In Part I of this series, I reflect on the methodological comparison between the portrayal of women in the musical Hamilton and my own research on the Port-Royal nuns. Part II—to be coming later this summer—will examine the methodological inspiration I receive from feminist biblical scholars, especially Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.
This blog post has been a long time coming. I started writing it in 2018 after having been fortunate enough to see Hamilton twice when it was touring in Los Angeles. Several of my colleagues at the time asked how I managed such a feat because they were unable to get tickets. The answer is that for the first show I literally was on the phone with Ticketmaster at the exact moment the tickets went on sale—like I used to do in high school to get concert tickets. (For the second, a friend was supposed to go with someone else, but when that person had to change plans, she asked me if I wanted to see it again.) I revived my writing again last summer in honor of the movie version coming out on Disney+. After seeing it twice in person and now several times more on Disney+, I can confirm that I absolutely love the musical. What I was most excited about having it on Disney+ was the ability to show it to my son who, at the time, was most definitely not yet at the age that he could sit through a stage performance of a musical. Now that he’s older and Broadway is going to be opening up again post-pandemic, I’m already talking with family about taking him to see Hamilton as his first musical.
Now, you may wonder why I’m writing about Hamilton for WIT, given that there’s nothing particularly theological about the musical, though Katie wrote about the musical last year in relation to race. Hamilton assumes as a background a vaguely Christian worldview—fitting for the main character of Alexander Hamilton—, with mentions of God thrown in as asides. There’s a probably unintentional theology of God’s providence implicit in Aaron Burr’s song “Wait For it.” He sings, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway. … And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died, I’m willing to wait for it.” God is not mentioned explicitly, but Burr’s perspective is that there is a direction and purpose to history that he must trust will lead him to where he ultimately needs to be. Within the vaguely Christian worldview of the musical, that would be God’s providence. In some ways, Aaron Burr’s trajectory over the course of the musical is from a view that humans can contribute nothing to God’s divine plan (in “Wait For It”) to a realization that humans need to cooperate with God’s providence (in “The Room Where It Happens”: “I want to be in the room where it happens…”). But perhaps I’m now reading too much theologically into the musical.
That said, my methodological background is in historical theology and in this case it’s the history that interests me so much. Now, it’s not just that it’s a historical topic—the life of Alexander Hamilton—that is the premise for the musical. After all, my interest in American history is much less than my interest in European history. (In a later conversation with my friend about what we remembered from what we learned in high school, I confessed that my current knowledge of the history of the American Revolution comes entirely from Hamilton. My knowledge of the French Revolution on the other hand is much more extensive.) Of course, since then I’ve listened to the audiobooks of both Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the book that inspired the musical, which is ~36 hours!) and Catherine Kerrison’s Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America, both of which I highly recommend. Until those books, however, I hadn’t studied or read about American history in any depth since my AP U.S. History class, which was in 1996–97.
On a side note: when I finished listening to the audiobook of Chernow’s text, I noted that this book illustrated well the idea that there has never been a “golden age” of American politics. From the very beginning there have been conflicts and factions and people were most definitely not “civilized” in their debates. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we can do and be better, but it should remind us that going backward doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Returning to the musical, what really interested me about Hamilton is the historiographical reflection that is present in the musical itself. Hamilton is very self-reflective about the whole process of recording and telling history. As George Washington sings to Hamilton before the battle of Yorktown, “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory: You’ve no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
What especially stood out for me when watching the musical was also how it dealt with the question of women’s history and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to articulate a methodology for a feminist historical theology, spurred in part by my continued reflections about women in Hamilton. Now, I’m a little ambivalent in some ways about the overall portrayal of women in the musical. On the one hand, we have some very strong female characters, especially Angelica Schuyler who asserts, “I’ve been reading Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Some men say I’m intense or I’m insane. You want a revolution? I want a revelation, so listen to my declaration: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m gonna compel him to include women in the sequel!” On the other hand, the male characters treat the women as objects, especially unnamed women. For example, Aaron Burr claims that he and Hamilton are both “reliable with the ladies” in terms of there being “so many to deflower” who have both “looks” and “proximity to power.” So, the musical—faithful to dominant views about women in that and so many historical periods—sees women as objects to be used for the benefits, whether sexual or political, of the men. Those of us who study women in history know how much it is an issue of finding sources and knowing how to read them to—as much as possible—get back at the thoughts of the women themselves. As Kerrison writes in Jefferson’s Daughters about the process of trying to reconstruct the life of Harriet—Jefferson’s daughter with his slave Sally Hemmings, “Thinking about Harriet’s life requires peering into these shadows, asking questions to which answers are not always discoverable.”
