Message 136, Great Moments in American Spiritual History: July 19, 1848, Seneca Falls, New York and Equal Rights for Women
(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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I preface my message today with a disclaimer. As you might have guessed, my message today will explore the great moment in American spiritual history when the equal rights movement for women began on July 19th, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.
It is not, I admit, entirely appropriate for a man to recount the details of that event and to discuss spiritual implications of women’s demands for full equality. As a man, I cannot intuitively understand all of the complexities in how women feel, and how they have been hurt and demeaned. The same must be said whenever I discuss racism against African-Americans or hispanics. As much as I want to understand and empathize, I am limited by my race and my gender. Indeed, as a member of the dominant race and gender over the past many centuries, a white male should be one of the last to speak on such issues. The era of white male domination of culture, politics, religion and family life is rapidly coming to an end – and that is a good thing for America and all humanity. This new reality in our nation and the world will not exclude white men from conversations about life, politics and culture, but it will result in a more balanced discussion. The role of white men, in the future, ought to be one of greater humility and a willingness to listen and participate as co-workers and not as leaders.
And so I proceed with caution in my message today along with the disclaimer that what I say is limited by my gender along with my hope that each of you, women in particular, will add to, or correct my words.
The first half of the nineteenth century in America was a time of rising self-confidence in American identity and national life. The nation had achieved independence, written a constitution that worked, won three wars, asserted its influence over the western hemisphere in the Monroe Doctrine and expanded its territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Culturally and politically, it wrestled with stated ideals of freedom and equality. The anti-slavery abolitionist movement was a rising force and battles were already being fought over whether the institution of slavery could expand westward and thus survive, or die a slow death confined to the relatively backward south.
A religious second great awakening was also taking place. Fundamentalist Protestant churches were rapidly growing in numbers and influence. A primary focus of this religious awakening was on the supposedly imminent second coming of Christ. Americans sensed a need to put themselves and society in order, to be prepared for the return of Jesus. Fueled by a reaction against reason and Deism, Americans hungered for a less hierarchical religion – one based on the pure teachings of the Bible. Most new converts to such fundamentalist churches were women who sought to diminish traditional roles and power of men in the church. Faith and the Bible should be interpreted by individuals without the control of Priests or ministers. That empowered women in an area where they dominated – the teaching and practice of Christianity in the home. Appropriately, in 1831 the famous evangelist Charles Finney began allowing women to pray aloud during his church services. This was not only a monumental change in religious practice, it openly defied the Biblical command that women must be silent in church.
In this fervent mix of anti-slavery abolition and the second great awakening, many women became aware of their second class status and the incongruity of living in a nation that asserted ideals of equality. Women were at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and most of those women came out of the Quaker religion that allowed for greater gender equality.
It was at one abolition meeting in 1840 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met and began planning for a convention to address women’s rights. Mott had achieved rare fame at the time for being an accomplished speaker – since women were usually not permitted to speak to crowds of any size. She, along with other Quaker women, organized the Seneca Falls Convention that took place on July 19th and 20th, 1848 – a great moment in American spiritual history.
The convention comprised 300 participants of whom about one-third were men. Frederick Douglas, the African-American anti-slavery advocate, was one of the most notable participants. On the second day, the Convention considered and approved a Declaration of Sentiments written almost entirely by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She wisely used the Declaration of Independence as her blueprint. While the majority of delegates to the convention considered the document too radical for them to sign, the convention as a whole voted to approve it and 100 people signed it. A forceful speech by Frederick Douglas, in which he compared the plight of women to that of blacks, carried the day and insured its passage.
