Recently I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Ann Braude, a scholar of the religious history of American women, on the topic of the role Christianity played in the fight for women’s rights in the United States. I’ve heard Professor Braude speak in the past (once to Mormon women at an Exponent II series in my area) and have very much enjoyed listening to her ideas. Caveat: I’m relying here on hastily scribbled notes and can’t vouch that they accurately encapsulate Braude’s views.
Gender, argued Braude, continues to present Christianity with an unresolved theological crisis; although Christians consistently assert that men and women are spiritual equals, it’s less clear how such convictions should be translated into either the ecclesiastical or the political spheres. As an example of the complicated and sometimes surprising relationships between women’s religiously prescribed roles in churches and in public, Braude pointed to the conclusion reached by some conservative denominations that while it would be unacceptable for Sarah Palin as a female to teach a mixed Sunday School class, it would be perfectly acceptable for her to be president of a (mixed) country.
The traditional model for understanding the struggle for women’s rights in this country pits secular feminists against pious Christians, a construction of history that reinforces the notion that feminism and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Not so, cautioned Braude; in fact, important battles over women’s rights have always taken place within the context of religion itself, with proponents and opponents each citing scripture and faith claims to buttress their positions. (On the other hand, the narrative that Christianity has consistently elevated and celebrated women’s status over against the corrupt practices of the secular world is likewise overly simplistic.)
Braude examined the intersection between the fight for women’s rights (looking specifically at suffrage and the ERA as significant flashpoints in that story) and Christianity in the context of three denominations–Methodism, Catholicism, and Mormonism. Of the three, Mormons were the most adamant in support of suffrage and yet the most vehement in their opposition to the ERA.
Frances Willard, a committed Methodist and president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, may have been the most powerful woman in 19th century America. While on her knees in prayer one day she experienced a manifestation of the divine that left her convinced that God had called her to fight for women’s suffrage and expanded political opportunities and that she should leverage her position presiding over an organization of conservative Christians to that end, grounding the case for suffrage specifically in Christian values. (The very possibility that God might inspire someone to fight for women’s rights almost makes me tear up.) Willard of course did not live to see the fruits of her (and others’) labors: the granting of voting rights to women in Methodism in 1900, the passing of the 19th amendment in 1919, or the ordination of Methodist women in 1956.
In spite of some fiery souls like Willard, constant jostling, mergers, and rearrangements within Methodism tended to have a deleterious effect on women’s advancement in the denomination. Ecumenicism, argued Braude, has typically been bad for women since women’s issues have largely been sacrificed in the interest of unity and compromise. (When two churches combine the lowest common denominator for women’s participation between them is usually made the new norm.)
During the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, however, Methodists went on record as officially in support of it. One vocal Methodist, Theressa Hoover, an ardent advocate of the ERA, nevertheless argued that in order to maintain full ecclesiastical equality women needed their own separate organization within the institution. She asserted that much church discourse was predicated on the false assumption that a group of men constituted the church–false since women outnumber men in nearly every Christian denomination.
Officially neutral on both issues, Catholicism generally discouraged both suffrage and the ERA. From quite early in American history, Catholic nuns labored intensively to increase opportunities for women’s education and to improve the conditions of the working poor, but the anti-Catholic message in Protestant suffrage discourse contributed to turning them off the suffrage movement. Too, nuns’ vows of poverty and obedience pulled in a different direction from the celebration of the individual and private property that became cornerstones of our country’s political rhetoric. For Protestants marriage and the home constituted the locus of salvation; religious communities of nuns were barely comprehensible in this framework. In addition to certain xenophobic tendencies in the suffrage movement, another factor in Catholicism’s lack of concern over suffrage may have been the fact that Catholic women in the 19th century enjoyed greater opportunities within the church than without, perhaps rendering the issue of suffrage less pressing for Catholic women.
Developments during Vatican II left many Catholics hopeful that women’s ordination was on the horizon (a hope that obviously has still not been consummated). A number of nuns played a prominent role in fighting for the ERA and women’s advancement generally, but opposition to abortion and women’s ordination (neither of which the ERA actually addresses) kept bishops from lending their support to the amendment.
Utah was the first significant locus of women exercising voting rights in this nation, and the church itself paid for Emmeline B. Wells, active in the General Relief Society Presidency for decades, to attend national conventions lobbying for suffrage nationwide (although of course she was required to get her husband’s permission first). Mormonism, argued Braude, is an intensely activist faith in which individuals live out their religion in part through community involvement which often extends into the political sphere. In the 19th century this public manifestation of faith entailed not only polygamy, but also women’s participation in professions. From the dominant Protestant perspective of the time, in which women were expected to be the keepers of the hearth in the nuclear family, polygamy, suffrage, and women’s professional opportunites–all three on ample display in the Mormon community–were deeply threatening to the fabric of society.
When Utah attained statehood in 1896 an equal rights amendment was explicitly written into the state constitution. When the national Equal Rights Amendment first appeared on the scene it was entirely uncontroversial and almost universally supported. Then in 1973 the Supreme Court dropped an unexpected bombshell on the nation in the form of Roe vs. Wade. Although the ERA said nothing about abortion, newly ignited fears on the issue quickly coalesced around an anti-ERA faction, with which the Mormon church rapidly aligned itself. In this very activist faith, political opposition to the ERA became a token of one’s commitment to the tradition. Ironically, argued Braude, just at a time when Correlation was disenfranchising women within the church community itself, actively fighting the ERA and promoting the church’s political agenda became one avenue for women to regain some of their slipping power in the church.
Finally, Braude showed slides from Feminist Mormon Housewives to assert that the story of the Mormon church’s relationship to women’s rights is still far from over.
Some questions I’m left with:
a) What happened in Mormonism between the push for suffrage and the resistance to the ERA?
b) How are we to understand the relationship between the patriarchal order in the home and women’s prescribed roles in society? Specifically, was it inconsistent to fight for women’s political rights (such as voting) while continuing to insist that women obey their husbands?
c) Similarly, what is the relationship between women’s ecclesiastical opportunities and political opportunities? Would it be inconsistent, for example, to suggest that a female vice president is acceptable but a female Sunday School vice president is not?
d) Is Mormonism an activist faith, in your view?
e) Does it make sense to teach that a group of men can constitute or represent the church? (In addition to the fact that all General Authorities are male, recall that a ward can theoretically consist entirely of men. It cannot consist entirely of women.)
- 20 November 2009