Monitor Daily Podcast

August 03, 2020
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‘Walk the journey with them.’ 100 years of women voting.

April Austin
Weekly Deputy Editor, Books Editor

In January, when a group of editors and writers first gathered to talk about how we should cover the 100th anniversary of voting rights for women in the United States, we never dreamed that the project would be overshadowed by a pandemic and by protests over racial injustice. 

We wanted to tell the story not just of the 19th Amendment’s ratification on Aug. 18, 1920, and the ongoing struggle for equality today, but also of the evolution of women into global leaders.

One of the questions the group asked was: “Why has progress for American women not kept pace with that in many other developed nations?” After 100 years, shouldn’t women be on equal footing with men in every sphere, from boardrooms to living rooms to factory floors? We wanted to know what societal attitudes and perceptions impede this goal. We also wanted to explore leadership not just in the United States, but around the world.   

We decided to devote the entire Daily package, and the Aug. 3 issue of the Weekly, to examining women’s progress (and lack thereof). 

As we are learning, especially in recent months, a society cannot move forward with just one group holding the reins of power. Ultimately, leadership must be shared across race, class, economic status, and gender. Attitudes are shifting, slowly. As a professor in one story tells her students, “It’s not about ‘Just get out of [women’s] way.’ It’s walk the journey with them.”

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19th Amendment: The six-week ‘brawl’ that won women the vote

The decadeslong fight for women’s suffrage is one of the defining civil rights struggles in U.S. history. It cuts to the heart of what democracy means – and holds powerful lessons for today. Part of our special 100th anniversary edition on women winning the right to vote.

Tennessee State Library and Archives
Women march for the right to vote in Nashville. Tennessee was the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment, passing it narrowly on Aug. 18, 1920.

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It required three generations of fearless activists over more than seven decades to win the vote for American women. And that active verb – win – is important: Women were not given the vote. As one commentator so aptly describes it: “They took it.”

In the summer of 1920 one last state was needed to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – giving all women, in every state, the right to vote in every election. This summer, as we mark the 100th anniversary of that achievement, it’s important to realize how fraught the final battle was, how truly uncertain the outcome. 

The decisive struggle over the 19th Amendment in Nashville, Tennessee, played out during a charged moment in U.S. history, in circumstances that may seem eerily familiar to us right now. The economy was slipping from recession into depression. A global influenza pandemic had claimed 600,000 American lives. Racial unrest and labor strikes were roiling cities. Into this volatile moment came three women, rushing to Nashville. With the arrival of the three demurely dressed campaign generals the battle was joined, and all the forces – for and against – gathered for a giant six-week brawl.


1. 19th Amendment: The six-week ‘brawl’ that won women the vote

On a midsummer night in 1920, three women rushed to Nashville, Tennessee, on steam-powered trains, converging on the city from different directions. They were very ordinary looking, in their summer frocks and hats; they didn’t look like veteran warriors, or political agitators, much less battlefield generals. But they were all of these.

These women were on a mission, called to command their separate forces in what would be one of the pivotal political battles in American history. A battle for the soul of American democracy. An epic confrontation to decide: Should American women have the right to vote?

In that summer of 1920 one last state was needed to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – giving all women, in every state, the right to vote in every election: 35 states had ratified, but 36 – or three-fourths of the 48 states in the Union at the time – were required for full ratification.

Tennessee could be the 36th state.

If the Tennessee legislature approved the amendment, it would become the law of the land, just in time for the fall 1920 presidential election. If the amendment failed in Tennessee, it could be delayed indefinitely, and perhaps not be enacted anytime in the foreseeable future. After seven decades of furious debate and passionate protest, the enfranchisement of half of the citizens of the nation was at stake in Tennessee.

Library of Congress
Alice Paul (on right) rides with other suffragists in a parade. She was the leader of a young generation of women suffragists willing to be disruptive, confrontational – even go to prison – for The Cause.

This summer, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and American women’s constitutional right to vote, it’s important to realize how difficult and fraught the final battle was, how complex the issues, how bitter the fight, how truly uncertain the outcome. Even at the dawn of the second decade of the 20th century, the idea of women casting a ballot was still controversial and contested; today women make up the majority of U.S. voters.

We tend to envision the American woman suffrage movement as a triumphant newsreel of women in white dresses and fabulous hats marching to victory, as enlightened men suddenly and nobly hand the ballot to female citizens – all female citizens. That newsreel is romantic fiction.

The truth is grittier, and more important: It required three generations of fearless activists over a span of more than seven decades working in more than 900 state, local, and national campaigns to finally win the vote for American women. And that active verb – win – is important: Women were not given the vote; they were not granted the vote. As one commentator so aptly describes it: “They took it.”

And when the 19th Amendment was subsequently subverted by racist Jim Crow laws in Southern states, denying the promise of the ballot to Black women, and by racist laws in Western states, robbing Native American and Asian women – and men – of the vote, the fight for voting rights would continue for decades longer. It wasn’t quick, and it was never easy.

The fight for woman suffrage is one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history – one that cuts to the heart of what democracy means: Who gets to participate in government? Who has a voice? When we say “We the People” do we really mean everyone? Of course, we are asking those same questions today, as voting rights, citizenship rights, and women’s rights are still burning issues.

Those same flickering newsreel images also give the impression that the final confrontations over women’s voting rights took place in a simpler time of Model T’s and exquisite haberdashery, all polite and decorous, far from today’s raw political and cultural smackdowns. Actually, the decisive struggle over the 19th Amendment in Nashville played out during a charged moment in U.S. history, in circumstances that may seem eerily familiar to us right now.

Tennessee State Archives and Library
In this clipping, Tennessee Gov. Albert Roberts signs the state’s certificate ratifying the 19th Amendment. He had been reluctant to call for a vote on the issue.


A century ago, the nation was on edge, and Americans entered the summer of 1920 in an anxious mood. The economy was slipping from recession into depression. The global pandemic of influenza was subsiding, but had already claimed 600,000 American lives. Racial unrest was roiling cities across the country, and the Ku Klux Klan was in resurgence. Labor strikes for better wages and conditions were being met with violent reprisals. Immigration was a contentious issue, and the public, wary of international entanglements, signaled a desire for a more isolationist foreign policy. A nasty presidential election campaign was underway, featuring the Republican candidate’s divisive slogan: America First.