The Declaration of Sentiments followed Jefferson’s 1776 document almost word for word while importantly including phrases that say, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal……The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
Among the grievances against women listed in the document were: the denial of the right to vote, the passage of laws affecting women without their consent, the denied right of women to own property, the forced declaration by women to obey their husbands, the absence of any right by women to divorce or own a share of marital property, the denial of a right to education, a forced subordinate role in all aspects of religious and cultural life and, last but not least, being taxed without representation. In conclusion, the Declaration of Sentiments states, “We insist that women have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
While the Declaration’s statements of equality seem obvious in today’s culture, it was a revolutionary document at the time – one which even many female advocates for greater rights refused to support. Male reaction was, predictably, demeaning. One newspaper called the Declaration of Sentiments signed at Seneca Falls “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.”
Just as I asserted last Sunday that the Declaration of Independence was and is more of a spiritual document than a political one, the same is true of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. Like Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Stanton rooted her demand for female rights in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Such laws of nature, such human and moral rights are at their very essence deeply spiritual ideals. Equality of status and rights pertains to the human spirit and not to anything material or physical. Ideals like freedom, dignity and equality inhabit a realm of the spirit that are beyond anything of the material or scientific realm. We cannot touch, see or hear equality. But we know it by intuition, experience and feeling. In that regard, equality is a core spiritual idea and one that echoes back to the very beginning of time when the universe ordered itself and put into place the kinds of natural laws that, as I defined last week, are timeless, universal and not man-made. They simply are. They have been true since the beginning of time and will be so for all eternity.
As we know, however, history tells us that humans have not always enjoyed a full expression of their natural rights. Men and women have not been universally free, equal or able to pursue happiness for themselves and their communities.
The Seneca Falls convention was a landmark moment in history that captured the emerging feelings of women that they must equally enjoy all natural rights. The convention spawned many other meetings and even laid the groundwork for anti-slavery and equal protection claims by African Americans in the 1860’s. Indeed, when the 15th amendment was first debated in 1866, one that would grant citizen and voting rights to blacks, rights for women were included. Sadly, many advocates of full equality for blacks argued that including women in the amendment would insure its defeat. Women who had advocated for abolition and equal rights for blacks were deeply hurt that they had been abandoned. It took until 1920 and the passage of the nineteenth amendment, for women to be granted full citizenship and the right to vote. Elizabeth Stanton along with Susan B. Anthony played crucial roles in writing and getting that amendment ratified.
I accuse fear based, fundamentalist religion as the primary culprit in denying basic spiritual rights to women and blacks, and more recently to gays and lesbians. Jesus, however, famously treated women with dignity, included them in his inner circle of followers and advocated for their rights. Interestingly, Paul claimed that according to the ethics of Jesus, there is no male or female, Jew or gentile – all humans are the same. But almost hypocritically, Paul in his other Biblical letters insisted that women remain silent in church, that they submit in all things to their husbands, that they wear a head covering symbolizing their submission to men, that they be ineligible to serve as church leaders and that they have no authority over any male older than 13. Despite the sentiments of Jesus, Paul crucially set the tone for how women would be treated by Christians for almost two thousand years – up to and including today.
But the Old Testament and other Jewish writings were no different. According to the book of Ecclesiastes, sin and death entered the world because of “the wickedness of women” – which is why God ordered women to suffer in childbirth. In the Old Testament, women are considered unclean during their monthly period and for nearly a month after giving birth to a boy. If she gives birth to a girl, she is unclean and must isolate herself for twice that time. A man can divorce his wife for any reason – even for burning his food. A woman can never initiate divorce and is controlled by her husband much like a slave. Women cannot testify in courts of law and their status was beneath that of male slaves. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “The Bible in its teachings degrades women from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible and the church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.” She wrote what she called a Women’s Bible in which she both praised notably strong female characters in the Bible while highlighting the thousands of verses that demean women.
When President Obama said at his second inauguration, this past January 21st, that from Seneca Falls – to Selma – to Stonewall our forebears have been guided by the idea that all humans are created equal, he implored today’s generations to continue that struggle. We do the legacy of the many unknown heroes who fought for such rights no good if we fail to continue their efforts. The Gathering is but one of many spiritual organizations that has committed itself to this fight for human equality and so we must NOT just remember the words of Elizabeth Stanton and Seneca Falls, we must engage ourselves in that yet unfulfilled but deeply spiritual effort.
