The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Two women named Ida

Women, justice and what it means to be human

Two women named Ida have been on my mind as I think about social and religious change. Their lives were marked by harms of different and similar sorts, as well as positive social change.

Times of social change are kairos moments in history, but they don’t just happen. They are preceded by awareness, which leads to changes of mind and heart. And changes in mind and heart lead to advocacy, and advocacy eventually produces social change. These are kairos moments. They take intellectual and spiritual work.

Consider two Idas.

When my maternal grandma, Ida Bierwin, was 12, the Women’s Suffrage Act passed. It was 1920, and for the first time women across the U.S. could vote. It was a kairos moment in history — a time of clarity and change, of something new.

For years women and men agitated for this legal right against deeply held beliefs about the nature of humanity. Francis Parkman, a historian from that era, captures the anti-suffrage sentiment: “Neither Congress, nor the States, nor the united voice of the whole people could permanently change the essential relations of the sexes. Universal female suffrage, even if decreed, would undo itself in time. ... The question is ... whether we shall adopt this supreme device for developing the defects of women. ... Let us respect them; and, that we may do so, let us pray for deliverance from female suffrage.”

Women, it seemed, were ill-suited to public thought and action. Women who argued they had the right to vote in a democratic society were harassed, assaulted, denounced and imprisoned. 

Despite opposition, the right thing happened: women were given the right to vote. But the kairos moment had problems. In practical application, the vote was mostly for white women with education and access to voting booths. Race and class mattered.

In 1922, Ida’s education ended in eighth grade because her father, like many others, didn’t invest in education for daughters. Ida and her older sister Minnie left home in 1924 to be servants at a boarding school for wealthy girls. The sisters and another servant lost their jobs when they protested their low wages. That women had the right to vote had not yet changed their lives. Their non-English-speaking mother was certainly not voting. Education and money were out of reach.

Votes, education and money were out of reach for so many citizens at the time, particularly women and girls of color. Another Ida — Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African-American suffragette, civil rights activist and journalist at the time — organized for years to allow for the safe passage of people of color to the polls.

Wells-Barnett died in 1931 before she could see her right to vote legally protected. The 1964 Voters’ Rights Act came 44 years after the 19th Amendment. Despite federal laws granting every citizen 18 years old the right to vote, people of color were persistently obstructed from the polls and prevented from being full citizens.

Called to kairos moments
The kairos moment of women’s suffrage did point to the future. But creating social and religious changes in hearts and minds that made it an inclusive kairos moment took work. In the case of voters’ rights, it took lifetimes and lives. By the time this happened, Ida Bierwin was 56.

During the decades of suffrage activism, women and men pressed for legal physical protections for women. In 1861, philospher John Stuart Mill argued: “As to acts of violence against women, by all means make the law on this head as severe as it can be made without defeating itself.”

Mill released his treatise eight years after writing it because he didn’t think society was ready for it. In 1871, Alabama and Massachusetts were the first states to outlaw wife-beating, yet in 1966 any woman in New York who wanted to divorce due to abuse had to verify a “sufficient” number of beatings.

It took until 1994 for the Violence Against Women Act to pass. The act includes measures to strengthen prosecutions of abusers and protection for survivors. It was another kairos moment in history. More than 130 years after Mill published his argument, the act passed. Ida Bierwin was 86.

But this kairos moment had problems. The bill was marked by racism and heterosexism. It originally contained provisions to account for racial, ethnic and other disparities in the protection of women from violence. New protective provisions based on immigration status, sexual identity and tribal status were introduced in 2013. There was resistance. Not all lawmakers wanted to safeguard all women. Some women, it seemed, didn’t deserve to be safe.

The ELCA also has a history of kairos moments. When Ida Bierwin was 62, its predecessor, the Lutheran Church in America, ordained the first women to be pastors in the U.S. The LCA struggled with this decision and worked to approach it from many angles, both theological and social.

Heather Dean and Molly Kestner also contributed to this article.

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