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"The Holy Struggle for Equality"

“The Holy Struggle for Equality”

26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV)

"Where are all the women?" This is the question that Dr. Angela Yarber has been asking since her travels abroad in 2009. Angela is an artist, author, professor, founder of “The Holy Women Icons Project” and my good friend from seminary. “Confronted with a virtually all male sainthood in nearly every religious tradition, Angela began painting women, giving traditional iconography a folk-feminist twist, as she describes her art. By researching the lives of revolutionary women from history, myth, and scripture, she captures the essence of each woman’s life, through the poetic “cry of her heart,” inscribed front and center of each painting. Stemming from a host of cultures, religious traditions, and historical periods, these Holy Women Icons lift up the often overlooked and untold lives, legends, and legacies of inspirational women.”[1] This morning, Angela’s painting of American suffragette Alice Paul sits upon our chancel – the cry of her heart reads, “Leaving behind the night, an iron jawed sentinel stationed for liberty, her heart beat; equality, as she raised her voice: Votes for Women.”

In the midst of the recent Women’s Marches and the onset of the MeToo movement, I have been deeply drawn to the lives of early female trailblazers in their quest for equality. As I stand before you this morning, I am keenly aware that I would not be here, were it not for women and some men, who made it their life’s work to strive for justice and equality in all facets of our world. Alice Paul is one of these extraordinary leaders. In my research for our Women at the Well gatherings, I discovered the life and undeniable legacy of Miss Paul. Her story speaks to me in profound ways in the midst of our contemporary and continuous struggle for equality in our country and throughout our world.

August 18th, only eight days ago, marked the 98th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote in the United States. In the late 1800’s, early abolitionist Frederick Douglas teamed up with early suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in their shared struggle to bring freedom and equality for all people. Although Anthony and Stanton worked the majority of their lives devoted to women’s equality, they both died almost twenty years shy of women obtaining the right to vote. However, in the early 1900’s, a young Alice Paul built upon the legacies of her predecessors to advance women’s rights in our country. And on August 18, 1920, she witnessed a day that Stanton and Anthony perhaps never dreamed possible.

Alice Paul was born on January 11, 1885 in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey to devout Quakers, William and Tacie Paul. Alice grew up on the family farm and property aptly named Paulsdale. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Paulsdale was its role in the suffrage movement and the resulting influence it had upon Alice. Alice’s suffrage ideas were planted early as Tacie, who as a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association attended meetings–often with little Alice in tow…When a Newsweek interviewer asked Paul why she dedicated the whole of her life to women’s equality, she credited her farm upbringing by quoting an adage she learned from her mother, that says, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”[2]

The Alice Paul Institute records state, “Raised in an area founded by her Quaker ancestors, Alice and her family remained devoted observers of the Christian faith…Alice attended a Hicksite school in Moorestown, New Jersey, and graduated first in her class in 1901. Hicksite Friends endorsed the concept of gender equality as a central tenet of their religion and a societal norm of Quaker life. As Paul noted years later, “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there”, Paul said. Growing up among Quakers, who believed men and women were equal, meant Alice’s childhood environment was something of an anomaly for the time period. Historians note saying, “this upbringing… accounts for the many Quaker suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, both whom Paul admired and considered role-models. Alice’s faith not only established the foundation for her belief in equality but also provided a rich legacy of activism and service to [her] country.”[3]

Alice eventually attended Swarthmore College where she was taught by some of the leading female academics of the day, including mathematics professor Susan Cunningham, who was one of the first women to be admitted to the American Mathematics Association. Cunningham, was noted on campus for her admonition, “Use thy gumption”. Historians believe these words may have emboldened Paul when she picketed the White House and went on hunger strike later in her fight for [the] women’s right to vote.[4]

In 1907, Paul left for Birmingham, England to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement, where she witnessed firsthand the English women’s suffrage movement. She later returned to the US, motivated to make strides in the American suffrage cause. Historians recall, “While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, [Paul] joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was quickly appointed as head of the Congressional Committee in charge of working for a federal suffrage amendment… In 1912, Alice Paul and two friends, Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman, headed to Washington, D.C. to organize... With little funding, Paul and Burns organized a publicity event to gain maximum national attention; an elaborate and massive parade by women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. The parade began on March 3, 1913. The scene turned ugly, however, when scores of … onlookers attacked the suffragists, first with insults and obscenities, and then with physical violence, while the police stood by and watched. The following day, Alice’s group of suffragists made headlines across the nation and suffrage became a popular topic of discussion among politicians and the general public alike.”[5]

