How to “Do Justice” by Asking the Right Questions

Zelophehad's Daughters and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

A well-posed question is an effective tool which can jar me out of my assumptions, especially if that question requires me to think from another perspective or defend my own ideas and beliefs. My way of thinking is, after all, logical (in my mind), routine, and even comforting. In this second of a four-part series for Women’s History Month, we will discover how women have used this tool of question-asking to spur acts of justice.

By the way, I would so appreciate it if you’d click on the Facebook share button above or email this to your friends and invite them to sign up for a FREE subscription! Also, find a special invitation at the end of this blog entry to a lecture I’ll be giving on March 27, 2017.

Did You Know There Was a Woman Named Noah in the Bible? 

Of all the biblical characters, most people could probably identify Moses as the one holding the Ten Commandments (especially if he looked like Charlton Heston, right?!) However, the stories surrounding Moses and the difficult implementation of God’s Law among the Israelites are not as well known. For example, most churchgoers and even diligent students of the Bible are not familiar with Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad. (Who knew there was a woman named Noah?!) I think our best excuse for not knowing their story is that it is found near the end of the book of Numbers–you know, the book where you get stuck when trying to read through the Bible.

Zelophehad’s Daughters’ Boldness     

By illustrator for The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1908, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These five women (we can assume they were young since they were unmarried) approached Moses and the high priest to question the land inheritance laws: “Why should our father’s name be taken away from his clan because he didn’t have a son? Give us property among our father’s brothers” (Num. 27:4 CEB). This was an unprecedented occurrence! Yet, it illustrates that women could approach Moses with their concerns. Zelophehad, their father, had died leaving no sons to inherit land and therefore his name would be lost in posterity. You can read the details of the story in Numbers 26-27; 36 and Joshua 17.

How This Question Prompted Justice

  1. The women’s approach was to present a question, not just to complain. Their approach brought up an issue affecting more than just themselves–this would have an impact on future generations.
  2. The women presented their case logically to the proper authorities.
  3. The women offered a possible solution, indicating they had thought through the issue beyond the current situation.
  4. Moses, the respected leader, did not dismiss them or their question and concern. Apparently, both men and women could approach the highest authority. By taking their request to God and not offering a ready answer, Moses showed humility as a leader.
  5. God’s response: “Zelophehad’s daugthers are right in what they are saying” (Num. 27:7). And God changed the Law, bringing justice not only to Zelophehad’s daughters, but to all of Israel.

Zelophehad’s Daughters’ Advice for Asking Questions to Spur Justice Today

If these five women were among us today, I think they might offer these words:

  • Mahlah might suggest: Do your homework on an issue. Consider all sides of an issue and think through the consequences of your questions and proposals for all parties.
  • Noah might propose: Offer solutions, not just complaints.
  • Hoglah might urge: Consider the long-range impact of your question and your proposed solution.
  • Milcah might put forward: Consider any possible compromises and their effects on the greater good.
  • Tirzah might convey: Work through established channels of authority until it is necessary to go against the system.

Our Little-Known History

Most Americans would probably name Susan B. Anthony as “the woman” who represents the Woman Suffrage Movement of the 19th century. After all, we have a US coin with her picture on it! (Of course, it is mostly out of circulation now. Sigh) However, there are numerous–and often forgotten–women who came before her, inspired her, and set the stage for her and they are the topics of my series this month.

While all of us are proud to acknowledge our “BFFs,” most of the activities around which we develop those relationships do not result in changing history in a profound way. Not so with with Susan B. Anthony and her best friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton for whose alliance and work on our behalf we can be eternally grateful. However, many of you may have never heard of her nor know much beyond what I just mentioned.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Wife, Mother, Activist, Bible Commentator

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) Photo by Veeder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s whole life was framed by asking questions which would eventually have an impact on us all. She was born in New York in 1815 into a Presbyterian judge’s family. Since no college in the country would allow women students in 1830, a 15-year old “vexed and mortified” Cady Stanton attended Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary.

Becoming a wife: Elizabeth’s cousin was Gerrit Smith, an active abolitionist, among whose friends she would meet her husband, Henry Stanton. Their wedding trip to London in 1840 included a stop on the way in the home of Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké (topics for next week’s blog), and then, in London, the meeting of Lucretia Coffin Mott (topic of last week’s blog). The purpose of the London trip was to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention which Coffin Mott was attending as a delegate–although not officially recognized because she was a woman.

Becoming an activist: That meeting in London sealed a lifelong mentoring relationship between the older Coffin Mott and Cady Stanton. Their friendship birthed the planning and conducting of the world’s first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848. The “Declaration of Sentiments” presented in Seneca Falls was heavily influenced by Cady Stanton. This was the first time in American history that women officially asked for the vote–complete enfranchisement. This request for woman’s rights revealed Cady Stanton’s firm belief that the equality of women with men was based on the fact that God had created women equal to men as moral beings and immortal souls. (Find the “Declaration of Sentiments” on the Resources page.)

It is important to remember that in the 1848 American legal system, women were not considered full citizens. They were owned by their husbands or fathers. They had no rights to their children. If married, they could not own property. And they certainly did not have the right to vote. Rights we take for granted today as American women were considered radical reforms in 1848 and for decades following! It would take 72 years (!) from that first declaration in 1848 for women to win the right to vote in 1920! And what a struggle it was! (Watch the movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” starring Hilary Swank, for a great overview of the Suffrage Movement.)

