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Powerful Women in the 19th Century

By Rev. Carol Bodeau

Dear friends,

As many of you know, I recently spent the first few weeks of my sabbatical time (which will be divided out over the next two years) in Michigan. I visited family, spent time at Lake Michigan with old friends, and camped on the shores of Lake Superior. The unplanned, and pleasantly surprising portion of the trip, however, involved a theme I didn’t predict: powerful women from the 19th century. More specifically, women writers of the 19th century.

While researching details for a history text I am editing for a small historical society in Michigan, I met with one of the state’s lead historians. We got into a conversation about important women writers, activists, and change-makers from the 19th century, including one of our Universalist ancestors, the Rev. Lucia Fidelia Woolley Gillette, who served the Universalist church in my little hometown in 1873. Later, I had conversations with my family about connections between women elders in my community, and other late 19th century women activists (including Della Lutes). And I visited an historical marker dedicated to the life and work of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a popular writer many of whose stories are set around the Great Lakes. It’s easy to think of women from that time as backward, repressed, and downtrodden….after all, they were still fighting for the right to vote, being forced to dress in what seem like ludicrous fashions, and living lives constrained by social norms that limited women significantly. Right?

Actually, the more I learn about history, the more I realize these women were powerful, vocal advocates for change, equality, and justice regardless of circumstances we might see as difficult or even impossible. Lucy or Delia Gillette published extensively as a poet, suffragette, and activist, and she became the first women minister in all of Canada. Constance Woolson’s fiction, which I spent a lot of time reading in my tent on the lakeshores, reveals the oppression of Native American and African Americans, as well as other social inequities of her time, through brilliant character sketches. But how do their lives have anything to do with us now?

The way I see it, Rev. Gillette, Della Lutes, Constance Woolson, and others like them are role models of making change when change is needed, without expecting to reap the full rewards of their work in their lifetimes. And knowing how to do it in a way that, well, they could get away with. They were people who understood that they were powerful, and that they could do more than society expected they could, so they knew they were being ‘held back’ by circumstances. But their response was to take action to the best of their ability. This meant, for example, expressing political opinions subtly between the lines of cookbook recipes. Or writing under pseudonyms in order to get their messages out. It meant operating ‘within the domestic sphere’ but in non-domestic ways. And garnering the support of others who had more power (namely, men) and who agreed with their perspectives.

Right now, there are many ‘limiting factors’ in our lives, socially and politically. We can all think of ways that our society might be ‘holding us back.’ But this doesn’t mean we are powerless, nor that we should be focusing on what we can’t do, rather than what we can do. So I’m taking my cue from the amazing women who paved the way for us, many of whose names have truly been lost. Because, you see, true activism also requires knowing that your contribution may not be remembered, or even counted. But that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. The women who spoke powerfully in their homes, in their small towns, and in their churches, made a difference. Yes, much of that change occurred slowly, over time; and they didn’t necessarily get to see those changes come. But without their efforts, change would never have happened. So let’s do what we can, and trust that what we do will someday prove to have been part of the wave of things that mattered, and that changed the world.

In hope and peace,

Rev. Carol

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