Today’s Christian feminism is one in which issues of power and race are increasingly connected, as well as those of gender. Through ‘womanist’, African, Asian and other theological perspectives, we have a much broader, deeper and richer conversation and engagement. For first-wave feminism was mainly a white, western phenomenon. Yet not entirely, and hardly so in the USA…
One of the most impressive exceptions to white mainstream Christian feminism was the African-American woman Sojourner Truth (c. 1797 – November 26, 1883). Named Isabella Baumfree at birth, her parents were both Africans taken into slavery and she herself had four different owners, before escaping with her infant daughter in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, she then became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
On June 1, 1843, Truth changed her name to Sojourner Truth , telling her friends: The Spirit calls me, and I must go.’ She became a Millerite Adventist, and left to travel and preach about the abolition of slavery. Like other abolitionists, she also spoke urgently about gender equality issues. Her best known speech, delivered extemporaneously, was ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. Other speeches however were also very powerful, regularly drawing on Scriptural imagery. In September 7, 1853, when she spoke with particular reference to the story of Esther, young men greeted her with ‘a perfect storm’, hissing and groaning. In response, Truth said,
You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither.
Sojourner Truth was therefore anything but a shrinking violet, as a woman or an Afro-American. Indeed, in 1858, when someone interrupted a speech and accused her of being a man, she opened her blouse and revealed her breasts, dumbfounding her opposition. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, and, afterwards, worked unsuccessfully to secure land grants for former slaves, for prison reform, and capital punishment. Her speech on the 8th Anniversary of Negro Freedom in 1871 expressed something of her outlook. Beginning with a little background about her life. Sojourner recounted how her mother told her to pray to God that she may have good masters and mistresses. She then told how her masters were not good to her, about how she was whipped for not understanding English, and how she would question God why he had not made her masters be good to her. She admitted to the audience that she had once hated white people, but that once she met her final master, Jesus, she was filled with love for everyone. Once slaves were emancipated, she knew her prayers had been answered. She then went on to her main focus, proposing that black people were properly supported with adequate resources and given their own land. Sadly, it is a cry which has still properly to be heard.
Harriet Tubman (1822 – March 10, 1913) is now an American icon. Born Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross into slavery, like Sojourner Truth, she too was badly mistreated. Early in her life, she indeed suffered a severe head wound when hit by a heavy metal weight. This caused disabling epileptic-type seizures, headaches and powerful visionary and dream experiences, which occurred throughout her life. More positively, as a child she developed a passionate faith in God. Like other abolitionists, she rejected the interpretation of New Testament texts that urged slaves to be obedient and found guidance in the Old Testament stories of deliverance.
In the fall of 1849, Harriet Tubman escaped to Philadelphia from Maryland. It was a challenging but deeply rewarding experience. As she commented years later:
When I found I had crossed that (Pennsylvania) line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
She went on to make about thirteen missions to rescue approximately seventy enslaved family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. Traveling by night, Tubman (or ‘Moses’, as she was called by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) ‘never lost a passenger’. In the midst of great danger, she was upheld by her religious faith, even using spirituals as means of warning and communication. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she also helped guide fugitives to freedom in present-day Southern Ontario in Canada. She also worked with John Brown, who called her ‘General Tubman’, in planning the raid on Harpers Ferry.
When the Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 750 slaves in South Carolina. She was insistent on the need for Abraham Lincoln and other leaders to see through the call to justice by releasing slaves in the south:
God won’t let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he’s a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That’s what master Lincoln ought to know.
After the war, Harriet Tubman then retired to the family home in Aubur , New York, where she cared for her aging parents. She became active however in the women’s suffrage movement until illness overtook her. When the National Federation of Afro-American Women (later the National Association of Colored Women) was founded, Harriet Tubman was the keynote speaker at its first meeting. She described her actions during and after the Civil War, and used the sacrifices of countless women throughout modern history as evidence of women’s equality to men. A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and received the telling reply: ‘I suffered enough to believe it’[
Near the end of her life, Harriet lived in a home for elderly African Americans that she had helped found years earlier in the possibilities of resistance. Scandalously, as it seems to us now, despite her years of astonishing service, she never received a regular salary and was for years denied compensation. Her constant humanitarian work for her family and former slaves, meanwhile, kept her in a state of constant poverty, and she did not receive a pension for her service in the Civil War until 1899. Later Americans have been kinder to her memory and Harriet Tubman is now rightly a major national hero, as well as an immense inspiration to oppressed people everywhere. The US Episcopal Church calendar of saints remembers Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman annually, together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer, on July 20. The Lutheran Church in the USA also remembers Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth on March 10.
The final word I leave to another great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who worked closely together with Harriet Tubman in mutual admiration. For it expresses well the difference between the feminism of more comfortably-placed people and that of the deeply oppressed. When an early biography of Tubman was being prepared in 1868, Douglass wrote a letter to honour her. It read in part:
You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. … The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have.
God of liberation,
who set your people Israel free,
we give thanks for Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman,
and for all who have untied the bonds of slavery and oppression.
We give thanks for their inner strength, courage and determination.
We pray for all who are in captivity today
and for all who work for their release.
May your kingdom come where the last are first
and every child is restored to the fullness of life,
in your image. Amen.