Methodists and the Struggle for Women's Suffrage

There is a well-known song from Mary Poppins that rings out like a battle cry: “Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray! Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done! Well Done! Well done, Sister Suffragette!’” Although the song was written with England in mind, it seems fitting to recall as the United States marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The amendment, adopted on August 26, 1920, was the culmination of a century-long struggle to secure women’s right to vote. United Methodists might wonder what role the church played in that fight. Many know that Methodists have a long history of strong, leading women. Susanna Wesley, John and Charles’ mother, is often called the mother of Methodism for her role in teaching and spiritually forming her children. John Wesley accepted laywomen preachers and class leaders. In America, names like Barbara Heck, Phoebe Palmer, and Fanny Crosby quickly come to mind. In fact, American Methodists played a crucial role in the advancement of women in the nineteenth century. While there is much history of Methodist involvement with the women’s suffrage movement left to uncover, Methodists did play a significant role in securing women the right to vote. Knowing some of this history is critical to a full understanding of Methodist DNA.

Historians typically trace the beginning of an organized women’s suffrage movement in the United States to the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. This convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, marks the first women’s rights convention. In terms of Methodist connections, there are few in this era. However, the convention took place inside the Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1843. This chapel was part of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, a denomination which had split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1842 over the issues of slavery and church governance. Wesleyanism at large, then, was involved from the outset of the movement.

Although most were not early participants in the struggle for women’s suffrage, Methodists did lay groundwork throughout the nineteenth century that contributed to the advancement of women broadly speaking. This background in and of itself could fill a book,[i] but some highlights are worth mentioning in order to understand the context in which Methodist participation in women’s suffrage occurred. Higher education, for example, became a significant focus for Methodists in the nineteenth century. Part of this emphasis included the promotion of women’s higher education, which was viewed as part of Methodism’s evangelistic and social responsibility. Coeducational institutions also began to form, particularly in the Midwest, and these places encouraged the development of a new social group in American society. Kristin Bloomberg indicates that, “By establishing coeducational colleges…Methodists created a transitional social space…that allowed for the identification of women as a political class.”[ii]

As mentioned previously, women like Hannah Pearce Reeves (Methodist Protestant Church) and Lydia Sexton (United Brethren Church), acted as traveling preachers in the early 1800s. Periodicals began to be developed specifically targeting women audiences. The Ladies’ Repository founded in 1841, is a prime Methodist example. Additionally, Methodist women continued to move more into public roles through a variety of women’s organizations founded after the Civil War. These included groups like the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS), Women’s Home Missionary Society, the Deaconess movement, and the Ladies’ and Pastors’ Christian Union (L&PCU). In fact, by 1872 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) created a Committee on Woman’s Work in the Church, officially supporting the WFMS and L&PCU. Although still limited, Methodists were creating an environment in which women and men were able to engage with the evolving role of women in American society.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments for Methodist involvement with women’s suffrage was the formation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. The WCTU was not an official Methodist organization, but there is a clear relationship stemming from the early leaders. Annie Wittenmyer, first president of the WCTU, was a Methodist and also had been the first leader of the L&PCU. In 1879, Frances Willard became the second president. She, too, was a Methodist. The WCTU quickly became the largest women’s organization in the country with a mission to reform both church and society. Although temperance was a primary goal, suffrage soon became a method of addressing the issue. The 1876 General Conference of the MEC supported temperance and encouraged the creation of temperance societies in all congregations and Sunday Schools. Likewise, many Methodist women supported the WCTU and participated in its endeavors. Quickly, temperance and suffrage went hand-in-hand. From this point on, leading Methodist women and men were directly involved in the battle to secure the vote. While not all Methodists supported women’s suffrage, Methodists had created a space for women’s participation and voice in the public sphere.

Frances Willard, a central figure in the women’s suffrage movement at the end of the nineteenth century, was the first woman to be depicted in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.  She joined the MEC after her family moved to Wisconsin. Willard worked in higher education, serving as president for Evanston College for Ladies. When the college was subsumed under the umbrella of Northwestern University she became the first Dean of Women at Northwestern, a Methodist-affiliated school in Evanston, Illinois. Willard credited the Methodist church for her later commitments to temperance and suffrage, writing, “Much do I owe to a Methodist training and the social usages of my grand old mother church.”[iii] Methodist women-led Willard into the temperance crusade and as she became more informed, Willard indicated she felt the need to move from passive to aggressive for the cause, an idea she encouraged in others through her teaching.[iv] Through her work in temperance, Willard determined she needed to enter into the issue of enfranchisement for women. By her account, God spoke to her while she was on her knees in prayer saying, “You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.”[v] After that encounter, Willard began speaking regularly about suffrage, even against the advice of her friends like Wittenmeyer. By the time Willard became president of the WCTU in 1879, she believed that the ballot issue was “part and parcel of the temperance movement.”[vi] For Willard, giving women the ballot meant protecting the home from the very real societal dangers which alcohol presented. She is largely responsible for the shift in using “Home Protection” to convince the average woman to support the idea of women’s right to vote. In fact, when traveling in the South attempting to gain momentum, Willard found, “The Methodist church is in the van, and here I found my firmest friends.”[vii] Bishops even advocated alongside her. Soon the WCTU adopted the “Do Everything Policy,” as they not only worked for temperance but also issues surrounding legislation and the right to vote.

