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This may be more information than you want but I am sending you the complete text of a lecture I gave in 2016 during my annual summer lecture series on the history of All Souls (NYC), as we approach[ed] our 200th anniversary in 2019. In it there is information that may be useful to you.
Mary-Ella Holst

Women Within Unitarianism

Mary-Ella Holst July 19, 2016

Last week, the lecture on the ministry Theodore Chickering Williams ended with his death in 1915 at the age of 59.

However, there was a concluding question: “What about Velma?” And a promise to explore more fully what the emerging women’s movement offered women before they ever got the chance (and legal authority) to vote. This week, as promised, I will be examining the role of women in the Unitarian movement including Velma Wright Williams as well as other All Souls women and their individual accomplishments and … their progress within the Unitarian denomination. The structure upon which this exploration builds is the establishment of women’s groups within the congregation and ultimately, on a national basis.

What we call the Women’s Movement today is generally cited as beginning at Seneca Falls in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton called women together to outline their needs and demands for a full participation in democracy. However, it had been underway prior to that, as exemplified by Abigail Adams in her 1776 letter to her husband, John Adams, as he was at work on the process which emerged as the Declaration of Independence… This is often simply reported as her having rather charmingly written: “Remember the Ladies …” however, what she actually wrote is:

“I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies, we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

Women traditionally stayed within their homes and found a social network among their neighbors or in their churches and there, often in sewing circles or efforts to alleviate the problems of the less fortunate. Judith Ann Geisberg is the author of Civil War Sisterhood: The U. S. Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition published in the year 2000. The book focuses on in depth on the work and influence of Louisa Lee Schuyler. Geisberg quotes an article written by Schuyler that appeared in 1865: “Nearly four years ago … “we began as an association, in a little room … [that] contained two tables, one desk, half a dozen chairs, and a map on the wall.” From these humble beginnings Schuyler and her branch colleagues evolved into a dynamic network that sponsored a revolutionary effort to train women as professional nurses, provided information and advice to soldiers’ families, brought quality supplies from the home front to the soldiers, and helped support community welfare programs that aided economically marginal families whose male wage earners were absent.”… Sanitary Commission experience taught them to seek help from men in achieving political solutions to the problems of the day, and it allowed their daughters to eschew male leadership in their own independent initiatives.”

We now turn to this “new” generation 25 years later as they attempt to organize on a national level the many women’s groups within the expanding number of Unitarian congregations. In a book begun by Emily A. Fifield, Recording Secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary Conference and subsequently completed by her daughter, Mary Fifield King that was published in 1915, the story is recorded. First, the various representatives of local geographical groups would get together and began working on various projects together. Velma Wright Williams was the first president of the New York League of Unitarian Women; for insight into how these organizations would operate, the New York Times reported in its November 21, 1889 edition in an article about a Unitarian gathering where the work of the League is described.

“Mrs. W. B. Dix read the report from the Women’s League. The Executive Board of this organization is composed of representatives from All Souls, Messiah, and Lenox Avenue Church; the First, Second and Third churches of Brooklyn and the church in Yonkers. The objectives of the organization are to awaken interest in religious worship, ethics and philosophy and to promote among Unitarian women closer fellowship and cooperation. Seven public meetings were held last year on the first Friday morning of each month. At each meeting a paper on some religious, ethical or philanthropic subject was read and discussed by the women present. The audience numbered from 350 to 650. The membership of the League is 700. … The members answered several calls to help organize branches or similar leagues in the East and West. They are now trying to raise a large sum of money for the church in Harlem.”

Then, women would meet at the various conferences of the American Unitarian Association. When they had a project that required the transfer of funds, they would have to send a check to the AUA and then, the AUA would forward it to the intended recipient. This was a cumbersome and irritating process so they sought the authority to write their own checks… and ultimately they sought to formally organize with a Constitution and their own treasury.

This effort was begun in 1878 at the national American Unitarian Conference where the women who attended “had been attentive listeners, taking no active part but receiving all the stimulus which comes from powerful appeals for united action for noble ends held an unpremeditated meeting of the women present. An electric spark seemed to spring from one to the other and the famous blue parlor in the large hotel was completely filled.”
This meeting produced the following resolution: That we, as Unitarian women of the United States, desire to act more fully in the work of the National Conference. This was followed by five additional resolutions that outlined how this could occur. Simply stated, these were:

  • To form an auxiliary organization …
  • Appoint a committee of ten to prepare a plan of organization …
  • The plan will be presented at the next National Conference …
  • Until that time, this committee shall take charge of the business and work which we, as Unitarian women can do during the next two years...
  • That we recommend to the women of different parishes that they come together by themselves to consider how they can best promote these objects …
  • That to promote acquaintance and, we advise a system of women’s meetings with each Local Conference.

This message was sent to the women of all congregations. It would take 12 years for this plan to be come to formal fulfillment. Local groups had expanded, great work was being done on behalf of the denomination, including the establishment of the Post Office Mission, and The Cheerful Letter Committee to spread the word of Unitarianism throughout the country. In addition, the women were raising money for the establishment of new churches.

It was time for a revised Constitution. In May of 1888, Velma Wright Williams was chosen to work on the document. To quote the Fifield book:
“The object aimed at was to frame a document to which all women of the denomination could subscribe and constitute a national body. … There were many meetings and much sending to and fro of typewritten documents and explanatory letters as various changes were suggested. Upon Mrs. Williams and the others from the committee from Middle States at last seemed to fall the burden of preparation of the final document. With infinite pains every detail was carefully wrought out. The best judgment of legal experts, like Hon. Dorman B. Eaton. was sought and brought to bear on the experience of the Auxiliary Conference and the questions now confronting it. No more conscientious committee ever undertook such a task.”

