Note: The following is a talk I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration Sunday morning July 17 2016. You can see most of the talk on YouTube be clicking here.
When I was a pre-teen, my mother gave me a book called Courageous Women, which was a young adult reader about women’s suffrage.
The book reminded me that not all people have always had the right to vote. The fifteenth amendment, passed in 1870 gave black men the right to vote. A half century later, in 1920, the nineteenth amendment was ratified, giving all women the right to vote.
The passage of both amendments involved long, hard and violent struggles.
Frederick Douglas, a social reformer, orator, writer, statesman and former slave was a leading abolitionist.
Susan B. Anthony was a social reformer and feminist and one of the women who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.
There were many black women who also played pivotal roles in women’s suffrage. Anna Julia Cooper was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp in 2009.
She was known for her statement: “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter in the quiet undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence or special patronage; then and there the whole black race enters with me.”
Only propertied white men had the vote until 1856 the year that it was determined that all white men could vote regardless of whether they owned property or not.
When as an adult, later in life, I became a Unitarian Universalist, I discovered a religion that embodies civic duty in all of its principles, perhaps especially in the second principle “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;” and also in the sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
As Rev. Emily Gage, reflects on the Unitarian Universalist Assembly website, “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.
“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.”
The larger community and collective responsibility. That’s what I learned about in my childhood book Courageous Women.
My mother was born in 1919 — a year before women won the right to vote. Perhaps having older parents gave me a different sense of history as well as an enhanced understanding that history is important.
In 1972, when I was thirteen, Shirley Chisholm ran for national office. I paid attention. Here was history in the making. She was paving the way for African American people and women of all races to be presidential candidates.
I grew up to have a close friend who not only voted for Shirley Chisholm but was a delegate. And it is not surprising that Chisholm made an appearance in my writing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage. It is fiction but definitely autobiographical when I wrote of my character:
“Five years ago Grace was watching the nightly news when Walter Cronkite announced that Shirley Chisholm, an African American congresswoman from New York, was running for the Democratic nomination for president against the incumbent Richard Milhous Nixon. Grace was just thirteen in 1972, but she remembered thinking things would be different. She didn’t think she’d ever run for president. But if Shirley Chisholm could, maybe girls could do anything.”
I voted as soon as I was able too. When I moved to Germantown in my early twenties, I was proud to stand in line with my neighbors — most of them African American men and women. We were doing what was demanded of us. Voting is not just a right. It is a responsibility.
Around that time, I came out as a lesbian. One of my favorite T-shirts was a black shirt with a pink triangle on it with black letters on the triangle that read:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This widely-known poem was written by Pastor Martin Niemellör about the cowardice of German intellectuals in Nazi Germany.
My T-shirt was lost in some long ago Laundromat but its sentiment stayed with me.
I could have done without the rocks being hurled through our bedroom window or the numerous instances of workplace harassment, but being a lesbian has given me some firsthand knowledge of oppression. For one thing, it may in fact be natural to respond to hatred with hatred — but it is not healthy, necessary, or productive. I have not evolved to the point where as it says in The New Testament in Matthew, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
But I do think there might be something to that.
I also learned that we have more in common than we may think and it is very important for us to stick together. Civic duty and collective responsibility is certainly a big part of that.
Ecclesiastes in The Hebrew Bible and in the Christian Old Testament states in part:
“1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing ….”
Now it is up to us. It is our time.
We have one vote, one voice. Think about your one vote and the difference it can make.
It’s time to be counted.