A Visit to Seneca Falls
Standing in an open air chapel, with only two brick walls and remnants of a wood roof left as evidence of its existence, I had a profound feeling that I was on sacred ground. I was overcome with gratitude for the powerful women, who here, at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, started the women’s rights movement in the United States. Incidentally, Seneca Falls is not far from Palmyra. The beautiful green countryside is rich with a sense of history. Spectacular church buildings can be seen almost around every bend, each with a unique personality. I can picture more fully the boy Joseph Smith being caught up in the religious fervor of the time with so many churches everywhere. I’m sure at least some of the churches I see were built during his time. What would it have been like to be here in those seminal times? The LDS church was founded in 1830. Just under two decades later, in 1848, the Seneca Falls convention was held. Since that grand meeting of female minds, women have fought for and won the rights to vote, to own property, to hold government offices, to gain admittance to institutions of higher education, and more. In short, we have the same basic rights as men, at least in the secular world. In the religious world, however, some sentiments of these first wave feminists are still poignant and, for me, painful. Their list of grievances (from the Declaration of Sentiments) includes this:
“He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.” The declaration also states “He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.”
I was struck several times during my visit to the Women’s Rights Museum, that the rhetoric used then to keep women subordinate in all areas of life is the same used in church today. Women were told then that they had superior moral authority and “natural piety,” which was why they needed to stay at home and rear the children. In other words their moral authority was greatly needed in the “women’s sphere” of home and family. Early suffragists took this argument and turned it around, saying that if women had superior moral authority, this should be used in the public sphere. The moral authority argument for keeping women from participating in the public sphere is the same argument I have heard in church for keeping power and authority from women. “Women are more spiritual, so they don’t need the priesthood” is a justification I’ve heard countless times. Over a hundred and fifty years later, the same arguments are still in play.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered a speech to the House Judiciary Committee in 1892 titled “The Solitude of Self.” In it, she made the argument that woman is ultimately alone in the world and must have the tools, such as a right to education and to own property, to fend for herself. This statement of hers was particularly moving to me:
“The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition;from all crippling influence of fear—is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; [emphasis mine] equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and the professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birth-right to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual, she must rely on herself.”
Cady Stanton fought for woman’s right to vote, but toward the end of her life became disillusioned with this fight. “For Stanton, women’s liberty depended on their freedom from social and political constraints in every realm of life: the family, the church, and the state. Losing her faith in the power of women’s vote as a vehicle for social change, she began to see women’s lack of political rights as symptomatic of a larger, more disturbing problem: the belief in women’s subordination rooted in the Bible and taught by the Christian church and clergy.” [from Mrs. Stanton’s Bible by Kathi Kern].
Mustn’t we as women — just as much as men– follow the counsel of Paul (and later Mormon) to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling?” [Philip. 2:12, Mormon 9:27]. While we are all part of a grand interconnected web, we are ultimately responsible for our own lives. If we are to give a portion of those lives to a religious institution, should not our voices be heard in that institution? I feel strongly that women’s subordination is not right. I have grown weary of the mental gymnastics and justifications that keep women subordinate and tell us we should think it’s okay. How much better could the church be if the full potential of the talents and gifts of its membership were tapped, rather than only half? How can we as women participate in an empowered way and have our voices be heard? Is it possible? I know these are oft-repeated and worn-out questions, but I still have no satisfactory answers.