In the same way that slavery was a moral challenge for the 19th c. & totalitarianism was a challenge for the 20th c., the challenge that women & girls face around the world is the moral challenge of our time.

~ Sheryl WuDunn & Nicholas Kristof

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Do You Hear the Liberty Bell Today? by Emily Nielsen Jones

An image speaks a thousand words...

lady liberty
As a native New Yorker, I have seen the Statue of Liberty numerous times, but it was not until last week that I had the experience of seeing the Liberty Bell for the first time.  I was away with my 11 year old daughter on a mother-daughter week which began in Boston, a layover in Philadelphia for a faith-based justice conference, and then off to NC to visit my sister & family.  The overarching theme for our week together was girl development--body, mind & spirit--growing up to be an empowered female human being.  In my work as a "gender-lens" philanthropist, I cannot help but connecting the micro with the macro, i.e. my girl with girlhood around the globe.  Gender cuts through everything, doesn't it?  As passionate as I am about doing my part to empower girls & women caught in human trafficking & prostitution in faraway places, I want to make sure I am also raising an empowered female human right in my own house.  And some how, my own female journey as a 40ish mother of three is also woven in to all of this... 

Before we left, I did some perusing on the internet & found the familiar Christian parenting sites to be hardly empowering of girls, so I put together my own "curriculum": Real Beauty by American Girl, Girls Who Rocked the World:  Heroines from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa, the PBS movie Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony (, & The Wonder of Girls:  Understanding the Hidden Nature of of Our Daughters & site-seeing including the Boston Women's Heritage Trail (  I have never been much of a history buff, but the enlightened ideals & reform spirit of this time period have always captured my imagination & were the perfect context for thinking about our own female development, whether pre-teen or "mid-life".  
 role models from the past
Walking around with my daughter on this freezing cold, windy day, together we made connections between our own female development & these amazing female reformers who had something burning inside of them that inspired them to stand up against unjust social conventions which denied certain classes of Americans as worthy of the founding ideals of Liberty & Justice for All.  In a day where religious/social customs circumscribed "women's role" to child-rearing & domestic life, these abolitionist women spent hours upon hours organizing networks, raising money, writing speeches & galvanizing a movement against the horrors of slavery.  What breaks my heart is that these brave women were first & foremost abolitionists.  They fought against slavery before they fought for women's rights. Even as they were catalyzing an incredible movement of social change, they were often marginalized even by their male abolitionist colleagues.  Why is it that when it comes to "justice" women seem to be seen in a totally separate category?

These suffragist/abolitionist women are such examples for girls/women today of what it means to be a strong, empowered woman, not just fighting for one's own rights & welfare but acting for the common good of humanity, bravely charting one's own course in life, even in the face of deeply entrenched ideas of "a woman's place" in the world.  Most girls today grow up presuming their freedom to chart their course in life, but those who are raised in religious traditions still encounter today various forms of "gender role theology" (coined by my sister Julie) which continue to teach that when girls grow up their "role" is to be in the "back seat of the bus" i.e. to be the "submitters" in the family, the church, and society & to leave leadership to men.  Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton are powerful examples to girls of faith to listen within to the soul & hear the deeper truth of equality our Creator has written into each of our souls.  

It was a cold day, and as kids go, I was not exactly sure how much my daughter was absorbing on our day of site-seeing around Boston until we got to the statues in front of the State House of Anne Hutchinson & Mary Dwyer (the two Quaker women who were hung on the common) & she declared that I (along with a list of other would-have-been martyrs) would have surely been burned at the stake.  Then I knew that her mind was taking it all in!  In her sassy pre-teen way, she honored me & the brave heroines we were remembering who were brave enough to listen to their own inner compass & buck the social/religious norms which diminished their own humanity or that of others. 