Into this volatile moment came three women, rushing to Nashville.

New York dignitaries congratulate women’s suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt on Aug. 27, 1920, after her triumphal return from the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Tennessee.

Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the preeminent suffrage organization in the nation, was traveling from NAWSA headquarters in New York City to direct the ratification campaign. Catt – a master strategist, brilliant orator, and protégé of Susan B. Anthony – knew this could shape up to be the ultimate battle for her cause, and she would face her greatest challenge.

Sue Shelton White, chairwoman of the Tennessee chapter of the National Woman’s Party, the more radical wing of the suffrage movement, arrived fresh from the NWP’s latest picketing demonstration. A lieutenant to NWP founder Alice Paul, White emerged from the third generation of suffragists, the younger women who’d lost patience with the slow progress of the movement. They were tired of asking politely for their rights and were willing to be confrontational, disruptive – even go to prison – for The Cause. White was dispatched to Nashville to manage the NWP’s own campaign to convince the legislature to ratify, working toward the same goal of, but not in concert with, Catt’s NAWSA suffragists.

Library of Congress
Sue Shelton White, posing here (third from left) with other suffragists, was a key figure in the pro-ratification drive in Tennessee as the head of the state chapter of the National Woman’s Party.

Rounding out the trio was Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. A college teacher and dean, Pearson came to Nashville to defend her home state against the “feminist peril” and the “scourge of suffrage” that the 19th Amendment threatened to unleash. She and her sister “antis” swore to maintain their feminine dignity, but fight viciously, to protect Southern women from the dirty world of politics, and especially make certain that Black women would not be allowed the right to vote.

The suffragists understood that Tennessee was a terrible place for a definitive confrontation over the 19th Amendment. Almost all the other states of the former Confederacy had already rejected the amendment, and more were poised to do so, all using the same rationales of opposition. (Even Southern border states like Maryland and Delaware had refused to ratify.) The 19th Amendment promised the vote to all eligible female citizens, including Black women, and these states balked at the federal government “meddling” in state affairs, mandating who should be allowed to vote.

Tennessee State Library and Archives
A scrapbook photo shows Josephine Pearson, a leading anti-suffragist in Tennessee (on left), with a Confederate veteran and another “anti” at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville in August 1920.

Those same states’ rights arguments had been employed during the ratification fights over the 14th Amendment (granting African Americans citizenship and equal rights) and the 15th Amendment (granting African American men the right to vote) in the 1860s, and would be used again in the 1960s civil rights conflicts; we still hear them articulated today.

But the suffragists had little choice: Tennessee was their last best hope to get the 36th state to ratify before the pivotal fall presidential election, when the policy direction of the nation would be determined for the foreseeable future; women wanted to have a voice in those decisions. They’d proved their patriotism and citizenship during the recent Great War by voluntarily taking on roles never before asked of American women: They’d worked in mines and munition factories, as streetcar conductors, truck drivers, and pilots, as farmerettes and lumberjills, as well as doctors and nurses overseas.

It had recently become harder for American men, especially legislators, to argue that women were the weaker sex, were too emotionally unstable and intellectually limited, did not “deserve” or want the vote. By the end of the war, the women of 15 states, mostly in the West, but also in Illinois and New York, already enjoyed the right to vote, thanks to the suffragists’ relentless campaigns to change state enfranchisement laws. But for the women in all the other states, a federal amendment was their only hope for achieving full suffrage.

Twenty-six nations had already extended voting rights to women, including Great Britain and, more embarrassingly, Russia and the recently defeated enemy, Germany. Suffragists cleverly used this to appeal to not only Congress’ sense of justice, but also sense of guilt, and even wounded national pride. If America had just fought a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” how could it deny half of its citizens a voice in that democracy?


Only after the war, in June 1919, did Congress finally pass the woman suffrage amendment, after 40 years of stalling – a biblical span of debate, deceit, and delay. The amendment had been introduced in 1878, but was voted down, in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate, 28 times.

When the Senate finally passed the amendment by a margin of only two votes, it went to the states for ratification in an off year for many state legislatures – when they were not in regular session – making the process far more difficult. Suffragists had to convince 30 governors to call their legislatures back into special session to act on the amendment, and many balked at the cost, both financial and political. 

The governor of Tennessee was among these reluctant politicians; he was running for reelection in a tight primary and didn’t want his campaign complicated by a woman suffrage showdown. It would require a U.S. Supreme Court decision, arm twisting by the White House, and strenuous effort by the suffragists to force Gov. Albert Roberts to call the legislature back to Nashville. He finally, reluctantly, did, but even so, Tennessee was not a promising site for ratification. The state suffrage association was energetic but fractured by regional and personal animosities, the governor unpopular, the legislature notoriously susceptible to bribery and special interest pressure.

As Catt made her way to Nashville on that Saturday evening, she confessed to a suffrage colleague: “I do not believe there is a ghost of a chance of ratification in Tennessee.” But she also knew there was no choice but to try.

The same was true for White, who had a native-daughters’ knowledge of Tennessee political customs, but a tiny staff and bare-bones budget with which to lead the Woman’s Party ratification effort in Nashville. The Woman’s Party wasn’t popular in Tennessee; their confrontational tactics of picketing the White House and burning President Woodrow Wilson in effigy were condemned  as not only unladylike, but unpatriotic. White herself had participated in these protests, had been arrested and imprisoned, and proudly wore her “prison pin” – the Woman’s Party’s medal of honor – on her lapel. Now she was returning home to confront her erstwhile Tennessee suffrage colleagues, who’d condemned her for being too radical.

Pearson, however, was excited as she made her journey to the state capital. Her “anti” colleagues across the state and around the nation were rallying to her side, promising to feverishly fight to prevent what they warned would be “the moral collapse of the nation” should ratification succeed.

Tennessee State Library and Archives
Anti-suffrage organizers hold a meeting at Washington Hall in northern Tennessee with judges, senators, and others during their campaign against expanding voting rights to women.

Such hyperbole was nothing new: Suffragists had always been considered dangerous, a threat to the natural (meaning male-constructed) order of the world. Over the decades, suffragists endured contempt and ridicule in their communities, their churches, their clubs, the press – and often within their own families. They’d been spat upon and pelted with rotten eggs and spoiled vegetables. Anthony used to say that she could mark the progress of the movement by the projectiles thrown at her: When the eggs and tomatoes were no longer of the rotten variety, that was progress.

