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March 6, 2011: “Cleveland’s Own Caroline Severance and other Famous UU Women, Women’s History Month”

Women from our heritage of Unitarianism and Universalism were instrumental in changing the world! I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say that, because there were so many that became ‘firsts to do as women’ in this country and a few in England as well. One of my favorites and earliest, was elderly, white haired Catherine Vogel; a Polish noblewoman burnt for the Heresy of denying the Trinity, just a few years before thought to be first Unitarian Martyr, preceding the morefamous, Michael Servetus, sometimes called the ‘Father of Unitarianism,’ who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in 1553.

        And my colleague, Dennis McCarty, minister of the UU Congregation of Columbus, IN, writes about another lesser known celebrity: 'On Lydia Ann Moulton Jenkins vs. Olympia Brown, the written historical record comes down to one newspaper article in 1860 which records that Jenkins and her husband were fellowshipped in Ontario, New York--three years before Brown. To Robinson, that's enough--it wasn't dated April 1, so he assumes the paper wasn't making a joke. Howe assumes that such an earthshaking event would have been more widely reported.

        But would it? Paradigm shifts often make people uneasy, people tend not to like having their earth shaken. Uncomfortable news doesn't always make it into the papers because people--reporters and editors are people, too--don't like to look at it. ...

        Jenkins was important--she was a good preacher and, for one, caused influential 'Trumpet and Universalist Magazine' editor Thomas Whittemore to completely reverse his opinion on the fitness of women for ministry. But she is pretty much forgotten.

        And I guess the reason I mentioned it, is that I'm sympathetic to that. I think that's important--because MOST of us, and the people we preach to, are like the Jenkins of the world, not like the Browns or the Channings or the Parkers. When we break history down to a few iconic figures, we lose the grandeur and the humanity of it.

        Icons are made of stone and lacquer. History is made of people just like us.  And when we lose hold of that, we lose ourselves.'

        I find our history gives me a sense of 'how we got here' theologically and spiritually, as well as our dedication to transform the world through social justice, especially civil rights, women's rights, peace, and education reform. Since most of us came out of other traditions, we have adopted a new history, if you will, with those people who came before us to work for religious freedom and social justice for all, not just a select few.

        And let's face it, we're considered 'heretics' still by many traditional Christians, especially fundamentalists, so all the more important to know our long history of a liberal religious search for truth, meaning, comfort, and yes, transforming the world!

        I want to talk about three women in particular, Judith Sergeant Murray 1751-1820, a Universalist, Margaret Fuller 1810-July 19, 1850 and lastly, partly because her last name is so familiar, Caroline Maria Seymour Severance,1820 -1914, Unitarians. I have found their stories fascinating and their lives showed their strong determination to work toward the equality of sexes despite their disadvantages of not having the same rights, education and privileges that their male counterparts had at the time. They were also theologians in a sense that their religious thinking was challenging the orthodox and showing independent thinking in religion.

         Judith Sergeant was born on May 1, 1751, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing and shipping town. Her family was wealthy due to shipping.  She noticed the gender inequalities of her day very quickly when her younger brother Winthrop, began studying the classics, which her parents refused to provide for her because she was a girl. She learned to read and write, and even a little knowledge of French, and though she certainly considered herself as capable as her brother, she was aware that her educational experience was far inferior to his.

        She believed that women's accomplishments would equal those of men's if they were given a quality education,. She believed that women could succeed in life given two things: 1) education, and 2) parents who would instill in their daughters to "reverence themselves," as she put it in one of her essays.

When she was eighteen, in 1769, Judith married the younger John Stevens, the son of a prominent Gloucester shipping family. Around the same time she decided to copy her letters into blank volumes called “letter books.” She did this from 1774 to 1818; they were recently discovered and are now on line. It gives a slice of life of women from the time of just before the American Revolution to well into the 19th century.

        In 1778 she was suspended from the Congregational First Church because she is no longer attending services because of her Universalist beliefs. A Universalist meeting is founded and after a long struggle is given recognition by the State of Massachusetts in 1786. This is a landmark in the history of United States freedom of religion.

        The church that her family helped found would call John Murray, often known as the father of American Universalism to be their minister. Her husband, John Stevens would die in 1786. She and John Murray had developed a friendship and correspondence and in 1788, he would ask her to marry him which she did. He was called to a large Universalist church in Boston. They would have two children, as one who died in infancy and a daughter, who would marry and move to South Carolina.

        Murray's  essay "On the Equality of the Sexes," published in the Massachusetts Magazine in March and April 1790 predated Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,' which was published in Britain in 1792 and in Philadelphia in 1794.

In 1795, after Boston lifted its ban on theatrical entertainment, Judith wrote her first play, The Medium, or Happy Tea-Party (later renamed The Medium, or Virtue Triumphant). It was performed at Boston’s Federal Street Theatre, making Judith the first American to be so honored. Her second play, ‘The Traveller Returned,’ took place in 1796. They both were described as ‘satirical investigations of American citizenship and virtue,’ and of course, featured strong female characters.

