The day was gray and the air was colder than expected for early November in Ohio. The rain was beginning to turn to snow, making the street and sidewalks slick. My great-great-great-grandmother Franny, her daughter Nettie, and her 23-year-old granddaughter Vivi (my great-grandma) stood side by side trying to keep warm as they waited in line to vote for the first time in Claridon, Ohio. Across the country in Texas, one of my other matriarchs made her way to the polls. My “Mammy” had just moved to Abilene, and I imagine her standing alone in the rain to vote for the first time on her 37thbirthday.
I think it is odd that no stories were passed down in my family, none that I ever heard, about the fight for women to have the right to vote. And yet, my “grandmothers” names are all noted on the voting registries for 1920. I wonder what they thought about gender equality?
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated for the Supreme Court in 1993 we were attending a very conservative church. I remember cautionary words abounding about her; she was a feminist, and that was a problem. I was one of a few women in my circle of friends who was working. I had a retail job on nights and weekends, and I provided day care for the store manager’s little boy weekdays. I also sold Mary Kay cosmetics. All of this was in an effort to avoid putting my girls in day care, which would have been heavily frowned upon by the older, “wiser” women in my circles.
From my very first full-time job at an airline and every job after, I was consistently tapped for “management.” In my early years of mothering, the pressure was heavy to be a stay-at-home mom, with the strong message that choosing something other would bring judgment and a loss of belonging. My internal hunger for “more” left me feeling that something must be very wrong with me because Godly women wanted to be at home full time, not out building careers.
Something shifted inside me when my husband attended seminary a decade later. One night as we sat talking about what he was learning, he told me he’d been studying about co-dominion being God’s original design for Adam and Eve. The charge to “rule and subdue” was given to both of them. I felt less like something was deeply flawed in my femininity; perhaps something was very right. I took a deep breath of possibility and freedom.
It was the beginning of believing that gender equality was indeed biblical. I started reading my Bible differently, noticing more in the stories of women. I wrote a study on women in the Bible. I was asked to speak and lead nationally and internationally. Some of those opportunities came because an older, wiser woman fought to give me the right to choose. Ironically, in a ministry led largely by women, there was discussion about not asking me to speak or take on more leadership because I “still had two small children at home.” Thankfully my advocate spoke up, using her position and power to suggest they let me decide what was best for my family.
A century after my grandmothers stood in the cold to cast their vote for president we are still in need of change.
Just this week I listened to gender discrimination stories from women in full-time ministry, including the expectation to make the coffee for meetings and the accusation that their anger and emotions are evidence of emotional immaturity while men’s anger is characterized as “righteous.” Leadership opportunities are limited and then diminished further after they become mothers. We have a long way to go, particularly in the church world, for gender equality.
As I type this, my media feed is filled with opinions on the first presidential debate, Amy Coney Barrett, racial injustice, and the pandemic. Our country is at war with itself, and the problems feel insurmountable. The deepening divide is pushing people I love to the edges, where it seems coming back together is impossible.
Recently someone jokingly told my son, “Please don’t vote”–the idea being his vote would cancel out this person’s vote for a different candidate. The joke fell flat into the exhausted space inside my son, battle weary from the never-ending political rhetoric. Thankfully we come from a line of tenacious women who stood shoulder to shoulder in the cold to exercise their newly acknowledged right, and their legacy lives on in my kids who have no intention of squandering their right to vote.
For me, this year voting feels like an act of defiance and resistance. I chose to defy the invitations to resignation and hopelessness. I choose to resist the furthering of systems and policies I believe are harmful and ungodly. And, I pray for the bitter end and a new beginning.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 33 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.