Religion and the Suffrage Movement

The roots of feminism can be found in church-based movements, like evangelicalism, abolitionism, missions, and philanthropic societies.

The 1848 Seneca Falls convention is typically seen as the start of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. But the roots of feminism can be found in church-based movements, like evangelicalism, abolitionism, missions, and philanthropic societies.

Faith communities provided crucial support to women's emancipation efforts. When twelve women founded the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (MWSA) in 1881, they gathered at the First Presbyterian Church of Hastings. Churches, chapels, and synagogues provided meeting space and organizing networks. Many women honed their organizing skills in church auxiliaries and learned to fund-raise in missionary societies. Sunday sermons provided oratorical models.

Minneapolis's Unitarian, Methodist, Congregational, Swedenborgian and Christian Scientist churches frequently opened their doors to suffrage events. These Christian denominations took a more progressive stance on women's public roles. According to a list of the ministers of Minneapolis churches assembled by MWSA in 1911, the Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Catholic pastors were less supportive.

One of the most frequently used spaces was the Unitarian Church at Eighth Street and Mary Place, between Nicollet and Hennepin. The congregation hosted traveling lecturers and fund-raising events. On April 4, 1900, the MWSA used the space for an intercollegiate oratorical contest to get young people interested in suffrage (first prize was $25.) When Susan B. Anthony died in March 1906, the Unitarian Church hosted a memorial service for her.

MWSA also sponsored speaking appearances by celebrity preachers who supported suffrage. In 1911, they paid the expenses of the famous Rev. R. J. Campbell, from London's City Temple, when he spoke at St. Paul's Park Congregational Church.

Images

First Unitarian Church, corner of 8th St and Mary Place, 801 La Salle, Minneapolis. N.d.<br /><br />

First Unitarian Church, corner of 8th St and Mary Place, 801 La Salle, Minneapolis. N.d.

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Shaarai Tov (Temple Israel), 10th Street ad 5th Ave.

Shaarai Tov (Temple Israel), 10th Street ad 5th Ave.

Minneapolis's Jewish community also rallied to the suffrage cause. Temple Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Minneapolis, was organized in 1878 and was originally named Shaarai Tov, "The Gates of Goodness." The 23 founding members rented a hall at Nicollet and Washington Avenues for Friday night worship services. In 1888, Shaarai Tov members moved their building to the corner of 10th Street and 5th Avenue South. When it burned down in 1902, the congregation rebuilt a new stone synagogue on the site. Faster growth in the early 20th century spurred the congregation to purchase the stone building located at 2325 Emerson Ave. SO as a cultural center. It became the homebase of the Minneapolis Council of Jewish Women (MCJW.) The MCJW was founded in 1893 by Nina Morais Cohen (d. 1918), who moved to Minneapolis from Philadelphia. She had responded to the call of Susan B. Anthony to participate in the Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World's Fair and to organize America's religious women to work for social change. Focused on religious work and philanthropy, members of the MCJW supported suffrage. After the 19th amendment, they worked with the League of Women's Voters. During World War I, the MCJW worked with the American Red Cross, stockpiling supplies and hosting sewing groups. Mrs. James Kantrowitz, president of MCJW in 1919, declared its purpose was to demonstrate that the "women's sphere is the whole wide world, without limit." | Source: A History of Temple IsraelMrs. James Kantrowitz, "The Council of Jewish Women: Thirty Years of Activity of the Minneapolis Section," The American Jewish World, Sept. 22, 1922, p.23   "From Exclusion to Integration: The Story of Jews in Minnesota," MNopedia View File Details Page

Fanny Fligelman Brin (1884- 1961)

Fanny Fligelman Brin (1884- 1961)

Among Minneapolis's small Jewish community were a number of strong and determined women activists. One of them was Fanny Fligelman Brin. Born in Romania, she became active in the local suffrage movement as a student of Professor Maria Sanford at the University of Minnesota. In 1912, she served as president of the Worker™s Equal Suffrage Club, which attempted to recruit working class women. A passionate activist for social justice, Brin later propelled herself into national politics. She served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women from 1932 to 1938. Brin spent the rest of her life devoted to women™s rights, world peace, and Judaism. View File Details Page

Radical Feminist Theologies

Radical Feminist Theologies

While Christian and Jewish activists drew sustenance from their faith, other more radical feminists began to openly question conventional Christian teachings and practices. As early as 1851, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, an abolitionist who was the first woman ordained in the Congregationalist Church, called for change in Christian teachings. By the 1880s and 1890s, a radical wing of the women™s movement began to accuse church and state of being in an “unholy alliance.” They argued that any form of orthodox religion was oppressive. The two most outspoken advocates of a secular feminist vision were Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who saw their lack of political rights as a symptom of a deeply rooted system of women™s subordination, promoted and perpetuated by churches and clergy. Elizabeth Cady Stanton stirred up public furor with the publication of The Woman™s Bible (1895), authored by a committee of 23 women and followed by a second volume in 1898. Written as a series of commentaries on biblical passages, The Woman™s Bible celebrated biblical heroines and rejected passages that instructed women to keep silence. From the start, Stanton™s project was controversial among women™s rights activists, who feared political backlash. National suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Anna Howard Shaw, believed that suffragists should appear respectable and adopt a high moral ground. Nevertheless, Midwestern suffragist Clara Bewick Colby supported the project and printed segments of the work in serial form in her feminist newspaper The Woman™s Tribune. | Source: Kern, Kathi. Mrs. Stanton™s Bible. Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 2001.Jacqueline R. deVries, “Religion and the Politics of the Women™s Movement in Nineteenth-Century America,” Religion and Politics in the United States, ed. Barbara McGraw (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016) View File Details Page

Clara Ueland's notes on local church support, ca. 1914.

Clara Ueland's notes on local church support, ca. 1914.

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Street Address:

First Unitarian Church, corner of 8th St and Mary Place, 801 La Salle, Minneapolis. [map]

Cite this Page:

Jacqueline deVries, “Religion and the Suffrage Movement,” Augsburg Digi-Tours, accessed October 31, 2020, http://digitours.augsburg.edu/items/show/66.
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