Monday, March 17, 2008

Sermon: "Brave UU Women of the Midwest" (Delivered 3-16-2008)

The reading this morning comes from a sermon preached in 1999 by The Reverend Ken Sawyer. Rev. Sawyer will be our visiting distinguished guest minister the last weekend in April. He is the minister of the church in which I grew up where he has served for the past 34 years. He delivered this sermon at the ordination of Rebecca Cohen, who had been the intern in Wayland. This sermon was covered by the New York Times because at the moment of her ordination a tipping point was reached. At the moment she was ordained, the Unitarian Universalist ministry was exactly half men and half women. I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing his words slightly, but you can read the original sermon here.
“[In the early 1800’s, t]he church was a female bailiwick. And many of those church women had what these days people are calling ministries, bringing soup and solace to shut-ins, providing financial and other aid to the needy, raising money and raising Cain for good causes within the larger society.

“But they still had men for ministers, in every case. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson could decide to be a Unitarian minister, then he could decide he'd rather not be. But for Margaret Fuller, his intellectual cohort, there was no such choice available. Imagine if there had been, imagine if she'd gone into the ministry, imagine if she'd liked it and stayed – and I admit, you have to stretch your imagination a bit – but imagine the religious power she might have brought but couldn't.

“Let me offer another case in point. The most distinguished resident of our little town was the nineteenth-century author, editor, and activist, Lydia Maria Child. She was a very popular novelist in her early twenties, back in the 1820s, at which time she founded the country's first magazine for children; in 1834 she authored one of the earliest and strongest attacks on slavery in a very controversial book; she was a lifelong activist, first in the cause of abolition and then in the cause of the fair treatment of former slaves; during the Civil War, she organized the women of Wayland to sew bandages for wounded Union soldiers; she wrote a history of the treatment of women, a multi-volume introduction to world religions, and many other books; she was aid and comfort to her neighbors in times of their distress...

“Think of it: this brilliant woman, with a passion for justice, a talent for words, an eagerness for organizing, a devotion to learning, a deep interest in matters religious, and an open-minded questing for a life of the spirit -- among the positions for which she could not hope to compete, having been born in 1802 and having been born a woman, was that of minister. No, that was what her brother, Convers Francis, was [and he did a good job at it.]

“And maybe she would not have wanted the job. But she could have had the freedom to decide. By the time she died in 1880, women were starting to make inroads into our ministry, Universalist and Unitarian alike, long before most other denominations. And here we are today, with equality at hand. Praise be.”

In 1999, Unitarian Universalism achieved numerical gender equality in the ministry. Since then the numbers have continued to tilt towards the side of women. Today about seventy-percent of ministers graduating from our seminaries are women.

Our denomination is not the only one to see an influx of women. This has been the trend for all the Mainline Christian churches: the UCC and Disciples, the Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. This has also been the case for the Reform Jews. Unlike the Unitarian Universalists, women do not come even close to fifty percent in any of those other faith traditions. As Unitarian Universalists, we are ahead of the curve.

The Universalists were the first American denomination to recognize an ordained woman when they recognized the Reverend Olympia Brown in 1863. Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained by her congregational church a decade earlier, but the ordination wasn’t recognized by her denomination due to a technicality. She had finished her course of study in Divinity at Oberlin but was refused a diploma on the grounds that the school did not give diplomas to women. Even though Universalists and Unitarians have been ordaining women since 1863, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that women began to fill pulpits in any significant number. In the late 1970’s our General Assembly passed a series of resolutions encouraging women to become ministers. Within 20 years, half of all ministers were women, and now way more than half.

