The Ammunition: Adventists and the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Introduction

There are speculations as to woman’s rights, and her duty in regard to voting; but many women have had no discipline which would qualify them to understand the bearing of important questions . . . They can talk understandingly of the latest styles of dress, or of the next party or ball; but they are not prepared to act wisely in political matters.[1]


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11727
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Heidi Campbell helps understand the church’s foibles and mission. Yet, I’m trying to understand what concepts are implied in the title of this piece. “The Ammunition” Does this mean everything is a fight? Does it mean a group can find ammunition to fight anything it deems undesirable? How does the visual of ammunition fit into Jesus description that “my kingdom is not of this world?” Does it mean Adventists were ammunition for some other entity? I’m probably being obtuse here.

As the reader sees the evolution of White’s thoughts on women’s suffrage, a problem with the common church usage of White’s words, in so many contexts, glares once again. It is absurd to lift a few sentences of her writings to be any sort of summary of advice for current events. As Alden Thompson has shown, inspired writings must be read, keeping in mind the growth trajectory of the writers. This piece shows the nuance and growth White experienced.

Any faith message for this moment, in my view, must emphasize the value of each person as a creation of God–Imago Dei. A group commits a grievous error if it chooses to use “living in the end,” or, “time is short” as excuses to avoid full throated advocacy for equal rights. When we live in an era that allows political change, it is time, respectfully-- kindly—firmly, to treat all people well. We have an opportunity to do this as individuals and has part of various community circles. Structural justice for all is God’s way.

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When the Adventist ethos in that period avoided a deep dive into Jesus’ ministry including women (why bother with the NT when we have EGW?), had men in charge of everything so saw even the right to vote as a threat to their power (both within the church and society), and embraced a faulty fundamentalist theology about hierarchy in the divine and in society, the outcome was inevitable. On the one hand, looking back from a remarkable vantage point, it is easy to throw rocks at their arrogance and blindness; on the other hand, there were “some” (aren’t there always?) who saw it clearly but could not break through the cultural wall.

I confess that the title was a bit impulsively chosen based on the title of a denominational periodical of the time that called women voters “ammunition.” But it is rather revelatory of attitudes towards women’s suffrage. It was not that Adventists were against political activism in the 1910s and 1920s. They wanted to ensure that it was being used to reach their goals. Women eventually were accepted as furthering those goals. So rather than social justice or equality (this is not to say that some did not support women’s suffrage for these reasons, they instead supported women’s suffrage as a weapon to fight for temperance and to counteract Catholic immigrant voices or even for evangelism purposes. It is interested too that they used such militant language at a time when they had been attacked for their pacificism during World War I.

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