by Linda Ryan
Today we celebrate two women who are listed individually but who seem to have a connection that brings them together. Today we celebrate a writer and a prophetic witness, and also a lawyer, civil rights activist, and priest. One was Caucasian, the other African-American. One wrote a book and supported efforts of fleeing slaves to reach freedom. The other was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of a bus in Virginia and who in turn worked in various organizations and as a civil rights attorney for some years before being ordained among the first women priests in the Episcopal Church. The commonalities I think probably greater than their differences because both sought to draw attention to great wrongs that were taking place and to help address those wrongs. They’re both fascinating women.
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived from 1811 to 1896. She was raised in a very religious household and her brothers were clergymen Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Beecher, and Edward Beecher. Her sister Catherine was also an educator and author. Harriet is most famously known as the author of a fictional novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the initial installment appearing in print in 1851. The book, now a classic, was a story of how slavery impacted, affected, and formed both the character of Tom but also the culture of the slave owners and other slaves.. It was a book with a definite Christian moral where the slave humbly accepted his fate in life and did his best to live a Christian life within a system that was definitely anything but Christian despite all claims to the contrary. The book was an immediate hit in the North because in 1850 Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Law that prohibited people from trying to assist fugitive slaves in a climate where many were willing to risk everything to provide for those escaping. It was the match that lit the fire that smoldered for a while before bursting into flames with firing of the first cannon at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The Civil War broke out, and, in a way is still being fought, despite Lee’s surrender to Grant in 1865.
Anna Pauline Murray, also known as Pauli, was born in 1910 and died in 1985. She was born in Baltimore but raised in North Carolina which gave her perspective on life in the southern post-Civil War and civil rights eras. In 1940, she and a friend were on a Virginia bus, sitting in a whites-only section of the bus. They were arrested for violating the strict segregation laws, and that struck a spark in her soul that led her into involvement with both the socialist and the civil rights movement. Her achievement as the first African-American woman to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale, and practiced both civil rights and women’s rights law. Her writings contributed significantly to the work of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), served on the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). After leaving the practice of law and teaching in 1973, she was ordained into the Episcopal priesthood in 1977.
Both women believed that human rights included those whom most of society seemed to want to subjugate and enslave. The first African-American slaves had come to the United States in 1619 to the Jamestown colony in order to help raising crops and tobacco which was the main cash crop. From that time until the mid-19th century, the country endured a somewhat uneasy relationship between the industrial North and the agricultural South. There were slaves in the north, although not nearly as many as the South. The publication of Stowe’s book was a kind of tinder for the fire and a spark to ignite it. It called attention to the concept of what was “Christian” and what was not. Those slaveholders used the Bible to bolster their claim of Christianity, yet their treatment of slaves under their charge was anything but Christian. In the end, a long and bloody civil war resulted.
I had heard the name Harriet Beecher Stowe and had read her book in school (a hard thing for some of us to read), but never Pauli Murray until a few years ago. I had grown up in a segregated South, I remember the unease and, although we had no real violence or protest marches when we did finally integrate. It was an uneasy peace and, for that matter, it appears to still be an uneasy peace in many places. What Pauli Murray did was to fight on the side of those who civil rights were not as well protected as the majority wouldn’t have it. In a way, that fight still continues for people of color, immigrants, and women, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. It may be a stretch to say that the slavery of women. while not as dramatic and often not as visible as that of slaves in chains or picking cotton or being profiled as troublemakers simply because of the their skin color. but it does affect the lives of billions. Harriet Beecher Stowe called attention to those African-Americans who were enslaved in the South while Murray called attention to those enslaved all over the country because of their gender as well as their race.
Both women were utterly Christian. They were born and raised in the church or in various churches, and took the Christianity very seriously. The point of Stowe’s book was to point out that the concept and application of slavery was immoral and also very unchristian. Murray kept that tradition of pointing out the Christian way of living, not in a fictional work but in real life.
It may be a day dedicated to two separate women, but they’re always going to be linked in my mind, and I will be grateful for the stands that they have made and the work that they have done. May they both rest in peace as they will assuredly rise in glory. May their dreams of freedom, justice and equality for all come true and quickly.