Chapter Five: Make Us a Power: Churchwomen’s Politics and the Campaign for Women’s Rights
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151 5 Make Us a Power Churchwomen’s Politics and the Campaign for Women’s Rights In 1876, African American women won the right to vote. Through a broad campaign that began before the Civil War, black women secured the right to choose leaders, serve as representatives, and decide on legislation. Their campaign was waged by a multigenerational cadre of women; some gained their political acumen in the antebellum abolitionist movement, and others came of age in the tumult of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Male allies who advocated the extension of public authority to women o√ered essential support to the campaign. This victory was not entirely revolutionary , however; the advent of female su√rage did not automatically produce equality of representation in practice. At the close of the nineteenth century , although many more black women voted, few had been elected to high o≈ce. Black women voting and holding o≈ce in the 1870s? At first, this scene may read like Octavia Butler meets The History of Woman Su√rage, a science fiction version of the nineteenth-century women’s rights saga.∞ Or perhaps it is a parable authored by legal scholar Derrick Bell, returning to the ‘‘Geneva ’’ chronicles and deploying the fantastical to make a point about race, law, and power in America.≤ The explanation lies, however, not in the realm of fiction but in the annals of African American women’s history. In 1876, female members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (ame Zion) Church won the right to vote and to hold o≈ce within their denomination.≥ The timing of this important moment of enfranchisement suggests how the periodization of political history does not always map well onto the history of women’s politics. This chapter follows the emergence of black churchwomen’s political culture from the early 1870s through the late 1880s, a period during which a sustained campaign for the rights of female church members transformed the relationship of gender to power for millions of 152 Make Us a Power African American religious activists. Rights most often associated with the realm of party and state-sponsored politics—electing representatives and holding o≈ce—were at the core of what churchwomen sought in their communities ’ most powerful institutions. Churchwomen began their campaign with a call for gender-neutral church law; they sought the removal of any barrier to their voting for local church o≈cials. But the rhetoric that undergirded this seemingly modest objective had a greater force than many anticipated. Soon the same arguments, borrowed from the period’s political contests, were being used to buttress claims for the creation of female o≈ces, the founding of female missionary societies, and the seating of women as delegates in decision-making bodies. Churchwomen ’s rights claims also radiated outward, influencing debates among white religious activists, paralleling claims made by secular women’s su√rage advocates, buttressing black men’s claims to public influence, and reshaping allied organizations, including fraternal orders. If black women had largely ceded the reigns of party politics to their male counterparts, they simultaneously took up a new campaign grounded in the politics of race, as well as sex, to redefine their public standing. Recentering the Debate, from Politics to Church Ideas about women in politics continued to circulate in black activist circles, though they did not give rise to a distinct movement for women’s political rights. An outspoken minority called for women’s full political empowerment . Frederick Douglass advised black women to continue developing their political acumen in anticipation of the passage of ‘‘a sixteenth amendment,’’ which would remove ‘‘their disability’’ and grant them the vote.∂ ‘‘Mater Familias,’’ adopting a witty moniker that in itself inverted the gendered order by putting a woman at the head of a household, expressed regret that so few women took an active interest in politics: ‘‘While I do not object to a lively interest in the bustle subject [that is, to debates about fashion], I think a woman’s mind is wide enough to accommodate other and more profitable subjects for reflection.’’ She sought to encourage women’s political activism: ‘‘While most people disapprove of women taking an active part in politics, few will deny that it is better for them to have the widest intelligence in regard to the vital questions before the country, than to be ignorant of them.’’∑ Opponents could be equally vocal. An editorial commenting on Mater Familias’s letter retorted: ‘‘One of [our...