The Women’s Movement: In the Intersection with the Rise Up of Fundamentalism in the United States

For decades women have advocated for equal rights to ensure the fundamental principles of equal standing under the law. Throughout history, most of the conceptual framework and advocacy have been aimed at breaking the legal oppression of a patriarchal system.

However, ethnic differences among women and white superiority beliefs have made achieving equality for all women difficult. The long history of the women’s movement, starting in Europe and the United States and step by step in many countries, divided the conversation leaders were considering all women equally, despite their economic position, education, and especially skin color, women in a higher position in leadership practice white supremacy ideologies that accompanied the painful colonialism history experience in the world.

In the United States, women have fought and obtained the right to vote, work outside of the house, earn a salary, decide to marry, stay single, have children, or assume the responsibilities of motherhood. However, these achievements have only sometimes been well received by all members of society. In particular, conservative groups, led primarily by Christian church leaders, have been at the center of developing fundamentalist ideologies to combat these advances. Patriarchal religious power structures have used fundamentalism as a basis to maintain control. Through the application of fundamentalist ideologies, women are condemned for making decisions, and this ensures that in this theology, the place of the women is below that of the helper, and there is no autonomy in one’s own body.

The women’s movement and equal rights

The demand for the right to vote in the United States began to gain strength in the 1825s when a group of women in New York organized to strike and demand higher wages and better working conditions, thus giving rise to the most massive movement for the rights of women in the country. Northern cities were growing and requiring factory labor and provided a public space where women began to gather.

In 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, a group of women organized the first women’s rights convention, wanting to change the Constitution to ensure equal rights. In that same convention, it was approved to fight for women’s vote. This decision drew opposition from some organizers, who believed the idea was too extreme—for women, who for decades had read a Declaration of Independence (1776) that spoke of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, left them far from being part of the ‘we,’ which seemed reserved only for privileged white men. The US government, led by white men, placed the native populations in reservations and forced them to free labor. At that time, Afro-descendant men were not recognized as complete humans; they still lived in slavery, and equally enslaved Afro-descendant women were owned by white men and women as oppressed, service, and wealth-producing labor for their enslaving “owners.”

In this context, what possibility would women, primarily native and Afro-American women, have to be considered citizens in the country of freedom? In 1850 the first National Women’s Rights Convention had broad base support, which brought together men and women, abolitionists and liberals, who met to talk about equal rights, wages, marriage, and property, among others.

That same year, the Women’s Movement regained momentum. It was approved to become the American Equal Rights Association, which would take women’s suffrage as its banner. The reaction was immediate. Conservative church leaders directly opposed equality.

Fearing the power and influence that women could have in society, and out of economic interest, in 1870, the owners of the liquor businesses founded the Anti-Woman Suffrage Association of Washington. This movement received support from women who were against all political participation, either because they obtained personal benefits by maintaining patriarchy in the political system or because they believed that men should rule the country following the mandate of God’s leading.

The women’s leadership was acting in such a way that it opened spaces for discussion. Susan B. Anthony, a suffragist and equal rights leader, seizing on the 1872 presidential election, was arrested for voting in New York. The patriarchal system was playing all its cards; it governed under the laws created within a regime of the value of the human being in which women had no other role than to submit.

The suffragettes continued their campaigns for decades, seeking an amendment to the Constitution to give them voting rights. At the same time, another group of women began to question from within the churches and confront the patriarchal system manifested in the religious institution that held power and preached it every Sunday. A change was being experienced: the women members of the congregations had questions regarding these limitations. The leaders were reading the biblical basis for their own rules, which they believed was God’s will. They wanted to execute them to the letter in a context where there was talk of a social revolution in which science had significant advances.

So, the question that emerged in the face of men’s literal reading of the Bible was: “what about women who read the Bible like women?”. That was the question of Elizabeth Stanton, who published The Woman’s Bible, and a group of twenty-six women. This controversial book questioned the use of the Bible to relegate women to an inferior status. She urged women to recognize how religious orthodoxy and masculine theology obstructed their chances of achieving self-sovereignty. The religious leaders did not ignore this work since it amounted to an attack on their base of power, based on the Bible and the fundamentalist theology they were building. In response to these events, church leaders were quick to show concern about the actions of the women’s movement and other social changes in parallel.

The birth of the fundamentalism movement in the United States
As women organized for decades to voice their demands for full rights as citizens in society, a circle of religious leaders and conservative pastors also gathered in New York. They did Bible readings and reflections, going from a small meeting for Bible study to creating the largest convention called the Niagara Bible Conference. which met from 1876 to 1897, bringing together a diversity of thinkers, pastors, and religious leaders from the United States and Canada.
The Niagara Conference introduced many evangelical Protestants to dispensationalist teaching and premillennialism, which were advocated and taught to ensure that the Bible and its principles were not questioned and studied by leaders and pastors; a set of fourteen doctrinal principles were established to describe what they called the “Niagara creed.” These principles laid the foundation and strengthened the distinctive character of fundamentalism. The driving force behind the meeting was James H. Brookes, a Presbyterian minister from St. Louis who publicized the meeting through his Truth magazine and devoted considerable space to summaries of the conference addresses.

The Niagara conference prompted religious leaders to shut down the positions and questions that arose from the women’s movement. Also, he clarified that the women’s struggle was an issue that the churches would not discuss. Instead, they preferred to focus on amplifying their religious discourse by opening mission schools and printing instructional materials with the fundamentals of the only ‘truth’ they cared about control of the Bible. Once again, women and their struggles were made invisible.

While the religious leaders did not listen to the women’s questions, the strengthening of women’s activism and resistance came to fruition. By the 1920 presidential election, white women could vote across the country. That same year, the ideas of fundamentalism, based on the fourteen principles, began to be promoted to attack the ideas of equal rights. Fundamentalist religious leaders printed thousands of pamphlets distributed in churches and seminaries to spread their beliefs and concerns in the face of social movements that studied and promoted equal rights. Even though the country’s social struggles grew against racial segregation in that same period, this issue was not discussed or reviewed within the historically segregated churches.

The intersectionality between the women’s movement and the rise of fundamentalism in the United States shows the historical evolution of how the women’s movement developed. The fundamentalist leadership’s initial concerns regarding equal rights for women were counterbalanced by the white male desire for control and power in society. Fundamentalist views put equal rights at risk regarding self-determination and the potential of harmful governmental laws. 

Still today, more than a hundred years have passed since the vote was achieved in the United States; however, having a woman president has not been possible. In Congress, after a century of fights, women will reach 20% of the seats by 2022. Women struggle with injustice, penalization of abortion and punishment with jail time, fertility treatment is not part of many standard health insurance plans while forced sterilization on native women at the border, and unequal pay salaries between women and men. Similarly, within churches, women remain a minority in leadership and decision-making roles.

The work for women’s rights is far from over, and history suggests for each advance, there is likely to be a fundamentalist backlash to the action.

Published by

Yenny Delgado

Psychologist and Theologian. Director of PUBLICA and convener of Women Doing Theology in Abya Yala. Ruling elder in the PCUSA. She writes about the intersections between ancestral memory, decolonization, womanism, and public faith. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Psychology of Religion at the University of Lausanne. Twitter @Publicayenny