Still Fighting for Equality in the UMC: Honoring Anna Howard Shaw

by: Kara Crawford

In honor of March being Women’s History Month, I have been thinking a lot about the many women throughout history and in various parts of the world who have worked towards women’s rights. Often, though, I am brought back to a US suffragette, who, because of my background, stands out in a number of ways: Anna Howard Shaw.

Now, many of you may have very little clue who she is and others of you may know her name thanks to Liz Lemon. But there’s a strong likelihood that most people don’t know much more about her other than that she was a suffragette.  I really believe that the course her life set, as well as the example of her successes and misguidings, place before modern feminists and the queer community an important set of challenges.

Most regular In Our Words readers should have figured out by now that I’m a United Methodist, tried-and-true, to the core. And that I write a lot on religious folks in the queer community and the intersectionality of those identities, albeit sometimes dissonant. One reason I originally became interested in Howard Shaw is because she was a Methodist. But not just any Methodist; she became the first ordained female Methodist pastor. In 1880.

Both, yes, both, of my parents are United Methodist clergy. In the “biz,” that makes me a PK2 (“pastor’s kid squared”), and while that identity has often been a challenge for me, I couldn’t be prouder of it on the whole. Nor could I see it as a more integral part of my identity.

But one challenge both my family and I have faced over the years is the discrimination my mother oft dealt with for the lone fact that she was and is a female lead pastor, and a strong and relatively influential one, at that. Imagine, in 2012, a woman discriminated against in her line of work solely for her sex and/or gender.  I write that with the utmost sarcasm, we all know it happens with absurd frequency.

Anna Howard Shaw was a suffragette in the late 1800s fighting for voting rights for women as suffragettes were oft to do. And then she got ordained as a Methodist pastor in 1880. So we won then, right? Discrimination against women in the Methodist church ended then and women could be ordained as they felt called, right? Surely by now, half of The United Methodist Church’s clergy are women, right? Ideally, yes. In practice, no.

In spite of Howard Shaw’s achievements, her legacy was not the be-all-end-all of women’s rights. Today women only make up 19% of ordained elders in The UMC, and while they are 77% of ordained deacons [1], it’s the elders who generally receive better pay, better respect, and have more stability, as deacons do “specialized ministry” which generally does not focus on being a lead pastor of a church. Women didn’t even officially  and unequivocally receive the right to ordination in any of the predecessor bodies of The United Methodist Church until 1956.

And in spite of The UMC and its predecessor bodies having paved the way towards gender equity, we still have a long road left to travel before we reach a point of equity for all people. Out queer people officially still cannot be ordained. Now, I’ve already been through why I’m not leaving The UMC in spite of this, and there are many others who feel similarly.

But what if we do win? What if the “socially acceptable” queers get the right to be ordained, maybe even as soon as this May? That still leaves some people in the dust. For instance, one of my closest friends is a polyamorous seminarian. You probably know her better as David Chastity. As she recently wrote, she is “trapped in the closet” regarding the fact that she’s poly, namely when it comes to the church.  Even if more mainstream queers become able to be ordained in May, she will still not be “acceptable enough” by the church’s standards. Our work will not yet be done.

And I think that’s one of the lessons we can learn from Howard Shaw. Even though she, personally, was ordained in 1880, it wasn’t the be-all-end-all of stopping discrimination in the Methodist Church. For goodness sake, my mother still faces discrimination as a female pastor. And even “ending” discrimination against women is not a be-all-end-all.

Moving beyond my United Methodist-centrism (bad habit, I admit), this lesson can be extended to the queer  community as a whole. Even if we accomplish one of our goals, say, marriage equality, our work is not yet complete. I’d even venture to say that our work is only beginning. Because until David’s boyfriend’s polyamorous family unit can receive equal treatment and benefits as a family, until all (and I mean all) people have legal protections that afford us equitable treatment, our work is not yet done. And at that, our work may never truly be complete. But we must never give up hope.

The second lesson we need to learn from Anna Howard Shaw as a movement is to learn from her mistakes. I’ll be the first to admit that she was not perfect. She, like probably the majority of her contemporary suffragettes, was exceptionally racist. For example:

“You did not wait for woman suffrage but disenfranchised both your black and white women thus making them politically equal. You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!” [2]

She and her contemporaries were willing to trade fighting for the rights of all people to be able to vote simply to push their own interests – substantially privileging themselves over others who were equally, if not more, oppressed.

If the queer community is to be inclusive, we must not, must not, marginalize certain identities within the queer community. Because, honestly, it goes against everything we supposedly stand for as a community. We cannot leave the fight for equity on behalf of certain groups within the community simply to those groups; we must stand in solidarity with them. This applies to the whole gambit of additionally-marginalized identities within the queer community.

Furthermore, we must stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups of all stripes. We must stand up in solidarity for the rights of people living in poverty, racially-marginalized people, imprisoned people, undocumented people, women, and everyone marginalized in dominant society by one identity or another, because in some way we’ve been there, done that.

The work will be long, the work will be difficult, and, my friends, the work may not end. But the task is before us, and whether we choose to keep working for equity of all people is up to us. Who’s with me?

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Kara Johansen Crawford is a graduate of DePaul University, with a BA in International Studies and Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies. Kara has been actively involved in activism and community service for much of her life and is particularly passionate about labor justice, queer issues and engaging faith communities on social issues. Kara is currently serving as a Mission Intern with the United Methodist Church at the Centro Popular para América Latina de Comunicación, based in Bogotá, Colombia. Follow Kara on Twitter @revolUMCionaria and on her blog.

[1] Statistics from http://www.gcsrw.org/Statistics.aspx

[2] Quote from http://www.bu.edu/shaw/anna-howard-shaw/remembrance-service-a-presentation-about-anna/

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