(In God's name, how in the world could anyone have hung a nice looking pious woman like this?  really really really?
I am no Mary Dyer or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I do have a fierce mother bear instinct that can't help crawling out of her cave to protect & empower the amazingly beautiful & strong girl spirit from any hints of human disempowerment or diminishment, particularly when it comes from someone claiming to represent God or the Bible. By the time we got to Philly, we had already begun to explore the fascinating overlap between the abolitionist movement & the women's suffrage movement & how many of these undercurrents are still alive & well today.  As someone engaged in the anti-trafficking movement today, the more you peel back the layers of the onion, the more you see that slavery today does not just fall out of the sky;  rather, it is a result of layers upon layers of enslaving ideas & practices, which fall disproportionately upon the shoulders of our world's girls & women.  Estimates vary, but most seem to suggest that 80-90% of trafficking victims today are female.  
the Liberty Bell:  
a timeless symbol of our common humanity 
The story of The Liberty Bell is the story of our nation, but more than that, it is the story of the human spirit.  Built in 1751 in Quaker PN, the Liberty bell " speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over."  The Liberty Bell is a powerful symbol of our founding ideals as a country & the "cracks" that have been there from the beginning  withholding Liberty & Justice for All from certain groups of people.  
liberty & justice for all
for women too?
Being in the presence of the Liberty Bell is one of those intangible feelings... For me, a heightened sense of pride in our country & an inspiration to keep listening for the timeless ring of the Liberty Bell today.  An unexpected surprise that day was learning that there is something called the "Women's Liberty Bell" (see side panel for more info) which was used by the suffragists to challenge underlying religious attitudes & rally the country behind granting women the right to vote. 
Many of us who are working within faith contexts to combat human trafficking & promote gender balance in our world find ourselves grappling with some of the same underlying contradictions that our forebears had to struggle with to claim the full spectrum of human rights for women.  For me, the Women's Liberty Bell gave me an extra dose of internal courage to speak up in the Christian settings where I find myself again & again... & again... encountering befuddling contradictions/attitudes of wanting to "empower" and rescue women in far away places like Cambodia & India, yet in subtle & not-so-subtle ways, either by design or benign neglect, preserving a male power structure in our churches & organizations.  Do not those women with sewing machines & baskets we feature on all of our glossy marketing materials deep down want the same thing that we all do?  Not just to be "helped" or "rescued" but to hear the ring of liberty & equality deep in our own souls & live fully human, empowered lives.  

One tangible thing anyone can do working within a faith context to develop a more global lens is to review all of the International Conventions & Declarations undergirding this global momentum to create both a floor & a ceiling for women's human rights around the world.  Without this, I posit, we are not offering justice but rather charity.  Combined with a religious framework, this is a needed & powerful way to create change.  Check out this overview provided by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women:  
for the Bible tellswww.­nps.­gov/­wori/­historyculture/­grimke-­sisters.­htm
What my mind puzzle over in my work... how can we claim to be abolitionists & champions of justice if we continue in various ways to keep women in the "back seat of the bus" by excluding women from leadership boards & perpetuating the same hierarchical (power over) gender codes which were used 100+ years ago to deny women the right to vote & which around the world continue to dangerously privilege the masculine over the feminine creating conditions where females are vulnerable to a whole host of enslaving ideas & practices.  I personally have been disheartened by what seems to me to be an uptick of a more extreme patriarchal mindset (within parenting,  marriage & men's ministry resources) than I have personally seen in my faith journey of 40+ years.  One very tangible thing one can do just to keep a pulse on movements within the popular religious gender mindset today is to attend meetings/join blogs/stay connected, befriend others with different gender perspective (here's one to start with:! the stair way from boy>>patriarch describes wordlessly their theory of change) to be a voice which asks good questions and to not be naive to some of the forces of change moving in the opposite direction.  Another tangible thing one can do is to connect with resources within your own tradition which lay out a spiritual/theological framework for gender equality.  One of my favorites is Christians for Biblical Equality Men, Women, & Biblical Equality ( which has translated a very straight-forward one page document in 31 languages which helps Christians read their Bibles with a high view of Scripture rather than a literalist lens. I am becoming more familiar with similar efforts in other faith traditions, but one organization that is doing similar work within Islam is Sisters in Islam (  If you know of any similar organizations/resources, please chime in below!

Overall, I do feel hopeful that so so many sectors of society are working to create a more gender-balanced world.  If our suffragist sisters did not lose heart, how can we?  How I hear the Liberty Bell calling me today is to work together with people of faith (like you!) to transform the invisible, underlying gender ideas which undermine our own humanitarian objectives & continue, along a continuum, to devalue, disempower & enslave females around the world & right here under our own noses.  Women want and deserve more than benevolence.  Yes, safety & security is a foundational need.  But once that baseline is achieved, the female human spirit doesn't want to be caged in a "role" any more than an animal likes to be on a leash or in a cage.  
 the best gift we can offer our world
The human spirit, male or female, is created to be free. 
Pure & Simple. 

Nothing Less.  
Nothing More. 

Liberty & Justice for All.

My humanitarian lens on the world tells me that women are indeed rising up, despite a massive wave of resistance.  The best gift we can give to the world, that we can give to womankind, is an unambiguously clear spiritual framework for human equality.  Who else can do this but the faith community?

What is yours to do?  

impatiently yours,