In Hamilton, one of the characters who is most historiographically self-reflective is Eliza Hamilton, Alexander’s wife. This is fitting because in the biography that inspired the musical, Chernow emphasizes in both the introduction and the epilogue how Eliza, though committed to preserving and redeeming her husband’s memory, left little of herself in the story. Because of this, her legacy in history has been more for being the widow of Alexander Hamilton than for the things she accomplished herself. Some of these accomplishments are included in the final song of the musical, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” where Eliza puts herself “back in the narrative” and asks, “And when my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell my story?” But telling women’s stories in history is very dependent on reading sources in a certain way. Because of this, this has some similarities with the writings of the nuns that I work on. In the case of my research, the nuns—unlike Eliza Hamilton—left a good amount of records of their writings, but many of their writings are seeped in a rhetoric of humility and the reader must always keep in mind that there is an aspect of their writing that is shaped by this feminine and monastic style which may obscure their own voice and some of their own ideas. Related to this, the end of chapter 2 of Jefferson’s Daughters talks about education of girls in eighteenth-century France, the education that Martha Jefferson would have received while in Paris with her father. She was educated at a convent school and part of the philosophe’s attacks at the time were on this system of education. Importantly, there was a continued denigration of educated women during this time, which can also be compared to the denigration of the Port-Royal nuns as théologiennes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
So, what really struck me about Hamilton when I first saw it was how much Eliza’s role resonated with my own work of recovering women’s voices in theology. This is also apparent in the biography in Chernow’s discussion of Eliza’s role in preserving Alexander’s memory. In all this, however, Eliza’s own voice is comparatively silent—the difficulty that feminist historical theologians share with feminist historians. Namely, that for a variety of reasons, we have less of a record of women’s writings, especially from earlier historical eras. In the musical, this is noted explicitly in Eliza’s song, “Burn.” She sings, “I’m erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. … I’m burning the memories, burning the letters that might have redeemed you.” I was recently talking with Daniella Kostroun—a historian who also works on the Port-Royal nuns—about how we don’t have any letters from Mother Angélique prior to 1620, the time in which she was reforming the convent. Our suspicion is that the letters that we have were carefully curated by the nuns and any that didn’t fit the narrative that they wanted to tell, such as any letters she wrote before 1620, were destroyed.
This difficulty in recovering women’s voices and examples from history comes up in a book I read last year, Elizabeth Johnson’s Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 1998). She critiques some of the historical developments of the cult of the saints as having been too influenced by patriarchy and, therefore, male models of holiness. This is demonstrated by the disproportionate number of male saints compared to female saints. Then she proposes feminist methods of memory to recover female models of holiness. These are to “recover lost memory, rectify distortion, reassess value, and respeak the silence surrounding women’s lives” (p. 142). Recovering lost memory is straightforward: this involves recovering the stories of women who have been pushed aside or ignored. Rectifying distortion is similar: this involves examining the historical tradition about these women and looking at the evidence to retell their stories in a more accurate way. The example she gives for this is Mary Magdalene who has been portrayed more as the repentant sinner than as the Apostle to the Apostles. Reassessing value does this as well: it involves again returning to the historical evidence to find new ways for these stories to speak to us. Finally, reclaiming the silence asks us to look at the evidence of all the anonymous women in the tradition. Much of Johnson’s discussion of historical methodology here echoes the work of another feminist theologian who has been inspirational to me as a feminist historical theologian, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. In part II of this series of posts, I will continue my methodological exploration by looking at her work as a model for feminist historical theology.