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The unfinished business of Seneca Falls

By Staff | Aug 29, 2020

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, we need to retrace our steps to the Seneca Falls, N.Y. convention of 1848 that launched the drive for women’s suffrage. There is some unfinished business to consider.

On July 19 and 20, 1848, over 300 men and women gathered in the Wesleyan Chapel to start a movement for women’s rights as expressed in 11 resolutions drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Upon the conclusion of the convention, 68 women and 32 men signed a document that called for extending to women all civil and political rites equal to those of men, including the right to vote.

Convention Items Missed

Ten of the resolutions passed unanimously but the proposed right to vote ran into opposition, saved only by an impassioned speech by Frederick Douglass, a well-known Black abolitionist who was attending the convention. When it came to implementing the resolutions, the whole emphasis was on women’s right to vote, leaving other items for later generations.

Elizabeth Stanton did not mince theology in her resolutions.

Resolution Five declared that “inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to women moral superiority, it is preeminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.”

Being Silent in Church

In churches run by men, literal emphasis has always been given to Apostle Paul’s suggestion that women be quiet in church and discuss questions with their husbands at home.

Stanton replies in Resolution Seven: “Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move to an enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.”

Then Resolution 11 declares that “the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts by both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to women an equal participation with men in various trades, professions, and commerce.”

Avoiding Religious Quagmire

Thus, the convention’s sentiment covered both the secular and religious world. However, the only implementation occurred in the secular world, skirting the religious quagmire.

The time has come to confront the inequality of men and women found in many churches, not for the usual secular reasons but for harmonious conformity to Scripture, much of which has been misinterpreted for centuries.

Maybe the fight for equality in the secular areas has spawned similar movements in Christian churches. Stirrings in the Catholic Church are producing the ordaining of women for the priesthood by rebellious bishops. Evangelicals in the Protestant churches have been generating research and organizations to fight for equality in the pulpits.

Some churches have already accepted women as equal to men in church ministries. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the American Baptist Churches have celebrated 50 years of women in the pulpit.

Recall the Convention

Statistically, the Christian churches in America are declining in numbers and substance. Statistics clearly forecast doom down the road, quantifying the loss of interest by younger people in spiritual matters in Catholic and Protestant Churches alike. In the last two decades, the Catholic Church has lost 11 percent of its parishioners; Protestant churches have lost around five percent.

Since the Catholic Church has been hemorrhaging priests and sisters since 1970, it is in a crisis situation that warrants the ordination of women as some Protestant denominations have already done.

It is time for the religious leaders of America to recall the Seneca Falls convention to give a new emphasis on biblical equality for women.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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