2013 Doctoral Dissertation on Searching for May Maxwell, a Prominent Early Canadian Baha’i

“Searching for May Maxwell: Bahá’í Millennial Religious Feminism, Transformative Identity & Globalism in the New World Order (1998–1940),” a 2013 doctoral dissertation by Canadian Bahá’í Selena M. Crosson “demonstrates that a group of Western women connected to May Maxwell though 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.”

Dr. Crosson goes on to explain in the Abstract to her dissertation that, “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,” Dr. Crosson continues, “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.”

Dr. Crosson concludes the Abstract to her doctoral dissertation by saying that “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.”

“Searching for May Maxwell” contains six chapters:

1 – Introduction
2 – Origins: Transformative Female Bahá’í Identities
3 – A New Paradigm: Bahá’í Millennial Religious Feminism
4 – Operationalizing the New World Order: Bahá’í Millennial Reform
5 – Myth (& Counter-Myth): Heroes, Martyrs, Mothers and Saints in the “New World Order”
6 – Conclusion

Dr. Crosson became a Bahá’í at the age of sixteen in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. She studied visual arts at the University of Saskatchewan in Regina and in 1976 moved to Peterborough, Ontario, to teach LifeSkills, where she married and raised four children. After working for years as an artist, she studied the conservation of art and archival and museum materials, teaching conservation for a time at Fleming College in Peterborough. She also completed an honors degree in English literature and a Master’s degree in Canadian studies at Trent University in Peterborough. Remarried, in 2004 she returned to the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, to complete her Ph.D. in history. In late 2013 she moved to Haifa, Israel, where she is working as a conservator in the Department of Library and Archive at the Bahá’í World Center.

About Searching for May Maxwell,” Dr. Crosson explains that her dissertation sprang from the question, “When and how did Western Bahá’í culture begin and what role did women play in its development?” She says she first looked to her own Canadian spiritual forbearer, May Maxwell. Then she contacted Dr. Will van den Hoonaard, who commented to her on his experience in writing The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 1898–1948, that “May Maxwell is everywhere and nowhere.” Dr. van den Hoonaard’s comment prompted her dissertation’s title “Searching for May Maxwell.”

Dr. Crosson says that it was challenging to write her dissertation without having access to the majority of May’s letters, which have not been opened to researchers. However, a broader approach, exploring not only Bahá’í history but also the history of Western feminism, located May Maxwell as a nodal nexus in a web of extraordinary women who helped to shape early Western Bahá’í culture—women such as Lua Getsinger, Juliet Thompson, Laura Clifford Dreyfus-Barney, Martha Root, Agnes Alexander, and others, who, in some ways exemplified the “new woman” of the early twentieth century.  Dr. Crosson’s question was what distinguished Bahá’í women from numerous other sincere reformers, now often characterized as “first-wave” feminists, who strove to build a better society and to improve the status of women.

After much archival research, and drawing heavily on Bahai News and Star of the West, Dr. Crosson concluded that Bahá’í women differed in important ways from other activists. She describes them as “millennial religious feminists,” inasmuch as their globalist Bahá’í vision required gender equality as a fundamental prerequisite of the new World Order that they sought to build. They also differed from other Western groups in that they were empowered and guided by Middle Eastern male leaders, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, both of whom supported the advancement of women to an unusual degree, particularly when compared to other male religious and secular leaders of the era. Dr. Crosson’s dissertation examines some of the well-known mythologies and activities that grew up among this group of early Bahá’í women and explores ways in which these women themselves were later mythologized as paradigmatic exemplars by their faith community.

“Searching for May Maxwell” is a must-read for men and women, for those interested in the history and development of the Bahá’í Faith, and for those interested in the history of the equality of women and men.

To access Dr. Crosson’s dissertation, see http://ecommons.usask.ca/bitstream/handle/10388/ETD-2013-10-1145/CROSSON-DISSERTATION.pdf?sequence=