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Civilizing Civilization

The story of women in the American experience is a fascinating one and too little known or appreciated. Yet, a little bit of exploration and digging makes for interesting and inspiring discoveries. Philadelphia’s women have made an impressive mark in humanizing social needs and injustice, not only in the city of brotherly love, but for the nation and beyond.  

The Religious Society of Friends

The Friends or Quakers have been on the cusp of social reform movements since colonizing Pennsylvania in the 17th century. Their commitment to biblical ideals of human equality forced an early reckoning with the institution of slavery, racism, as well as the role and treatment of women. Quaker women like Hannah Penn, who found herself the de facto governor of Pennsylvania when her husband took ill, have risen to leadership roles. Among the Friends, women benefited from egalitarian commitment to education and opportunities to serve in public ministry leadership. These were radical practices in a society where other religious traditions were less egalitarian. Thus the Quakers, and Quaker women have been at the forefront of causes related to anti-slavery, women’s rights, Native American rights, civil rights, and more.  

Founding Mothers

Women supported the American Revolution in various roles. Could independence have been possible without them? And yet, so many of their stories are undiscovered. Philadelphia was home to Betsy Ross, famous for presumably stitching the first American or “Besty Ross” flag. She sewed other patriot flags for the War of Independence. Esther de Berdt Reed was revolutionary Pennsylvania’s First Lady. Many know that her husband Joseph, in addition to serving as governor, was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a Continental Army officer. Esther, who only lived to be 33, organized the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to raise funds for the poorly provisioned and ill-equipped Continental Army. The group soon became the largest women’s Revolutionary organization, providing much needed support to the cause.

Slaves, Women, Native Americans, and Mothers

Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, participated in the Underground Railroad and co-founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 –  one of the few racially integrated abolitionist societies that was open to black leadership. Mott’s activism extended to women’s rights and Native American rights as well. Harriet Forten Purvis, was an African American friend of Mott’s, who shared her faith and her anti-slavery and women’s suffrage commitments. Purvis rose to co-chair the society for two decades.

Dr. Ann Preston, was Quaker born and educated. She served as the first female dean of the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and founded the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her advocacy advanced the work of women in the medical professions.

Mary Lucinda Bonney and Amelia Stone Quinton were Baptists who were inspired to establish an advocacy organization for Native Americans out of a home missions support group in their church. What emerged was the influential Women’s National Indian Association which lobbied the federal government for the political rights of Native Americans on reservations.

Anna Jarvis was a Methodist who wanted to fulfill the wish that mother expressed while teaching a Sunday school class about women of the Bible - a national day on which to honor all mothers. The daughter created Mother’s Day with great fanfare in Philadelphia. Within a few short years, it was to become a national holiday.

Looking to the Future

After constitutional amendments emancipating enslaved people and affirming women’s right to vote, women continued to be inspired by faith to guide liberty toward justice. Although advances were made with the civil rights movement, today racism still scars the American republic. Chattel slavery may have ended in 1865, but the human trafficking of girls and women continues in alarming numbers. Although women have advanced in the professions and in the marketplace, the gender gap is real. Concerns for Native Americans are not yet resolved. Faith has guided liberty toward justice, but justice awaits to be realized for so many people, and women have a leadership role in making this city, this country, this world, a better place.

If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?

Lucretia Mott, speech to the American Anti-Slavery Society


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