Three Worldviews That Paved the Way for Women’s Suffrage

By Soni Soneson Werner, PhD

This year marks the centennial anniversary of American women winning the right to vote on August 18, 1920. How did their victory come about? What happened in the century leading up to the legalization of women’s suffrage? Where did the idea even come from?

I recently went to Seneca Falls, New York to see the place where people gathered in 1848 to declare that women should have legal rights. While I appreciate that this site is worth having on the map to attract visitors who will then ponder its significance, I believe that we should dig even deeper in order to look at the history of certain ideas that came to light decades before that momentous event in 1848.

There were many influences on the women’s suffrage movement in America, but I would like to explore briefly three worldviews that appear to have had a meaningful impact:

  • Quaker
  • Native American Iroquois
  • Transcendentalist

As for the Transcendentalist worldview, it includes a Swedenborgian component that is hardly ever mentioned in the history books.

Quaker Worldview

In the 1600s in England, George Fox (1624–91) reacted to the religious wars initiated by King Henry VIII. Fox saw how the Catholics followed the spiritual lead of their pope, bishops, and priests while many others in the British Isles rejected the pope and instead followed the lead of the king and the Anglican clergy. Fox had the insight that perhaps it was actually better for individuals to pay more attention to the “still small voice” of God within their minds and hearts than it was for them merely to follow the lead of the ordained clergy and royalty. As this was a radical idea at the time, he and his friends were in serious trouble for even considering such a treasonous concept. Fox insisted, however, that both men and women could sit silently, wait for insights, and then speak about their own spiritual ideas as Elijah did (1 Kings 19:11–13). But this was a time when women in England and in the new American colonies were supposed to avoid speaking rebellious ideas in public for fear of facing social ostracism or even death.

By the 1800s, Fox’s followers, who were referred to as “Quakers,” had migrated from England to other parts of the world in order to escape persecution and discover religious freedom. In the American colonies, especially in Pennsylvania, they were welcomed with open arms. Many Quaker schools and meetinghouses founded themselves on the worldview that both men and women had direct access to God’s love and wisdom and that they could indeed think and speak for themselves. Quakers also emphasized nonviolence and courageously spoke out about the mistreatment of certain victims.

I am especially fond of the story of two Quaker sisters who had a direct impact on both women’s suffrage and the antislavery movement. Sarah (1792–1873) and Angelina (1805–79) Grimké were both raised in South Carolina by a prosperous slaveholding family. During their childhood, the sisters were permitted to use the family library, and their brothers shared their lessons with them. This was very unusual at the time, when women were supposed to focus on maintaining their appearance more than on developing their minds. When their father became seriously ill and decided to travel to Pennsylvania for intense medical treatments, he brought his two favorite daughters with him. Sarah and Angelina stayed in the Philadelphia area for many years, and they started to associate with the local Quakers. The Grimké sisters were amazed at how Quakers allowed men and women to listen to their inner spiritual insights and then speak their minds with no fear of retaliation. The topic of slavery frequently came up at meetings, since the Quakers were some of the first people in America to protest that practice for its violence against human beings. As a result, the Grimké sisters experienced a major moral transformation, going from experiencing a slight discomfort about having owned slaves to feeling with absolute certainty that this horrid practice should end. Sarah, for example, “longed to teach [the slaves] to read,” but “the privilege of opening the storehouse of learning to those thirsty souls was denied her.”[1]

“But,” [Sarah] writes, “my great desire in this matter would not be totally suppressed, and I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long locks. The light was put out, the keyhole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina.”[2]

Becoming Quakers themselves, the Grimké sisters then spent the few decades leading up to the Civil War giving public speeches across the New England states, urging people to end the practice of slavery. They were two of the first women in America to speak in public about any major political or economic topic. At the same time, Frederick Douglass (1818–95) became a well known speaker on the subject of abolition, having been a freed slave himself. In the mid-1800s, the Grimké sisters and Douglass joined other men and women who were speaking and writing about both suffrage for women and the emancipation of slaves (although Douglass prioritized the needs of the African American male).[3]

