Sabbath Day – Women’s History
Easter Monday. Sabbath Day. At last. Yes, I finally took a sabbath day. It was lovely and quiet. Mostly.
As Women’s History Month is drawing to a close, I realize that I have not written anything specifically on women’s history, though it has been shaping my reading all month long. Scripture commentary for preaching, illustrations in sermons, the novel which took me all month to read, and collections of essay I have popped in and out of. Also theology, spiritual writings and the poems I considered for the Easter Sunrise service. Below are the books I have kept stacked on my reading table all month long. (That hard-to-read red one at the top center is Outlaw Culture by bell hooks. For those who don’t know, the author of Citizen is African America poet Claudia Rankine).
The month of March also found me re-reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, as it was the subject of my congregation’s Lenten study. Readers of this blog will know that my Lenten study led me, serendipitously, to focus my last month of reading multi-national literature on prison writings from various countries, and to my Palm Sunday sermon on The Criminal Jesus.
Women’s History, it seems, is full of prisons. I observe that Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved spends time in jail for her acts in the woodshed, though the imprisoning legacy of race-based slavery in the United States is a much larger theme of book. Margaret Sanger (below), women’s health advocate and the founder of Planned Parenthood, had several stints in jail for her non-violent, public actions highlighting the need for women’s access to contraceptive information. This is not exactly “prison literature” as I have been reading for the last few weeks, but certainly “prison-informed literature.”
In multiple essay, Jane Addams chronicles the willingness of women to go to jail, and sometimes die, for suffrage and the right to participate in self-government. Theologian Wendy Farley tells the story of the 14th century mystic Marguerite Porete who was not only jailed but burned at the stake for maintaining her right to to speak as God directed her and to the write the truth as she knew it. Angela Davis was, of course, famously jailed for her involvement with the Black Panthers, and continues a tireless advocate for prison abolition.
Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC is a powerful anthology which I will be reading for years to come. I bought this as a gift for my wife a couple of years ago, and with her encouragement included the powerful story of Janie Culbreth Rambeau overcoming fear by going to jail in my advent sermon, Fear and Freedom.
One of the main reasons we went to jail was to remove the hammer that the power structure held over our heads. For years, black people were threatened with jail. Jail became the representation of fear. The trumped-up charges, unfair trails, and regular beatings in jail were weapons in the white South’s arsenal of oppression. Thus, in an effort to maintain control of an already oppressed people, the hammer of jail hung heavily. To remove the threat, people moved against it. Hear God’s people singing, “We are not afraid.”
In the volume’s opening essay, Gwendolyn Robinson (below) speaks alternatively of her first arrest with other Spellman girls:
“I think I would have died of fright if I had been in there alone. We sang freedom songs, told jokes, smoked cigarettes, and huddled together for safety throughout the night as we awaited word from SNCC’s lawyer.”
and of her being “kept a prisoner” of her parents middle class values and expectations, which precluded activism. Nevertheless, after staring down guns and violence in the cause of black freedom, she writes “I had been bitten by the bug of resistance. There was no turning back for me.”
In an earlier era, Ida. B Wells witnessed to the power not only of white jail but the terror and intimidation of lynching throughout the Jim Crow South, and the power of a people awakened, in her bold and fearless journalism. We are all in her debt.
These and more were featured in a Women’s History liturgy at my church, building on work previously published by Sister Miriam Therese Winter called Hail! Valiant Women. Check it out.
May your own Sabbath be filled not only with rest but with what Toni Morison calls in Beloved rememory, the making present of that which we know but have either forgotten or disremembered.