Order of Service
Hymns and Responsive Reading from Singing the Living Tradition
Opening Hymn — Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (29)
Call to Worship — Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing - Toi Derricotte
Hymn — As We Come Marching, Marching (109)
Reading — Applesauce for Eve - Marge Piercy
Responsive Reading — A New Manifestation — Margaret Fuller (575)
Closing Hymn — My Life Flows On in Endless Song (108)
All Men Would Be Tyrants
Delivered August 21, 2016, at the First Church of Belmont, Unitarian-Universalist
When I went looking for poems to open this service, I first searched for poems about religion. That is, after all, what this sermon is about: religion. But, as this sermon is also about women, I found nothing that satisfied me until I searched for poems about mothers. It is in mothers, it turns out, that the poet’s religion resides. As Christina Rossetti wrote:
And so because you love me, and because
I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath
Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name: In you not fourscore years can dim the flame
Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws
Of time and change and mortal life and death.
Notions of motherhood are central to most religions. Unitarian-Universalism descends from Christianity, whose denominations devote varying amounts of faith to the notion of a virgin birth, a savior with only one human parent: a mother who had never had sex. The reverence afforded Mary, though, is due to her willingness to do God’s bidding, using herself as a vessel. She was the antidote to Eve, a woman who would never taste forbidden fruit. She birthed a new religion, and then nurtured it to maturity.
Women have continued to be the nurturers of religion. It’s only recently that we see women as rabbis, priests, bishops. Traditionally, they served behind the scenes, doing the sustaining work required to build communities.
I recently was chatting with a friend about the election— there’s a presidential election going on, for those of you who haven’t been reading the papers. My friend claimed, as many have, that Hillary Clinton is not good at campaigning. I asked why he thought that, considering she was the first woman to ever secure the nomination of a major party. Surely she must be good at campaigning!
No, he said. Her speeches are terrible and boring. She doesn’t pack stadiums. She doesn’t fire up audiences.
Having been at a couple of her speeches, I can actually tell you that she certainly does fire up an audience. Though, sure, she’s no great speechmaker. That’s true. But, that, I explained, doesn’t make her a bad campaigner. Campaigns, you see, are about more than speeches. In fact, they’re mostly about things other than speeches: handshakes, and door knocking, and rubber chicken dinners. They’re about networking, and forming coalitions, communities. Binding people together in a cause to get something done. That’s what gets people to the voting booth.
Similarly, Christian and Christian-based churches are about more than just sermons. Without a building and chairs and scheduled times and coffee hour, it’s a guy shouting at people from atop a box. It’s the women who have traditionally provided all of that context. Someone had to cook the Last Supper.
My late grandmother, Rosalind Burkett Deaderick was a hardcore Methodist church lady. Her primary social life was in her church, first in the Bronx, then in Carmel, NY. She ran events and volunteered at coffee hour. The whole shebang.
One Sunday, sometime in the 80s, her pastor, Pastor Al, gave a sermon in which he declared that it didn’t matter what your works were on Earth, all that mattered was that you were born again in Christ. After the service, as she was filing past to shake his hand, my grandmother said to Pastor Al, “Well, I guess if my works on Earth don’t matter, I guess I’ll resign from all the committees I’m on, stop working at the church consignment shop, and quit bringing in things for coffee hour.” Pastor Al never preached on that topic again.
Of course, a few centuries back, my grandma might have ended up in the dunking chair for that kind of irreverence. Christianity has not always been kind to women. In this country, in the colonies, before the Revolution, and for decades after, the laws governing women’s lives were canon laws. You belonged to your father until you were married, and then you belonged to your husband. Coverture, a British legal doctrine, held that a woman’s rights were subsumed by her husband upon marriage. She ceased to officially exist in the Public Sphere.
Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, in 1776, as he worked with the Continental Congress to shape the laws they hoped to put in place once the Crown was driven from the colonies. She hoped that women would share in the new independence, echoing the words of the recent Declaration itself:
...in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.
