The PBS American Experience documentary broadcast this week on the 70 year struggle for women’s voting rights was fascinating and timely. The suffragist leaders across decades, starting with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, were largely upper middle class and wealthy white Anglo Protestant women who had influence because of their place in society. They were elitist. And their attitudes on race did not meet today’s exacting standards. Often they resented that black men, whom Cady called “Sambo,” legally had the franchise when white women did not.
In their struggle for women’s voting rights, the white suffragists often kept black women allies at a distance. There was prejudice on their part and there was also realistic political calculation. If women’s suffrage was overly linked to black voting rights, it could be politically doomed. Black women’s organizations were often shunned, which they typically endured with sacrificial patience. The distinguished black woman journalist Ida Wells was told by her own Illinois delegation that she couldn’t join them for the great 1913 suffragist parade in Washington, DC. She initially complied then joined them later in the march during a chaotic moment.
So the suffragists were not always saintly or fair but they were courageous, persistent, visionary, and on the presenting issue of voting rights for women, morally and politically correct. They overall advanced the cause of human equality even if failing to help racial equality. We should admit their sins but not damn them because they fell short of complete holiness, as all human projects do.
After initial hesitance, the key ally for woman’s suffrage was President Woodrow Wilson. He publicly announced in 1915 he was voting in his native New Jersey for a state referendum for women’s voting rights. In 1918, during World War I, he appealed to Congress to approve the 19th Amendment. Thanks to him, it passed by one vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. Wilson personally delivered an impassioned speech to the Senate, declaring:
We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women—services rendered in every sphere—not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.
Suffragists had argued, and Wilson had agreed, that America could not profess to fight a war for democracy while not living up to it. Southern segregationist senators, fearing voting rights for black women, suggested amendments limiting voting rights to white women. Some suffragists were tempted by this compromise, which Wilson rejected, and the amendment failed in 1918. But the next year, after Republicans won Congress and Southern votes were less needed, he called a special session that approved the 19th Amendment.
In 1920, one more state was needed for ratification. Wilson implored Tennessee’s governor, who admired Wilson, to convene a special legislative session, which he did, and it passed by one vote. Wilson merits great credit for gaining voting rights for America’s women.
Wilson also merits credit for his solidarity with American Jews, who were frequent targets of prejudice and discrimination. He nominated the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice, denounced Russian anti-Jewish pograms, fought restrictions on immigration, and supported Zionism.
Of course, Wilson is best known for leading America into WWI, which the Allies nearly lost after Russia’s collapse. In a logistical feat unparalleled in world history, America safely transported 2 million men across the Atlantic in time to stop the German advance and end a war that killed 20 million. Central to Germany’s and Austria’s willingness to surrender was Wilson’s speaking over the heads of their rulers to their peoples with his vision of a peaceful and democratic world where nations and peoples live together equitably.
One of my college history teachers was the great Jan Karski, who served in the Polish Underground during WWII, endured Nazi torture, and helped to chronicle the Holocaust. He recalled that for his devoutly Catholic mother, Wilson was subordinate only to Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as Wilson had singularly restored Polish nationhood after WWI. The broader scope of Wilson’s idealism was unfulfilled but his aspirations continue to inform USA foreign policy and to inspire global aspirations for democracy and human rights.
Wilson’s accomplishments are now seldom mentioned. Instead, in sync with America’s current mood, Wilson now is denounced merely as a racist. The allegation is not untrue. He was born in the South before the Civil War. He had his era’s prejudices, although his views were not among the worst and were better than many. Most infamously, he segregated part of the federal civil service, in response to appeals from southern supporters, upon whom he depended. Sadly, this measure was not widely criticized or resisted by Democrats or Republicans.
Should Wilson be “cancelled” because of his unfortunate racial views, to the exclusion of other accomplishments for humanity? Should the suffragists be similarly dismissed as racists, despite their exertions for women?
How should Christianity respond to cancel culture? The Bible starts with a perspective very different from self-righteous America today. Its “heroes” are bad people. Abraham, though patriarch of faith, prostituted his wife to Pharaoh. The Chosen People built idols. King David had the husband of his lover killed. Solomon abandoned wisdom for lechery. The apostles betrayed Jesus. Saint Paul helped execute Saint Stephen. Rahab was a harlot. Matthew was a corrupt tax collector. The catalogue of crimes is extensive.
Saint Paul summarized the human condition:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.
That people are prone to wickedness is a given. That people are still redeemed by God and used to advance good is the ongoing miracle. That miracle is possible only because God is merciful to the undeserving. But mercy in today’s America is unfashionable.
The Bible is unvarnished in its descriptions of people and human nature. So should we be as we reflect on the past and examine the present. “Heroes” are always sinners. But sinners by divine grace often still become heroes. We all depend on that grace, absent which we are all without hope.
America today needs hope and extra measures of grace, from God, and among each other. Can we be merciful to persons past and present even as we expect mercy for ourselves? There can be no peace, social or personal, without mercy.