Suffragists were physically attacked by mobs of angry men and boys while police looked the other way. They’d been roughly arrested; been held in fetid, cold, vermin-infested cells; been shackled to the wall; and endured abuse and even torture in jail. When they went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed, tubes rammed up their noses.

All the old tropes about subversive and dangerous suffragists would be trotted out in Nashville and given an additional spin: These women agitators were a threat to Christianity, to the American family, and to the foundations of Southern white supremacy.


With the arrival of the three demurely dressed campaign generals the battle was joined in Nashville, and all the forces – for and against the federal amendment – gathered in the city for a giant six-week brawl. Suffragists from across the state and around the nation flooded into the capital, joined by political party operatives, lobbyists, journalists, and beleaguered legislators.

There were powerful forces working against ratification in Tennessee – political, corporate, and ideological foes, each with their own reasons for resistance. Politicians feared an unpredictable new voting bloc: 27 million women would be eligible to vote if the amendment was ratified, and no one knew how they would cast their ballots. The suffragists had long promised – or threatened – a solid “women’s vote,” which, when unleashed, could benefit political friends and punish enemies. The 1920 presidential candidates, Republican Warren G. Harding and his vice presidential running mate, Calvin Coolidge, and their Democratic rivals, James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were all carefully calibrating their level of support for Tennessee’s ratification with the calculation of whether it would help or hurt their White House chances and their party.

Clergymen in Tennessee and elsewhere were split on the issue of women voting. Some actively supported suffrage, but others believed it violated “God’s plan” for the daughters of Eve to be happily subservient to the sons of Adam, and women screaming for equality was a violation of biblical teachings. Pearson and her anti colleagues encouraged Tennessee pastors to rail against the amendment from their Sunday pulpits while debates raged in the statehouse.

Corporations also often joined the ranks of the opponents, believing that suffrage would be bad for their bottom lines. In Tennessee, several powerful industries provided influence and funds to the anti-ratification drive. It was well known that the railroads had purchased the cooperation of the legislature for favorable treatment with money, gifts, and lucrative jobs. Placing women into the electoral mix threatened the industry’s investments in pliant legislators.

Tennessee textile manufacturers were afraid women might want to vote to abolish child labor, and the mills relied on the cheap labor of both children and exploited women. They gave their workers a holiday and shipped them to Nashville to protest against ratification.

Whiskey was also big business in Tennessee, and the historic alliance between the suffrage and temperance movements ensured liquor industry opposition to women voting. Prohibition was already in effect in the summer of 1920 – the 18th Amendment had been quickly ratified in Tennessee – but liquor interests feared that women would insist that Prohibition be stringently enforced in the state, rather than with the usual wink and nod.

To make its case more alluring to Tennessee legislators, the liquor lobby sponsored a hospitality suite – really a speak-easy – on the eighth floor of The Hermitage Hotel (where Catt, White, and Pearson were staying), which came to be known as the Jack Daniels Suite, in honor of Tennessee’s favorite spirit. There legislators were plied with free booze, day and night, and treated to a lesson on why they should vote against ratification. Many a state lawmaker could be spotted emerging from the suite in a stupor, requiring he be thrown into a shower to sober up before returning to the General Assembly chambers.

In the first weeks of the ratification campaign, stalwart native Tennessee suffragists took up the front-line positions in persuading their representatives to support the amendment, chasing them with pledge cards to commit to passage. “I’m with you women ’til the cows come home,” insisted one Tennessee delegate on his card. His, along with many similar pledges, would dissolve in the heat of the Nashville battle.

Chairwoman Alice Paul (second from left) and officers of the National Woman’s Party hold a banner with a Susan B. Anthony quote in front of the NWP headquarters in Washington, D.C., in June 1920.

While Catt’s NAWSA suffragists were traipsing through the hills and hollers of the state, finding their delegates to pledge, White’s Woman’s Party team of veteran field organizers was doing the same. Catt toured the state herself, rallying her troops, conferring with political leaders, compiling a list of which legislators were known to take bribes – it was a long list. Once back in Nashville, she fired off telegrams to the presidential candidates, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, prominent U.S. senators, and President Wilson, urging them all to exert whatever pressure they could on Tennessee. 

Pearson’s cadre of Tennessee antis was bolstered by the arrival of regional and national anti-suffrage luminaries from New York, Washington, Boston, and many Southern cities. They set up a lavish headquarters in the Hermitage, complete with a “museum” of artifacts and documents they hoped could convince legislators and the public that suffragists were not just wrong, but evil. 


One prominent Nashville suffrage leader who was not invited to join the lobbying efforts was Juno Frankie Pierce. As an experienced and respected activist in Nashville’s African American community, she’d organized Black women to take up the suffrage cause, and she had forged a rare cooperative arrangement with white Nashville suffragists to work toward common policy goals. At a time when many suffrage organizations, not only in the South, were racially segregated, Pierce had addressed a recent meeting of the white suffragists, emphasizing the potential strength of Black women voters.

“What will the Negro woman do with the vote?” Pierce asked her white allies. “We are interested in the same moral uplift of the community in which we live as you are,” she explained, asking their support for the legislative priorities of the Black community. “We are asking only one thing – a square deal.”

It was a taboo-shattering moment of Tennessee women working across the color line to achieve political goals, but even the persuasive Pierce would not be invited to lobby her state’s completely white and male legislature. She could not help convince them to vote for ratification, and the idea of a Black woman advocating for the vote might make them less inclined to approve it. Neither would Pierce be allowed to sit with her fellow suffragists in the chambers’ segregated visitors galleries. She could only watch the unfolding drama from the sidelines.

When the governor finally convened the legislature into special session and the delegates poured into Nashville, both “suffs” and “antis” were there to meet them at Union Station, armed with floral badges of affiliation – yellow roses for ratification supporters, red roses for those opposed – poised to be pinned on willing lapels. From then on, the Tennessee campaign would be known as the War of the Roses, and Nashville would become a petal-strewn battlefield.

The confrontation was intense, and wild. There were spies roaming the hallways, bribes under the table, and maneuvers in the chambers. Nashville was awash with conspiracies and kidnappings and even death threats, compromising setups, fake telegrams calling legislators home to false emergencies. The antis weaponized racial fears and waved the Confederate flag as their symbol of defiance. Commentators called it “suffrage Armageddon.”

