Tag Archives: feminism


As part of my training for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, I am interning at Throop Church in Pasadena, California. Each month we choose a theme that informs the worship for that month, and the readings, music, and sermon each Sunday usually connect somehow with the monthly theme.

This month, the worship theme is Feminism. And it was my turn to lead worship last Sunday. But I didn’t deliver a whole sermon; instead, I gave a short introduction, and then turned the pulpit over to two women in the congregation — Ruth Torres and Frances Goff — who each related something about how feminism has affected their lives.1

Why share the pulpit like this? An example from our hymnal gives an explanation.

Margaret Fuller was a remarkable woman.2 She was born in 1810 to two Unitarian parents, and by the time she was 23 she was translating Goethe and publishing essays in Boston newspapers. When she was 25, friends introduced her to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Fuller became part of the Transcendentalist circle in Boston. At 30 she became the first editor of the Transcendentalist journal The Dial.

Her writing and editing brought her to the attention of Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, and Greeley invited her to write for his newspaper. Fuller became the first full-time book reviewer in all of American journalism, as well as the first female editor of the Tribune.

In 1846 the Tribune sent Fuller to Europe as a foreign correspondant. She eventually found her way to Italy, where she reported on — and became a supporter of — the revolution that resulted in the formation of the Roman Republic of 1849.

During her time in Italy, Fuller met Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family for his revolutionary politics. Fuller and Ossoli had a child together in 1848. In 1850, Fuller, Ossoli, and their baby boarded a freighter to come back to the United States. The ship struck a sand bar off of Fire Island, New York, only 100 yards from shore, but Fuller, Ossoli, and their son all perished in the wreck. Fuller was only 40 years old.

Margaret Fuller had an incredibly remarkable life, especially for a woman in the first half of the 19th century. Some of her thoughts sound progressive even for our time. And so we come to the reason why I am telling you about her now.

The editors of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition did a wonderful job, collecting and editing music for singing and words for reading that have served Unitarian Universalists for nearly 25 years. But in any work of this size and complexity, one is bound to find editorial decisions one might disagree with… and for me, one of them occurs in reading #575, “A New Manifestation,” which consists of selections from Fuller’s 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, arranged to make a responsive reading:

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

When Man and Woman may regard one another as brother and sister, able both to appreciate and to prophesy to one another.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intelligence to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.

Were this done, we believe a divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages.

A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.

My objection is to this quote: “Man does not have his fair share either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles.” That’s what the hymnal says, but what Fuller actually wrote was this:

It may be said that man does not have his fair play either; his energies are repressed and distorted by the interposition of artificial obstacles. Ay, but he himself has put them there; they have grown out of his own imperfections. [Emphasis added.]

So in effect, what Margaret Fuller actually wrote was that “You might say that men have it tough too, but it’s their own darn fault.” Now, you may or may not agree with her; you may or may not like her analysis; you may or may not think that it was wise for her to have written this — but that’s what she wrote. And the hymnal takes that strong statement and shortens it to “Men have it tough too.” Even though the hymnal was edited by people sympathetic to her beliefs, the editors softened her very pointed statement – they moderated her strong viewpoint to make it easier to hear.

The lesson is this: If you want to know what someone really thinks, it’s best if they speak for themselves.

So that’s why I shared the pulpit last Sunday. I can tell you my thoughts about feminism, and someday perhaps I will; but to begin with, maybe it’s best to listen to someone other than a man.

Whether you are female, or male, or live outside of that binary —

May we work together so that everyone is seen for who they truly are; may we work together to create equality for all; and may we work together so all may live in beloved community —

for that is the work of feminism.

Image credit: Library of Congress. More information here.

  1. And who, gloriously, brought Frida Kahlo and Terry Pratchett into the service. 
  2. The information in this brief biography came from Fuller’s entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, from her Wikipedia page, and from David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists

Integrity of the Mind

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 8 January 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)

As many of you know, I was raised unchurched. When my wife Bella and I started to attend the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, a little over 10 years ago, it was all a new experience for me.

A few years after we joined, I was at a committee meeting of some kind — of course! — and the leader of the meeting asked us all to consider why it was that we attended services on Sunday. I think that was the first time I had thought to consider exactly what the spiritual point was of coming to church on Sunday.

