During a sabbatical in 2014, I drove from a monastery in Indiana to a music camp in New Hampshire. After crossing Ohio, I took a right at Erie, Pennsylvania, then began the long trek across the state of New York.
Late in the afternoon, fighting pre-supper drowsies, I passed a sign that woke me up: Seneca Falls, Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Hello! I thought. That sounds like a place I’d like to visit. But not now. Music camp awaits! I drove another hour and a half to Utica and checked in to a Days Inn. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Seneca Falls. One-time home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Site of the first Woman’s Rights Convention? How could I not visit? The next morning, I drove back to Seneca Falls. My visit did not disappoint.
First, I toured the museum, which tells the story of the convention in 1848. It all started on July 9, 1848. That’s the day Jane Hunt invited Elizabeth Cady Stanton to her house for tea. A Quaker, Hunt also invited three other Quakers—Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, and Mott’s sister, Martha Wright. What started as a tea party, ended up as a planning session for our country’s first Woman’s Rights Convention.
On July 18, 1848, hundreds of people descended on Seneca Falls for the convention. On July 19th, 300 people signed the Declaration of Sentiments, a strong statement for women’s rights modeled on the Declaration of Independence. July 20th, 200 of the original 300 quietly removed their names from the document. They were supportive, but feared the fall-out if their signatures were discovered.
As I left my last stop in Seneca Falls that day–Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house–a park ranger invited me to return the following week, July 18th and 19th. Each year, on the anniversary of the first Woman’s Rights Convention, the park celebrates Convention Days. “You’d really like it,” she said. I told her I wished I could, but music camp awaited.
That night—back in Utica—I called Allen. “Seneca Falls is the place I’ve needed to visit all my life!” I told him. I was overcome with respect for those strong women (and men) who–170 years ago–got the struggle for women’s equality. Those people were articulate, passionate, and fully committed to justice for women. I was inspired.
When the music camp in New Hampshire fizzled—they might be in a better mood up there if they ate some grits once in a while—I drove back to Seneca Falls for Convention Days. It rocked! That year, the focus was equal rights for Muslim women. After processing through town, we all signed a Declaration of Equality for Muslim Women. It was a moving experience.
Energized by the visits to Seneca Falls, I began reading up on the Woman’s Rights Convention and the women’s suffrage movement. In my reading I discovered much of which I was proud. I also discovered a lot that disturbed me, particularly regarding racism.
Frederick Douglass participated in the Convention and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. His presence and support were significant. It was, after all, 1848. Slavery still was practiced widely in the southern states. How could people–including abolitionists–devote time and energy to fighting for women’s rights when 2 million people still were enslaved in the South? The tension between abolitionists and suffragists was intense.
Then I read about the Women’s March of 1913. Coinciding with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, Suffragists marched in support of women’s right to vote. Seeing pictures of all those women in long white dresses made me happy and proud. Then I read the footnote: leaders of the march asked African American women to march at the back of the parade. When journalist Ida B. Wells was sent to the back of the line, she wept in disbelief.
Throughout history, black women largely have fallen through the cracks of justice efforts. In 1848, the debate was whether to move first to get the vote for black men or to get the vote for white women. Getting the vote for black women? Not so much a part of the conversation.
Another case. In 1976, several “black women sued General Motors for discrimination, arguing that the company segregated its workforce by race and gender: blacks did one set of jobs; whites did another. According to the plaintiffs’ experiences, women were welcome to apply for some jobs, while only men were suitable for others. This was of course a problem in and of itself, but for black women the consequences were compounded…because the black jobs were men’s jobs, and the women’s jobs were only for whites.
“Thus, while a black applicant might get hired to work on the factory floor if he were male; if she were a black female she wouldn’t be considered. Similarly, a woman might be hired as a secretary if she were white, but wouldn’t be considered if she were black. Neither the black jobs nor the women’s jobs were appropriate for black women, since they were neither male nor white.”
Guess what happened? The case was dismissed. Why? Because the court believed “black women should not be permitted to combine their race and gender claims. Because they could not prove that what happened to them was just like what happened to white women or black men, the discrimination that happened to these black women fell through the cracks.”
It was in studying this case that a young law professor named Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality.” In describing intersectionality, she says, “Many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.” Certainly, it’s important to focus our justice efforts. Participating in a women’s march would be very different from participating in a march for, say, middle-aged, middle class, straight white Southern women preachers. So, focus is important.
The danger comes from assuming that speaking from one identity addresses the experiences of every person…for instance, white women designing a women’s movement out of their experiences as white women and assuming their experiences are normative for all women.
The gift of MLK weekend and the Women’s March coming at the same time, is the invitation to think about intersectionality, to think about how working for justice in one area connects with working for justice in other areas. It also invites us to analyze our personal justice commitments for bias and/or privilege. To ferret out our blind spots.
The women’s march here in Asheville has sparked some controversy. Some folks are protesting national Women’s March organizer Tamika Mallory’s speech at UNCA today. She and at least one other organizer have been accused of anti-Semitism. Carolina Jews for Justice issued a statement saying they strongly support free speech and that Mallory should receive a hearing. Others find her statements in interviews troubling enough they don’t believe she should have a hearing. Two of our members emailed this week dismayed that our church is supporting the march. Others agonized over whether to attend worship or participate in the march, because both are so important to them.
An acquaintance of mine, a Jewish man who joined SNCC–the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—in helping register voters in Forest City, Arkansas, in the early 60s, tells the story of a boycott being planned by SNCC. When asked which stores in town should be boycotted, one of the African American organizers said, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all Jew stores. Let’s boycott them all.” The statement was a blow to the gut of my friend.
I don’t mean to guilt trip anyone. I’m just inviting us to look at everything happening around us this weekend and see what God might be saying through it all. Two things might help our considerations—a word from Paul and an idea from Martin Luther King, Jr.
The word from Paul doesn’t need elaboration. In his first letter to the Corinthians, in the section that celebrates diversity within the body of Christ, Paul says, “To each has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The common good. Remember that concept? Working for the common good begins by acknowledging–and celebrating–our diversity…. which means that Paul was preaching intersectionality before it was even a word. J My liberation is bound up with your liberation, right? Until all of us are free, none of us is free.
The year before he died, Martin King wrote an essay called “The World House.” In it, he writes of a famous novelist who died. “Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, including this one: ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’ This is the great new problem of humankind,” King writes. “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
My mom moves in with us this week. Allen and I have been preparing the house as best we can for her arrival. We’ve set up her room in ways we think will be welcoming. Of course, there are some things we can’t anticipate. Most issues of co-habiting won’t emerge until we’re actually living together under one tiny roof. There will be negotiations. There will be adjustments. There will, no doubt, be family meetings. I suspect there will be disagreements.
Because of our commitment to and love for one another, though, we’ll do the work. We’ll do the work because we’re family, because the three of us want nothing more than for everyone in the family to be happy and well and whole.
What if the human family did this same kind of work in our world house? What if, out of love for all our family’s members, we gave ourselves fully to the work of negotiating and adjusting and talking through our disagreements? What if we sat down together at the kitchen table and listened to each other, told each other our stories, and worked together to find a way forward? Might we learn to live with each other in peace? Might we learn better how to act each other into wellbeing? Might our building and moving into our world house be the way to establish and work for the common good?
What say we give it a try?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2019