Christian Science and a woman’s right to vote

August 12, 2020

August 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, by which women gained the right to vote. We wondered what our Library collections could tell us about Mary Baker Eddy and the history of the Christian Science movement in relation to women’s suffrage.

The US Congress passed the amendment on June 4, 1919. But it required ratification by 36 states in order to become law. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee’s legislature approved the amendment by one vote, and on August 26 it became part of the Constitution.1 While women were already enfranchised in 15 states, the Nineteenth Amendment extended suffrage nationally to women in all 48 states. 

Obstacles remained. These included restrictions on voting rights for women of color, who would not gain access to the ballot box in some areas for decades to come.

Eddy, who died in 1910, did not live to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the idea of a woman’s right to vote was very much alive in her time. For example, in 1878—just three years after the publication of her book Science and Health—the first woman’s suffrage amendment was introduced in Congress. She saw women’s rights, including “the elective enfranchisement of woman,” as pointing to a larger project to free women and men from sin and sickness, through her discovery of Christian Science.

Shortly before Science and Health was first issued in 1875, Eddy had asked her student Samuel P. “Putney” Bancroft an interesting question: “What do you say to my introducing myself to my hearers with the chapter on marriage that has some woman’s rights in it and is a finished, almost perfect thing.”2 That chapter included this forthright passage: 

The rights of woman are discussed on grounds that seem to us not the most important. Law establishes a very unnatural difference between the rights of the two sexes; but science furnishes no precedent for such injustice, and civilization brings, in some measure, its mitigation, therefore it is a marvel that society should accord her less than either. Our laws are not impartial, to say the least, relative to the person, property, and parental claims of the two sexes; and if the elective enfranchisement of woman would remedy this evil without incurring difficulties of greater magnitude, we hope it will be effected. A very tenable means at present, is to improve society in general, and achieve a nobler manhood to frame our laws. If a dissolute husband deserts his wife, it should not follow that the wronged and perchance impoverished woman cannot collect her own wages, or enter into agreements, hold real estate, deposit funds, or surely claim her own offspring free from his right of interference.3

Scholars have debated Eddy’s attitude toward women’s rights. In 2012 author Amy B. Voorhees summarized these arguments in a prize-winning article, Mary Baker Eddy, the Woman Question, and Christian Salvation. In it she offered a fresh look at what she called “Eddy’s seamless approach to the intersection of gender, religion, and reform.” Other notable contributions on this topic have been made by biographers Gillian Gill and Stephen Gottschalk. Gill wrote from a feminist perspective (as part of the Radcliffe Biography Series on “documenting and understanding the varied lives of women”), offering a view of Eddy’s achievements in the light of the obstacles that women faced in her time. Gottschalk focused on Eddy’s last two decades, creating a history of her commitment to antimaterialist ideas and their impact on her leadership.4  

Researchers at The Mary Baker Eddy Library have studied Eddy’s correspondence with suffragists. The Fall 2004 edition of the Library magazine made an important contribution to understanding the historical context. It included an article by Sherry Darling and Janell T. Fiarman, on Eddy’s correspondence with prominent women’s rights leader Mary A. Livermore, as well as a piece by Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, discussing the overlap between the suffrage and temperance movements. 

Since then the Mary Baker Eddy Papers has published a significant letter from suffragist lecturer and writer Matilda A. Hindman. It throws light on Eddy’s activities in support of women’s rights.5 The Papers staff has also uncovered correspondence from early woman physicians, such as Alice B. Stockham

Some of the clearest indications of attitudes toward women’s suffrage in the early Christian Science movement are found in periodicals published by The Mother Church (The First Church of Christ, Scientist). By 1908 these included weekly and monthly magazines and a daily newspaper. The monthly Christian Science Journal, founded in 1883, was peppered with mentions of women’s suffrage from the start, and occasionally published more substantial metaphysical treatments, such as Woman’s Cause, by Carol Norton.6 Later, a 1918 article in the weekly Christian Science Sentinel linked suffrage with fulfillment of a divine purpose that would bless even those who resisted it.7

The “Items of Interest” column in the Sentinel, begun in 1898, summarized general news for readers, such as this snippet: “From present indications it looks as if the constitutional amendment on equal suffrage, initiative, referendum, and state dispensary had carried in South Dakota. Nothing positive is likely to be known, though, until later, as only half the counties have thus far reported on these features of the election.”89 Sometimes “Items of Interest” also informed readers of suffrage debates regarding Black Americans, struggles for women’s enfranchisement in France, Germany, and Great Britain, and moves toward a limited franchise in Japan and South Africa. 

Those briefs continued in the Sentinel, even after the daily Christian Science Monitor started publication in 1908 at Eddy’s direction. The newspaper’s reporting on women’s rights and related social reform movements, both in the US and internationally, was extensive. When Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, the Monitor of course reported it, and also editorialized on its ratification by the Tennessee legislature.

It is noteworthy that—during the same year that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed—Annie M. Knott (1850–1941) was elected to the five-member Christian Science Board of Directors of The Mother Church, which carries out the business of the Church. The first woman appointed to that Board, she served on it for 15 years.

Women’s suffrage was a worldwide movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Women with connections to Christian Science played important roles in promoting their right to vote, as well as in holding elected office in Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.10 

Mary Burt Messer, an American feminist and sociologist, was a Christian Scientist who made this observation in 1928: “…it is doubtful whether any class in history ever advanced with such an overwhelming handicap, or ever overcame any set of restrictions to be compared with those engulfing women.”11

 

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  1. Elaine Weiss, 19th Amendment: the six-week ‘brawl’ that won women the vote, The Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 2020.
  2. Mary Baker Eddy to Samuel P. Bancroft, January 1875, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, F00352. Eddy ultimately decided to begin Science and Health not with “Marriage” but a chapter titled “Natural Science.”
  3. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health (Boston: Christian Scientist Publishing Company, 1875), 321. The final version of this passage is found on page 63 in the current edition of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
  4. Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998); Stephen Gottschalk, Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy’s Challenge to Materialism (Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2006).
  5. Matilda Hindman to Mary Baker Eddy, 26 October 1876. 593A.61.043.
  6. Carol Norton, “Woman’s Cause,” The Christian Science Journal, July 1895.
  7. Ezra W. Palmer, “The Coming of the Son of Man,” Christian Science Sentinel, 13 April 1918.
  8. “Items of Interest,” Christian Science Sentinel, 17 November 1898.
  9. The Sentinel published at least 25 items on women’s suffrage in this column over the next 10 years.
  10. See The Mary Baker Eddy Library’s “Women of History” profiles of Nancy Astor, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, and Vida Goldstein. British Liberal Party MP Margaret Wintringham was also notable. The Library is eager to learn more about Countess Olga von Beschwitz of Germany, who was involved with Christian Science in Dresden and worked for women’s enfranchisement.
  11. Mary Burt Messer, The Family in the Making (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 319.