At the very beginning of my internship here at Throop, I preached a sermon that addressed this very question: Why are we here, in this room, each Sunday? The answer I proposed in that sermon had to do with the idea of community. It’s true that we can gain some spiritual growth and satisfaction on our own — by meditating, for example, or by spending time in nature — but there is something special about being present in a church community that both supports us and challenges us. One of our Unitarian Universalist principles is “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our community helps us stick to the “responsible” part of that.

But there’s another answer to the question of why we come here each week, and in fact it’s the first answer I thought of, way back when at that committee meeting.

At church, the services help me reflect on my own ethical values. By going to services on Sunday, and listening to the music, and singing the hymns, and (of course!) paying very close attention to the sermon1, and talking with people during coffee hour, I can think more deeply about what I believe, and about how I want to live my live. And then I can figure out whether I actually am living out those values. If I’m not living out the values that I profess, my church can help provide me with the resources and support that I will need in order to live my life in line with the values I believe in.

In other words: My church helps me live my life with integrity.

The worship theme for the month of January is “Integrity.” Each week we will explore a different aspect of the idea of integrity. Today it is “Integrity of the Mind”; over the course of the month we will also discuss integrity of the spirit, of the heart, and of the body.

“Integrity of the Mind” can mean a number of things. Perhaps the most straightforward meaning is that we should be honest.

Now, there are different types of honesty. There is honesty in your interactions with others, and there is honesty with yourself.

It can be hard to lie to other people. Just recently I ran across a quote by my favorite author — the 19th-century British novelist Anthony Trollope — that gives one reason why. Trollope writes:

A liar has many points in his favour, — but he has this against him, that unless he devote more time to the management of his lies than life will generally allow, he cannot make them tally.

Consistently lying to others is hard to maintain, it is immoral, it is corrosive to your relationships, and it makes it difficult for you to trust anyone.

Lying to yourself is easier, but just as dangerous. On one level, you know you are lying to yourself, so you don’t have to maintain quite the same façade as you do when you lie to others. However, even though it is easier to lie to yourself than it is to lie to others, the effect is just as corrosive: You end up not being able to trust yourself.

There are deeper meanings, too, about integrity of the mind. In Unitarian Universalism, many of these deeper meanings were well expressed by the Transcendentalists.

Transcendentalism was a movement among liberal religious people, especially Unitarians and those with connections to Unitarianism, in the mid-19th century, most prominently in the Northeast of the United States. Inspired by the Reverend William Ellery Channing’s idea that our conception of God comes from our examination of our own souls, the Transcendentalists were fierce individualists, who thought that our highest calling is to be true to our own souls.

One of the best-known writings about Transcendentalist individualism is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance. He did not mean “self-reliance” in the sense of being able to live on your own in the wild, or to cook your own food, or mend your own clothing; no, he was more interested in a person’s ability to rely on their own judgement, even when it conflicted with popular opinion.

Emerson writes that “Nothing is as sacred as the integrity of your own mind.” Really, his whole essay on self-reliance consists of expanding on this basic principle.

And yet I have intense reservations about Emerson. He seems so confident in the infallibility of his own intuitions, so dismissive of the idea that other people might have access to the truth as well.

Emerson’s famous aphorism, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” comes from this essay on self-reliance. And yet, what does he mean by this? If yesterday, all of your Transcendentalist insistence on the primacy of your own intuition demanded that you say one thing, and if today the same intuition demands just the opposite, Emerson says that you should proclaim just as loudly today that you are correct as you did yesterday. It seems to me, though, that you might want to be a little less certain that your opinions are always correct if you change them day by day.

Perhaps some of my reluctance to adopt Emerson’s philosophy comes from the suspicion of a comfortably-situated white man justifying his own beliefs by saying, “Trust your intuition! Speak your truth! Dare to express your individuality! That’s what I do, it’s worked out great for me…”

Emerson encourages all of his (white, male) readers to say to their loved ones,

I shall endeavour to nourish my parents, to support my family, to be the chaste husband of one wife, — but these relations I must fill after a new and unprecedented way. […] I must be myself. […] If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints. If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly.

And then, the most perfect quote: “Besides, all persons have their moments of reason, when they look out into the region of absolute truth; then will they justify me, and do the same thing.”

Emerson is saying, “Eventually, when you peer into the regions of absolute truth, you will find that my way of doing things was right all along.”

I agree that one should be true to oneself, but I have to admit that I find Emerson to be insufferable. I can’t think of a more arrogant attitude than what he expresses. And so I was very pleased when I learned of some writings by his wife, Lydia.