Willard’s voice was critical in the fight for women’s suffrage, but her mother church was not always as welcoming as she envisioned. In 1888, the Rock River Conference in Illinois elected Willard as a lay delegate to General Conference. Four other women were also elected by their respective conferences; however, all were denied a seat. Women’s representation was an issue that received increasing denominational attention; yet, women were not seated at General Conference until 1904 in the MEC. Willard held out hope for her denomination, believing that a church that educated women and worked for their advancement would in time realize equality of women was necessitated, even in terms of ordination.[viii]

Another key Methodist leader for women’s suffrage at the end of the nineteenth century was Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw was a graduate of Boston University School of Theology and applied to the New England Conference of the MEC for ordination in 1880. When this was denied, Shaw was ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church at the New York Annual Conference. However, by 1885 she was devoting all her energy to the work of temperance and suffrage. Shaw worked alongside suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony, whom she called, “Aunt Susan,” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on campaigns throughout the 1890s. Shaw was also a frequently requested speaker, once debating James Buckley, a fierce antagonist of women’s suffrage and editor of the influential Methodist paper, the New York Christian Advocate. Buckley lost the debate according to Shaw because of his poor temperament; in fact, Shaw recalls that her friends referred to the event as “the day we wiped up the earth with Dr. Buckley.”[ix] Shaw led the National American Women’s Suffrage Association as President from 1904-1915. For Shaw, working for women’s right to vote was not only an issue of equality and justice but also represented her greatest ambitions in life.[x] The subject is a focus of her autobiography. Interestingly, Shaw recalls that once, when Susan B. Anthony introduced her to a crowd, Anthony said, “I am glad you are a Methodist, for now they cannot claim that we are not orthodox.”[xi] Anthony and many of the earliest leaders in the movement were Quakers, and the impression given is that Methodism garnered the movement respectability. This influence, along with Willard’s appeal to suffrage being an issue connected to the home, helped move the needle in terms of the advancement of women’s right to vote.

Many other Methodists were active in the push for women’s suffrage. While the full history cannot be traced here, a few individuals should be mentioned to show the depth and spread of the work. Isabella Baumfree, who was born a slave, was converted in 1843, giving herself the name Sojourner Truth. Truth became a Methodist briefly upon her conversion and would speak at camp meetings, preach, and evangelize. She was an early advocate of equal rights for all women, and although she did not remain a Methodist long, demonstrates the way Methodism was laying the groundwork for women who felt called into leadership and engagement of social issues. Less well known is Franc Rhodes Elliott, a founder of P.E.O., one of the second oldest women’s societies in America. As a Methodist and graduate of Iowa Wesleyan University, she worked for women’s right to vote and also ecclesial representation for women.  Women were not the only ones in the fight, several of the MEC’s leading bishops consistently promoted women’s equality. Bishop Matthew Simpson, for example, was a strong advocate of women’s education and after the Civil War, became active in the fight for women’s suffrage. Major women activists, like Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, recognized his support and attempted to use it as leverage for their cause.[xii] These requests were well-founded. In a speech in 1873, Simpson remarked, “Society must go down or women must vote…Wyoming and Utah have adopted women’s suffrage; strange to say, the sun still rises and sets there.”[xiii] Bishop Gilbert Haven was another supporter of women’s right to vote and also corresponded with Stone and others.[xiv]

Southern Methodists, of the MEC South, were also active in the cause. In particular, Jessie Daniel Ames, who is primarily remembered for her significant work against lynching, participated in suffrage work. She organized the Georgetown Equal Suffrage League in 1916 and wrote weekly pieces about women’s suffrage for the local newspaper. Ames also established the Texas League of Women Voters in 1919, after Texas was the first Southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Other Southern Methodist women active in pro-suffrage efforts included prominent names such as, Elvira Beach Carré President of the City Mission Board in Louisiana and Mary Werlein, also of Louisiana, a leader of the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society.

