Susan and Lizzy

It’s 4:43 in the morning.  Again.  I always seem to be up at this time of night.  It’s not that I’m not sleepy, it’s not that that crusty feeling isn’t covering my tired eyes.  It’s that no matter how my body slows, my brain always seems to be moving fast fast fast.

In two and a half weeks I will be departing for Tulsa, Oklahoma to begin my training with Teach For America.  Someone unfamiliar with this prestigious organization’s reputation might think that I have gotten lucky and scored a teaching job in a tough market and nothing better.  Those who know, however, know that this is so much more than a simple job.  It’s a chance to do some serious good in the world.  To change people.  To bump elbows with some of the nation’s best progressive organizers.  To learn how to be both a mover and a shaker myself.

If this past year of contemplation and inactivity in Madison has been an “incubation period”, as I have said, for my teaching in Tulsa, I am hoping that likewise, my teaching years will be yet another “incubation period” for something even greater, even more far-reaching, that must be done in the name of educational and spiritual equality.

I’m not an ambitious woman by normal standards.  I don’t care much about money.  Mostly, I care about doing something “Great” with my life.  Perhaps I have read too many history textbooks and would like to see my name in a footnote somewhere.  Granted, I have never quite worked out the specific requirements that define that category of Greatness, but I know it when I see it.  And I want it.  To have a calling first and everything else second.  I am old enough to fear I will miss my chance and young enough to see it all spread out before me.

I recently watched a documentary on Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Fine, strong women they were, more different from each other than one might think possible.  Lizzy was a wife and mother–an intellectual–a spiritual self.  Susan was a bullfighter.  Never married.  Never slowed down.  She deserves more than we give her.  More than a face on a never-spent bit of currency.

Susan B Anthony never married because it was her choice.  Considering married women at that time were property of their husbands–I mean that literally–with no right to keep their own wages, to own property, to file for divorce, to take custody of their own children, not to mention participate in determining the future steps of their country, I cannot blame her.  When she was in her middle years, Susan B Anthony wrote that she could not bring herself to bind herself in marriage and, in so doing, lose her independence.

When I heard that, I was profoundly saddened.  But it didn’t take long for me to begin to see her words in a modern fashion.  In the hundred years since Susan’s death, women have come very far.  We haven’t destroyed the glass ceiling or sexual harassment or solved the issue of domestic abuse, but we have, at least legally, made it possible for a woman to be both married and independent, if she is heterosexual of course.  A woman in Susan B Anthony’s day would have to give up her career and calling in order to have a husband and children.  A woman today can have both.  And we have, in a large part, Susan B Anthony to thank for that.

Her best friend and confidant Elizabeth Cady Stanton played her own part in this struggle, of course, and in the beginning of the movement was perhaps even more important, and in the middle perhaps as well known.  Still, what interests me most about Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the reason for the small rift that came between her and her friend as they neared the end of their lives spent working together.

While Susan was fighting as hard as ever in the name of securing the vote, aligning with every woman’s organization from the deserts of Utah to the deep, deep South, no matter their views on other issues, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was growing “more radical with time,” as she said.  When Susan was busy riding the rails giving speeches on the vote, Elizabeth had taken the highly controversial route of venturing off into the subject of spiritual inequality with a pen, from her home.

Published at the very end of the nineteenth century, The Woman’s Bible was Stanton’s most controversial work.  Like the biblical commentators of old, Stanton and her team of women commented on the Christian scriptures in order to disprove the lie that women are man’s spiritual inferiors and must, therefore, be spiritually subject to them.  She wanted to end, once and for all, the use of the Bible as a tool used by priests, pastors, and institutions for the spiritual subjugation of women.

In her commentary on the creation of humankind, Stanton writes:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him: male and female image, created he them (Genesis 1:27).

Here is the sacred historian’s first account of the advent of woman; a simultaneous creation of both sexes, in the image of God.

The first step in the elevation of woman to her true position, as an equal factor in human progress, is the cultivation of the religious sentiment in regard to her dignity and equality, the recognition by the rising generation of an ideal Heavenly Mother, to whom their prayers should be addressed, as well as to a Father.

If language has any meaning, we have in these texts a plain declaration of the existence of the feminine element in the Godhead, equal in power and glory with the masculine. The Heavenly Mother and Father! “God created man in his own image, male and female.”

When The Women’s Bible was published, it was so ahead of its time that the woman’s movement Stanton had been so instrumental in building up actually voted to disassociate themselves from their founder entirely.  Even her best friend Susan B Anthony was forced to distance herself from Stanton’s beliefs, to prevent severing ties with women’s groups whose allegiance was necessary for the winning of the vote.  The vote was, for Susan, always the sole priority.

But Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted more than a political voice and legal equality, as important as those things may be.  She wanted to be recognized as an equal in the sight of God.  I know and believe that Mrs. Stanton was right.  God is not male.  God, who is infinitely familiar yet boundless and unknowable is neither bound by gender nor deserving of an unequal, unbalanced worship of His/Herself.

Women, in America at least, have made many, many gains since the time of Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We can work as we choose.  We can get a divorce if our husbands are unfaithful or if they beat us.  We can file for custody of our children if it needs to be done.  We have rights over our own bodies and selves.

But what we do not have is spiritual equality.  I have, this past year, joined officially the Catholic Church, and so it might seem strange that I am feeling such sympathy for this cause.  The truth is I can barely pray, can barely set foot in a church anymore because I am so worked up by this issue.

I am a spiritual person.  I love God.  Even more than that, I love the God of my tradition.  I feel connected to a Catholic past, to a Church that has, mixed in with so many mistakes, produced so many volumes of light.  It seems to me that, by spending so much effort trying to get parishioners to vote the Republican ticket in order to stop abortions, they may be better off fighting to make women spiritual equals instead.

“Life”, capital L Life, is not a legal or a political topic.  It is spiritual.  It can never be entirely defined nor codified into law.  And how are women–who do have power over their physical bodies–to make informed decisions on religion and spiritual issues if they do not have power over their spiritual selves?

In a word, I am frustrated with a great many things, but I am also encouraged by these two women, Susan and Elizabeth.  Neither of them were silly enough to jump into a cause at the age of 24 only to burn out and settle down and opt for comfort and conformity at 27.  Susan stayed single and independent, Elizabeth wrote and organized a great deal from home.  Thanks to the two of them, I can choose either path or neither–I can do both, I can do anything.

I am hoping that, in spending these next few years working toward “closing the achievement gap” (as we say), and in seeing that some feisty young adults get to take full advantage of the political, economic and legal rights that so many have worked to achieve for them, I will be, again, incubating a bit in preparation for some larger battle.

Maybe the battle for spiritual equality is it.  Maybe it isn’t.  All I know is I’m going to fight for something.  Just watch me do it.

(I dedicate this post to Katherine Simon, one of the toughest, smartest women I know, who happened to tell me to go to sleep a few hours ago, and in so doing pissed me off enough to get the juices flowing. ) 

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~ by Rachael on May 20, 2011.

One Response to “Susan and Lizzy”

  1. At least I manage to motivate others. Still, you always did give me too much credit…

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