Activist/Historical Wednesday: The Importance of Being Quaker
Posted April 3, 2013on:
[ACTIVIST WEDNESDAY NOTE: Bad news, Widdershins – two good candidates have first entered, then exited, the race against rabid woman-hater Bob Marshall in Virginia. I am really upset that no one has the ovaries or cojones to take this Turd Blossom WannaBe on. I have no idea what ActBlue will do with my $50, but I sure hope it’s not too late for someone to step up!!]
Good Wednesday, Widdershins. It’s time for another installment of Activist/Historical Wednesday! Today, our topic is religion – in particular, Quakerism.
Before beginning my recent studies, I had no idea how important American Quakers were to the civil rights movements in our country. Although Quakers are not prominent or numerous today, in the early-to-mid-19th century, the religion was a hotbed of liberal activism, due to its emphasis on equal rights for all. Unfortunately, women belong to other Christian religions were not so fortunate.
Religion was a major factor in American life that also served to reinforce women’s inferior status. It played a dominant role in early new England, where religious dissenters like the Puritans wielded enormous influence in colonial communities…Religion was at the core of life in America, whether organized or not, for a strong belief in God and the afterlife helped to offset the uncertainties of colonial life and the ever-present fear of death. It provided a sense of order and community…Communities held ministers in high esteem and considered them arbiters of moral authority…Women were especially pious, and they soon began to outnumber men as churchgoers, making up as much as three-fourths of all congregants in some churches by the mid-eighteenth century. The messages articulated by clergymen in their sermons and religious tracts articulated the ideal: that women were to be virtuous, pious, obedient, and submisive but, at the same time, strong and hard-working — “good wives,” as the historian Laura Ulrich has described New England women.
–from Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement,
Quaker women, however, had many advantages over women from other religions, which prepared them first for the anti-slavery movement, and then for the blossoming of the women’s movement. Quaker women could be ministers; were not required to use the word “obey” in their marriage vows; and suffered no prohibitions against speaking in public. One of the most powerful and influential women’s activists of the First Wave was, in fact, the Quaker minister Lucretia Coffin Mott. Renowned for her powers of persuasion, Lucretia was an abolitionist before she became passionate about women’s rights. Being a female reformer was not an easy path, even though she enjoyed the support of family and friends, unlike many of her sisters.
Mott attended all three national Anti-Slavery Conventions of American Women (1837, 1838, 1839). During the 1838 convention in Philadelphia, a mob destroyed Pennsylvania Hall, a newly opened meeting place built by abolitionists. Mott and the white and black women delegates linked arms to exit the building safely through the crowd. Afterward, the mob targeted her home and Black institutions and neighborhoods in Philadelphia. As a friend redirected the mob, Mott waited in her parlor, willing to face her violent opponents.
It was through her anti-slavery activities that Lucretia met Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The two attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in England (Elizabeth was on her honeymoon) and were roused into anger by their unfair treatment by many of the male participants, who voted to segregate the scandalous wimminz into their own curtained-off section of the hall. After this inspiring yet infuriating episode, Elizabeth and Lucretia began germinating the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention.
Another famous Quaker women’s rights activist was Susan B. Anthony. She, too, was raised in an atmosphere of equality, and her parents emphasized the importance of education for women. (In fact, she was a teacher for many years.) Like others, Susan cut her activist teeth on the anti-slavery and temperance movements. However, she soon began to realize that those with scary ladyparts, no matter how brilliant and eager, were not universally welcomed.
She devoted her first reform efforts to anti-slavery and to temperance, the campaign to curb alcohol. But when she rose to speak in a temperance convention, she was told, “The sisters were not invited here to speak!” Anthony promptly enlisted in the cause of women’s rights.
Susan ended up becoming an agnostic, but her early exposure to egalitarian Quaker beliefs was a key factor in her development as an activist.
At Seneca Falls, a quarter of the signatories of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments were Quaker. However, it is fascinating to note that the part about female suffrage was nearly left out due to this otherwise enlightened group’s objections. Some felt that Quakers should not participate in politics in general; others, that men adequately represented women at the ballot box, and thus, women did not need the franchise. Even stalwart Lucretia Mott was not fully supportive of the demand for the women’s vote, stating worriedly to her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Why, Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.” (Challenging Years: The Memoirs of Harriot Stanton Blatch, New York: Putnam, 1940, p. 106)
Yes, even Quakerism had its limits when it came to fully and completely supporting women’s rights. But at the time, Quakers were, by far, the best of a very bad Christian bunch. Do you want to guess how many Catholics signed the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments?
This is an open thread.
16 Responses to "Activist/Historical Wednesday: The Importance of Being Quaker"
Comments are closed.