Thursday, 15 December 2011

Vida Dutton Scudder, American Lesbian Saint for Our Times

Vida Dutton Scudder is a rare example of a modern lesbian who is a recognized Christian saint (recognized by the US Episcopal Church, not the Roman Catholics). Her work and message are particularly relevant to the twentieth century, as we grapple with an economic crisis triggered in effect by corporate and consumer greed.

Born in 1861, over a long life Scudder was an educator, writer, and welfare activist in the social gospel movement. Much of her thinking has particular relevance to us today, as we grapple with a financial and economic crisis precipitated in effect by a corporate and consumer culture marked by unrestrained greed. Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. From 1919 until her death, Scudder was in a relationship with Florence Converse, with whom she lived.

After earning a BA degree from Smith College in 1894, in 1895 she became one of the first two American women admitted to graduate study at Oxford university. After returning to Boston, Scudder taught English literature at Wellesley College, where she becoming an associate professor in 1892 and full professor from 1910.

While studying in England, she had come under the influence of people like John Ruskin,Leo Tolstoi, George Bernard Shaw, and Fabian Socialism. Back in Boston, she became actively involved in promoting her socialist ideas, especially Christian socialism. In 1988, two years after her return from Oxford, she joined both the Companions of the Holy Cross, a women's group dedicated to intercessionary prayer and social reconciliation, and the Society of Christian Socialists . In 1890 she was a co-founder of the Boston "settlement house" Dennison House, part of a movement which had the goal of getting the rich and poor in society to live more closely together in an interdependent community, in which volunteer middle-class "settlement workers" would live, hoping to share knowledge and culture with, and alleviate the poverty of their low-income neighbors. From 1893 she was active in the trade union movement, and in 1911 she co-founded the Episcopal Church Socialist League and joined the Socialist Party, attempting to reconcile the conflicting doctrines of Marxism and Christianity. After the First World War, she also embraced capitalism, and in 1923 she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, giving a series of lectures before the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Prague.

After her retirement from Wellesley in 1928 until her death in 1954 at the age of 92, as Theresa Corcoran notes:
She continued to be in the storm center of advanced thought in the church and in society, supporting by her name and by her writing such groups as Reinhold Niebuhr's Fellowship of Socialist Christians and Rufus Jones's Wider Quaker Fellowship. She worked closely with the Christendom group in England, encouraged Mother Pattie Ellis in her desire to establish the Community of the Way of the Cross, a women's religious order combining active social work with monastic life, and followed closely the Reverend Frederick Hastings Smyth's Society of the Catholic Commonwealth.
Her socialism was not simply a political impulse, but sprang from her deep religious conviction and Gospel values, seeking to implement God's kingdom on earth. She valued her red Socialist membership card, but placed it in her personal oratory at home beside her crucifix. In the early years after the Russian Revolution she wrote that she "took delight in the Russian experiment", but later recognized that it too, could not guarantee justice, writing in her autobiography,
  "I'm afraid that Lenin would have scoffed at my treatment of the red flag given me at this time, which I placed beside the crucifix -- where it still hangs -- in my private oratory . . . I was doing my best to align a catastrophic and dialectical conception of history with my Christian thinking; and in communist revolution I discerned a Divine Judgment which was the sign of approaching redemption . . . But as coercion and cruelty were continuously impounded as means to reach justice and brotherhood, uncritical enthusiasm waned. Helped . . . by Franciscan studies, I became increasingly convinced that no revolution could bring ultimate salvation unless it proceeded from a Christian conception of man."
As we now recognize the failings of the unrelenting pursuit of profit that have brought us to our present crisis, we would do well to reflect deeply on these words. It is not neither the capitalist "system" that has created the problem, but the failure of our values. As Scudder writes, we need to return to a Christian conception of what it is to be human, remembering all the many warnings of Jesus Christ on the dangers of riches and the pursuit of wealth.

She is recognized as a saint by the Episcopal Church (USA), with a feast day on October 10.


Most gracious God, you sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in your church witnesses who, after the example of your servant Vida Dutton Scudder, stand firm in proclaiming the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 
(from a collection of lectionary resources for the Episcopal Church)

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  1. This is simply awesome! You have introduced me to a wonderful new lesbian saint, and I look forward to researching her and writing more about her (with a link to this post, of course). One question I have is what is the evidence that she was a lesbian?

    Saint Vida means a lot to me because my own great-aunt Mabel Hyde Kittredge was deeply involved in the settlement house movement -- and with one of its women leaders Lillian Wald. Nobody has nominated them for sainthood yet. Obviously my first name Kittredge comes from that line of my family.

  2. Thanks, Kitt. Your family connection adds a fascinating dimension. I knew nothing about the settlement house movement until I started researching this post, and then found that there is also a connection with Dorothy Day's work with the Catholic Worker movement, which adapted the idea for their own houses. There's a lot more I would have like to follow up on, but I only came across the reference to her as a saint late yesterday, so I was pretty rushed to get something up in time for today, which was the anniversary of her death.

    The rush is also my excuse for not giving proper references. This line from Wikipedia is pretty clear, complete with a reference to a printed book (which obviously I've not been able to check):

    From 1919 until her death, Scudder was in a lesbian relationship with Florence Converse[4] In Wellesley they resided at 45 Leighton Road.[5]

    The relevant references are:

    [4] Lillian Faderman (1991) Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America pp. 23-24., Penguin Books Ltd, London.
    [5] Who Was Who in America (1960) Marquis Who's Who, Inc., Chicago.

    A more oblique reference is from "The Lectionary" (the same one with the prayer I quoted, and lectionary readings for the day):

    "Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women; her closest companion was Florence Converse, who shared in her religious faith and political ideals. "

    Seems clear enough for me.

    I'm sure there's a lot more for you to find. Have fun.

  3. Awesome blog. If interested, I have two blogs on my site: that list two other saints:
    Felicity and Perpetua - and - St. Brigid and her soulmate.
    Look under Religion on my home page.

  4. “Queen Victoria refused to believe that women could have sex with women. Some historians have written that if the Queen had passed a law against lesbians, many women then would be able to put a name to their feelings.” (from my lesbian ebook: Jazz: Jet Setting Carpenter.
    Even today, lesbians do not come out of the closet for many reasons.
    Some may be - financial ruin (singers/movie stars) or family embarrassment. Think back to Vida's day - Scientists were calling such women 'freaks of nature.' Vida had her career and such declaration may have resulted in her not being able to follow her charity work. Florence was an author - with much to lose. NOT a porn site, but a second home for lesbians world-wide