Lydia Emerson, in a moment of inspiration, wrote down something that she mockingly called the “Transcendental Bible.” It is a satirical take on the arrogance and self-righteousness that seemed to come along with some of the Transcendentalist beliefs of her husband. Here is one — long — sentence from it.2

If you scorn happiness (though you value a pleasant talk or walk, a tasteful garment, a comfortable dinner), if you wish not for immortal consciousness (though you bear with impatience the loss of an hour of thought or study), if you care not for the loss of your soul (though you deprecate the loss of your house), if you care not how much you sin (though in pain at the commission of a slight indiscretion), if you ask not a wise Providence over the earth in which you live (although wishing a wise manager of the house in which you live), if you care not that a benign Divinity shapes your ends (though you seek a good tailor to shape your coat), if you scorn to believe your affliction cometh not from the dust (though bowed to the dust by it), then, if there is such a thing as duty, you have done your whole duty to your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.

“Your noble self-sustained, impeccable, infallible Self.” That one phrase confirms what I imagine it must have been like to live in the same household as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

So that’s another meaning of “integrity of the mind”: being true to your own beliefs, even when they contradict what is believed by your friends or by society at large. But we see that one of the difficulties is that you need to be true to yourself without being arrogant; you still need to listen to others and acknowledge that sometimes they will be right.

At one point, Emerson writes:

[…] man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he […] lives with nature in the present, above time.

And that brings us to another form of integrity of the mind: Keeping your mind focused on what is happening now, right around you, and not having your mind wander to the past or the future.

Meditation practices from around the world encourage us to develop the habit of focusing on the present. And, interestingly enough, a pair of researchers at Harvard came up with a way to test the idea that people are happier if they live in the present.

The researchers created an iPhone app for volunteers to use. You can read about it at trackyourhappiness.org, where you’ll find a link to the Apple App Store. If you download the app, it will interrupt you at random moments throughout your day and ask you a series of questions. The questions include:

  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “What are you doing right now?” and
  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?”

The individual users of the app then get to find out what activities actually help them stay happy. But the researchers get back the data from all of the users, and they have been using that data to test various hypotheses about happiness. And they’ve found some interesting things.

First of all, the researchers found that people’s minds wander a lot. About half the time the app interrupts someone to ask what they are doing, the person says that their mind was wandering.

They also found that no matter what activity a person was doing, they were less happy if they were not focusing their attention on it. It was worst, of course, if their mind was wandering to unpleasant things, but even if their mind was wandering to something nice, they were less happy on average than if they had been thinking about what they were doing.

Now, this shows that unhappiness is correlated with mind-wandering, but you might wonder whether that actually shows that one of these things causes the other. To answer this question, the researchers checked to see whether people’s mood at one point in the day was correlated with their mind wandering later that day, and vice versa. What they found was consistent with the hypothesis that one of these things does cause the other: not focusing on what you are doing will reduce your happiness.

So there’s a benefit to mental integrity in the form of focusing on the present: it will make you happier. And perhaps this happiness can carry you through the times when you do have to take your mind off the present in order to plan for the future.

The mind, the spirit, the heart, the body — in each of us, these are all connected to make a unified whole. This month, may we all find new ways to better understand each of these parts of ourselves, so that we may better live a life of integrity.

Image credit: Water lily with latticework reflections, copyright 2006 by the author. Shot in the Conservatory at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.

  1. Wink ;) 
  2. The whole thing is worth reading, and it’s just a couple of pages; you can find it here

Being a Man

I am a man.

I get to go into spaces set aside for men. And I have been in many places and situations that have, intentionally or not, been male-only.

Locker rooms in high school.

The community-college English class I took in 1982, with a male professor and half-a-dozen male students, talking about Jack London and Ernest Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham.

College bull sessions at an institution that was around 85% male.

Locker rooms at that college, and at many gyms, universities, and Y’s since then.

Lunches and dinners with groups of male colleagues.

Apartments that I’ve shared with other men.

And you know what?

In not one of these places would it have been appropriate to brag and laugh about sexual battery.

It is not appropriate to brag and laugh about sexual battery anywhere, any more than it is appropriate to commit sexual battery.

In our society, being a man — even more so, a wealthy white man — gives a person more power than they would otherwise have.

Being human means knowing how not to abuse that power.

Cover image: Lone Person at Ellis Island, copyright 2010 by Everett W. Howe