The suffragists were betrayed by the speaker of the House, the publisher of one of Nashville’s major daily newspapers, as well as one of the presidential candidates, but also found some unlikely champions, including the Tennessee governor. The pledges to ratify mysteriously dissolved as the pressure on legislators ratcheted up, and on the eve of the final vote the tally showed ratification falling short. Pearson was overjoyed, White was furious, and even the unflappable Catt was in despair.

What happened the next morning is one of the great tales of American history. The outcome of the ratification battle came down to a single vote of conscience cast by the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature, with a nudge from his mother.

Tennessee State Library and Archives
Harry Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature, shocked his colleagues by voting in favor of ratification – at his mother’s urging – breaking a tie on the historic suffrage resolution.

Harry Thomas Burn, age 24, a freshman delegate from the tiny eastern town of Niota, had worn a red rose in his lapel and voted with the anti-suffragists on all previous motions. He personally believed women should have the right to vote, but he was up for reelection in the fall, and his constituents opposed the amendment. It seemed safer to just go with the flow of those voting against ratification.

But on the morning of the final tally, he received a letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn, a staunch suffragist, who conveyed the usual news about Niota – updates on the family and even a shopping list for Harry. But she also expressed her disappointment that Harry was not mentioned in the newspapers as favoring ratification. “Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt ... with ratification,” she admonished him.

Burn tucked the letter into his jacket pocket, next to his heart, as he sat through the final debates and roll calls in the House chamber on the morning of Aug. 18. When his name was called for the final vote on ratification, the tally was tied. He could duck no longer. He had to take a stand.

Burn shocked the chamber by voting aye for ratification. The antis accused him of taking a bribe to change his vote. He was unapologetic. “I believe in full suffrage as a right,” Burn told his colleagues. “And I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

The 19th Amendment entered the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920, and bells tolled around the country; it was the largest expansion of the electorate in American history. But the amendment still faced resistance, violent reaction, and Supreme Court challenges. And, as we know, the promise of the 19th Amendment was immediately subverted by Jim Crow laws in the Southern states, including Tennessee, impeding the right to vote for many Black women through discriminatory poll taxes, outrageous literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. They were the same tactics used to historically deny the vote to Black men. Congress never used its powers of enforcement – stated clearly in the second section of the amendment – to protect the vote for Black women. And because Native Americans and Asian Americans were not considered citizens in 1920, the 19th Amendment did not apply to the women of those communities until decades later.


The themes behind the ratification of the 19th Amendment a century ago seem ripped from today’s headlines: voting rights and women’s rights, inequality, dark money in politics, states’ rights, the ghosts of the Civil War, and racism.

The story of American women winning the vote is an inspiring tale of ordinary citizens rising to lead, of grassroots activists protesting injustice and demanding equality. But it is also a cautionary tale; it’s complicated and messy. Reform movements are imperfect, and moral compromises were made to achieve success; white suffragists left their Black sisters behind. We should learn from those mistakes.

As we’ve watched demonstrations against systemic racism and inequality spread across the nation, there are historic flashbacks to the great suffrage marches, to their picket lines, their protests – and arrests – in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, and to their exercise of civil disobedience. They pioneered many of these tactics.

The woman suffragists offer a legacy of persistence and courage that holds vital lessons for today’s political activists: Protest is important – and patriotic – but it must be followed up by well-designed and sustained political strategies in order to enact lasting change. The suffragists did not just march and picket; they also debated and lobbied, drafted legislation and campaigned. They learned to effectively communicate their cause to the public, build alliances, master the intricacies of legislative procedure, and pull the levers of political power.

And they kept going even after the 19th Amendment was secured: Catt founded the League of Women Voters, also celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, and today in the forefront of demanding voting rights protections. And Paul – along with White – drafted the next step in the campaign for women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, introduced into Congress in 1923. It is still not fully ratified, and its final outcome now lies with the courts.

Another lesson from the era: The struggle to protect and expand our democracy is ongoing. It was not accomplished in 1920, and it is still not complete today, as voting rights for many groups, particularly minorities, remain under threat. 

Voting rights are the stress test of the health of our democracy. The most meaningful way to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment this August and the legacy of the suffragists and the suffrage movement – made up of women of all ages, classes, and races, of all political persuasions and party affiliations – is to rededicate ourselves to expanding and improving our democracy by protecting voting rights for all citizens. Making sure every citizen can vote without barriers, without difficulty, without fear.

Only then can the words of the preamble of our Constitution, “We the People,” ring loud and ring true.

Elaine Weiss is the author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”

Around globe, women leaders rise to the pandemic challenge

A blend of decisiveness as well as empathy may be key to successful leadership – but so too is a political culture that values diverse voices. Part of our special 100th anniversary edition on women winning the right to vote.

Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen speaks in a Parliament room at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 6, 2020. When she took office in June 2019, she became her country's youngest prime minister.

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Calm, empathy, decisiveness: It’s been the winning common denominator among heads of state navigating the pandemic. Combining emotional sensitivity with straight talk, and listening to science to shift course as needed, this female leadership approach has spurred conversation on whether women have an edge when tackling the kind of chaos the coronavirus unleashed.

Yet many say their leaders’ successful stewardship is not the result of essential gender differences, but a reflection of robust democracies committed to gender equality. That commitment catapulted those leaders to the top in the first place but also gave them a chance to lead without being bound by gendered stereotypes.

Of course, leaders are individuals, says Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir, secretary-general of the feminist Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, which operates in the world’s No. 1 country for gender parity. But, she adds, “once we have women leaders, it’s a sign of progress that we have already made as a society in creating diverse leadership and diverse voices. Women tend to “lead with more emphasis on consensus, on working with other people.”


2. Around globe, women leaders rise to the pandemic challenge

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen secured the trust and love of her people.

As Denmark entered one of Europe’s first lockdowns in mid-March, the nation’s youngest-ever prime minister sang ’80s pop while washing dishes in her kitchen on live TV.  

She held press conferences with children and sealed her stature as a caring leader by acknowledging the vulnerability of seniors as the country began easing restrictions.

“We are asking the weakest to be the strongest right now,” she told the nation. “And that is a tough request.”

Denmark is considered to have waged one of Europe’s most successful battles against the first wave of the coronavirus; it has recorded 616 deaths. But Ms. Frederiksen revealed in June that she hardly had the answers.