It is important to recognize that numerical equality doesn’t mean actual equality. Just as in the business world, women bump up against the glass ceiling, in the church world they run into a stained glass ceiling. Concerning women ministers in mainline Christian congregations, Brian McClaren writes,
“Women [ministers] have often been sent in as hospice workers to care for moribund and dying congregations, a tendency that only reinforces stereotypes about women as caretakers, not leaders, and makes work satisfaction, much less professional success, a pretty dim hope.”
Bringing what McClaren writes home, a few weeks ago I attended a luncheon sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women in which panelists representing the Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths spoke about their respective views of the afterlife. It was telling to me that the Muslim and Hindu women had no title, and that the Catholic woman was a teacher at a local school. Only the Jewish representative was ordained. She is an “Associate Rabbi” at a large synagogue where a man is the head Rabbi. (If my memory serves me correctly, women have been eligible to hold the position of Rabbi in Judaism for about forty years.)

I cannot speak authoritatively for the Hindu and Muslim traditions, but the Catholic speaker, by virtue of her gender, would be ineligible to hold a number of positions, namely Priest, Bishop, Arch-Bishop, Cardinal, and Pope. Maybe she wouldn’t want any of those positions. But, for her it is not a choice.

It should not be surprising that we Unitarian Univeralists are ahead of the curve in breaking down the stained glass ceiling. Women serve in the senior leadership role in two of the five largest pulpits in our movement. Rev. Laurel Hallman is the early favorite to become the next President of our movement. (This does not mean that there still isn’t work to be done.)

But, this morning, I want to take us back in time to the late 1800’s, and to the Midwest, where there arose an amazing movement of women’s religious leadership that endured for about a generation. This movement is chronicled in a book by Cynthia Grant Tucker entitled, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier. [This book is available in our church library.] It deals with what Unitarianism was like in our area of the country a little over a century ago.

A little over a century ago, our movement basically ignored this area of the country. For Unitarians, Boston was the hub of the universe. Those with ideas that were too radical for the Boston establishment came here – well, not here exactly. (Unitarianism in Kansas City was quite conservative and the minister in Lawrence decried Unitarian churches for doing away with creeds and moving away from church-y architecture. My, how times have changed!)

So, those with radical and new ideas came sort of near here. They came to Iowa. The Western Unitarian Conference, presided over by Jenkin Lloyd Jones, advanced ideas like religious cooperation and that the church should function as a “sociological” institution. This differed from the Eastern Unitarians who tended toward theological precision and emphasized academic thought. The Western Unitarian Conference also was open to women’s leadership and ordination. Pulpits in the Midwest were difficult to fill and even harder to fill adequately. I groaned as Dr. Tucker described the revolving door of new Harvard graduates – all men – who came West with a stack of course papers they tried to pass off as sermons and who failed the test of ministry in short order.

When a homegrown, charismatic preacher named Mary Safford stepped into a pulpit in Iowa and succeeded fantastically, women’s religious leadership bloomed. The movement would produce a sisterhood of about 20 female ministers who, for the most part, served Unitarian churches in Iowa before spreading out across the United States. They were nicknamed the “Iowa Sisterhood.” They not only served established churches but also founded dozens of churches in small towns across Iowa. To be sure they filled pulpits nobody else much wanted, were pitifully paid, and were not given recognition by the Boston boys club. But, for a time they presided over spectacularly successful churches in cities and towns across the Midwest.

This movement sprang up like a weed and seemed to flame out just as quickly. With the turn of the 20th Century, a number of factors combined to push these women out of the parishes. Following the Civil War, American Protestants imagined a very feminine Jesus, perhaps seeking solace and healing from that deeply painful chapter of American life. Around this time, Jesus was often depicted with soft, round, feminine features and often the hint of a bosom. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a cult of manhood emerged. We elected Theodore Roosevelt to office. During this period, Jesus was often pictured as a scrappy prize-fighter. But the culture at large cannot was far from the only factor to blame. There were many factors within Unitarianism that pushed these women out of the ministry. For one thing, they hit a stained glass ceiling. Despite growing thriving and vital congregations and attracting throngs to their churches, their opportunities for career advancement were severely limited.

