While the Suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th century get most of the historical limelight, the rightful place of women in American society has been hotly debated since the foundation of our republic. Even as the ink dried on our Declaration of Independence, women’s rights were the subject of great debate.
A snippet of correspondence between John and Abigail Adams illustrates the point. In 1776, Abigail wrote to John, “In the new code of laws, remember the ladies and do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.” John Adams replied, “I cannot but laugh. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
By the late 19th century, the tenor of the debate had become much more solemn. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony told an assembled crowd, “No self respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party that ignores her sex.”
With this remark, Anthony highlighted a persistent tension between the dictates of political gamesmanship and the ideals of a free nation. Women before Anthony and since have struggled for parity in American economic, social and governmental life.
Today we commemorate an important milestone on that journey. On this day in 1978, the National Organization for Women staged a massive march on Washington, D.C. During the march over 100,000 NOW supporters assembled in the capital to promote an extension of the ratification deadline for the Equal Rights Amendment.
As the deadline loomed, 35 states had ratified the Amendment. Three more were needed. President Jimmy Carter, while privately supporting the Amendment, had yet to put his full political weight behind the measure.
Carter’s position represented the conundrum faced by so many southern men. Strong women had greatly influenced the man he had become. He regarded the black sharecropper, Rachael Clark, as a second mother. His own mother, Ms. Lillian, and wife, Rosalynn, were similarly influential. Even so, Carter was raised in a social and religious climate that did not always regard women in a just or appropriate manner.
The disjunction between Carter’s sense of justice and the doctrinaire position of the Southern Baptist Convention recently came to such a head that the Carters broke their decades-long association with the church group. The primary bone of contention concerned the SBC’s prohibition on ordaining women or allowing them to serve as deacons or other leadership posts in local congregations.
Carter noted that their independent Baptist church has both a woman pastor and a man pastor. The church also divides six deaconships equally between men and women. Of this arrangement, Carter said, “My wife is probably the most famous Baptist deacon in the world.”
At the recently held Mobilizing Faith for Women conference hosted at the Carter Center in Atlanta, the former president remarked that the early Christian Church included leaders of both sexes. He went on to note that it wasn’t until a few centuries after Jesus Christ’s time on earth that church leaders (the early Roman Catholic Church) established an exclusively male priesthood. Catholic doctrine justifies the practice by noting that Jesus, according to gospel texts, named only men among his apostles.
At the nine-nation conference, Carter interrogated the traditional subordination of women in more conservative sects of Islam and Christianity. According to the Huffington Post, Carter told the group that a “common thread” between Islam and Christianity are, “gross abuses of religious texts in the Koran and in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. Singular verses can be extracted and extorted to assert the singular dominance of men.”
As history now records, the American people failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment; and while women have made great strides in all spheres of public and private life, much work remains to be done. Sometimes — as the Carters have shown — that work requires difficult choices. Even so, justice demands they be made.