“I have never been in so much doubt in my life as I was this spring,” she said in a speech.

Yet her manner was calm and empathetic, and also decisive – the winning common denominator among female heads of state navigating the crisis. A century after American women won the right to vote, women represent just a fraction of the world’s leadership but a disproportionate number of those who tackled the virus swiftly and successfully.

Those who earned praise include New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, and St. Maarten’s Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs. Their capacity to combine emotional sensitivity with straight talk, and to listen to science and shift course as needed, has spurred conversation globally on whether women have an edge when tackling the kind of chaos the pandemic unleashed.

But that discussion is not happening in Denmark – nor in other Nordic countries led by women. Instead, many in those nations have said their leaders’ successful stewardship is not the result of essential gender differences, but a reflection of robust democracies committed to gender equality. That commitment catapulted those leaders to the top in the first place but also gave them a chance to lead without being bound by gendered stereotypes.

Of course, the approach to leadership will reflect the individual leader, says Brynhildur Heiðar-og Ómarsdóttir, secretary-general of the feminist Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, which operates in the world’s No. 1 country for gender parity. But, she adds, “once we have women leaders, it’s a sign of progress that we have already made as a society in creating diverse leadership and diverse voices.”

Women tend to “lead with more emphasis on consensus, on working with other people,” she says. “And this plays a part in how these women leaders have dealt with the [pandemic] and are leading it.” 

Few female heads of government

It’s hard to draw hard conclusions about gender because the sample size for female leadership is still so small, says Carlien Scheele, director of the European Institute for Gender Equality. Just over 10% of countries in the world are led by a woman today, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and only 15% in Europe.

Women who do overcome the hurdles to get to the top tend to be exceptional, experts say. And of course, not all women leaders were standard-setters during the pandemic. Belgium, led by a female prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, became a coronavirus hot spot in Europe.

Loren Elliott/Reuters
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern became head of government in 2017. Ahead of a Sept. 19 election, opinion polls over the summer indicate strong support for her Labour Party.

But those who study leadership give high marks to the democratic and more participatory style of many women leaders. A 2019 analysis published in the Harvard Business Review showed women outscoring men on 17 of 19 leadership capabilities, including building relationships and inspiring and motivating others.

The media found the full embodiment of these attributes in Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand. She has been praised, for example, for getting on Facebook Live events to warmly encourage her fellow New Zealanders to act in ways that would flatten the infection curve and eradicate the virus. It worked: New Zealand went into lockdown with just nine deaths and has counted 22 to date.  

“In the face of the greatest threat to human health we have seen in over a century, Kiwis have quietly and collectively implemented a nationwide wall of defense,” she said.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, eschewed the war rhetoric expressed by many of her European peers as she patiently explained exponential infection rates to Germans. Nicknamed “Mutti” – Mother – during her 15 years in office, Ms. Merkel was able to draw her nation into accepting difficult lockdown measures.

In a fast-moving crisis like COVID-19, leadership requires a full range of human qualities, says Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University. And in countries with more gender equality, the stereotypes are not as rigidly set.

“Regardless of your gender, you’re probably going to be better able to respond to the anxieties in the culture and also to provide more vision about how to get out of it if you can express and act on both of those dynamics: decisiveness and strength, but also empathy and caring,” says Dr. Gerson.
“You need a leader who’s got the capacity to do that,” she says, “but you also need a political culture that will support that approach.”        

The Nordic countries

The female prime ministers of Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland all succeeded in curbing the pandemic by enforcing strict lockdowns early that exacted a heavy economic cost but decreased threats to human life. Scientists were not always on their side, but initial results have reinforced the decision. That was a sentiment shared across Nordic countries excepting Sweden, which opted not to shut down and saw far worse results.

Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/Reuters
Norway’s prime minister and Conservative Party leader, Erna Solberg, learns greeting techniques from students Celine Busk and Rim Daniel Abraham in Oslo at a school reopening April 27, 2020. Ms. Solberg addressed questions about the pandemic during a child-centered TV news conference in March.

“These outcomes are striking because basically it means female leadership saves lives and it saves the economy,” says U.N. Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia. “It saves jobs. It saves livelihoods.”      

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says these women leaders exhibited “moral clarity” and planted themselves firmly on the side of protecting as many lives as possible – despite criticism.

Lockdown “is not a cost-free exercise; people will suffer,” says Professor Sridhar. “You have to carry your population, which means you have to recognize that pain and that sacrifice.”   

Inclusion of voices

That underscores the need to build trust – something that Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir says often follows from having a greater diversity of viewpoints at the table. Ms. Gísladóttir was the director of the human rights arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe for three years.

“When you look at countries doing well and where women are leading in the government, the common denominator is that these countries all have strong democratic systems and democratic culture,” she says.

That culture can also help leaders better recognize weak spots amid a crisis. Grete Herlofson, secretary-general of The Norwegian Women’s Public Health Association, says Norway put an immediate gender lens on the pandemic.

From the start of the pandemic the country, led by conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg, recognized it was Norwegian women losing jobs, carrying the burden of care for older people and children, and at risk of domestic violence.

“Being a gender-equal country, we were able to see that the pandemic hit women harder than men,” says Ms. Herlofson. “More men died, but more women lost their jobs, more women had major domestic challenges. ... And we were able to have a discussion on that issue.”

That kind of awareness could benefit women as countries try to shape a new normal in a post-pandemic world. Just as American women gained suffrage at a time of global change after World War I, this crisis could be a steppingstone to greater gender equality on other fronts.        

Value of women’s work

In Iceland, which has led the globe in the demand for equal pay, feminists such as Ms. Ómarsdóttir are pushing a rethink about undervalued professions that are typically performed by women, such as nursing or elder care. The pandemic, she says, revealed the “true essential value of women’s work.”

Ms. Bhatia of U.N. Women is concerned that women and girls, especially in the developing world, will be disproportionately impoverished economically and educationally as a result of the pandemic, undermining the gains of the past 100 years.

But, she says, if the right lessons are drawn, this crisis could be a pivotal moment for women around the world. “It is feeling like the pandemic is a portal into a different future,” Ms. Bhatia says.

‘Our voices carry weight’: Young women of color lead activist charge

Black and Latina women have often been sidelined in social movements. But today, a new generation of activists is seizing the moment to push for change, leading the way in protests against racism and police violence. 