Native American Iroquois Worldview

Susan B. Anthony (Quaker)—who befriended the Grimké sisters—and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (not a Quaker) were, as many know, leaders in the women’s suffrage movement. After speaking out against the way the US government mistreated the Native Americans, the Quakers had the goal of trying to civilize them and establish schools for their children. However, when Stanton and some of the Quakers from upstate New York (Rochester, Seneca Falls, and Buffalo) visited nearby Iroquois reservations and observed the lives of the women there, they were stunned to see that the Iroquois women actually had more rights than they did. They observed Iroquois women buying and selling livestock, managing their own agriculture, selecting their chiefs, divorcing the men if they were violent or negligent, and speaking their minds in public settings. After overcoming language obstacles, these Quaker and Iroquois women shared each other’s worldviews, an exchange that would have an impact on how Anthony and Stanton spoke about improving European American women’s legal, economic, and political rights.[4]

Anthony and Stanton greatly admired the calm confidence they had observed in the Iroquois women. If the Iroquois granted their women civil and economic rights, they thought, then no longer did the idea that God intended for women to be lesser human beings make sense. The Iroquois women did not publish their ideas in written journals, make speeches, or advocate for the rights of all women, but they had a profound influence on Anthony and Stanton and therefore an indirect one on the movement. After visiting the Iroquois women, Anthony and Stanton strengthened their convictions and gained confidence when speaking all across the United States. As a result, they helped lead the fight to establish the vote for women at both the state and national levels.[5]

Transcendentalist Worldview

The Transcendentalist worldview, whose ideas we can trace as stemming from those of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), also had an influence on women’s suffrage. Swedenborg published his scientific and theological works throughout the 1700s. He did not start a church or establish a utopian community, but he did make every possible effort to share with others the revelation that he received from God. At that time, England was the best place for him to publish, as its people were more tolerant of new theological ideas than were those in Sweden, which is where Swedenborg was born.

After the American Revolution, many brought Swedenborg’s theological works to America, especially to New England, and shared them among the most well educated people there. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James, Sr. were dedicated to reading, discussing, and writing about Swedenborg’s theological worldview; but they were very cautious about joining organized churches.[6] There was a continual exchange of ideas, but this occurred mostly among men, who came to be called “Transcendentalists.” The women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller (1810–50), however, was one of the exceptions. She not only became involved in the Transcendentalists’ discussions, but she also made a strategic decision about how to encourage women to join theological and philosophical discussions such as those led by the Transcendentalists. Fuller decided to open up a place where she could charge admission to women who wanted to have a safe haven where they could exchange lofty ideas without being socially ostracized. She set up these conversations in bookstores and parlors, mostly in Boston, Massachusetts. Emerson greatly respected Fuller for her deep understanding of Swedenborg’s writings (and other philosophies) and encouraged her to publish a periodical for the Transcendentalists. He publicly helped her to find her voice, and she has since been considered one of the most influential women in American history.[7]

Nineteenth century women were inspired by Swedenborg’s writing because of the value he placed on the qualities of love and understanding in both genders. Traditionally, the idea of woman as a creator of ideas and a problem-solver had not been valued equally to her role as a nurturer.[8]

One of the many women who attended Fuller’s parlor conversations in the mid-1800s was Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910). Born in 1819 to an upper middle class family, Julia was raised in luxury by her widowed father, who actually encouraged her to read books about philosophy and theology. Howe claimed that this intellectual freedom was “half delightful, half alarming.”[9] This began her lifelong search for spiritual wisdom, and as soon as she could travel up to Boston, she started attending the parlor conversations. From Fuller, Howe learned that Swedenborg’s works should be praised “for [their] understanding [of] the need for women’s fulfillment.”[10] Howe asked spiritual questions and was encouraged to develop her mind as well as her affections in order to regenerate into a complete human being. She did not depend on either clergy or college professors to teach her, because she was able to read Swedenborg’s writings on her own. Her confidence in her mental powers was liberating, and she longed for a career in writing. 

