Women Witnesses: Contributors to racial justice in the United States named in “A Great Cloud of Witnesses (GCW)”

By: The Reverend Dr. Allison Moore, St Andrew’s, New Paltz and Reparations Committee member

February is African-American history month, thanks to Carter G. Woodson and a host of educators.  March is Women’s “herstory” month, thanks to Russian women who gained the right to vote in February, 1917 and promptly declared March 8 a day to celebrate women’s rights.  Many Episcopal congregations honor African-American history (we can always do better), but in March, the church moves into Lent, and we tend to celebrate women’s herstory primarily with commemorations of saints. 

I want then to focus on women listed in A Great Cloud of Witnesses (GCW) who contributed to racial justice in the United States.  What strikes me is the multitude of avenues we have for promoting the well-being of all women, especially women of color.  I’ve been praying for how to use my particular social location–priest and campus minister in New Paltz, well educated financially secure white woman, disciple of Jesus and lover of God—and my Spirit-given gifts to work towards reparation. All too often we lament our lack of money, knowledge, time, power to make much change.  Those lamentations sell ourselves and God short. People, even those facing the fiercest barriers of structural oppression, have God-given power and an ability to use wherever and whoever they are for greater justice.   The women listed here kept making “a way out of no way.” None of them were perfect, probably limited by personal prejudices and understandings of their time.  That’s a relief, because none of us are perfect either!  We can apply their methods and pray for their faithfulness to our own situations now. 

This year the Reparations Committee is developing criteria for how to use the diocesan Reparations Fund for financial reparations. We have a plethora of models in this book for how to move towards greater racial justice; it’s up to us to imagine what money might do to repair the damage of enslavement and its legacy.  Here is just a sentence or two, often taken almost verbatim from GCW, organized by calendar year—see how this might contribute to daily readings or congregational life! 