Unable to move up, they moved on. They defected from churches to found and lead a variety of social ministries. And, the leadership skills these women honed in Parish leadership – public speaking, organizing, fundraising, leadership – translated seamlessly into these social ministries where they quickly climbed the ranks. These social movements included following in the footsteps of Jane Addams and founding settlement houses in urban slums. One member of the Iowa sisterhood pioneered what she called “municipal ministry” and became one of America’s first health inspectors where she battled for sanitation legislation. Others became involved in issues of war and peace, organizing against war with the Philippines and in support of the soldiers who fought in World War I.

Finally, many of them became deeply involved in the cause of women’s suffrage, first propagating tracts and giving speeches and then taking to the streets in direct action. When women first won the right to vote in Iowa, it was common for the election offices to hide the ballot boxes in out-of-the-way places in order to disenfranchise women voters. One story recalls a precinct in Des Moines that hid their polling place in a woodshed behind a coal pile. The suffragettes showed up with shovels, dug a trench through the coal pile, and discovered a whiskey bottle in the woodshed. According to the account, the women then had a good time smashing the bottle with their shovels in an alley.

I did not mean to make this sermon a book report. Nor did I mean to make it into a term paper on the history of the Unitarian clergy. So today, in the exact center and the very mid-point of women’s history month, what lessons ought we to take away from the examples of Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon, Caroline Bartlett Crane, and the rest of the Iowa Sisterhood?

One thing we ought to take away is a sense of pride for our heritage. The liberal churches are famous for being ahead of the times and leading the way in addressing important social issues decades and sometimes centuries before other faith groups. And Unitarians and Universalists have been on the leading edge of the liberal churches. This is not to say that it has always been smooth sailing, or that we have engaged in these struggles with any kind of perfection or purity, or that there weren’t plenty of villains who are also our ancestral brothers and sisters.

Concerning their legacy, Cynthia Grant Tucker writes, “The record of these prophetic sisters serves to remind us that, even where there is much to mourn in our past, there may be much to celebrate also, for where women have cast their lives in the terms that they and not others have set for them, their stories of struggle will speak to us of inspiring human achievement and bravery.”

And it is that last word of Tucker’s that really grabs me: “bravery!” I can’t help but think that of all our virtues that we might claim for ourselves as UUs, virtues like reason, acceptance, freedom, open-mindedness, commitment to justice… I can’t help but think that “bravery” is a word we would not normally select to describe ourselves. It is a shame that we don’t think of our own tradition as brave more often.

It took bravery for the Iowa Sisterhood to choose ministry because that choice did not exist until they chose it for themselves. It took bravery for them to fight with Boston for recognition and collegiality. It took bravery for them to testify before legislative bodies, to march, and later to go to jail for the right to vote.

Cynthia Grant Tuckers states that the essence of the bravery of these women had to do with the way they, “cast their lives in terms that they and not others have set for them.” If that line perfectly describes these women it also describes the life of a man nineteen centuries earlier, a man that just about every Christian church in the world is worshipping this morning in the middle of March as we celebrate Women’s History Month.

Just as Jesus pushed the boundaries of Judaism while at the same time staying true to the principles that were at the core of his Jewish faith, so too did the Iowa Sisterhood push the boundaries of Unitarianism even as they remained true to the principles at the core of Unitarianism.

Just as Jesus’ message and ministry was expansive, encompassing many, so too did the message and ministry of the Iowa Sisterhood speak to many.

And, just as Jesus rode into Jerusalem determined to live on his own terms, and not the terms proscribed by Caesar, and just as he would not accept the tyranny of custom when that custom was oppressive and mean, so too did our brave Unitarian ancestors defy the customs that oppressed, that shackled the spirit, that enslaved women and men alike.

What bravery it took for them to proclaim, “No, my life will not be coerced. I will determine my own life.”

What bravery was necessary for them to say, “No, my faith will not be coerced. My faith will be free.”

It was the very essence of courage for them to say, “My life will be my own and my faith will be my own and I will go to whatever lengths it takes – to jailhouse or poorhouse, to the gallows and to the gates of Hell, defying every power and principality, everything high or low, everything human or angelic, to make this freedom of the human spirit available to everyone.” Praise be, indeed!