“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s dictum rings true for the women we met on the first day of the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage in Seneca Falls, New York. In fact, none of the nearly 40 women on the pilgrimage would be here without our female forebears daring to misbehave.
We gathered in a plain clapboard building where strong-willed women met in 1848 to champion women’s rights as human rights. The drafters of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions drew their principles from the Declaration of Independence. They fought for things that women in the U.S. today take for granted: the right to own property, to earn and keep wages, to attend school, to keep their children should their husbands die, and to participate in democracy. Some Christian communities today bemoan historic movements for women’s equality, but we are indebted to these movements in ways we rarely see.
It’s a myth, however, that Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other women of means and privilege “launched” the women’s rights movement, or kept it going. Abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Anna J. Cooper made crucial links between the freedom of women and the freedom of African Americans. Iriquois and Shawnee leaders in upstate New York contributed key notions of female-male equality from their own traditions. We must honor the diverse streams of various women’s rights movements, in our memory and retelling, lest we reduce them to something like the “Sister Suffragette” tune from Mary Poppins.
I think about today’s “misbehaving” Christian women—women who advocate for others’ dignity, who name and denounce systemic sin, who speak boldly in contexts where women are often expected to be meek. Many of them face relational backlash and loss of funding for advocating for others. But in the midst of risk, they are living into the command from Jesus to fear God and not man. “Do not be afraid of them, for nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known,” Jesus assures us (Matt. 10:26). The more we fear God, the more we will obey God’s command to seek the kingdom for every image bearer we encounter. And the less we will fear what we might lose during our earhtly life.
Well-behaved women seldom make history. Likewise, well-behaved women seldom live into God’s story for the redemption of all things. I’m grateful for female forebears who faced ridicule and social exclusion for declaring that women are human. Daily I benefit from rights they risked their lives to secure. May I live into their legacy well.