  • January 4th: Elizabeth Seton, Founder of American Sisters of Charity, 1821 whose work “intertwined social ministry, education, and religious formation” in orphanages and “schools for needy girls.”
  • January 8th: Harriet Bedell, Deaconess and Missionary, 1969, who “won the respect of igneousous people through her compassion and respect for their way of life and beliefs.” She worked and lived with the Cheyenne, indigenous people in Allakekat in the Artic Circle, and Mikasuki Indians in Florida. 
  • January 9th: Julia Chester Emery, Missionary, 1922, Secretary of Woman’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions, who traveled across the nation and around the world.  She wrote that she went forth with ”hope for enlargement of vision, opening up new occasions for service, acceptance of new tasks.” 
  • February 5th: Anne Hutchinson (with Roger Wiliams), Prophetic Witnesses, 1643, “outspoken advocate of the rights and equality of women” who challenged religious and civil authorities. 
  • February 11th: Frances Jane (Fanny) Van Alstyne Crosby, Hymnwriter, 1915—her hymns, including Blessed Assurance, expressed personal faith in simple and easily learned tunes. 
  • February 26th: Emily Malbone Morgan, Prophetic Witness, 1937, founder with Harriet Hastings of the Companions of the Holy Cross.  The Companions were a strong force for social justice reform.  They also developed summer vacation houses for working women and their daughters who sought physical and spiritual renewal. 
  • February 28th: Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, 1964, Educator. Anna Cooper organized the Colored Women’s League and the first Colored Settlement House in Washington, DC, and in her book A View from the South challenged the Episcopal Church to do more work towards racial justice.   
  • February 28th: Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, 1904, Educator of African American and Cherokee descent.  She graduated from Tuskegee, faced fierce resistance in initial attempt in Hampton County, South Carolina, to establish a school for rural black children.  She moved to Denmark, South Carolina, and founded the Denmark Industrial Institute which eventually became Voorhees College. 
  • April 8th: Anne Ayres, Religious, 1896 (with William Augustus Muhlenberg), founder of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion and St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. 
  • April 16th: Mary (Molly) Brant (Konwatsijayenni), 1796, Witness to the Faith among the Mohawks, 1796, exerted influence among the British and the Mohawks, in tribal councils and treaty efforts. 
  • April 30th: Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Editor and Prophetic Witness, 1879. Her books and newspaper articles consistently “promoted concern for women’s health, property rights, and opportunities for public recognition.” Her dedication to equal education for women led her to help found Vassar College. 
  • May 7th: Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious, 1896, founder of the Community of St. Mary, whose ministry focused “on the care of women who had endured difficult circumstances” and schools  and orphanages for girls. 
  • May 13th: Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, 1965. Her advocacy for industrial safety and labor law reform led Franklin Roosevelt to appoint her Secretary of Labor.  In that role she was a major shaper of New Deal legislation and Social Security. 
  • June 19th: Adelaide Teague Case, 1948, Teacher and first full time female professor at any Episcopal Seminary, ETS in Cambridge.  Her professional work focused on child-centered education.  She was a pacifist, member of Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship, and proponent of women’s ordination. 
  • July 1st: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Writer and Prophetic Witness, 1896, whose writings and anti-enslavement work brought attention to the evils of slavery to the US, Britain, Europe, and Russia. 
  • July 1st: Pauli Murray, Priest, 1985.  And activist, and lawyer, whose research  laid the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education and later Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s work of women’s equality under the law.  She was clear that work for racial justice and women’s justice were intertwined. 
  • July 20th: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Liberator and Prophet, 1902, organized the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY and devoted her life to criticizing the church for its use of patriarchal doctrine and practices to oppress women, and criticizing society for “denying women equal access to professional jobs, property ownership, the vote,” and equal pay.  She hesitated however to embrace racial equality. 
  • July 20th: Amelia Bloomer, Liberator and Prophet,1894, was known for the pants that bear her name and for founding churches, libraries and school houses in Iowa. 
  • July 20th: Sojourner Truth, Liberator and Prophet, 1883, traveling preacher and fierce advocate for rights of African Americans and all women, not only white women (a critique of women’s suffrage movement). 
  • July 20th: Harriet Ross Tubman, Liberator and Prophet, 1913, who helped organize the Underground Railroad and led 300 black Union troops on raid to free over 750 enslaved people, the first American woman to lead troops into military action. 
  • August 18th: Artemisia Bowden, 1969, Educator, led the St. Philip’s Vocational Day School for Colored Children in San Antonio, Texax, for over fifty years, as it became a fully accredited junior college.  Her membership in many social causes intertwined work for racial justice, women’s welfare, and Christian-Jewish dialogue. 
  • September 3rd: Prudence Crandall, Teacher and Prophetic Witness, 1890.  She founded a school for African-American girls in Connecticut that encountered fierce resistance—state law eventually made educating girls from any state other than Connecticut a crime, for which she was tried and convicted.  Harassment continued until she moved to Illinois. 
  • September 24th: Anna Ellison Butler Alexander, 1947, first African American deaconess in the Episcopal Church.  She founded Good Shepherd church in southern Georgia, but the Diocese of Georgia segregated her congregations and refused admission to diocesan convention.   
  • October 10th: Vida Dutton Scudder, Educator and Witness for Peace, 1954, founded a settlement house in Boston for immigrant women, worked with the Society of Christian Socialists, supported the Lawrence, MA textile workers’ strike in 1912, and became a firm pacifist by 1930. 

Here are a few other women I would suggest as models of Christian faith and witness in the struggle for justice in the US, with one of many links for each: who would you add? 

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875-1955, Educator, activist, government leader in FDR’s administration, founder of many social and political organizations which worked for voting rights for all people. 

Anne Braden 1924-2006, Louisville journalist, organizer, and educator who was among the earliest and most dedicated white allies of the southern civil rights movement. 

Juliette Hampton Morgan,  1914-1957 Memphis resident, librarian, and activist who loudly protested the treatment of African Americans in Montgomery before the bus boycott, and received constant threats and harassment. 

Margaret Morgan Lawrence, 1914-2019, a child psychiatrist, educator, and activist –thefirst African American woman in too many medical arenas, founder of child therapy programs in schools, hospitals, and day care center. 

Ida B Wells-Barnett, 1862-1931, journalist, activist, and researcher.  Her consistent reporting and documenting of lynching, including her critique of white women suffragists who refused to acknowledge its evil, brought her violent attacks, the burning of her printing press, and ridicule in the press. 

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