The first time I called myself a feminist, I think I was twelve years old. Growing up in a traditional Sicilian Catholic household, misogyny was ever-present. There were clear expectations of me and my brother based on our gender and these ideas were grounded in our religion. I didn’t realize how problematic this was until much later; but by age twelve I was asking questions and knew that it wasn’t fair that my brother could be an altar server and I couldn’t…because I was a girl.
A few years ago, I experienced a shift in my life. I am not sure how to explain it. Some might call it a midlife crisis; but I’m inclined to define it as an awakening, at least a partial awakening. I won’t foolishly claim that I am suddenly enlightened; however I began to question my own identity as a feminist.
As a young feminist theologian, I was so sure of myself. I thought I knew what injustice is and was engaging in work to disrupt it. In the midst of my “shift,” I challenged myself to recognize my own blindspots and in doing so, realized that much of the work I had been engaged in was simply recreating oppressive structures. Although I claimed to understand intersectionality, I was so focused on my own experiences, I did not fully consider the experiences of others.
Yesterday we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It wasn’t long ago that I felt empowered by the feminist spirit of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as I toured her previous home, the Wesleyan Chapel, and the entire Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY. Yet, today, I am frustrated by my blindspots and my ignorance of the significance of Stanton’s activism and the suffrage movement that we don’t speak about.
Women’s suffrage, grounded in Christianity, while deserving of commemoration, also requires a careful critique of its own perpetuation of oppression. It has a complicated legacy that initially acknowledged connections between abolition and suffrage. However, such acknowledgement was quickly abandoned following the ratification of the 15th Amendment prohibiting the denial of a (male) citizen’s right to vote based on race (which, by the way, was rendered virtually meaningless by Jim Crow, Black Codes, and other forms of voter suppression).
Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the most prominent white suffragists, having previously spoken out against slavery, protested the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution using racism as a weapon. Their voices led many white women who called for a version of suffrage that would exclude women of color from securing the right to vote. While Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Barrier Williams, among many other women of color, marched for women’s suffrage and secured the passing of the 19th Amendment, they did so at no benefit to themselves. The suffrage movement was not about women’s right to vote; it was about white women’s right to vote.
The Women’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s March have also fallen short when it comes to including the voices of women of color. We continue to call for women’s rights as human rights; but do so without acknowledging the intersectional nature of oppression.
Within our feminist theological explorations so many of the questions we ask continue to focus on white women. Postcolonial theology and intersectionality have called us to remove our blinders and recognize what it really means to put experience at the center. And yet, as a feminist theologian, I admittedly continue to struggle to move beyond my own perspective.
As our nation openly celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage; we neglect to acknowledge its role in perpetuating racism, xenophobia, and the oppressive systems it sought to disrupt. We honor the stories of these women; their heroism, persistence, and activism that indeed changed history; but did so at the expense of those marginalized by weaponizing hate. I cannot deny the significance of the suffrage movement; however I must acknowledge the ugliness of its complicated truth.
In our current political state, so many of the issues we are challenging also have complicated ugly truths. Like the suffrage movement, Christianity is claimed as the foundation for pursuing social policy that benefits some, and oppresses others. The 19th Amendment centennial, for me, is a reminder of the ongoing work I need to engage in to become more self-aware of my blind spots, consider lived experiences outside of my own, and recognize that what might seem to benefit me, isn’t truly valuable if it neglects the rights of another.
Gina Messina, Ph.D. is an American feminist scholar, Catholic theologian, activist, and mom. She serves as Associate Professor and Department Chair of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and is co-founder of FeminismAndReligion.com. She has written for the Huffington Post and is author or editor of five books including Women Religion Revolution. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, PBS, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives of women around the globe. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram: @GinaMessinaPhD, Facebook, and her website ginamessina.com.