Betty M Bayer is professor and chair of Women’s Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is currently working on a book in her field of psychology about the history of cognitive dissonance and its introduction in the study When Prophecy Fails, a work that reconsiders relations amongst religion, psychology and spirituality.
It’s been called the longest revolution, a social battle “fought and won with words,” one of the “great and substantial democratic movements,” and the living revolution of everyday life, here and now. This revolution is the women’s movement, the struggle for full equality, rights, and freedoms for women and all peoples.
This Friday, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day, instituted by Congress in 1971 at the behest of Bella Abzug, one year after women set out in a nationwide strike for equality (“Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot”) to mark 50 years since ratifying the 19th Amendment.
What they protested was the continued lack of women’s rights fifty years after gaining the vote. By extension, this year Women’s Equality Day marks the seventy-two year campaign (launched 163 years ago on July 19-20th, 1848) at what is regarded by many in the U.S. as one of the earliest conventions calling for discussion of “the Social, Civil, and Religious Condition of Woman,” held in the Wesleyan Chapel of Seneca Falls, NY.
The day also calls to attention 88 years of seeking the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced by Alice Paul as the Lucretia Mott Amendment in July 1923, on both the 75th anniversary of the Declaration of Sentiments and the third anniversary of the 1920 victory for national suffrage on the steps of yet another Seneca Falls church: the First Presbyterian Church....
Moving Time Backward?
At the 163rd anniversary of the women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, Congressional Representatives Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) each addressed current brakes on justice and equality across race, sex, and sexuality. As Hanna noted, histories are woven and rewoven to open us to larger understandings of values and principles of a nation, of its history as one organized by movements for civil rights. The audience is reminded: The place of Seneca Falls and the significance of 1848 to this larger history of freedoms is to declare and declare ourselves again to advocacy, not to joining congress in what appears to be an effort, in Hanna’s words, to “move time backward” when it comes to women’s rights, reproductive rights and freedoms, race, and sexual equality.
This history and these events bring the place of churches in civil rights history into sharp relief. Both the Wesleyan Chapel’s and the First Presbyterian Church’s histories were built on struggles for rights and freedoms; indeed, the First Presbyterian Church proudly announces itself as the site where Alice Paul first introduced an equal rights amendment, welcoming “all God’s people. The color of your skin, age, sexual orientation, economic class, or educational background does not matter to us. We understand that we are all children of God and God has blessed each of us with spiritual gifts.”
That two religious institutions within minutes of one another see in their foundational histories the larger story of civil rights serves as a kind of aide-mémoire to both government and more general debate on relations between state and church on rights, equality, and freedom. What Hanna deemed congressional efforts to turn back the clock, Maloney made more concrete in those day-to-day losses women experience in business, law, economics, politics, medicine, gender pay differentials, and, one might well add, religion and academics (including offices of administration).