But the writing was only the first part of the effort to pass a new Constitution. After it was sent out to all the branches, the Committee was inundated with questions, comments, especially around the name of the new organization. There was no question that it would contain the words “National,” “Unitarian” and “Women” but would it be a “League,” “Conference” or Alliance?”

Another was the idea of the women handling their own money. A great many, according to Emily Fifield, expressed the greatest apprehension of the independent treasury proposed by the new organization. “The treasury of the American Unitarian Association would be depleted, money would be scattered with little judgment if left to women, and personal feelings would influence them in their giving.”

However, the Alliance itself was not without its own problems. Fifield wrote: “The ideal of a national organization, welded and cemented together by national rather than local or sectional feelings and interests, was extremely difficult to implant and make flourish. Women today (she said in 1915) have acquired confidence in themselves, and understand as few did then, the advantages of working with and belonging to a national body. Then, the thought was new and the practice untried.”

For example, the congregations within the Western Conference assumed the National Alliance would be “run by the branches in Boston and New York” where the needs of the Western Branch would not be understood. This concern lingered even after the formal passage of the Constitution. In 1898 it had been decided that if arrangements could be made, Emily Fifield Recording Secretary, would travel to the West to meet with various branches. It took over a year to “make the necessary arrangements” but Fifield left on March 1, 1900 to travel west. The first entry in her diary reads: “March 21,1900. Left Boston for Chicago at 2:25[pm]. “Only one to see me off. And here we see her daughter’s editing: “A little figure with white hair and bright eyes, in a dark traveling suit and bonnet, with a home luncheon in a box, an umbrella and rubbers “because Alliance money must be saved,” a small leather handbag, a Manual, Christian Register and Bulletin “to read in the cars;” an umbrella and rubbers (so as not to take a carriage if it rained);” with a hard-used trunk, an irradiating smile and cheerful good-bye, a heart high with purpose, a head clear for the work she thought so important, a forgetful of personal comfort, could she only accomplish her hopes for the Alliance and the mission entrusted to her.

From Chicago to St. Louis; to Pueblo Springs, Colorado and Denver… to San Francisco, her trip extended to Santa Barbara, Pasadena, Redland, Pomona, Los Angeles, San Jose … Every day was crowded with work to its end. Through Northern California lay the way to Portland and to Seattle with the homeward stretch through the beautiful Canadian Pacific scenery then wholly new to eastern eyes; to Montreal and to Boston arriving May 18th “so tired and happy.” Each had a better understanding of the other;
The benefit of this trip to both the West and the East was immediately apparent, and the distance seemed bridged for the first time. Each had a better understanding of the other, and the bond was secure.

Meanwhile, the women of All Souls had been busy since in a variety of philanthropic ways since its early days. In 1823 Catherine Sedgwick wrote to a friend: “We are just now very busy establishing a charity school and hope soon to get in operation, … We mean to teach the children the rudiments of learning, to mend and make their clothes – darn their stockings.” It would be three years of difficulties before it would begin operating in the basement rooms of the church. At this time most children learned at home and often the wealthy would hire tutors for their children. An article about the school was published in the Christian Inquirer in 1826 reported that: “Ninety-four children had been educated in the previous year. We consider this charity as one of the best within our knowledge. It takes children from the streets, where they learn little but profaneness, and places them in a situation to acquire the kind of knowledge which will make them respectable and useful members of society.” Dr. Kring notes that the history of the school is not well documented in the church records so we do not know how long the school continued. It was not until 1853 when children in New York State were required to attend at least elementary school. And not until 1918, that elementary school became compulsory for all children in the United States.

In 1844, The Society for the Employment and Relief of Poor Women was founded by the women of the congregation “to prevent, in a measure the pauperism which forms so powerful measure in our community.” To this end the Society paid women to sew. For example, in 1894 the annual report listed: Total number of applicants, 110; average attendance, 60; number of garments cut, 4800; number made, 5,316. The Society “operated sales room selling women’s dressing gowns, women’s and children’s calico dresses, infant outfits, a variety of aprons of all sizes, etc. Also, twenty-nine joined the Coal Club … and were able to buy coal by the ton at the lowest market rates, instead of the extravagant method of buying it by the pail-full. At this time, Mrs. Dorman B. Eaton, is listed as a member of the Society. The sewing continued for many decades and came to an end only in the 1960’s when the enrollees made specialized outfits for children and infants who were patients at Bellevue Hospital. In 1986 the Society revised its status to a public 501.c (3) charity and changed its name to The Annie Eaton Society, honoring the bequest that sustains the Society today. In her book, Dimity Convictions, Dr. Barbara Welter of Hunter College cited the Society as “ oldest charitable organization managed by woman still in operation today.”

Finally, women, of course, have continued in their role as mothers. I would like to close by mentioning one such woman associated with this congregation. Known as Sallie, she came from a wealthy upstate family and had many suitors. In 1880 she married a man who was older than she. The marriage was officiated by Henry Whitney Bellows although her husband was an Episcopalian. However, she was well aware of her Unitarian roots as her brother served on the Board of Trustees at All Souls for four years in the early 1900’s. In 1882 she gave birth to a son. She and her young son lived on the family estate, and since her husband worked in New York City and the son was home schooled until he went to Harvard University and then, Columbia Law School, he and Sallie were very close. As is often the custom, she had honored her family when she named him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


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