100 Years of the Right to Vote, 50 Years of Ordination
Yesterday, August 18, 2020, was the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, recognizing that women have the right to vote. The amendment’s initial version was officially proposed in 1878 but it wasn’t until 1919 that the 19th Amendment narrowly passed both the House and the Senate, whereupon it was sent to the states to be ratified.
Most states in the South stood against the 19th Amendment, but on August 18, 1920, it was clear that if Tennessee passed it, it would be ratified nationally. The story of the amendment’s passage is legendary. As the Tennessee state legislature gathered to vote, the atmosphere was electric. Those in favor of the amendment wore yellow roses in their lapels; those opposed, red roses. With the vote tied at 48 to 48, all eyes turned to 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest legislator in the chamber. He was widely expected to vote against the amendment, but his mother had written him a letter, which he carried that day in his pocket. She had written,
“Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Your Mother.”
Harry Burn voted in favor and the 19th Amendment to the constitution was ratified.
We are reminded, 100 years later, that every vote counts! Directive letters from one’s mother count as well . . .
Fifty years ago, on November 22, 1970, Elizabeth Platz was ordained by the Lutheran Church in America, one of our predecessor bodies in the ELCA. She was the first woman in a North American Lutheran body to be ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. In some congregations during the 1960s, women were still not allowed to serve on congregation councils or speak at congregational meetings in our expression of the Lutheran community. But in the fall of 1970, Pastor Platz helped blaze a trail of inclusion and lead the faith community to welcome new, gifted leaders to serve our church.
In June of 1992, Pastor April Ulring Larson was the first woman elected as a synod bishop in the ELCA and, at the time, only the second female Lutheran bishop in the world. And on August 14, 2013, Elizabeth Eaton was the first woman elected as presiding bishop of the ELCA.
There is still much to be done to become a fully inclusive faith community in the ELCA. But we certainly have much to celebrate. For fifty years our expression of the church has been enriched and well led by women called to ministry and ordained to serve. Thanks be to God.
In this 100th/50th commemoration, I am drawn to two lesser known women who witnessed and helped shape this amazing history. First, I am drawn to the mother of Tennessee legislator Harry Burn, who helped shape the 19th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America by continuing to parent her young adult son with sage advice and the challenge to be a visionary leader. With her engagement, the right to vote was extended to nearly half of the American population.
I am also drawn to my grandmother, Ida Charlotte (Bloomquist) Larson, who lived to be 100 and was beloved as our family matriarch. Most of 40 years ago, as a young seminarian in Chicago, I was visiting Grandma Larson in Rockford, Illinois for the weekend. An active member of Rockford’s Zion Lutheran Church, she asked about the seminary and my course of study. At one point I shared with her that about 50% of my classmates were women. Grandma was shocked and, after that reality sunk in, she declared, “Well, if they ever call a woman to be a pastor at Zion, I will leave the church!” I was speechless. She was among the most faithful, as I had perceived it, in her longstanding membership of that congregation. And I had never heard her issue such an ultimatum.
A few years later Grandma Larson was briefly hospitalized at the Swedish American Hospital in Rockford, and Zion’s new female intern came to visit with her. It was a wonderful visit and they had quite a lovely conversation, my grandmother would later recall, culminating in the intern pastor quietly singing an old hymn in Swedish there at her hospital bedside. My grandmother was transformed. I remember revisiting the conversation about female clergy with her at some point in the years that followed, and she spoke fondly of that former intern, and of the wonderful female pastor at one of the other Lutheran churches in town. I did not remind my grandmother of her former ultimatum.
The potential for transformation and inspired growth is ours on this short journey through life. A family matriarch in her 80’s and a committed mother of a Tennessee legislator join with suffragists and trail blazing pastors to testify to what God is doing in the world by standing for a new day and by their loving care for citizenship, family, friends and faith. We have a calling to join them in seeking to know and do the will of God in our day.
With deep thanksgiving for faithful women who have pastored in the wider faith community, for Pastors Christine, Sarah and Karen who have served as pastors in our life together at Trinity, and for all women who find vocations as pastors or deacons leading churches and other faith communities, we rejoice and give thanks to God.
Gracious and living God, we rejoice and give you thanks for your power on display throughout time and place, calling all kinds of people to be witnesses to your grace and power. We celebrate how the Spirit has blessed your church through the work of women and girls, including in this time and place. Guide us, as your people, into welcoming your prophets and teachers among us and hearing Christ’s good news through them. With gratitude, we pray. Amen.
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom