It was 1866, and the work for women’s suffrage was at a crossroads.
The civil war had ended the year before. Loss and grief were everywhere. Over 10,000 battles had been fought, over 600,000 died. What it means for two sides of righteousness to each become so hardened that life becomes irreparably fractured, impossible, deadly –this was not for them, theoretical.
For most of the 19th century, the work to end slavery and to secure women the vote had been deeply intertwined. Frederick Douglass was of the key speakers and leaders at the famous suffrage convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, and white and black women – Susan B. Anthony, Olympia Brown, Francis Watkins Brown, Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe – these were all Unitarians and Universalists, alongside the formidable Elizabeth Cady Stanton – they had been leaders in the push to end slavery for many years leading up to the civil war.
All this work was intertwined until about 1866, when the movements were faced with a choice. Because in 1866, slavery had been abolished, and congress went on to pass the 14th amendment, requiring all states to ensure that all people, regardless of race, color or creed, were equal citizens.
But this “citizenship” did not mean they could vote.
Voting, as of 1866, was restricted to those citizens who were white and male.
And so the question was – would the movements continue to work together for women’s suffrage, since slavery had ended? Or, would they first work to ensure Black men had the vote?
I phrase it like this – one, or the other – because that was part of the question– should they think of it sequentially – and if so, in what order?
Or should they stand together and say it was all, or nothing.
Nothing, as in, no one wins – no one besides the white men who still got to vote.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this moment in history over the past few months, especially as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment– the move that finally brought women the right to vote. Or, at least, it brought white women the vote. I’ll come back to this later.
I’ve also been thinking about this moment because a lot of today’s ethical decisions – personal, and collective decisions about what constitutes a moral life – find us in a similar ethical quandary, as in: strategy, solidarity, purity, polarization, and the practical realities of what can, and cannot get done.
For example, we might believe that healthcare is a human right – especially relevant in these days where we’re talking about a global health crisis – right? So you might think: single payer is the most ethical path.
But, if fighting for single payer means we ultimately end up only with the status quo – because it can’t pass, maybe instead the ethical path would be to compromise – work for some movement, even if it isn’t ideal. Some has to be better than none, right?
On the other hand, if we don’t ever draw that bright line of justice that says – sacrificing any lives to a slow progress is unacceptable – can we really claim we are acting morally, ethically? As Martin Luther King said – “justice delayed is justice denied.”
Like a lot of people I know, my partner and I decided to practice a “dry” January this year. As in, a break from alcohol. For many reasons, not the least of which were health, and money. Sobriety deserves its own sermon, but relevant to this question about all and/or nothing, what I want to talk about is the different ways that Carri and I each approached the task of not-drinking.
For me, I decided at the start of the month, that there was a rule – “no alcohol all of January.”
And then I agreed within myself to follow that rule. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether following the rule in reality was leading to a definitive good – and to be honest, in some moments I wasn’t sure – it didn’t matter. The rule was the rule, and following the rule in and of itself was the good.
The deontological approach is different than what Sean focused on last week – “virtue ethics.” Virtue ethics is about the sort of person you are meant to be. Deontology doesn’t care what kind of person you are – it only cares what you do.
Have you seen the bumper stickers that say “the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”?
Whenever I see those it always makes me wonder if the person has actually read the bible. Like, you’re settled on the fact that anyone who utters the name of the Lord should be stoned to death? Leviticus 24 says it …does that settle it?
But my point is, this sense that there is a book of rules that we need not question, but rather simply follow – this is deontology.
This is what a lot of people expect from religion – rules to follow – it’s what throws people about Unitarian Universalism at first, actually – because we don’t have a book that settles anything. Instead, our origins are more like a reaction against the rules and the idea that an ethical life would or could be tied to a prescriptive, unmoving set of standards.
I mean, I’m guessing there aren’t too many of us who are big on concepts like “obedience,” or submitting our will to a designated authority.
On the other hand…demographically, Unitarian Universalists tend to have a lot of formal education, with many folks employed in science, engineering, math, IT, government….these are things that tend to require people who are good at rules, even like rules, especially if we get to write them ourselves.
It’s maybe why UUs – rule resisters as we are, can get really into things things like by-laws, policies, and Roberts Rules of Order – making sure that we are in full compliance – regardless of what impact the rule actually has – the rule itself can become the good.
To go back to my own example – and my dry January – I have to say, the rule was a relief. In a world where we are faced with so many decisions with so many complex and confusing potential outcomes – rules can be a gift.
To have have made one decision, and then to be faithful to this commitment, regardless of all the swirling ups and downs of each day – it can be a gift.
It’s this sort of gift we mean to be giving ourselves in a marriage commitment – to decide at the outset, regardless of what comes, I’m in. I will be a partner to this person out of duty, even obedience, not necessarily in a patriarchal sense, but more in a sense of submitting to the promise you made.
The example of marriage reminds us that to be duty-oriented in creating an ethical life, it isn’t just about having rules in a really detailed sense. Instead, we can set our loyalty to something much more broad, and to a sense of what goodness and morality means in a much grander sense.
To decide that there are principles or maxims, as Immanuel Kant framed it, that you’ve committed to, regardless of their specific impact in a particular context – to remain dutiful to their promise.
This too is deontology – and it can be a gift.
This is where I imagine Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were after the Civil War. They had this principle about women and the vote, this duty. They were irrevocably committed, regardless of the impact it would have – they were all in.
I said earlier, the women’s movement had to decide between taking issues one at a time, or standing together and ensuring suffrage regardless of race or sex was either all secured, or none of it.
It turns out – this was not exactly how Stanton and Anthony saw their decision. Instead, Stanton and Anthony and those who followed their leadership decided that their “all or nothing” was in their commitment to women’s suffrage, period.
In the years immediately after the civil war, they and other women had the sense that they had fulfilled their work for black people – slavery was over – and now it was time to focus on women’s suffrage.
So much so, they worked to directly oppose what became the 15th amendment granting Black men the vote – because it didn’t include women. As Brent Staples wrote recently in the New York Times, in the years after the civil war, “Stanton embarked on a Klan-like tirade against the amendment. She warned that white women would be degraded if Negro men preceded them into the franchise.”
The rhetoric in attempting to assert the absolute right of (white) women to vote became often ugly, petty, racist, fear-mongering. They happily accepted funding and primary support from a virulent racist banker who published their journal and relished not that their work would lift up white women, but more that it would lift up white people, period.
As you might guess, however, not everyone saw this as the right approach – including not all white women. To explain the alternative, I need to go back to our dry January. Like I said, Carri had a different approach. For her, the idea of removing her active choice did not feel like a gift, it felt like a prison. It increased her anxiety and made her much less likely to actually accomplish what we’d set out to do. Instead, Carri approached each opportunity for drinking, or not drinking, as a choice to decide based on the actual result her choice would have. Would this choice result in more good?
She called this “intentional drinking.” In nearly all cases, she chose to not to drink. It’s just that her way of approaching that decision was a lot more focused on the outcome of the commitment, rather than the commitment itself.
Carri’s ethical frame is either called a consequentialist, or a teleological frame – it’s focused on the ends – the result – as a way of deciding the good. If the choice you make results in greater freedom, justice, pleasure, happiness for more people – then your choice was a good one.
Voting is often considered through a consequentialist framework. Espeically this cycle, voters have expressed a desire to be strategic, to think practically about the ends we can realistically accomplish, regardless of whether a given candidate aligns in a deeper sense with what you believe is right, or good. It only matters what will actually happen – the actual end.
This is voting as harm reduction, which is another form of consequentialist ethics. To accept that something is going to remain mostly not good, but that we can reduce the negative impact. Reduce the harm. And reducing the harm is good. Whereas deontology doesn’t recognize degrees of “wrongness,” consequentialism thinks it’s obvious – some wrongs are worse than others, and being less worse may not be good, but it is still better than nothing.
This was the calculation made by the other leaders – who opposed Stanton and Anthony – people like Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore – as well as a coalition of women and men of all races. They were appalled by the hard liners, and their willingness to disregard the needs of people of color so quickly.
This sub-group celebrated the progress represented in the 15th amendment, which secured black men the vote in 1870. They believed it was a critical first step to ensure not just women’s social equality with men, but the literal survival of Black people post-Civil War.
After the 15th was passed, this group continued its inclusive, harm-reduction oriented work, focusing on a state-by state, gradualist strategy for change.
Within a few years though – the celebrity and strength of Stanton and Anthony eclipsed this group’s efforts, so it was their approach that won the day – racism and white supremacy became synonymous with white feminism, strengthening the systemic sublimation of women of color for the next century.
As Staples writes, “Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th amendment. It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely.
But it meant very little to black women in the South where most lived at the time, and where election officials were well practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.
By this time, the former suffragists of the North were celebrating the amendment and were uninterested in fighting discrimination against women who were suffering racial, as opposed to gender, discrimination.”
In our world today, we are faced almost daily with this question of how and when to compromise – whether to fight for what our hearts are most oriented to – or to concede that most everything must be a matter of harm reduction.
This story of post-civil war activism reminds us that if we are going to engage a deontological frame – it matters to whom, and to what we have pledged our obedience – and maybe even more, it matters whose good we are purposefully or inadvertently willing to sacrifice through this loyalty.
As Jonathan Haidt says, morality “blinds and binds us.” As in, binds us to those who see things as we do; and blinds us to the other ways of looking at the same exact situation.
By which I mean, I admire those hard-line women’s suffrage leaders. I respect them, and I am not totally convinced I wouldn’t have been one of them. Without their sense of duty, their courage and commitment, their sacrifice – I don’t know if we’d be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Which means, I also must acknowledge, I don’t if we’d be here without their racism.
And yet – on the other the other hand, if those same leaders had been willing to go the route of the consequentialists who celebrated the 15th amendment and worked to be more gradual, more practical – if they’d remained in relationship with the Black community, and refused the racist rhetoric and then used their social power as white women to form a coalition – maybe instead of the 100th anniversary of women voting, we’d be celebrating the 150th. Imagine what world Martin Luther King Jr. might’ve showed up into if those women’s “all or nothing” stance actually meant all.
In these days of often overwhelming ethical complexity, this is the promise of our faith – that we are bound up in loyalty to all, meaning all. The whole world. All of us are free – or none. Which does not mean we don’t need to compromise, or choose the least-bad option – sometimes this duty requires exactly that.
But what it also means is that in this faith, we dedicate our lives to the proposition that when we are faithful in our commitment to the whole – together we can draw that bright line of justice that leads not to a partial or temporary freedom for some, but a liberation that gets us all free, for all time.
It is the promise of our faith, and it is our call to an ethical life.
May it be so, and amen.