Religious belief accelerated efforts for women’s suffrage

Written by William C. Duncan

October 23, 2020

A common (and incorrect) stereotype is that religion treats women as subservient to men. Both contemporary and historical evidence show otherwise, however.

In the New York Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley and Hal Boyd use recent evidence to point out that this condescending view of religion and women does not reflect reality.

They point to a recent study from the Wheatley Institution at BYU, which found that “women in Shared Home Worshiper Couples are significantly more likely to report joint decision making than women in Shared Secular Couples. We found similar levels of shared decision making among women in Shared Attender Couples.” (In the study, a “Shared Home Worshiper Couple” is a couple where both spouses consider themselves to be equally committed to “attend church weekly, pray individually and with their family, read scriptures, and engage in religious conversation in their home several times per week.” “Shared Secular Couples” do not engage in these practices.)

Buttressing this research in Riley and Boyd’s article is the high-profile example of Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett. “The Barretts’ seemingly egalitarian marriage is a case in point. As Barrett has recounted, her law-partner husband asks every morning ‘what he can do for me that day.’ The kids consider him the better cook, and he proudly does housework.”

Of course, there are many different religions with a diversity of teachings and practices. But religion has played a role in promoting the interests of women not only in their families today, but in their civil rights historically.

This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided for women’s suffrage in all federal elections, and the 150th anniversary of the right of women to vote in Utah. As a territory, Utah extended to women the right to vote in 1870 in a unanimous vote of the legislature (a few weeks after Wyoming, which was the first territory to do so), a right that would not be available at the federal level until 1920.

On January 13, 1870, women from the Utah Territory congregated in an “Indignation Meeting” to protest a federal law against polygamy, a religious practice these women defended. The meeting was organized by the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This religious freedom gathering, and similar ones that followed, also called for women to have the right to vote.

Within a month, the territorial legislature unanimously voted to extend to women the right to vote. That right was taken away by Congress the next year as part of anti-polygamy legislation, but when Utah became a state in 1896, women’s suffrage was written into its constitution, making it the third state to allow women to vote.

During the national debate over suffrage, there were faith groups and individual believers on both sides of the issue. But people of faith played a major role.

For instance, Frances Willard, the second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was a devout Christian. Under her leadership, the mission of the WCTU extended beyond promoting prohibition of alcohol to include other causes, most prominently women’s right to vote. Willard pushed a state-by-state strategy for securing the right to vote and “was successful in inspiring reluctant women to support suffrage.”

In the southern United States, other devout women leaders were instrumental in promoting women’s suffrage. Laura Clay, a devout Episcopalian, wrote: “To do what I can to help on the great cause of Woman’s Rights seems to be that sphere of activity in His service to which God has called me.”

Emmeline Wells, a church leader who was influential in the suffrage movement in Utah, was elected vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1874.

These examples illustrate the powerful contributions that people of faith make to civil rights causes.

First, for these women, religious faith sustained their efforts. This was particularly important given that the struggle lasted for decades.

Second, these women of faith were willing to work together with secular and even anti-religious proponents of women’s right to vote. This set an important precedent that would be followed in other civil rights struggles, helping increase tolerance and civility among people with real differences.

Third, they brought needed numbers to the movement. It is safe to assume that in the early days of the movement, there were more women who cared deeply about their faith than were involved in the effort to secure the right to vote. Religious involvement introduced some of the former group to the latter, increasing its power.

The effort to secure women’s right to vote took many people and groups with very different motivations and perspectives, but the religious motivation and the involvement of people of faith was an important component of the movement’s success. Protecting the ability of women of faith to act on their convictions benefited society during that effort. Research and the stories of high-profile religious women show how it continues to do so today. We should set aside flawed stereotypes of religion and recognize the fact that protecting religious organization, belief and expression is an essential part of the civil rights that we both cherish and continue to fight for today.

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