Woman and Religion
September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
Let me say first that I deplore, as much as anyone can, the necessity for dividing humanity; and in the discussion of high themes of treating men and women as though they were not naturally and similarly related thereto. But the necessity is upon us, and however it may have come about, it is a fact that men and women sustain different relations to some of the most vital questions of the day.
We who are hoping to help in the bringing about of greater freedom of thought and action for the woman half of humanity are anxious for a state of affairs that shall be beneficial for men as well as for women. For we recognize the inevitable law of association and that “they rise or fall together.” Every right that we ask for woman we ask in the name of a better humanity. It is true great advance has been made; it is just as true that more is yet to be won.
While woman has been in conversation and in complimentary address associated with the angels, and while it has been superficially understood that she is better religiously than the other half of humanity, yet when we come to examine her relations to real religious thought and life we have not always found her occupying the most enviable of positions.
We do not mean by religion theology, theories about religion — methods of theological exegesis or warfare. We mean the capacity for godliness inherent in the human soul; in action it becomes the science of the highest human development. So understood it has relation to the commonest details of the everyday and to the supremest moments of prophetic insight and conservation. In religion, so understood, there are lessons to be learned, questions to be answered, mysteries to be probed, problems to be solved, work to be done, and struggle and growth resulting in life moving on and on to diviner issues. In such religious living there can be no artificial vicariousness. No one human being can think, learn, question, live for another. The whole of humanity can not be complete in its religious life till each one has untrammeled opportunity to live such life for himself or herself.
If woman’s morality means no more than the result of coddling or coercion, then it is not vital morality. If her piety is the result of repression, then it is not regenerating piety. If her soundness in doctrine is the result of ignorance and irresponsible submission, there is no real soundness. In short, if her religious life is the result of automatic processes, it is not religion and it is not life. There must be freedom, thought, action, growth, in order that the inherent religious possibilities of the human soul may find Divine fulfillment.
With such an understanding of religion, we claim for woman the freedom and the right to undertake the solutions of all of the problems relating to the subject. We [Page 789] claim for her the right to tread any path, enter any door, probe any mystery, ask and try to answer any question that has significance to her as a responsible and religious being; a right to become the prophet of any gospel whose message has transformed her. This, to the end that her morality may partake of the healthfulness that comes only through trial and choice, that her piety may be the result of self-conscious devotion to truth and right, that her soundness of doctrine may mean the legitimate conclusions of her own independent thinking. In short, that religion shall not mean to her the imposed or borrowed theories of masculine authority, but the progressive enunciations of her own personality; her own thinking, loving, living self; a manifestation of her own spiritual life in vital relationship with the Infinite life. If this shall be, then woman alone will not be lifted, but humanity as a whole must be benefited. There would be one practical result of such a change as this, which in itself would almost revolutionize society, the establishment of one code of morals for both men and women.
It is not the masculine in the woman, but the womanly element, the mother element, which has so long been lacking. This we need in the religious life of the world. Not this at the expense of the masculine half, but both together–man thinking and doing in man’s way, woman thinking and doing in woman’s way. He, true manly; she, true womanly; each intelligently, responsibly, personally religious, thus complementing each other and each other’s work, and helping and blessing the world. Woman will thus become a better homekeeper, truer wife, fitter mother, a more refining influence in society, a greater shaping power in the nation and the world. Man will become a better home-founder, truer husband, fitter father, more efficient member of society, a more potent factor in the nation and the world. Out of such a sainthood, which recognizes no sex in the realm of religious experience, will come the divine brotherhood of the human race, a brotherhood recognizing inevitably the Fatherhood of God.
I have not been pleading for any ism or creed. Theologies become trifles in comparison with the one supreme subject of real and universal religion. Be true in that which seems to you to be true, and let religious consecration be the sacred impulse of the faith you cherish. Recognize the right of every man and every woman to that form of truth which seemeth to them to be sacred, and be very sure that wherever there is a human being there is God, and between that human being and God there is a relationship which in its essence is religious. Is it a lowly, unfortunate, chaotic soul? God is there working and working at a disadvantage, until you and I lend ourselves and the divine in us to the struggle. Is it a lofty, victorious, calm soul? God is there, and no matter the name of the prophet, no matter from what uttermost part of the earth he may come, no matter the form of his faith, God is there with a benediction, a baptism for you and for me if only we are able to bear it.
It is not the province of religion to do away with different forms of faith, but it is the duty of religious men and women to be so religious that forms shall be forgotten. Let us work toward a diviner conception, a more abundant realization of religion, a religion which shall unite the peoples of the earth and make men and women one in God.
Source: The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch Book Company) 1894. pp. 788-789.