Jamie Panico
Daniela Charris gives a speech about police brutality and anti-racism legislation to protesters in front of the Long Island City Courthouse in Queens, New York, on June 6, 2020. She says she can't imagine a day when she'll stop organizing.

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Three Black women founded a movement in 2013: Black Lives Matter. Today, more young women of color are taking the reins of grassroots protests against both racism and police violence. Their emergence underscores how deeply many of America’s crises – from racism and sexism to health care access and economic exclusion – directly touch women of color, and how they’ve long been the backbones of social movements in the United States.

Take women’s suffrage. U.S. suffragists drew heavily from liberation movements abroad, inspired by events like the Mexican Revolution. Yet the U.S. movement “split because of race,” says Celeste Montoya Kirk, of the University of Colorado Boulder. “Some white women in the South didn’t want Black people to get the right to vote, and actively worked against that, even while fighting for women to vote.”

But “women of color didn’t have the luxury of dividing the different aspects of their identity,” to say they should fight for racial justice first and gender equality second, adds Dr. Montoya. “Liberation to them meant liberation on all fronts.”


3. ‘Our voices carry weight’: Young women of color lead activist charge

When Daniela Charris went to her first protest in the New York borough of Queens following the killing of George Floyd, she immediately realized nobody was in charge.

“Everyone was just milling around. There wasn’t a route, there wasn’t a plan,” recalls Ms. Charris, a law student.

She stepped in to guide the hundreds of marchers in chants, and by the end of the day, she’d become one of eight founders of the Queens Liberation Project, which organizes against racism and inequality.

“‘Normal’ has been a thing that has oppressed so many bodies for so many years. This is a revolution and we can’t go back to normal,” says Ms. Charris, whose parents moved to New York from Colombia when she was 3 years old.

In particular, “women – specifically Black, Latinx, Indigenous women – have been silenced in a way that nobody really seems to notice,” she says, but she believes that’s changing.

Ms. Charris is part of a phenomenon sweeping the country in recent months, as young women of color take the reins of grassroots protests against racism and for an end to police violence. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by three Black women in 2013, and women of color have long played a central role in U.S. social movements, but their work is historically downplayed or overlooked, historians and activists say. The emergence of this new cohort underscores how deeply many of America’s crises – from racism and sexism to health care access and economic exclusion – directly touch women of color.

Whether it’s a 16-year-old bringing together thousands of protesters to pressure her high school’s board to hire more Black teachers and train staff in anti-racism, a 22-year-old successfully arguing for a change to the dictionary definition of racism, or teens too young to vote finding each other online and organizing large-scale marches in Nashville or San Francisco, young women of color have found new platforms for their voices in recent weeks – and say they won’t drop the mic anytime soon.

“Women have to be the ones saying, ‘This isn’t right, we have to do something,’” says Hadassah Zenor-Davis, a rising senior at Berkeley High School in California, who protested for weeks after Mr. Floyd’s killing.

By early June, she decided she wanted to organize something of her own, joining forces with two other young women from school. “It felt like the conversation around Black Lives Matter hadn’t reached here yet, and that was a problem,” she says. “Our voices carry weight.”

Women of color have long been backbones of social movements in the United States, but their legacies tend to be absent from history books, or even erased by those who gain the power that comes in movement victories.

Change afoot?

Take women’s suffrage, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. U.S. suffragists drew heavily from liberation movements abroad, taking inspiration from events like the Mexican Revolution, and benefited from the support of women of color.

Yet the movement “split because of race,” says Celeste Montoya Kirk, associate professor of gender studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Some white women in the South didn’t want Black people to get the right to vote, and actively worked against that, even while fighting for women to vote.” And once the 19th Amendment was passed, few white activists went to bat to make sure their peers were guaranteed this right as well.

“The activism of women of color is so central to social movements, but it’s obscured,” says Dr. Montoya. “They played the invaluable role of creating coalitions across movements. ... Women of color didn’t have the luxury of dividing the different aspects of their identity,” to say they should fight for racial justice first and gender equality second, she says.“Liberation to them meant liberation on all fronts.”

Analysts say something new is taking shape right now, amid ongoing demonstrations against systemic racism.

“When I talk to my historian friends, we aren’t saying, ‘We’ve seen this before’” – which is historians’ default comment, says Victoria Wolcott, a professor of history at the University at Buffalo in New York. “This is distinctive.”

The combination of an economic crisis, a pandemic, the scale of the protests, and their persistence has created a unique landscape for anti-racism initiatives, and women’s role within them.

“There is more recognition and understanding that those voices have been sublimated in the past,” Dr. Wolcott says.

By the book

Kennedy Mitchum, a recent college graduate now quarantining with her family in a St. Louis suburb, says she protested in six marches in one month because she sees this moment as the perfect opportunity to educate about racism.

For years, she says, people have copied and pasted the dictionary definition of racism in online conversations with her, trying to downplay her experiences. In May, in a series of emails with an editor from Merriam-Webster, she argued its definition needed to be expanded.

“Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a persons skin, as it states in your dictionary,” she wrote. “It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power.”

After an initial response, she didn’t feel hopeful.

“I wasn’t going to reply. I hate feeling like I’m talking to a brick wall,” she says. “But then I thought: We’re in [a] global pandemic. I’m not really doing anything. I may as well keep trying.”

After a series of exchanges, Merriam-Webster agreed to adjust the language to more clearly include systemic racism.

“Our society, we have a lot of moving forward to do,” Ms. Mitchum says of the need to speak up and protest right now. “Women are treated in a way that sends a message our voices aren’t as worthy. But it’s impossible to ignore we can effect change.”

In recent years, more women of color have been running for and winning public office. In 2016, more than half the new women elected to Congress were women of color.

There is an urgency behind the protests, says Dr. Montoya, and “women of color experience that urgency in their day to day.”

Young leadership

The historically important role of youth in social movements is reflected, too.

Jay’dha Rackard, an 11-year-old in Boston, says she knows that some adults see her as a child, but she’s motivated to make them listen. On June 7 she spoke in front of hundreds at a Peaceful Children’s March against police violence. She says her next goal is to organize a worldwide Million Children’s March, to expand her fight for equal rights and an end to police brutality.

“Black women, young women in general, we don’t get treated as equal. And we don’t always get to talk,” she says. “That will change,” she adds, with a definitive nod.

