With March marking Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the important role that women have played in fighting for the separation of church and state and religious freedom -- an impact that’s often been overlooked despite our nation's history of discriminating against women on the basis of religion.

The way that we document history, the sources we save, and the voices we privilege make it seem as though there are not many women who have played prominent roles in the fight for religious freedom in the United States. Of course, this is not the case. Women were integral in the fight for church-state separation, and, thankfully, we have evidence about the contributions of many of them.

One of the most important women in religious freedom history is Anne Hutchinson. In 1634, Hutchinson illuminated what it meant to be a rebel by partaking in a religious conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unfortunately, we don’t have many sources written in Anne’s own voice, but historians have managed to piece together her story.

Speaking out for what she believed in came at a cost. Her trial is famously cited by historians, and her pursuit of genuine freedom of conscience makes her legacy all the more iconic.

She hosted biweekly meetings in her home that were technically “illegal,” because during them, she criticized the way that the Puritan church was running the colony. Hutchinson supported the preaching of John Cotton, a minister who “taught salvation is a free and private gift of God, a departure from the prevailing Puritan belief that it is something a person must earn by obeying God’s laws.”

This wasn’t considered orthodox enough for the Puritan leaders running the colony. Because of her dissent, Hutchinson was put on trial and charged with contempt and sedition. As a result, was expelled from the colony, and the Church of Boston excommunicated her. 

Being a midwife, Hutchinson gained the trust of women around her, many of whom ended up being religious dissenters, too, and were banished from the colony alongside her. According to historians, “The domestic setting for Hutchinson’s leadership is key to understanding the role of premodern women in religious life. It was among her female neighbors in need of her medical skills that she first communicated her controversial religious ideas.”

Speaking out for what she believed in came at a cost. Her trial is famously cited by historians, and her pursuit of genuine freedom of conscience makes her legacy all the more iconic.

Church leaders demanded that Hutchinson repent – with no success.

“If the trial seems harsh to the modern reader, its role within the Puritan context was punitive only in a limited sense. Punishment by the church was meant to inspire repentance, and a genuine act of repentance could lead to the restoration of church membership,” notes The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-1638: A Documentary History. “Those who prosecuted Mrs. Hutchinson hoped that she would confess her errors, as, for a moment, she did. But in the end she stood her ground and the church had no other choice then to cast her out.”

Her strong stand was significant at a time where speaking out against the church endangered her life, and her legacy lives on. (Expelled from Massachusetts, Hutchinson and her family moved to New York. A few years later, most of them were killed during a skirmish with Native Americans.)

We have a lot to appreciate Hutchinson for. Hutchinson’s legacy continues to show that we must protect the religious diversity of our nation. Whether you profess a faith or don’t, you have the right to dissent, regardless of what religious zealots say.

(Photo: "Anne Hutchinson on Trial" by Edwin Austin Abbey, made in 1901.)