It’s been a little over a week since I have come home from the Ruby Woo pilgrimage. I was supposed to be blogging along the way, but reality is, I was absorbing so much, my ability to reflect came at a loss. Even now I am still reflecting and processing. I am still taking time to learn and absorb from others, to walk through museums, places in history and actually read the placards telling one story after another in the journey was truly a gift.
As Christmas approaches and we think of gift giving, we know that there are gifts for fun or extravagance, and gifts to meet a need. The gift of Ruby Woo held a little of both. The gift of closing out the demands of the world to learn, the time with Dr. Ruby Sales, the Harriet Tubman museum and even a late night walk to find chocolate held elements of surprise and delight, but the gift I needed was a little harder to embrace.
This gift is what I will call walking into my history as a white woman. Living my adult life as a dominant culture minority in my community has afforded me the opportunity to have a very diverse set of cultures, social norms and even histories shared with me. I know and have shared the lament of my friends of color that our American history has been white-washed, a telling the American story from the upwardly mobile with little room or regard for those who poured their energies and efforts from below to build a shared society.
What I had never thought of or realized before was that ours was not only a white-washed history but a male-white-washed history. On the pilgrimage I learned the names and stories of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, as well as other women who worked on behalf of equal rights for women. Until that time, I had not heard any of this history or the names (except for Susan B Anthony’s because it was on one of our coins, although I had no idea why). Ironically, in school I learned about Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Harriet Tubman, and even later in life, others like Delores Huerta and Rosa Parks. But the only white American women I could recollect learning about in schools growing up were Martha Washington, Mary Todd Lincoln and Betsy Ross. Martha was a good wife to George and Mary Todd was not a great wife to Lincoln. Betsy sewed a flag. That is the sum total of my history. I am now beginning to understand why I steered clear of history classes in college, because they didn’t feel relevant to me. After learning about Mott, Cady Stanton and Anthony on the pilgrimage, it didn’t take long to realize why I had never heard about them: they were the foremothers of the women’s rights movement.
Growing up in conservative, evangelical churches and schools, if you know anything, you know that the women’s rights movement is trouble with a capital “T.” Our theological angle historically has been that men are the head of church and home, so if you, as a woman, hold an opinion or a desire outside of being a wife and mother and investing in those two roles, there’s not much there for you. Countless women who work outside of the home or have any role reversals have constantly felt guilty as though they are doing something wrong. This is a narrative I have heard for years from women in my family, church and social circles. The pressure to not think too far above the men is so strong that we have had to develop our own women-only circles to speak, teach, and occupy in the Church.
This is not some hidden secret, but the more I lean into a pre-fall/post-Pentecost narrative the more I realize how inconvenient equality of women in the Church is to the majority of evangelical churches who hold this headship idea. I could write on and on about this piece but it isn’t really related to Ruby Woo. Instead, the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage provided me the opportunity to learn about strong, brave white women and women of color who worked alongside the abolitionist movement, fighting for the end of slavery, while seeing their own lack of equality in American society and working to change it. Together they joined forces to liberate themselves beyond being property, having rights to keep their wages, rights to keep their families together and rights to becoming a part of the democratic process to vote.
There were many political turns that brought forth their desired liberation, at times being allies, at times seeking their own interests – so is the nature of politics. However, the realization that the desire to liberate people from oppression resulted in a shared acknowledgement and embracing of each other’s story, pain and need to be free.
As someone who works in the political arena, I was especially intrigued by a few things we always see when working on public policy solutions for the vulnerable. The first was how small acts can lead to big impacts. The second was that everything takes a very, very long time, and the third was that sometimes you have to watch other people make strides when you do not, while hoping your time will come one day.
We started in Seneca Falls at a Wesleyan church where the first meeting to begin to frame a women’s right’s effort began. There I learned about the Declaration of Sentiments drafted and presented at the first women’s rights convention in 1848. This statement, patterned after the Declaration of Independence, called for women to be viewed as full citizens of the United States, granting the same rights and privileges of men. Three hundred people attended the convention, but only 68 women and 32 men signed it: in other words, only 30% were willing to put their names on the document.
Alas, history continues to repeat itself in that the small brave minority is used to begin to fuel a movement that would go on to liberate millions and millions of women in our country. Later, it would also begin to shift the world, in that the U.S. would begin to champion opportunities for women in education, business and political positions in some of the most oppressive countries in the world.
As I stand with the vulnerable, working to address injustices in public policy impacting the poor, it was of small comfort in the grief of their long struggle to see that those original women got what they began, worked and hoped for, even though they didn’t see it in their lifetime. The 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote set a course for future legislation that would further strengthen their voice, was not put into effect until the 1920’s – seventy years after those brave few began. What started as liberation for slavery through the abolitionist movement led to seeing slavery abolished in the 14th amendment, the ability for African American men to vote in the 15th amendment, and then, fifty years later, the 19th amendment, which enabled women to see that change would and could come if they kept walking and moving forward.
Lisa Sharon Harper’s new organization Freedom Road, which hosted the pilgrimage and which launched the morning of Ruby Woo’s first day, could not be more appropriately named. As Christian women, we strongly desire for all people, regardless of class, age, race, gender or culture, be liberated from bondage so they can experience freedom. However, as we have seen in our history and in practices still today, that road to freedom is long, filled with unexpected struggles and celebrations. In staying the course and continuing to walk toward freedom together, we will see history impacted for generations.