In her adulthood, Howe married and had six children, but she continued to read Swedenborg’s writings and wrote as often as she could find the time. In 1876, her husband passed away; and her children, who were all of age, no longer needed her daily attention. So Howe stepped onto the public stage, and she became a nationally known figure and would remain so for the next forty years. “Fuller had even gone so far as to say that Julia showed a capacity for genius . . . with genuine inspiration . . . and urged her to publish her poetry. Here was reassurance indeed.”[11] After witnessing the horrors of the Civil War, Howe authored the lyrics to the beloved song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This song still raises people’s spirits with its uplifting message. 

In her personal life, Howe had known times of being very unhappy as a wife, longing in her relationship for the same equality that she sought on a grander scale for all women. Once widowed, she focused on being useful on a larger stage than the home. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Howe joined the Grimké sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, who were shifting their attention away from antislavery efforts and toward advocating for women’s suffrage. Howe diligently helped to organize the first convention of the American Women’s Suffrage Association and was called up to the platform because of her reputation as an inspired author. Howe was introduced as the prophetess of the suffrage movement, as she longed for all women to become moral and spiritual human beings. She stated that “unless women could see, face and grapple with moral choices themselves, they were lesser human beings. Suffrage thereby [becomes] not merely a question of justice or improving woman’s daily lot, but of recognizing her full moral capacity.”[12]

Howe, too, was encouraged by Emerson, who was a great admirer of the Swedenborgian worldview: “I think another important step [toward achieving women’s rights] was made by the doctrine of Swedenborg, a sublime genius who gave a scientific exposition of the part played by man and woman in the world. . . . Of all the Christian sects, this is at this moment the most vital.”[13] “The fruit of all [her] study would become the core of Julia’s feminist theory. She came to believe in the primacy of individual conscience, the absolute necessity for free action of individual moral will, and the role of both sexes in advancing human progress.”[14]

Howe published hundreds of articles in national periodicals, and she formally addressed many legislative bodies who were discussing women’s suffrage. She started the New England Women’s Club, the Association for the Advancement of Women, and International Mother’s Day; and she was the first woman ever elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Howe helped other women find strength in groups and coached them to find their individual voices so they could obtain legal and economic rights as full citizens of this country. With Swedenborg’s writings at the core of Howe’s message—that God gave both men and women the abilities to develop their wisdom and affections and to perform useful services in the world—it inspired her to influence others. Unfortunately, she passed away only a decade before women won the right to vote in 1920, but she helped to build the momentum needed so that others could carry forward the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.[15]

Lessons Learned?

Not only did groups such as the Quakers, the Native American Iroquois, and the New England Transcendentalists play an important part in advocating for the rights of women, but Swedenborgian ideas about spiritual regeneration, equality in marriage, and useful service to others, in both genders, ended up having a strong influence on the women’s suffrage movement.[16] According to the Reverend Olle Hjern (1926–2016), who was pastor of the Swedenborgian Society of the Lord’s New Church in Sweden, “Swedenborgian theology supported women . . . in philanthropic endeavor. . . . Two aspects of Swedenborg’s writings [were] particularly influential: his emphasis on the importance of being of use to one’s neighbor, and his insistence that women should be free of domination by men.”[17]

Humankind, as it was first created, was steeped in wisdom and in a love for wisdom, not for their own sake but for the sake of sharing it with others. As a result, an integral part of the wisdom of the wise was the recognition that none are wise for their own sakes alone and none are alive except for the sake of others. This led to the development of society, which would otherwise not have existed.Living for others is the same as doing things that are useful. Useful activities are what hold the community together. The community has as many bonds within it as there are good and useful things that are accomplished in it. The number of useful things to do is infinite.[18]

