A few months ago I attended a memorial service at a very conservative church down the road from us. In that church’s main hallway there is a large bulletin board with photographs of all of that church’s leaders. All of the leaders had something in common; they were all men. The ministers of that church: all men. The board, officers, and elders: all men. Chairs of committees: all men. Sunday school teachers: all men, with the exception of classes for second grade and younger. And over at the far end of the bulletin board, a grouping of photos of women: the leaders of the women’s auxiliary.
When I arrived here in 2003 I had my picture taken to be added to the wall of photos of ministers. The photo was taken and framed – God, do I look young in that photo! – and was ready to be added to the wall alongside Frank, Vern, and Dave, the first three called ministers. There was a decision to be made. Do we remove the photograph of Paige, who served for one year as our interim minister, or do we leave her up? I was consulted and my response was to leave her up. I didn’t want it to be just a wall of dudes.
The conservative church believes in the literal inerrancy of scripture. Their wall of photographs reflects that they follow what is taught in 1 Timothy 2:12 in the New Testament. “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She is to keep silent.” As Unitarian Universalists we reject the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy. We reject literal readings of scripture. We reject the history of oppression, discrimination, and conquest that has been justified through a selective reading of scripture. As Unitarian Universalists we reject 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34. As one of our hymns puts it, we strive to “build a church that shall be free – free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed… [and] free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.”
So I suggested that the wall in the foyer should make that clear. It was either that or draw straws and photoshop one of the dudes. If the idea of, say, “Laverne Barnet” strikes you as uncomfortable, I would remind you that biblical scholars have shown that as early editions of the Bible were passed down, the names of women were often omitted, erased, or had their gender reassigned by giving them a masculine form of a feminine name.
In religious life, in fact I would say in all of life, there is a need to balance the negative turn with the positive turn. In religious life, it is one thing to know what it is that you reject, what you deny, what you don’t believe, what you won’t accept. This is extremely important. But then, it is important to take the next step, the positive turn, the claiming of what it is you do believe, and what you’re called to do about it.
On this Sunday closest to Independence Day I want to speak about four women. I’ve chosen these four women because they participated in, in fact led, one of the greatest and most important social movements in the history of our country and in human history. The tie in with Independence Day is obvious, and would be obvious even if we weren’t going to be marching in a parade in celebration of a century of women’s suffrage in Kansas. This social movement was about claiming the rights that are fundamental to any democracy. It was about nothing less than human liberty. The tie in to our faith is equally obvious. These women were all Unitarians, more or less, some more than others. And, I’ve chosen these women because they answered the call to not only speak about what they do believe, but to do something about it. They answered the call with lives of sacrifice, service, and dedication. And, finally, I’ve chosen these women because their struggle has significance for us today in a country and a world where full women’s equality has yet to be achieved, in a country and world where women’s rights are under attack, and in a country and state in which voter suppression strategies increasingly threaten the democratic process.
Allow me to speak with unfortunate brevity about Susan, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Olympia.
The lives of the first three women, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone, are deeply intertwined. This “triumvirate of nineteenth century feminism” inspired each other to action, and were in turn inspired by the massive social, religious, literary, and cultural upheavals of the early eighteen hundreds, in which Unitarianism and Transcendentalism played a major part.
Susan B. Anthony is by far the most well-known of the three. She is the one featured on the one dollar coin and the one we learn about in school. Susan B. Anthony was also the last to join the cause of women’s rights, becoming inspired after reading an account of a speech by Lucy Stone in a newspaper published by Unitarian Horace Greeley. Susan B. Anthony was born in western Massachusetts in 1820 and was raised as a Quaker. After working as a teacher in her twenties, in 1849 she moved to Rochester, New York, where she regularly attended the Unitarian church. Rochester was a hotbed of activity in the early women’s movement. In 1848, the first convention on women’s rights took place in nearby Seneca Falls. It produced a bold declaration that was ratified two weeks later when a second convention was hosted by the Rochester Unitarian Church. That convention made history because a woman was elected to preside over a public meeting, the first time that had happened.
In Rochester, Susan B. Anthony met Lucy Stone, whose speech had inspired her, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan and Elizabeth became a formidable duo working together to advance abolition, racial justice, temperance, and women’s rights. In 1872 Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election and was denied the right to speak at her own trial. She was fined one hundred dollars for this act of civil disobedience, and she steadfastly refused to pay.
Susan B. Anthony worked for rights in close partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was born in 1815 in New York, the daughter of a wealthy attorney and congressman. Stanton received the privileges of a top rate education. When her cherished brother died tragically on the eve of his graduation from college, Elizabeth, who was every bit her brother’s intellectual equal, promised her father that she would continue the family’s legacy. Her father sighed and told her that he wished she had been born a boy. Interestingly, Susan B. Anthony has an early experience with education that proved to be influential. In primary school one of her teachers refused to teach her long division because of her gender.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was raised as a Presbyterian but an encounter with religious revivalism left her in despair and led her to reject Christianity and organized religion. Unlike Susan B. Anthony, who never married, Elizabeth Cady Stanton did marry and had seven children. Susan B. Anthony liked to build alliances and cultivate relationships while Stanton prided herself in shaking things up. For example, Anthony and Stanton suffered a falling out over Stanton’s outspoken rejection of religion, which Anthony and others felt would alienate potential allies. Stanton’s advocacy for divorce rights bothered her suffragette sisters who preferred to be more politically calculating.