As overt examples of America’s continuing sexism, I turn to easy examples. Of 535 members in Congress today, 98 are women. Of 50 current governors, 5 are women. We have yet to elect a female President. Of CEO’s to Fortune magazine’s 500 largest US corporations, 21 are women. Of the 100 largest churches in the US, only two are Pastored by women. On average, women in America earn only 78 cents for every dollar that men earn. Across all racial groups, women comprise substantially more than half of those living in poverty. 94 per cent of all single parent homes are led by women. While even such meagre numbers of female equality would have been unheard of at the time of Seneca Falls, it is sobering that 167 years after that great spiritual moment, women are still not equal.
Just as it is with racism, sexism today is often a subtle but insidious disease. It lies hidden within our unconscious selves and is often more destructive than overt male chauvinism. As an aspiring enlightened man of the 21st century, I want to claim I am not sexist. And yet, I know there are sexist vestiges within me. If I am to BE the change I want to SEE, I must first admit my own latent sexism and work to correct it.
How often do I and other men defer to women as the supposedly weaker sex? How often do I unconsciously look to men as strategic leaders and fail to see women in the same light? How often do I assume women will bear the responsibility of raising children – that they, instead of the father, will sacrifice career or education to do so? How often do men refer to female colleagues, not by their names but as “Honey” or “Babe”? How often does our society sexualize and objectify women, discounting their intelligence and ability? How often do we assume men are stronger, smarter, more stable, and less emotional than women? How often does our society demean so-called female jobs like nursing, teaching or social work, through lower pay and lower status? Even worse, how often do men and women demean women who work within the home – so called housewives who raise children, maintain a house and serve as a hidden source of strength? As a side note on that subject, I despair that my own mom sometimes sees her contribution to society, as a lifelong housewife, as meaningless and trivial. Like so many homemakers – women and men – she is a hero, a woman of dignity and someone who touched the world for the better in countless ways.
How often do we stereotype women as poor drivers or as frivolous people who enjoy shopping, eating and leisure – while men do real work? How often do we allow boys and men to dominate discussion in classrooms or meeting rooms and thus diminish girls and women?
Advertisements are a reflection of our values and thoughts and they clearly do so in how we view women. Take a look at how women have been portrayed in a few contemporary advertisements and some from the recent past. Each conveys ideas that women are naive, simple, unskilled and useful only as sex objects. Such thoughts reinforce the overt and subtle sexism still alive today.
My point in this month’s message theme on spiritual moments in American history is that we often take for granted the seminal events that advance the well-being of humanity. Ultimately, what all great spiritual prophets of history did – those like Jesus, Mohammad, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King – was to cast a vision that foresaw a better world where inequality, cruelty, discrimination and hatred does not exist. Such spiritual prophets saw humanity as it WANTS to be, as it ASPIRES to be, as it YEARNS to be. In our hearts, we want a world that respects the life, liberty and happiness of each person. But our actions and our thoughts too often work against that vision – we hate, we don’t forgive, we act with arrogance, we’re cruel, we discriminate, we are indifferent. And, as a progressive congregation, we are not immune from such thinking. Men must repent of their sins against women and, I say this will all due respect, women must claim their natural rights without a fear to be leaders, speakers and decision makers. They should also speak out. They, along with men, should tell any man when he has acted in sexist ways – no matter how unintended.
Deeply rooted in all of us are racist, sexist, homophobic and class focused demons that are sinister in their hidden and unconscious nature. Those are the worst kind of demons. As a father of two girls, I wish for them and their children a more equal world.
Our calling, therefore, is to remember, learn from and carry forward the spiritual battles of our forebears – in today’s example, those of the brave women and men of the Seneca Falls convention of 1848.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
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