I remember when i was given the dress: black, capped sleeves and a full, hoop-ish skirt that looked both bohemian and bona fide all at once. Mom had taken Granny shopping and i, insolent, was dragged along to Coldwater Creek.
Not prime hunting grounds for a fourteen-year-old.
While Granny picked out her usual sweaters with mom and the attendant, i amused myself by trying on the dress. I didn’t expect to like it, and even less did i expect to open a box with the black dress tucked inside for Christmas that year. Granny had seen me prancing in front of the dressing room mirror and Mom had helped her tuck it inside her stack of cardigans.
My grandmother was never an outspoken woman; she was South Carolina sweet-aggressive to her core. Dabbing napkins at her lips even when the strokes had ravaged her mind of so many of the manners she prized. “Whatever you’d like, sugar,” her automatic reply to anything asking her opinion.
At Granny’s funeral, my mother stood in the pulpit, unable to wear her robes because it was a Catholic service and her full ordination at a United Methodist Elder seemed irrelevant to her childhood priest. She was not allowed the Eulogy, either; she had fought to say even a few words to celebrate the life of her now-dead mother.
But half an hour before the funeral, she’d asked me to retrieve something she’d left at her own church down the road. Breathless from my sprint in heels, i’d managed to make it there and back in time for the opening hymn.
My mother stepped up to the microphone after the sermon. She began by describing how docile her own mother had been in life. “But,” she smiled, preacher-smile. Eyes sucking you in and fire catching. “She raised her daughter to be something of a rebel.” Turning her head back to the priest, all South-Carolina-Sass, she donned the white stole i’d fetched for her.
“So if you’ll allow me, I’m going to speak to y’all today as that little bit of a rebel.”
I still have that black dress. It’s a few inches higher above my ankles than when i was fourteen, but i could never bear to part with it. Granny and i may have mostly listened to the Classical Station while eating Lowes fried chicken when the strokes started, but she was still my grandmother.
Which is why, this past International Womyn’s Day, i donned the dress once more.
One of my favorite new nonprofits, Women’s Voices Worldwide, sponsored its second-annual Celebration of Speech. (I’m only a tad biased in my feminist fervor for them, having worked as an intern two falls ago). The event is a day-long rotation of womyn speaking: recreating historic speeches, featuring freedom-fighting womyn in the area’s speeches, and highlighting winners of a contemporary speech competition sponsored by WVW.
My hair was curled in as 19th-century fashion as i could muster, black dress and pearls the closest i could get to resembling Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
I read a selection from her “Declaration of Sentiments,” which she delivered at the start of the suffragette movement when she was only 32. I was familiar with her speech, opening with lines taken verbatim from the Declaration of Independence, with the key insertion of “men and women created equal.” But what resonated with me the most reading it aloud were some her more poignant reasons of patriarchy’s repeated injuries against womyn:
“He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.
“He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
“He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
Even as early as 1848, feminists weren’t “just” tackling voting rights. There is a fundamental challenge in Stanton’s words both to “Biblical” male authority and to the denigration of womyn’s self-worth because of this perceived cis-male authority. Of course these early waves were imperfect; though born out of the abolitionist movement, they were enormously racist and exclusive of the fierce work done by womyn like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These are racist ramifications we must still, as people and feminists and Christians, grapple with and work to change.
Yet the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not end in vain: the 19th amendment was passed, divorce laws radically changed, and in many Christian churches apostolic authority no longer denies womyn like my mother the right to lead congregations.
But one perusal of Sarah Sentilles’ A Church of Her Own or the introduction of Jacquelyn Grant’s White Woman’s Christ, Black Woman’s Jesus makes it clear that ordaining womyn does not universally eliminate sexism in the church.
And as i read Stanton’s fiery words, surrounded by so many womyn re-creating and creating words of their own justice-seeking bent, i was not wearied. Sometimes, when i’m plugging along at my thesis or feeling overwhelmingly frustrated that my mother could not “officially” preach at her own mother’s funeral, i have to wonder: has nothing changed? It’s exhausting, this lenten season i sometimes feel perpetually stuck in.
But mustard seeds sprout mighty branches.
My grandmother’s docility did not breed docile daughters. We turned to rebellion out of love for her and love for all our foremothers. So we keep plugging along, against the microaggressions that we are only worth what we weigh and the macro claims that as womyn, we should not pursue ordination or call on Mother God or think of Mary Magdalene as the ultimate apostle.
We remain, exhausted and exhilarated, in rebellion.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s full speech can be read here.