The protests have stood out for their almost immediate impact: People are already talking about racism differently, Dr. Montoya says, and ideas that were previously considered radical, like defunding the police, are becoming more mainstream.

“Women are behind so much of this,” Ms. Charris says. “I think what we are living through now will show the world that these gender norms people have attributed to leadership and what it should look like are very far from reality.”


One family, three generations, and 100 years of suffrage

Is voting a privilege, a right, or a duty? A century into women’s suffrage, the Monitor asks three generations of women in one family what voting means to them.


As the United States commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the Monitor asks three generations of women to reflect on their earliest memories of voting.

Isabella Bowker, an elementary school teacher from Baltimore, Maryland, describes herself as “the proud fourth generation of wonderful voting women.” She remembers following her mother, high school principal Jennifer Borman, into the voting booth at a very young age. And her grandmother, Corinne Adler, agrees that political engagement was always part of the family ethos.

“I remember my parents at dinnertime having all these political discussions,” says Ms. Adler, a registered dietitian in private practice, from her home in Boston. “Often people disagreed and argued, and had good fights about it.”

America’s founders saw voting as the cornerstone of our democracy. But what does it mean to have a political voice?

For Ms. Borman and her family, 100 years of suffrage has meant a lot more than casting a ballot every couple of years. In this conversation, they reflect on the legacy of early suffragists, the significance of women as candidates, and what voting means to them.

Points of Progress

What's going right

Points of Progress: Where women are seeing gains, globally

This is more than feel-good news – it's where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.


5. Points of Progress: Where women are seeing gains, globally

1. Canada

The U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League announced the opening of a franchise in Toronto, offering hope that women’s sports will not be abandoned during the pandemic. In the middle of national shutdowns, the NWHL has established a new team named the Toronto Six, after the Canadian city’s nickname. It is the first time the league, formed in 2015 and the first to pay women a salary for playing hockey, will have a presence beyond the U.S. The move is not without critics, but coming a year after the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League – for lack of financing – it will mark a major advance for women in sport when the season opens in late fall. 

– Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer

2. United States

The U.S. Army Special Forces has welcomed its first female Green Beret, a major milestone for one of the last all-male branches of the Army. Green Berets are considered experts in unconventional warfare and counterterrorism. It’s against Army Special Operations Command policy to release the names of newly minted soldiers due to “unique missions assigned upon graduation,” but the female graduate of Special Forces training has captured media attention. A former military intelligence officer, Kathleen Wilder, completed the Army’s Special Forces Qualification Course back in 1980, but was not allowed to graduate at the time. She filed a sex discrimination complaint and was later sent a graduation certificate. At the July 9 graduation ceremony, Lt. Gen. Fran Beaudette encouraged the new class of “Green Beret men and women” to “smash through stereotypes, innovate, and achieve the impossible.” (Army Times, CNN

– Lindsey McGinnis, Staff writer

3. Latin America

Latin America is on pace to close its gender gap in 59 years, a huge jump from the 74 years expected in 2018. This puts the region just behind Western Europe, which is expected to close gender disparities in the workforce, education, access to health, and political empowerment in 54 years. The World Economic Forum, which issues the annual Global Gender Gap Index, says the sudden advance was due to regional improvements, particularly in political empowerment. Mexico, for example, leaped up the rankings this year after nearly tripling the number of women serving in ministerial positions (15.8% to 42.1%). With local and federal elections slated this year in nations from Chile to Brazil, the region could slash several more years off its journey toward gender equality. (World Economic Forum)

– Whitney Eulich, Special correspondent

4. Middle East

Arab women are serving as government ministers in record numbers. With women serving in nine of 33 ministerial posts, the United Arab Emirates has the highest ratio of female cabinet members in the Gulf. In December, Kuwait named a record three women as ministers. Saudi Arabia recently appointed women as deputy minister of labor and social development and deputy director-general for alimony affairs – a first for each role. And 25% of Jordan’s latest cabinet are women. Arab women are not only being better represented in government, but are also rising to significant posts. In January, Lebanese politician Zeina Akar Adra became the Arab world’s first female defense minister and now helms the country’s national security efforts and armed forces. 

– Taylor Luck, Special correspondent

5. Nigeria

Nigerian leaders pledge a state of emergency over rape and gender-based violence. After Nigerian women took to the streets en masse in early June to protest a series of high-profile rapes and murders of young women, the country’s government did something surprising: It listened. In mid-June, Nigeria’s 36 state governors each promised to declare a state of emergency over violence against women, and pledged to start the country’s first sex offender registry.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
People raise awareness about sexual violence in Abuja, Nigeria, June 5, 2020. Nigeria has vowed to create a sex offender registry.

While it remains to be seen if they will all come through, activists say they have never before seen this kind of momentum against gender-based violence. “This is a generation that says enough is enough,” Chioma Agwuegbo, one of the protests’ organizers, told Quartz Africa. (Quartz Africa)

– Ryan Lenora Brown, Staff writer

6. South Korea

South Korean women are mobilizing around gender rights as never before, making significant gains. The latest advance came during April elections, when more women – 57 – were elected to parliament than at any time since the country democratized in 1987. The ruling Democratic Party enjoyed a landslide victory and now has 30 female legislators. The new Women’s Party, the country’s first feminist party, won 200,000 votes but no seats.

Heo Ran/Reuters
Women cast their ballots for the parliamentary election in Seoul, South Korea, on April 10, 2020.

South Korea ranks 117th in the world for women’s political representation. But the country’s momentum on gender issues is unmistakable, as women’s gains in education raise pressure for greater equality in the workplace and at home, and younger women help energize a #MeToo movement. (Inter-Parliamentary Union)

– Ann Scott Tyson, Staff writer

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The roots of inherent rights like voting

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In August, American women entered a second century in which their right to vote has been ensured by the Constitution. Not all will take note of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Compared with attitudes of the early 20th century, a woman’s right to vote seems as natural today as her ability to reason and to lead. That alone is worth celebrating. Much of humanity now expects steady progress in people claiming their inherent rights.

In 1872, when American activist Susan B. Anthony cast a vote in the presidential election and was convicted of a crime, she reminded a judge that a government derives its power from the consent of the governed. The right to vote, she stated, is as sacred as “rights to life, liberty, and property.” Like many activists, Anthony was acting on what she understood as universal. Unalienable rights are neither created nor lost. “The right [to vote] is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will,” she stated at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The world’s achievements in claiming rights have relied on an acceptance of spiritual equality across gender, class, and race.