A third figure who we heard from earlier in our reading was Lucy Stone, whose speech at an early women’s rights convention so inspired Susan B. Anthony. Stone was born in western Massachusetts and became a Unitarian after she was kicked out of her Congregationalist church for being too much of an activist. Stone is simply too feisty not to mention. She was the first woman in the state of Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She married a devoted abolitionist named Henry Blackwell, a man who was so smitten that he proposed to her within an hour of meeting her. She refused. He persisted. Two years later they were married and their marriage ceremony began with them speaking a joint protest against the laws of marriage that made the husband superior to the wife. They also printed their protest and had it distributed to their wedding guests and it was even reprinted in the New York Times. Lucy Stone kept her last name, a scandalous act. Interestingly, the men in the Blackwell family seemed attracted to radical women. Henry’s brother married Antoinette Brown, the first woman to be ordained by a congregation in the United States.
In addition to the triumvirate of Susan, Elizabeth, and Lucy, there are dozens of women’s suffrage advocates that deserve mention, but I want to mention just one. Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone were Unitarians committed to winning the vote for women, but the Universalists were represented as well. Olympia Brown, a Universalist, was ordained in 1863 and was the first woman whose ordination was recognized by a denomination. She served congregations in New England but also was active in speaking and organizing for women’s suffrage. Olympia Brown, at the urging of Lucy Stone, came to Kansas in the summer of 1867 and delivered, over the course of a single summer, 300 speeches advocating for suffrage.
In 1887, Olympia Brown left parish ministry to become a full-time organizer for women’s right to vote. She worked tirelessly for this cause until victory was achieved and the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1919. Olympia Brown was 85 years old and still marching in the streets. She lived to legally cast a vote, something that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone could never do in their lifetime.
In 1920, at the age of 85, Olympia Brown returned to the last church she served and delivered a 45 minute sermon entitled “The Opening Doors.” In this hopeful and passionate address she speaks of increasing social freedoms, scientific discoveries, and learning as revealing the character of the divine. She preached,
“When the other day I saw crowds of women of all conditions coming into the polling booth all filled with great enthusiasm, forgetting old prejudices, old associations and former interest, only seeking to know how to serve the state… I said, they are grander than I thought. There is a Divine Life in them which this new experience is revealing… The Opening Doors lead to no dark dungeons, open no burning lake, give no evidence of everlasting punishment. But all gladden us with assurances of Divine Goodness and indicate the final triumph of the good.”
Looking back at her life, Olympia Brown remarked, “The grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal.”
I want you to hold this number, 27 million. More women, many more women, chose not to vote in the last presidential election than were legally barred from voting in the 1916 presidential election. In fact, based on reports of voter turnout, it is safe to estimate that nearly 50 million American women eligible to vote in the 2008 presidential elections did not bother to go to the polls. Men failed to vote in even greater numbers. Today when voter turnout is extremely high, at most 60% of eligible voters will vote in a Presidential election. At most 40% will vote in a mid-term election. At most 20% will vote in a primary. Other elections, such as municipal elections, may attract less than ten 10% of eligible voters.
Today, civil liberties and civil rights organizations are concerned about a new wave of voter suppression laws and tactics that are sweeping the country. In recent years, dozens of states have passed laws making it more difficult for people to vote. The most common laws require voters to show a photo identification when going to the polls. Other laws require people to produce a birth certificate or proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Still other laws make early voting more difficult and make it more difficult for voters to change their registration, whether it is your address or your party affiliation. Some states have even gone so far as to attempt to ban or restrict third party voter registration drives.
Personal experience: I have always been deeply committed to voting as both a civic responsibility and an act of faith. Between the age of 22 and 26, I had 9 different permanent addresses in 4 different states, and I voted in every election I was eligible to vote in. I was able to do this because registering to vote did not require a lot of jumping through hoops, and third party voter registration drives helped a lot. I remember moving into a new apartment and needing to register to vote. I entered voter registration into an on-line search engine. This was before the age of Google. And, the first selection that came up was the voter registration program of the World Wrestling Federation, which they called, “Smackdown Your Vote!” And I thought, sure, I’ll smack down my vote, and two minutes later I was registered.
Voter suppression laws, from photo ID requirements to birth certificates to restrictions on third party registrations, disproportionately hurt several classes of people including the elderly who may have difficulty producing a photo ID and, if they were born in a rural area, may not have ever had a birth certificate. It hurts the poor and racial minorities who are far less likely to have identification and for whom taking a trip to a municipal building during business hours may be a hardship. It hurts young people who already vote in lower numbers and move frequently. It is estimated that five million eligible voters – a large percentage of which are racial minorities – might be turned away because of these new voting laws. This does not count an additional five million Americans who are barred from voting because of a criminal record.
Legal attempts to make voting more challenging are justified by their proponents as a way of combatting voter fraud. The problem though is that voter fraud is not a problem. An intensive government program aimed at preventing voter fraud yielded just 86 convictions during a period between 2002 and 2007 in which 300 million votes were cast nationally. According to this report, during a period in which 50 million votes were cast in Texas, there was only one incident of a person imitating another person at the polls.
There is a tremendous dissonance between the lives of our radical Unitarian and Universalist forebears like Susan, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Olympia and the often apathetic and indifferent populace we encounter today. It is a tragedy to think that so many people take for granted a right that was won by generations of activists who marched and spoke out, who went to jail and went on hunger strikes. We should be aware that the same forces of oppression that originally limited voting to land-owning white males continues to seek to disenfranchise voters today.