In 1916, Paul formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and organized “Silent Sentinels” to stand outside the White House holding banners to protest the country’s denial of women’s right to vote. Alice and the other suffragettes were sometimes daily attacked by angry mobs. One historian notes, “The picketers began to be arrested on the charge of “obstructing traffic,” and were jailed when they refused to pay the imposed fine. Despite the danger of bodily harm and imprisonment, the suffragists continued their demonstrations for freedom... The arrested suffragists were sent to a prison in Virginia where Paul and others demanded to be treated as political prisoners. While imprisoned, the women staged hunger strikes, as they had learned from one of their modern day heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, who was using this method during the Indian independence movement. One historian notes, “[The women’s] demands were met with brutality as suffragists, including frail, older women, were beaten, pushed and thrown into cold, unsanitary, and rat-infested cells.” Arrests continued and conditions at the prison deteriorated. For staging hunger strikes, Paul and several other suffragists were forcibly fed with torturous methods. When news of the prison conditions and hunger strikes became known, the press, some politicians, and the public began demanding the women’s release; sympathy for the prisoners brought many to eventually support the cause of women’s suffrage. “[6]

In 1919, both the House and Senate passed the 19th Amendment and the battle for state ratification began. Three-fourths of the states were needed to [officially] ratify. The battle…came down to the state of Tennessee in the summer of 1920; if a majority of the state legislature voted for the amendment, it would become law. Historian Jennie Cohen writes, “After weeks of intense lobbying and debate within the Tennessee legislature, a motion to table the amendment was defeated with a 48-48 tie. The speaker called the measure to a ratification vote. To the dismay of the many suffragists who had packed into the capitol with their yellow roses, sashes and signs, it seemed certain that the final roll call would maintain the deadlock. But that morning, Harry Burn—who until that time had fallen [solely] in the anti-suffrage camp—received a note from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn…In it, she had written, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.” She ended the missive with a rousing endorsement of the great suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, imploring her son by saying, “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”[7]

Cohen continues, “Still sporting his red boutonniere but clutching his mother’s letter, Burn said “aye” so quickly that it took his fellow legislators a few moments to register his unexpected response. With that single syllable he extended the vote to the women of America and ended half a century of tireless campaigning by generations of suffragists…Cohen concludes. History notes that at the conclusion of the house session with the joyous outcome, the suffragists, who were packed in the balcony, began to sing the Doxology as a moment of gratitude to God. In that moment of history, I imagine it must have sounded something like this song (audio play of Doxology).

In honor of this historical moment, August 26th has been officially declared as Women’s Equality Day in the United States. So today we remember. We remember the women and men from generations before who first laid the groundwork of equality. As we celebrate today the 1920’s benchmark ruling, might we remember that it was only the first of many strides for equal rights. For it wasn’t until 1973 that women were allowed to serve with their male peers on juries. It wasn’t until 1974 that women could open a credit line in their own name. It wasn’t until 1977 that it became legal for a woman to sue someone over a sexual harassment claim. It wasn’t until 1987 that a woman could legally keep her job once disclosing that she was expecting a child.

The Holy struggle for equality in our world continues still today. It continues as we make new strides in gender equality and racial equality. It continues as we expose income inequality and address archaic systems that oppress others and continue cycles of poverty. It continues as we make strides in LGBTQ rights and create structures that include everyone in God’s dream for wholeness and peace. The work is not complete. God calls us still to the work of justice – for it indeed is a Holy call.

As people of God called to bring love and peace to our world, what might we say is the cry of our hearts? What keeps us awake at night? What propels us forward to a better vision for our children and our world? Like Alice Paul, how might we too build upon the firm legacies of those who have come before us? How will history remember us in another 98 years? As we go now on this momentous day, go with God who grants Holy gumption as we strive for the good of all created in God’s very image. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Spirit of the here and now, in the shadows of our isolation might you speak words of life and community. Challenger of our lives, you call us from places we call home to lead us more deeply into the world you love. With your gentle, healing touch you redeem the broken places of our lives and you heal the wounded places of the earth. Inspire our worship here this day, so that we may receive liberation in our own lives and be filled to overflowing that we might share your reconciling love to others.

We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for all those in our world longing for peace. Might we be swift to love and hesitant to fear.

We pray for our church family.

We seek to be faithful as we live out our lives. Draw us closer to you. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

~ written by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, and posted on the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways website.


[2] Alice Paul Institute

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


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