The roots of inherent rights like voting

This August, American women entered a second century in which their right to vote has been ensured by the Constitution. Not all will take note of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Compared with attitudes of the early 20th century, a woman’s right to vote seems as natural today as her ability to reason and to lead. That alone is worth celebrating. Much of humanity now expects steady progress in people claiming their inherent rights.

At times, such progress has been unnecessarily slow. While some women in the United States could vote as early as 1776, it took the force of conviction by the women’s suffrage movement and men gaining a wider understanding of unalienable rights to bring more political equality nationwide. The U.S. was behind some countries, such as New Zealand. Yet it was far ahead of many others. Women in Saudi Arabia won the right to vote only in 2015.

In 1872, when American activist Susan B. Anthony cast a vote in the presidential election and was convicted of a crime, she reminded a judge that a government derives its power from the consent of the governed. The right to vote, she stated, is as sacred as “rights to life, liberty, and property.” Government’s role is to secure such rights, not take or give them. She might have added that civic equality is also a route to happiness. Finland, with its history of gender balance, is often ranked as the world’s happiest country, a result in no small part from women bringing their full talents to shaping society. A focus on what women have to offer has often led to the fastest progress.

Like many activists, Anthony was acting on what she understood as universal. Unalienable rights are neither created nor lost. “The right [to vote] is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will,” she stated at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

The world’s achievements in claiming rights have relied on an acceptance of spiritual equality across gender, class, and race. The concept of “equal liberty” was a key message of Paul in the first century, based on Christ’s teachings. By the year 316, Roman emperor Constantine I declared that criminals could not be branded on the face because all people are “made in God’s image.” Many early Christians, as scholar Larry Siedentop writes in the book “Inventing the Individual,” understood “that only when women are free can men also be truly free – that the reciprocity which belief in human equality entails is only possible when their shared nature is fully acknowledged.”

The 19th Amendment helped shatter the excuses used to subordinate women. It was a prime moment of the world proclaiming the inherent equality of all.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Women in The Church of Christ, Scientist

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“In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable ...” wrote the Monitor’s founder. And there’s a spiritual basis for that claim that empowers each of us to fulfill our potential with strength and grace.


1. Women in The Church of Christ, Scientist

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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“In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable…” (Mary Baker Eddy, “No and Yes,” p. 45).

When the founder of Christian Science wrote that in the late 19th century, it was in keeping with an active movement to recognize women’s rights. But more unusual was the basis on which she claimed those rights. As biographer Robert Peel wrote, “Mrs. Eddy did not ask for women half the world that men had made; instead, she demanded an entirely new world for both of them” (“Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Trial,” p. 108).

Eddy’s lifelong cause was the right to know all people as the image and likeness of God, who is neither male nor female, but Spirit. Regardless of sex, race, class, or physical abilities, the substance of an individual is in the spiritual qualities God has created us to express – such as love, integrity, and intelligence. Understanding identity as fundamentally spiritual, rather than material, frees each one of us to fulfill our potential and benefit the world.

Prior to founding The Church of Christ, Scientist, Eddy had written a textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” explaining what she had discovered of the method behind Christ Jesus’ healing works. The book introduced the idea that Jesus’ ministry was scientifically based, and that the healings he effected were a result of his understanding of spiritual reality. Christian Science explains that the universe is a manifestation of God, the metaphysical Principle that is Love. Jesus, whom Eddy described as “the most scientific man that ever trod the globe” (Science and Health, p. 313), proved that living in obedience to God’s laws of love and truth has power to restore moral, mental, and physical health.

In the 19th century and still today, churches in general are largely led by men even when congregations are majority female. Eddy founded her church as a lay church without clergy. Notably, the position Eddy affirmed as most important in Christian Science was not administrative. It was the office of practitioner, consisting of church members who devoted their full time to the practice of healing others through the method taught in Science and Health, whether the challenge was physical and mental health, or business and other life problems.

Interestingly, though there is nothing in the teachings of Christian Science designating it, a perusal of practitioner listings suggests that a majority of practitioners from its inception to the present has been women. So if we measure importance of position by Christ Jesus’ criteria that “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20), it’s clear that women established themselves from day one as equal in moving the Church forward in healing.

And from what I’ve observed, it appears that in recent decades women have held senior administrative positions at The Church of Christ, Scientist, in equivalent numbers with men. This equivalence is certainly influenced by societal changes, but perhaps more importantly it’s a result of a progressively more spiritual view of God. Generally in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, God has been referred to with the masculine pronoun, and with a few notable exceptions prophets and leaders have been male. Yet many ancients with deep spiritual vision have also described God in feminine terms, as did the prophet Isaiah: “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13).

It’s logical that qualities such as tenderness, strength, discernment, and intelligence aren’t limited to one gender. The recognition of this begins on a personal level and expands to society at large. I observed this with a woman I was close to for many years. She and her husband were of the World War II generation. He was domineering and wanted his wife mostly at home. Her desire to do community activities angered him.

The grace and strength with which she handled this was impressive to me. With a quiet authority that came from knowing herself to be an expression of God with purpose to fulfill, she would calmly tell him what she was going to do and then do it, while still expressing love for him.

Divine Love is the most powerful liberator from inequality. Societal laws should increasingly reflect the equality of all people, but laws alone can’t bring about equal treatment. The essential change of heart comes most powerfully from understanding that all creation is a manifestation of one divine Life – the intelligence and goodness called God.


Gallery of heroes

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
When I became a photojournalist more than 30 years ago, most pictures in newspapers featured men in suits. Women, sadly, were largely absent – or relegated to the style pages. We’ve made progress since then. Throughout my career, I’ve worked to highlight the achievements of extraordinary women. I’m proud to share just a few of those stories here. None of the women are famous. I followed some for years, and met others for just hours. But each expressed remarkable intelligence, grace, and strength. They are my heroes. – Melanie Stetson Freeman

A look ahead

April Austin
Weekly Deputy Editor, Books Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow for the Season 2 launch of our “Perception Gaps” podcast.

As a bonus read, we’re including Melissa Mohr’s “In a Word” column “A vote for the word ‘suffragist,’ not ‘suffragette.” The suffix -ette is still used to diminish and demean women, and those who campaigned for the vote preferred the gender-neutral “suffragist.”  

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