Why so few women writers? Tony Jasper responds

Authors & translators:
van Alstyne, Frances Jane
Authors & translators:
Crosby, Fanny
Authors & translators:
Alstyne, Frances Jane van

The centenary of Constance Coltman’s ordination to the presbyteral ministry prompted some StF+ correspondents to reflect more especially on the ministry of hymn writing and to ask why there are relatively few women writers represented in our hymn books. The prolific writer, actor and musician Tony Jasper offers the following thoughts as a kind of “starter for ten”.

In my book Next We Shall Sing (2008: Highland Press) I have six pages on women hymn writers with due note to ask why so few.

Valentine Cunningham, in the Guardian newspaper (30 March, 2002) wrote about “how Victorian women gave the Anglican church its greatest hits”. She majors on the subversive, sometimes highly sexual nature, of women’s writing:

“Into a religious world managed by men, these women subversively interposed words, feelings, experiences manifestly from the female sphere. This was the subaltern majority in the pew taking over, as it were, the pulpits from which they were excluded. They wrote as women, as wives, mothers, sisters, from places a male church confined them to: Sunday school, orphanages, girls' schools, bazaars for the missionaries.”

Is this one reason that hymns why the hymns of women have often been hard to take, not least in hymn book selection committees dominated by men?

Read Valentine Cunningham’s full article: The hymns were hers.

In Next We Shall Sing I instance a number of books by women, including Lavinia Byrne’s Hidden Voice: Christian Women and Social Change (1995: SPCK) and a 1904 publication, Half-Hours with “The Methodist Hymn-Book” by Mary Champness (re-published by Leopold Classic Library in 2016). I include notes on 41 women hymn writers but find them difficult to locate among the 400 plus books on hymns that I possess. As to why, I cannot say!

Fanny Crosby - as prolific as Charles Wesley

Other books that reflect on the work of women writers include Mrs. E.R.Pitman’s Lady Hymn Writers (1892: T. Nelson & Sons); Hymns and Human Life by the pioneering hymnologist Erik Routley (1952: John Murray); and Bernard Ruffin’s biography of Fanny Crosby: the hymn writer (reprinted by Barbour Books in 2013). Fanny, of course, was also known as Francis Jane Alstyne. Next to Charles Wesley she was one of the great hymn production machines – said to have produced 7,000 texts.

It is interesting even in, say, the book Christian Hymn-Writers by Elsie Houghton (Evangelical Press of Wales) that out of 50 entries there are only seven women mentioned. Only Anne Griffiths provides a female entry in the 19th century publication Sweet Singers of Wales by H. Elvet Lewis (Religious Tract Society), but even in 1990 Alan Luff’s fine read Welsh Hymns and Their Tunes (Stainer and Bell) makes reference to a mere eleven women.

[Ed. Note also the chapter on women hymn writers in Erik Routley's 1952 book Hymns and Human Life. More recently, Epworth Press published Janet Wootton's substantial This Is Our Song: Women’s hymn-writing (2010). Janet has also written an account of "the long and varied story of women's ordination in Britain in the Free Churches" - This is Our Story (2007: Epworth Press).]

Janet Wootton gathers the voices of women hymn writers in This is Our Song

The presence of women is often restricted. In the fairly recent Common Ground hymn book (1998: Saint Andrew Press) I find a mere 15 women writers. I counted in Hymns & Psalms (1983: British Methodist Church) 37 women writers in a compilation of 823 hymns, so leaving an astonishing 745 from me. Even deleting from the total hymns those by Charles Wesley, we hit 500 or so by men.

In terms of my much used recent hymn books – I count 27 women out of 330 authors in Sing Praise: hymns and songs for refreshing worship (2010: Hymns Ancient and Modern) and for Singing the Faith (2011: Hymns Ancient and Modern) 81 from 748. (Ed. 22 per cent of authors are women). I have included Catherine Winkworth, who appears in Singing the Faith as a translator of three well-known hymns all by men: Martin Rinkart, Joachim Neander and Martin Luther (StF 81, 88 and 433 respectively).

About Tony Jasper

Tony  has published over 70 titles on music and relgion. His book Next We Shall Sing has been described as "upsetting hymnological applecarts like moneychangers’ tables." He has been a regular contributor to The Methodist Recorder.

Copies of Next We Shall Sing are available. For details, email tony.jasper@btinternet.com. His website details his work as author, broadcaster, actor playwright and journalist: https://jasperian.org/

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