In Cady Stanton’s speech at the first-ever woman’s rights convention, she made this statement which is just one example that sheds light on her biblically based beliefs:

“Let woman live as she should. Let her feel her accountability to her Maker. Let her know that her spirit is fitted for as high a sphere as man’s, and that her soul requires food as pure and exalted as his. Let her live first for God, and she will not make imperfect man an object of reverence and awe.” (as cited in DuBois, 1981, p. 33)

Her convictions about the fact that women were created in the image of God just as much as men were would be seen throughout her writings and speeches over the next 50 years.

Continuing as an activist while a mother: It was not until 1851 that she would meet Susan B. Anthony. Their friendship developed into one of the most influential partnerships in American history. As a lawyer’s wife and stay-at-home mother to 7 children, Cady Stanton would write many of the speeches that the single and free-to-travel Susan B. Anthony would deliver across the country. They would go on to found the National Woman Suffrage Association and work for votes for women for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, they would not live to see their dream fulfilled.

Becoming a Bible commentator: Cady Stanton was still asking questions at the end of her life and they were even more specifically faith-focused. In 1895, at the age of 80, she published the first part of what she considered her greatest achievement: The Woman’s Bible, a commentary on the passages that she considered degrading to women in the first five books of the Bible. This was a first of it’s kind. It is not a scholarly book and it was certainly controversial in its day. The Woman’s Bible indeed caused separation of organizations away from Cady Stanton, and was probably the reason she was virtually forgotten from the history of the suffrage movement until recent decades. In spite of all that, The Woman’s Bible raised questions that few had dared to voice aloud, and in so doing contributed to a new field of inquiry–a study of the Bible through the lens of gender equality–later to become known as feminist theology. (Note: the word “feminist” was not yet being used in American vocabulary.)

And while Cady Stanton was opposed to much of what she saw in the churches in her day and disagreed with much of what she read in the Bible, it is fascinating to me that she always wrote and spoke in defense of Jesus Christ and his teachings. She encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves, and “harmonize” their interpretations through the teachings of Jesus. Even though she personally denied the divinity of Christ, she continued to point her audiences to the life and teachings of Jesus as the ultimate example for us.

How Cady Stanton’s Questions Prompted Justice

Elizabeth Cady’s Stanton’s life’s work eventually brought justice to all American women and encouraged women around the globe to seek full enfranchisement. During the 18 years after Cady Stanton’s death in 1902, “the women of Australia, Finland, Norway, the newly created Soviet Union, Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia all won the vote” (Ward, p. 218) before American women in 1920. What if she hadn’t started asking the questions in 1848?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Advice for Asking Questions to Spur Justice Today

If Cady Stanton were with us today, I think she might encourage us to do the following:

  • Accept and live up to your responsibilities as God’s image-bearer
  • Study, ask questions, and come to your own interpretations of your beliefs and convictions
  • Speak out against injustice–in writing, speaking, and through all forms of media
  • Find others who will partner with you to do justice, knowing that your work today will benefit others tomorrow

Conclusion

In summary, Zelophehad’s daughters’ boldness to question the implementation of God’s law encouraged a wise and humble leader to revisit God’s purpose for a particular ruling. The result benefitted all of God’s people. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s boldness to question the interpretation of the law of this land and the assumptions of a culture birthed a movement that continues today. The fact that American women today can vote, hold office, have custody of their children, own property, attain degrees, and serve in ministry leadership roles points back to the requests made in that “Declaration of Sentiments” presented in that first woman’s rights convention. While you and I may not agree with everything Cady Stanton wrote, we can be grateful that she blazed a trail for women to be seen in the eyes of the law as fully human and full citizens capable of thinking and acting for themselves. These women illustrate that the practice of asking the right questions as a form of “doing justice” is sometimes a hard-fought battle.

Join the conversation below by clicking on Comments and tell us how you personally have benefitted from the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 

If you’d like to learn more about the first American women activists and how they used the Bible to promote gender equality and the abolition of slavery, come to my lecture, “Faith Gives Birth to Feminism: How the Bible Was Used to Shape the 19th-Century American Women’s Movement,” on

  • Monday, March 27, 2017
  • 2 pm 
  • Lake Travis Community Library in Lakeway. 

For Further Exploration

Women in Scripture. Carol Meyers (Gen. Ed.) (2001). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Women of the Bible: The Life and Times of Every Woman in the Bible.  Sue Poorman Richards and Lawrence O. Richards (2003). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Lindsay Hardin Freeman (2016). Forward Movement.

Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

  • Book by Geoffrey C. Ward (1999). New York: Alfred P. Knopf.
  • Documentary (1999 PBS Video). By Ken Burns.

Iron Jawed Angels (2004). HBO Video. Movie starring Hilary Swank about the decades preceding the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote.

The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (available for free on the Internet and from Kindle)

 

Laura Savage-Rains–coach, speaker, writer–is the founder and author of WomensMinistryCoach.com who is using her 30+ years of ministry and leadership experience to teach women how to lead with passion. She is a native Texan who has also lived in foreign places such as Alabama and Romania. She makes her home in Lakeway, Texas, with her husband, Mark. She loves to write, speak, and teach the Bible. She is also a women’s ministry team member, choir member, stepmom, and Grammy to 3 little girls. She loves dark chocolate with caramel, “The Sound of Music” movie, and Barbra Streisand’s music.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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