Any love of control of one over the other utterly destroys marriage love and its heavenly pleasure, for . . . marriage love and its pleasure consist of the intent of one belonging to the other, and of this being mutual and reciprocal. A love of being in control in a marriage destroys this because the dominant partner simply wants his or her will to be in the other, and does not want to accept any element of the will of the other in return. So it is not mutual, which means that there is no sharing of any love and its pleasure with the other, and no accepting in return. Yet this sharing and the union that follows from it is the very inward pleasure that is called blessedness in marriage. Love of being in control stifles this blessedness, and with it absolutely everything heavenly and spiritual about the love, to the point that even all knowledge of its existence is lost.[19]

Exploring some of the early influences on the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, and appreciating the Lord’s providence working through people’s actions, makes one wonder: What are we doing today that might influence future social reforms? Do we have the courage of the Quakers to speak up? Can we demonstrate the tenacity of the Iroquois women to live mindfully? Do we have the ability to articulate publicly what we understand to be true, just as the Transcendentalists did? I hope so.

Dr. Soni Soneson Werner is a retired associate professor emerita of psychology at Bryn Athyn College in Bryn Athyn, PA. She is the author of five Swedenborg-influenced books and e-books, including Six Worldviews in Psychology (2017). Soni is currently a volunteer mediator for churches and families, and she is on the board of the Swedenborg Foundation.

Notes

[1] Catherine H. Birney, The Grimké Sisters: Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman’s Rights (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1885), 11–12.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké, On Slavery and Abolitionism: Essays and Letters (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015). 

[4] See https://news.cornell.edu/stories/1998/07/iroquois-women-influenced-early-feminists. See also Sally G. McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[5] See https://www.centerwest.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/iroquois_native_american_hagan. It is worth noting that until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, women (and men) of color (including Native Americans) were effectively disenfranchised from their right to vote due to their race.

[6] See Ralph W. Emerson, Representative Men: Seven Lectures (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1894).

[7] See Deborah G. Felder, The Most Influential Women of all Time (New York: Citadel Press, 2001).

[8] Susan F. Poole, Lost Legacy: Inspiring Women of Nineteenth Century America (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1999), xxi.

[9] Mary H. Grant, Private Woman, Public Person: An Account of the Life of Julia Ward Howe from 1819 to 1868 (New York: Carlson, 1994), 35. For more on women’s intellectual freedom during this time, see Sonia S. Werner, “The Last Judgment and Women in the Modern Western World,” in The World Transformed: Swedenborg and the Last Judgment, edited by Dan A. Synnestvedt (Bryn Athyn, PA: Bryn Athyn College Press, 2011), 267–320.

[10] Jane Rendall, The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France and the United States (New York: Schoken Books, 1984), 282.

[11] Grant, Private Woman, Public Person, 50.

[12] Grant, Private Woman, Public Person, 200.

[13] Rosemary Agonito, History of Ideas on Woman (New York: Perigee, 1977), 215. 

[14] Grant, Private Woman, Public Person, 3.

[15] Werner, “The Last Judgment and Women in the Modern Western World,” 267–320.

[16] It should be noted that while these Swedenborgian ideas may have had an influence on those who fought for women’s voting rights, the New Church in America at that time was not pro-suffrage. In fact, the underrepresentation of women within the Church itself attests to this position: “It was not until 1921 [one year after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment] that [women] began to be elected to the various Boards and Standing Committees which really control the affairs of the Church. . . . But even yet the New Church is very far from any danger of [being run by women]” (Marguerite Beck Block, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1932], 339).

[17] Olle Hjern, “The Influence of Emanuel Swedenborg in Scandinavia,” in Scribe of Heaven, edited by Jonathan S. Rose, Stuart Shotwell, and Mary Lou Bertucci (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2005), 157.

[18] Emanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity, translated by Jonathan S. Rose (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2011), §746:1.

[19] Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, translated by George F. Dole (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010), §380.

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