As alluded to previously, interrelated to the fight for political enfranchisement was the issue of ecclesial suffrage. Lay representation was an ongoing debate at the MEC General Conference throughout the 1800s. In 1868, lay representation was finally granted for the MEC, but as noted previously, in practice, this did not include women. Recall it was 1904 when women were seated at a General Conference. Other predecessors of The UMC made this move earlier; the MPC first seated women in 1892 and the UBC in 1893. The MEC South did not seat women until 1922, after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women were not part of an Evangelical Church General Conference until 1946. All of this shows that although some Methodists worked to promote women’s voting rights, there was still significant opposition within the denomination. Just as in society, the fight for women’s right to representation in church governance was long and hard-fought. Ellen Blue has pointed out that the success of women securing laity rights in General Conferences cannot be underestimated denominationally, because there is a direct correlation to the eventual granting of ordination to women.[xv] Furthermore, there is a connection between women’s lay representation at General Conference and the church taking a definitive stance on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Methodism then, in terms of its various national bodies, was long in making a statement on women’s suffrage. The General Conference of the MEC, for example, was slow to support women’s right to vote. In a resolution, adopted by the General Conference in 1916, its members finally declared the belief that women should be given political franchise. The rationale was largely about women’s faithfulness in working for the church and how they might assist the advancement of practical Christianity through political voice. Yet, the resolution does indicate the belief that justice was at stake. By the time the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, Methodist papers largely reflected the denominational declaration. One example is the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate that called the success of the women’s rights movement a response to “palpably unjust and unreasonable discrimination.”[xvi]

Suffice it to say, the work to secure women’s suffrage was long and hard-fought. What is more, Methodists—although certainly not in a unified way—played an active role in the cause, and the case can be made that Methodism itself provided room for the advancement of women which aided the cause of women’s suffrage.  Even so, the story was not as complete as some thought, like a reporter who suggested the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment “will probably prove to have been the last battle of a long campaign.”[xvii] Obstacles still persisted in allowing all people to vote; African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, and Indigenous women all serve as examples of the inequality that remained as they faced significant challenges and discrimination in securing rights to the ballot box. The work of the church and societal reform was far from complete, but Methodists continued to engage these issues in the coming years. Mary McLeod Bethune is a prime example of bridging women’s rights and Civil Rights. She worked on both fronts, registering voters after the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and playing a major role in developing Civil Rights work.

There is so much more historical work to be done on the women’s rights movement and its connection to American Methodism. As Ellen Blue has written, “When women don’t know our history, we keep making the same surge of progress and falling back, and later covering the same territory under the impression that we are creating something new.”[xviii] We might modify her statement to say that all of us—men and women—are responsible for knowing our history. Methodists worked for societal and personal transformation; this is in the DNA of the Methodist movement. So we can proclaim, “Well done!” on this hundred year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, while still yearning and working for true equality and justice.

[i] An excellent resource is:  Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient:  A History of Women in American Methodism, 1760-1939 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1999).
[ii] Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, “Nineteenth-Century Methodists and Coeducation:  The Case of Hamline University,” Methodist History 47, no. 1 (October, 2008):  49.
[iii] Frances E. Willard, The Autobiography of an American Woman:  Glimpses of Fifty Years (Chicago:  Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1892), 334.
[iv] Willard, Autobiography, 335.
[v] Willard, Autobiography, 351.
[vi] Willard, Autobiography, 368.
[vii] Willard, Autobiography, 372.
[viii] Willard, Autobiography, 465.
[ix] Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer (New York:  Harper and Brothers Publishing, 1915), 259.
[x] Shaw, Story of a Pioneer, 287.
[xi] Shaw, Story of a Pioneer, 192.
[xii] See correspondence in the Matthew Simpson Collection, Drew University Methodist Collection, Madison, New Jersey. (Hereafter:  Simpson MSS, Drew.)
[xiii] Address:  “Women’s Suffrage,” February 7, 1873, Simpson MSS, Drew.
[xiv] See correspondence in the Bishop Gilbert Haven Papers, Drew University Methodist Collection, Madison, New Jersey.
[xv] Ellen Blue, “Parenthetically Speaking:  Methodist Women (In And) Out of Their Brackets,” Methodist History 55, no. 1 & 2 (October 2016 and January 2017), 28.
[xvi] “The Nineteenth Amendment Ratified,” Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, Vol 87, no. 35, August 26, 1920.
[xvii] “The Nineteenth Amendment Ratified,” PCA, August 26, 1920.
[xviii] Blue, “Parenthetically Speaking,” 19.

Rev. Dr. Susan Moudry is Coordinator of Clergy and Lay Leadership Excellence for the Western Pennsylvania Conference of The UMC. She holds a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from Baylor University. Her research interests include American Methodism in the nineteenth century, as well as the intersection of religion and politics. She lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh with her husband and two children.