2016-06-30
I wanted to take some time to study the origins of American feminism, and in so doing, accidentally stumbled upon the abolitionist feminists of the nineteenth century, whose relatively unknown story needs to be told. These were women of color as well as white women, who knew that their country was founded on the ideal of "liberty and justice for all," and decided to take this declaration at face value. They took offense at the idea of a liberty that was for white men only. The same rights belonged to men and women of color, to poor people, to immigrants, to children; all humans were deserving.

The story begins with a fierce band of Quaker women who began to ponder the unequal treatment of women and people of color in the culture. In the silence of their meetings, a voice spoke to them and guided them to the work they needed to do in the world. They developed absolute certainty that God's law demanded freedom for all people. Slavery must end. They were confident that they were being called by God to bring this vision of justice into the world. No more taxation without representation. No more pay discrepancy. No more silence in the church. They tucked their Bibles under their arms and marched to the first abolitionist-women's rights meetings, propelled by the vision of this spiritual mandate.

Increasingly, scholars acknowledge that American feminism was rooted in the abolitionist movement, and that religion played a central role in condemning the institution of slavery and substantiating the need for immediate abolition. Women created many local female abolitionist societies. Representatives of these societies came together in New York in 1837, forming the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, the first national political women's meeting in America's history. Both black and white women met and began to break the taboo of speaking in public and petitioning in the political arena. Calling their work "the cause of God," this courageous band of 180 women saw themselves on a mission to unite Heaven and Earth, in the form of a society that would live and practice the democratic and religious ideals it espoused.

This convention has received relatively little study by historians. But the documentation of this meeting shows these earliest feminists to be revolutionaries and visionaries who had their eyes on a universal law that superseded man-made ecclesiastical and governmental laws of the day. I studied these earliest feminists for two years, focusing on how they were galvanized by their religious passion to act in radical revolution. They were catalyzed into action not by a social ethic, but by a belief in an ontology of connection-that we are all meant to live in equality and harmony. It was this metaphysical vision that set fire in their hearts and started a social revolution. Having the conviction that something needed to change meant doing whatever was required. "This is a cause worth dying for," declared Angelina Grimke about her commitment to speak out against slavery.

The backlash against women meeting together publicly was severe. When these same women met again the next year, this time in Philadelphia, a mob of 10,000 men encircled the building, shouting and angrily throwing stones through the windows. It got to the point where no one inside the meeting hall could hear what was being said. When it was impossible to continue the meeting, the women filed arm in arm out into the street. While they were able to exit safely, the mob continued to riot around the meeting hall, breaking the doors and windows. They finally set fire to the building.

This public backlash to the women's convention was devastating in some ways but also galvanizing in others. Reading the women's diaries and other primary accounts of this event, I could feel the deepening resolve of these early feminists. It came naturally, from the deep springs of their faith in God. The women documented the proceedings of each convention, and these writings help us see how their faith and their courage to fight for social reform were intertwined. They began their meetings with prayer. Then they voted on public resolutions such as this one: "The time has come for woman to move in that sphere which Providence has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied with the circumscribed limits with which corrupt custom and a perverse application of Scripture have encircled her." This statement is the first public call for women's rights in America.

I can't read these words without feeling stirred. And I find the phrase, "a perverse application of Scripture," to be a startling acknowledgment that the ecclesiastical structures of the day used religion as a weapon against women, especially against those who were fighting for the professed ideals at the heart of Christianity. This is not an unknown tactic in our own time. I am often embarrassed or outraged by fundamentalist doctrine that, in my view, has been used to set back the progress we've made in human rights. We must continue to be wary of the "perverse application of Scripture" for the purpose of justifying policies and institutions that keep people divided and excluded.

As I studied this early feminist organizing, I saw it was significant in other ways. The abolitionist feminists insisted on "Sympathy for the Slave" as the organizing motto. They worked in pairs, circulating petitions, and in groups on collaborative writing projects. And in so doing, they acknowledged their awareness that their abolitionist activism brought the values of empathy and relationship they had cultivated in their homes into the public realm. They had no intention of leaving behind the strengths and beliefs they knew would serve them well as they enlarged the sphere of action. Empathy and relationship-two values desperately needed in public life today.

Ten years later, in 1848, what is generally acknowledged to have been the first women's rights meeting in America was held. Five women met in Seneca Falls, New York, for what became a notorious tea party where women plotted revolution. The women were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, and Lucretia Mott. They shared their outrage over not being allowed to participate in public meetings or have a voice in society. The decision was made at this small but historic meeting to place a notice in the newspaper calling for a Women's Rights Convention to be held at a nearby church. The purpose would be "to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Woman." The notice ran on July 14, 1848, and only five days later, three hundred people, including some forty men, attended the first Women's Rights Convention. About a hundred attendees signed their names to the famous Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Some of the same women attending this convention had helped plan the antislavery conventions, and their knowledge of protocol helped to make this gathering a great success. This Seneca Falls Convention is considered to have officially set in motion the most important social movement of America's history.

In her memoirs, Elizabeth Cady Stanton states that there was "a religious earnestness that dignified all the proceedings." While this meeting laid the groundwork for what became the suffrage movement, in truth, the movement's social implications were broader than that. By starting with the issue of the vote for women, they were ushering in a social transformation that cut across the political, social, and economic structure of the country. Think of it! Five religious women sitting at tea, believing simply that God had called them to do the right thing, were catalytic in a groundswell movement to usher in social equity that is still reverberating in our lives.

It is remarkable that one of the most significant social revolutions of all time was fueled in large part by the personal convictions of a small band of nineteenth-century religious revolutionaries. I don't think we can begin to understand their actions if we don't make an effort to understand their faith. Nor can we understand their faith without looking more closely at their lives.

When we read their letters and study their public writings, we learn an interesting fact. Nineteenth-century feminists made a distinction between institutional authority and their own intensely personal religious experiences. The fact that the church wasn't supporting their efforts didn't mean that God wasn't supporting them, nor did it invalidate their religious faith. Those early feminists were filled with the confidence that their mission was an outgrowth of divine order and justice.

They sorted out the issues wisely. Personal religious experience is not necessarily the same as organized religious doctrine. My concern is that as contemporary women we have lost the capacity to make this distinction. As far as I'm concerned, if a religious institution does not support an issue that is based upon Christ's teaching, it's imperative to challenge the institution, not necessarily the teaching.

Unfortunately, some feminists are immune to this difference. They have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. They have ignored the transformative power of religion because they deplore the stupidity and blindness of some of its practitioners. And many contemporary feminist historians have written the history of the women's movement solely from the point of view of the secular academy. They have not entered into the reality of these earlier feminists, nor truly listened to their words. This, combined with the fact that churches and temples have been among the strongest opponents of the women's movement, has created a vast chasm between faith and feminism.

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