustain a transnational feminist reform network. Although in some respects this group resembled other religious, feminist, and reform-oriented women, identifiably “Bahá’í” features of their ideology, methodologies, and reform activities made them distinctive. This research contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the role of women in the creation of modern religious and social mythologies and paradigms. A study of Bahá’í millennial religious feminism also expands current conceptions of the boundaries, diversities, and intersections of early twentieth-century western millennial, feminist, religious, and transnational reform movements.