This past Tuesday, Americans marked 100 years since Congress passed the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. As Susan Schulten documented in a New York Times article, it was a long and winding road from Seneca Falls in 1848 to Washington in 1919.
In talking to scholars about the genesis of the women’s suffrage movement, it became clear how deeply it was intertwined with religious practice in 19th-century America.
Faith infused the debate over whether women should have the right to vote. Religious fervor impelled many to campaign on behalf of women’s suffrage — and many to fight as hard against it. The fight for and against voting rights, a debate that raged for almost 80 years, engaged people of faith, many of whom appeared to see in the struggle an echo of their own stories, whether they were immigrants, abolitionists or religious minorities like Jews.
Rabbis feuded. Clergy clashed. Women took to the streets to protest, but, perhaps more critically, they organized, strategized and enlisted help from members of Congress, a president or two (notably Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), and “suffragents” — famed male proponents like William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Seneca Falls Convention
The suffrage movement brought together women from widely disparate backgrounds. Some were natural activists, like the Quaker Lucretia Mott, an early activist both against slavery and for the rights of women. Forbidden to participate in the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London because of her gender, Mott forged an alliance with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one that helped lead to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, a milestone in women’s rights history in America.
Other women came to the suffrage movement because of their interest in defending women as guardians of the home fires. “In the 19th-century, we see the rise of the cult of domesticity and the emphasis of religion’s role in the home,” according to Calvin College historian Kristin Du Mez. “The home displaces the church as the center for faith, and women are upheld as wives and mothers.”
While this might not seem to be a recipe for a revolution, women became involved in temperance organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in part to protect themselves and their children from the effects of alcohol, Du Mez said. Women of faith also could join social reform movements as a way of doing good and, for those engaged in the 19th-century holiness movement, a way of demonstrating their quest for sanctification.
Gradually, the campaign for the right to vote became respectable, said Du Mez.
A moral divide
Women saw voting as a moral issue —as did their anti-suffragist opposition, said journalist Elaine Weiss, author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.” Their message? If women get the vote, the moral health of the country will be in danger, as social and political equality (remember Eve?) goes against the will of God.
Stanton ultimately became so frustrated with the orthodox religion of her time that she created her own sacred text, “The Woman’s Bible.”
Referring to the Christian Bible, Stanton wrote: “I know no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of woman. ... When our bishops, archbishops and ordained clergymen stand up in their pulpits and read selections from the Pentateuch with reverential voice, they make the women of their congregation believe that there really is some divine authority for their subjection.”
Convinced that progress on women’s rights required a revised Christianity, Stanton assembled an international committee “to reinterpret the Bible’s message.”
Racism and suffrage
The history of women’s suffrage and the church is also, almost inevitably, the history of racial politics in America. Because black community engagement always emerged out of their faith community, that of black women’s involvement in the suffrage movement “naturally meant something about the church,” said Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
Though white women leaders like Susan B. Anthony and black suffragists, including men and women like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, were active in the movement to guarantee voting rights to black men and women of all races, they split after the Civil War, when politicians told the abolitionists that they couldn’t get universal suffrage through Congress.
Though some suffragists continued to work across racial and gender lines, racist remarks by some of the icons of the votes-for-women crusade as well as a determination by black and white abolitionists that the need to gain votes for black men was easier to accomplish first led to acrimony and division within the women’s suffrage movement.
While black women understood the “intersection between race and gender, they weren’t considered to be equal in the women’s movement,” Douglas said. “They stood in this peculiar position of being disenfranchised because of racism on the one hand and patriarchy on the other.”
Du Mez noted that by the turn of the century, in an age when work was an increasingly available option for women, religious arguments for women’s suffrage didn’t seem to have the same weight that they had once possessed.
But that doesn’t mean that the argument about women’s proper place and her degree of autonomy ceased to be hotly debated in religious circles.
My chief takeaway from discussions with these scholars of religion and gender? Many of the arguments over gender and race that preoccupied both suffragists and abolitionists during the 19th and early 20th-century still remain strikingly unresolved.
It’s only on the pages of history books that we get to close a chapter and move on to the next outrage and perhaps inspired by heroes — or in this case, heroines — and villains. In real life, history lurches rather than leaps — and progress is both apparent and elusive.
The men and women who fought so that women could have the vote were as much creatures of their complex time as we are of ours.
“Nothing bigger can come to a human being than to love a great cause more than life itself,” said Anna Howard Shaw, doctor, minister and suffragist. She lived to see the 19th Amendment passed by Congress, but not yet ratified by the states. The work of justice and reconciliation isn’t confined to one generation. The torch is passed, and the work goes on.
n Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.