And she gave fair warning:
If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
As we all know, women’s lives as citizens didn’t officially change much with the passage of the Constitution. The power players at the top changed, but women continued to be subject to Coverture. The doctrine was so central to the concepts of wedlock and gender that enslaved people were forbidden from marrying in part because their status would confuse the issue of who had dominion over the enslaved woman, her husband or her master.
The Constitution did provide tools to foment the rebellion Abigail Adams promised. We’re still working on it.
Ironically, it was inside church walls that New England women had a voice, both before and after the Revolution. Puritan churches were democratically run. Members voted on who their minster would be, and how they would govern themselves. In towns based around a church congregation, they often debated town business as well. Though women were not allowed to preach, in many congregations they were allowed to vote, and they were allowed to speak in meetings. One of the few places we can still hear the voices of colonial women, with their lives in the Public Sphere so limited, is in church records. The Congregational Library & Archives here in Boston has been collecting and digitizing colonial church records — often found moldering in church attics, or shoved behind Christmas decorations on a bottom shelf in a storage closet — and making them available in an online database. It's worth checking out.
Denominations that allowed women to speak openly in church services, like the Quakers and our own Unitarian folk, produced some of the early White women’s rights advocates: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Margaret Fuller.
Pentecostalism, which, like early Unitarianism, believes in the Holy Spirit as the primary manifestation of God, provided Sojourner Truth with the stamina to spend years travelling and speaking publicly against slavery and for women’s rights.
The belief that God is in everyone, is working through everyone, is a powerful, equalizing notion.
Church could be a place where women who spent the week scrubbing other women’s floors could dress in their Sunday best, and feel powerful.
There is a catch, though. You have to act like a “good, Christian’ woman. Your sexuality confined to marriage, your true devotion to your husband and children, if you had them. The churches that shaped early life in the United States didn’t have nuns, like the Catholic Church or the Church of England, so there was no sanctified option for women to remove themselves from a home-based life, so there was no sanctified option for women to remove themselves from a home-based life. You were to marry, or stay in your father’s home.
The movements born of churches required “good, Christian” behavior of women, too. The Temperance movement called for the banning of liquor to keep husbands sober, so their wives could stay with them and be safe. The movement for women’s suffrage could spring from that, and look like less of a threat, because there was a visible commitment to maintaining marriage, and decorum.
Claudette Colvin, a 16-year-old Black girl, was arrested on March 2nd, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a White woman. While Colvin ended up as part
of the case that went to the Supreme Court and overturned bus segregation, it was Rosa Parks, who became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, though her refusal to give up her bus seat came months later. Colvin was pregnant in March of 1955, and unwed. The father of her child was married to another woman. She was also “mouthy” and “sassy” and didn’t look as respectable as Rosa Parks looked. Parks was radical, and had been mouthy and sassy in her youth. By 1955, though, she was bespectacled, and disciplined in her behavior. African- Americans in particular could not risk their leaders looking anything less than respectable in public.
There have been women fighting for freedom from the confines of coverture and enforced propriety since the beginning of this country, outside of Abigail Adams’ letter. Margaret Fuller argued in her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century that all positions in society be open to women, and wrestled against her internalized resistance to open sexuality, which she worried trapped her in a loveless life. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President, ran on a Free Love platform.
Women no longer lose their legal status as full citizens when they marry, but motherhood outside of marriage is still a tricky business. Our workplaces and public services are not designed for single mothers. And while women’s sexuality is freer than it’s ever been, I still get comments on my Equal Rights Amendment Facebook page that Beyoncé isn’t a real Feminist because she dresses skimpy outfits to attract men.
The only person I knew who was scandalized that I got pregnant before I was married was my grandma.
There is still forbidden fruit to be plucked from the trees. To nurture ourselves as women, to grow into our own full maturity, to see ourselves for who we are, we need to keep tasting it.