Fact-checkers surprisingly overlooked President Trump’s breathtakingly false claim at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast that “extending the vote for women” was “led by people of faith and started in prayer.”
Trump made this bald-faced lie during his remarks at the annual pander-fest the nefarious Fellowship organizes every year, an event that, unfortunately, attracts bipartisan political support.
No, Mr. Trump, the women’s suffrage movement was not “led by people of faith and started in prayer.” It was led by dissenters. With the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment ensuring women’s right to vote fast approaching next year, it’s time for the freethinking community to claim its historic role in winning women’s franchise.
The very first woman in the United States — and probably the world — to publicly call for the female vote was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a confirmed agnostic. Stanton instigated and planned, with Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, Jane Hunt and Martha C. Wright, the historic first women’s rights convention on July 19-20, 1848. Stanton’s call for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention was considered almost too shocking to utter. The suffrage plank, though much-disputed, not only won endorsement there but would galvanize women for the next 72 years.
Although it was dubbed the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” Stanton wrote the very text of the 19th Amendment, sadly dying long before it was ratified in 1920. It is no coincidence that it took an “infidel” like Stanton to defy the many biblical edicts to keep women in silence and subjection. The untold story of the feminist movement is that it was sparked and nurtured by religious nonconformists: the unorthodox, the heretics, the freethinking skeptics, rationalists, agnostics and atheists. Women of today owe an enormous debt to the freethinking founders and foremothers of the women’s movement who dared question and confront the religious status quo, which demanded women’s servitude.
The experiences of women abolitionists — who were routinely vilified and muzzled by clergy — soon opened their eyes to the role of religion in subjugating women. Stanton’s own consciousness-raising moment occurred on her honeymoon in London, where she and her husband attended the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Men voted on the basis of scriptural edicts to exclude women from participation, relegating them to a curtained-off area. In The History of Woman Suffrage, Stanton recalled the religion-incited mobs that greeted women speakers: “I saw that the greatest obstacle we had to overcome was the bible. It was hurled at us on every side.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton went on to edit The Woman’s Bible in the 1890s, then found herself repudiated by the very women’s movement she had founded. Stanton wisely counseled:
“I have endeavored to dissipate these religious superstitions from the minds of women, and base their faith on science and reason, where I found for myself at least that peace and comfort I could never find in the bible and the church. . . . The less they believe, the better for their own happiness and development.”
Stanton would be shaking her head over the regressive, woman-hating platform of the Christian supremacists and fundamentalists, who form President Trump’s base and to whom he vowed at the prayer breakfast, “I will never let you down.” And she would be urging on today’s women to use their vote to take back our country.