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Yet She is Advancing: Reflections on Reform

A fitting end to the week at the annual meeting for the Southern Baptist Convention was attending with one of the survivors “Yet She is Advancing”, an exhibit about New Orleans women and their advocacy for the right to vote. We learned that while women’s right to vote came in 1920 after decades of advocating struggle by women, the story of women’s voting rights didn’t end there—Black women were still disenfranchised and still had to fight for access. Black women fought through obstacles till the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For nearly 100 years, women in New Orleans persisted in their struggle to obtain the right to vote, a reminder that fighting for equality and justice in human rights takes a long time and that true change only comes when all are treated as equal.

We also learned that segregated women’s clubs formed the basis of suffrage activism. Grievously, black women were denied attendance at the National American Women Suffrage Association Convention, full of white women. In response, Sylvanie Williams invited Susan B. Anthony, a white female activist leader, to come to a club for black women to speak to them. As she gave Susan a bouquet of flowers at this event, she delivered this powerful speech:

Flowers, in their beauty and sweetness, may represent the womanhood of the world.
Some flowers are fragile and delicate, some strong and hardy
Some are carefully guarded and cherished, others are roughly treated and trodden underfoot.
These last are the colored women. The colored woman has a crown of thorns continually pressed upon her brow.
Yet she is advancing, and sometimes you find her further than you expected.
When women like you, Miss Anthony, come to see and speak to us, it helps us to believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men, and at least for the time being, in the sympathy of women.

This reminded me that change is slow, but that even the most oppressed have the courage, strength and tenacity to advance. What might happen if we keep this perspective in our advocacy work:
Yet she is advancing, and sometimes you find her further than you expected.

This also reminded me that any reform work happens because bystanders become active allies. It happens when we treat each other with dignity and respect. Just as Susan B. Anthony restored belief—so I have witnessed pastors, leaders and other advocates who enter in, bear witness, and interact with survivors in such a way that it restores belief in the fatherhood of God and gives a glimpse that unity can be possible. To restore belief in the fatherhood of God, brotherhood of men and sympathy of women, comes when we restore the basics of humanity: voice, choice, dignity, and mutuality.

After the passage of the 19th amendment, it took creative advocacy to encourage women and blacks to vote. Women were a major part of a wave of pressure that helped secure the passage of 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. They went door-to-door providing information on how to vote. Black women held advocacy meetings in their hair salons, because they were independently owned, and no white male leaders could usurp their authority to stop them. It was not until 1970 that Louisiana formally ratified the 19th amendment: a century of activism by black and white women.

100 years of advocacy. There is so much to learn for any kind of activism, including the parallels to sex abuse reform. You can pass a resolution or vote on a motion, but without advocacy for change at the local, grassroots level, the law may not be implemented. It takes a collective commitment for any kind of reform.

Change is incremental, long and slow. It takes implementation on a local level. I needed this reminder of those who’ve gone before us: the strong, brave, knowledgeable, tenacious, resilient, relentless women, who fought for change and did not give up. Yet, so often, so-called progress is made, when others are still excluded. Promoting equal rights only for white women was an unjust form of advocacy. This is an egregious reality of our history, one we must acknowledge, repent and ensure there are not ways we are excluding some in our efforts towards change. Equal rights are equal for all.

I consider the message being sent to survivors and a watching world at this year’s annual meeting where two churches, disfellowshipped for having women leaders, were denied their appeal by the majority vote and an amendment was voted upon to protect southern Baptist churches from female leaders. According to their actions, they are working more swiftly, and speaking more loudly to protect churches from women using their God-given gifts in leadership roles rather than sex abusers. The same week as the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, another denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), met for their general assembly and voted against four proposals that sought to strengthen measures on abuse. How is this advancing?

I have learned from the survivors of the SBC. I ask myself why do they keep coming back? Why don’t they walk away and wash their hands? Most are no longer in SBC churches but they are still advocating for change and showing up at annual meeting. The survivors have taught me about clarity, boldness, and courage and how to use your voice even if it means you will be criticized, not agreed with or disliked. They stay for acknowledgement of the past, but for change in the future-to protect the younger generation and to prevent further damage. I ask myself what might Susan B. Anthony, Sylvanie Williams, and other women who fought for decades have to say to us? How may we learn from them?

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