Commentary: Being an example of a ‘universal suffragist’

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

This summer, women in the United States celebrate with pride the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote when fully ratified Aug. 26, 1920. This was a hard-fought battle that had its earliest beginnings at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

There were failures along the way. The Supreme Court in 1872 declared in a ruling about the 14th Amendment that “all people” did not include women. One of the saddest realities of this movement was the fact that the white women often sidelined Black women for fear that Southern voters would not support their suffrage campaign.

The National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890 refused to include Black women in their ranks. Later, in a 1913 suffrage rally in Washington, D.C., the white women insisted that the Black women march at the end of the parade. Racism was a consistent struggle alongside the intersectionality of sexism, even though the early movements for slavery’s abolition and women’s suffrage struggled hand in hand on many levels. It was a complicated time, much like today.

Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, many Black women found it difficult to cast a ballot due to literacy requirements and poll taxes. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women had the best opportunity to vote in this country. It is important to know our true history and to actively oppose current voter-suppression attacks in this generation.

What does Jesus have to do with all of this?

The word “suffrage” comes from a Latin word, “suffragium,” which literally means “to support.” That word came from a root word for “tablet,” which was used to record a vote. Through the years, voting rights tended to go to majority-culture men, wealthy men, landowners and citizens. During the Enlightenment era in Europe (1715-89), there was growing thought that there should be equal rights for all people. Along with this came a call for “universal suffrage.”

Jesus was the ultimate “universal suffragist,” long before Europe’s Enlightenment era. In the truest sense of the word “suffrage,” Jesus supported and uplifted women of all stripes: Samaritan women, Syrophoenician women, women of questionable character, homemakers, his own mother, little girls and ceremonially unclean women. He even gifted them with the highest honor of all: to be the first to tell the Good News of his resurrection.

Jesus saw all people as equals, including women, and he gave them a voice in public, engaged them in theological conversation and allowed them to sit with the men as he taught. He healed women, forgave them, loved them and saw them as worthy of respect.

The world, and sadly the church, continues to deny support for women. “Don’t send us a woman pastor!” is something I still sadly hear each year when making appointments. The majority of our largest churches are served by men. Overall, women earn less salary than men in our denomination.

However, there are improvements coming little by little as time passes. I can see in my 40 years of ministry how attitudes, acceptance and support continue to improve. I would say that is the movement of the Holy Spirit. The influence of Jesus’ teachings in his words and deeds continues to liberate women in our church, our country and our world. We still have a long way to go as disciples seeking “the transformation of the world.”

As Christians, we can be a part of the support system that raises up women to equality, self-determination and leadership. The same quest awaits us in regard to other groups and communities that face discrimination — such as people of color, people with disabilities, people living in poverty and the LGBTQUIA community. Equality and equity for everyone is the only way that any of us can have true freedom and wholeness. Where can you show support and be a “universal suffragist”?

The other meaning of the Latin word “suffragium” is “to pray.” We receive support for the work of justice and equality through the power of prayer. As we celebrate the milestone of women’s suffrage, let us pray for a day when all will have the freedom to vote and to be recipients of equality and support.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson has served as the Episcopal leader of the Philadelphia area of the United Methodist Church since 2008. Her service as pastor has included a four-point rural circuit in Frederick, Maryland; a suburban Baltimore congregation; a campus ministry at Gallaudet University; and, for 20 years, at Christ UMC of the Deaf.