A rare and significant conversation took place recently at Union Theological Seminary, as two thought leaders in feminism — Helen LaKelly Hunt and Rebecca Walker — came together to talk about the history of feminism, and ways that feminism can heal internally and forge healthier relationships, in order to achieve the shared goal of a more just and tolerant world.
The program began with introductions from Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary, and Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation.
Then came Rebecca Walker. “I am honored to share this stage with the visionary philanthropist, scholar and activist Helen LaKelly Hunt, in the shadows and on the shoulders of all those who have passed through these halls,” began Walker in her opening comments.
As I sat in the church-like hall listening, I found the cadence of Walker’s voice almost hypnotic, and distinctly descendant of the poetry of her mother, Alice Walker.
Walker offered gratitude to the many liberation theologies developed by scholars at Union Theological Seminary, which have “at their core, a connection to that energy that is larger than ourselves, that transcends race, class, and even religion — the energy that resides in spirit.”
“There is safety to be found here at Union, and I am grateful for it. If we are to come together — black, brown and white, rich and poor, cis and transgender, parent and child, believers and non, Americans and all of our siblings from other nations, we will need safe spaces in which to do it. Not just sanctuary cities, but sanctuary buildings, sanctuary meadows, sanctuary schools, sanctuary markets, and sanctuary workplaces. We must start here and work outward, we must make a sanctuary planet, one building, one street, one home at a time.”
Walker went on to talk about the importance of meeting at Union, “this space of mystery and the divine,” in order to “feel wounds that stymie our efforts.”
Helen LaKelly Hunt spoke next, taking the audience back in time to the 1830’s, a time when a “courageous band of women” came together and fought for abolition of slavery. “They rose up at a time when women had no legal, social, political rights,” Hunt began. “They stepped out and moved into their political power,” said Hunt, as they challenged the institution of slavery.
Who were these abolitionist feminists, these women who stepped up to own their power as human rights defenders? They were both black and white, from different strata of social class, and from different areas of the growing American geography, and they even had some members from England.
As Hunt tells the history, in 1833, William Lloyd Garrison founded an abolitionist society. It was mainly composed of couples who came together to find ways to convince the new American government to dismantle slavery. The women were part of the group from the beginning. They coordinated meetings and attended them, prepared food, took the minutes, and helped write the mission statement. Then came the meeting when mission statement was to be signed asa formal document, and all members of the society were invited to sign. “But when the women got to the desk, they wouldn’t let them sign,” said Hunt.
So the women formed their own group, and not long after, sister groups started to emerge all over the country. In 1833, there were 7 groups. The next year, there were 17. In 1836 there were 42 groups of women meeting to bring an end to slavery, and in 1837, there were 140 of these groups.
It was a popular, but, as the woman would find out, dangerous cause. It was also a cause that women took on who were particularly religious. Their faith in God was the major catalyst for their urge to speak out against slavery.
Hunt described the way in which these anti-slavery women activists were rebuffed by the culture. “The government said, ‘Sorry, you can’t speak in public.’ So they went to their church and their church said, ‘Sorry. Women shouldn’t be speaking in public.’ These women said, ‘The government? Church? God’s telling me to speak out. I’ve got to speak out!'”
Many of these women felt compelled by their religious devotion to become public agitators. They violated the law to get their point across.
The Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was held May 9 to 12. Women representing 140 different groups across the country came together in New York at a little church on Houston Street. Some came by stage coach, some by steam boat. “Some of them came unescorted. That was huge,” said Hunt, as women were generally not allowed to travel without the accompaniment of a man.
“Such a convention the world has never saw,” wrote one of the attendees in her diary. It was the first national convention of U.S. women. It was the first interracial meeting of any size at that time in American history. Seneca Falls, eleven years later, would be all white women.
But these women were ahead of their time. They spoke of the need to change both social custom and religious ideas in order for women to gain stature in the public sphere. Angelina Grimké prepared one of the key resolutions for the 1837 convention. “The time has come for women to move into that sphere which providence has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied in the circumscribed limits with which corrupt custom and perverted application of Scripture have encircled her.”
Yes, it was time to rise up and demand equality, but events following the 1838 convention sent a chilling message to these women: be silent, or risk your lives with continued activism. An angry mob encircled Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, the newly-erected building where the women were meeting, and harassed the convention-goers. On the third evening of the convention, after the women had exited the building, the mob set fire to Pennsylvania Hall, and although police and firefighters responded to the scene, they were not able to keep the mob from engulfing the building in flames. The message seemed clear: anyone involved with such work would be risking their lives.
Thankfully, many women were willing to risk their lives to continue this work. Grimké wrote about her conviction to the cause on the day after the mob set fire to the building where the women had met in Pennsylvania Hall. “If persecution is the means which God has ordained for the emancipation of the slave, then I can say: let it come. For it is my conviction that this is a cause worth dying for.”
In our next installment, Rebecca Walker rejoins the conversation to talk about similarities between the early abolitionist feminists and Third Wave feminism of the 1990’s. The conversation closes with both leaders discussing how the next wave of feminism needs to build on a relational culture that values inclusiveness and diversity.