Women’s History Month started this week, and we are recognizing the important role that women have played in fighting for the separation of church and state and religious freedom.
Though women have been essential throughout America’s history in separating church and state, their impact is often overlooked.
Women are often discriminated against on the basis of religion and thus an essential part of the population to consider when considering the fight for church state separation.
While the Religious Right throws around support for the rights of women only when they are attacking Islam, they stay silent or even support legislation that denies women health care on the grounds of religion.
For Women’s History Month, these women deserve recognition for their roles in impacting true religious freedom:
Anne Hutchinson: In 1634, Anne Hutchinson took part in a religious conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She hosted meetings where she criticized the way that the church was operating in the colony. She was later tried and charged with contempt and sedition and was banished from the colony.
Anne Hutchinson is one of the first women in American History to have defied the smothering combination of church and state in pursuit of genuine freedom of conscience.
She’s important to America’s religious freedom history because in a time where speaking out against the church could result in banishment or even death, she boldly spoke up for her beliefs.
Sojourner Truth: Truth inspired passion in many people with her powerful speeches. She was born a slave, but after becoming free she dedicated her life to using spoken word to further both abolitionist and women’s right causes.
Her most famous speech “Ain’t I a woman” advocated for equality. It was later published and used in the American Civil War and further inspired people to fight for equality.
Sojourner Truth is a great example of someone who used religion to make powerful statements but who emphasized that religion shouldn’t be used to discriminate.
Lucretia Mott: Another important figure to remember is Lucretia Mott, who fought for women’s right to vote and an end to slavery. She was a Quaker religious leader whose powerful skills as an orator caught the attention of many.
Mott is an important figure in women’s history due to her passion and commitment to women’s suffrage and equal treatment. She advocated for universal suffrage in the mid-19th century, when that was not a common or popular view.
At a time when many religious leaders preached women’s submission and racial segregation, Mott stood for different values: tolerance and equality.
Vashti McCollum: In 1948, Vashti McCollum was the plaintiff in a U.S. Supreme Court case that sought to remove coercive forms of religion from public schools.
Her fourth-grade son Jim was enrolled in a public school that allowed outside religious groups to come into the school during the day and offer theological instruction. The program was allegedly voluntary, but families were coerced to choose one of three classes. Originally, McCollum chose Protestant instruction for Jim, but she removed him after reviewing the course materials. As a result, Jim was forced to sit outside in the hallways while the other students were taught religion. McCollum was put in the position where she had to choose between her son’s isolation and his being taught religious beliefs that she did not agree with. This is the reason she ended up in Supreme Court.
The McCollum vs. Board of Education case is a landmark ruling for separation of church and state. The case ended the practice of public schools sponsoring religious instruction during the school day and laid the groundwork for the school prayer decisions of the early 1960s. McCollum’s perseverance and commitment to the cause were essential to this landmark case.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: As current U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has consistently voted in favor of the separation of church and state. Even as a lawyer who attended Columbia Law School, Ginsburg has had to fight sexism and anti-Semitism throughout her entire career to become the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court.
Before her nomination as Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg worked as a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU fighting for women’s rights.
She was quoted by The New York Times discussing women’s rights and she said. “The side that wants to take the choice away from women and give it to the state, they’re fighting a losing battle. Time is on the side of change.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a strong feminist ally in the Supreme Court with her persistence to ensure that religion isn’t used to discriminate against women.
There are many other women who have had a positive impact on religious freedom and church-state separation, and we salute all of them.