Judith Sergeant Murray was the:
‘first to claim female equality in the public prints (1790)
‘first woman in America to self-publish a book, (The Gleaner, 1798)
‘first American to have a play produced in Boston (1795)
‘most important female essayist of the New American Republic, according to leading historians
‘earliest known American Universalist author ‘co-founder of a female academy’ only eighteenth century woman known to have kept letter books in a consistent manner
‘first writer of Universalist catechism for children

        Though the wife of a famous Universalist preacher, she is beginning to be understood as an important figure in our history herself.  Considering she was born before the Revolutionary war, she was amazingly talented as a writer and playwright at a time when women just didn't do that sort of thing! We are really just beginning to get exposure to her papers and writing and she will probably be 'elevated'  in historical status!

        Margaret Fuller was born into a wealthy family as well, her father a lawyer who would become a congressman from Massachusetts, then serve in the state legislature. She was the oldest and only child for the first five years so her father gave much time and pressure to her education, though, she was not allowed to go to school outside. Indeed she would later say that his love was dependent on how well she did in her education under him. Her father's sudden death of cholera in the fall of 1835 threw the family into financial crisis which she never really recovered from, always having to work, write, teach.

        Having been introduced to Emerson after he had read some of her writing, he initiated Fuller meetings of the Transcendentalist circle in 1838, and the following year she agreed to serve as editor of the new Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. In 1839 she held several series of conversations in Elizabeth Peabody's West Street bookshop, that attracted women of the city and surrounding area who were intellectuals and social activists.

        When Emerson took over as editor of the Dial, she then contributed her groundbreaking essay, "The Great Lawsuit: Man vs. Men and Woman vs. Women," for the July, 1843 issue. She then went on a tour of the Great Lakes territory, resulting in another book,  Summer on the Lakes in 1843, published the following year. She came to the attention of Horace Greely, publisher of the New York Tribune, and he hired her to write for his paper. Before taking that post, she enlarged "The Great Lawsuit" to be published in 1845 as Woman in the Nineteenth Century.  She wrote essays, reviews and criticism which was published as Papers on Literature and Art in 1846. That summer she sailed for Europe as the newspaper's foreign correspondent. She visited England and Scotland, Paris, and finally to Italy. In Paris she met George Sand, whom she had long admired. Having met the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Mazzini in England, she became an ardent supporter of his movement.

Soon after her arrived in Rome she met handsome nobleman, Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, only 26. Then in her late thirties, she had survived several unfulfilled love relationships. They became lovers and in 1848, her son, Angelo Eugenio Filippo Ossoli, was born on September 7. It is not clear whether Fuller and Ossoli ever married.

With the outbreak of war in Rome itself, Ossoli’s unit of the Guard was actively involved, and Fuller volunteered in a hospital. Although the revolution at first succeeded and a Roman Republic was celebrated, Fuller was right in predicting that it would not last. When the pope was restored to power, the Ossolis fled to Florence. There for the first time they lived together openly and were readily accepted by the expatriate colony, including the Brownings, whose baby son was close to theirs in age. Fuller continued work on her history of the Italian revolution. For a time she thought of remaining in Italy where they could live inexpensively and she could complete her book. Friends urged her to stay there, uncertain of her reception at home in her new role.

Nevertheless, in May, 1850, the Ossolis sailed for New York on the merchant freighter, Elizabeth; off the coast of New York, near Fire Island, the ship was wrecked in a storm and there were no survivors. Her manuscripts and other papers were never found.

Among her accomplishments:
‘First American to write a book about equality for women
‘First woman foreign correspondent and war correspondent to serve under combat conditions
‘First woman journalist on Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune
‘First editor of The Dial, foremost Transcendentalist journal, appointed by Ralph Waldo Emerson
‘First woman literary critic who also set literary standards
‘First woman to enter Harvard Library to pursue research her major work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1845, profoundly affected the women’s rights movement which had its formal beginning at Seneca Falls, New York, three years later.

        She lived her own life, rare for her time, and proved that women should have the same rights as men, and helped begin the push for women's right to vote.

        CAROLINE M. SEVERANCE, (12 January 1820-10 November 1914), was known as one of the earliest  women's rights feminist activist in Cleveland and sometimes described as 'America's first clubwoman.' She was born Caroline M. Seymour in Canandaigua, N.Y. She came with her family moved  to Cleveland and, at 20, she married Theodoric C. Severance, a banker. While raising five children, she thought the inferior legal status of women and became the first woman to lecture in Cleveland on women's suffrage. She went to hear Sojourner Truth at a women's-rights convention in Akron in 1851 and helped found the Ohio Women's Suffrage Assoc. When Antoinette Brown from Oberlin, later the first ordained female minister, was refused entrance to a New York City temperance convention where she was a delegate, Severance retorted with "Humanity," a speech voicing the sentiments of the infant women's movement that was repeated at other gatherings. In 1854, Severance was the first woman to address the Ohio legislature- on women's rights to hold inherited property and their own earnings.

        Their house became a popular stopping point for Unitarian ministers traveling through, like Emerson and others. When her husband's career led him to Boston in the mid-1850s, she was active there, attending national and regional Woman's Rights conventions, and, in 1866, helped Susan B. Anthony found the Equal Rights Association. In 1867,  she helped to found the Free Religious Association. In February 1868 she and others founded the New England Woman's Club which she served as president until 1871. With Lucy Stone she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.

        In 1875 the Severances moved to Los Angeles and Caroline Severance continued her reform work. She founded the Los Angeles Women's Club, the Orphan's Home Society, the first Unitarian congregation in Los Angeles, and the Friday Morning Club; started the first Kindergarten there, as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1904 she became the honorary president of the Los Angeles Political Equality League. In 1911, when women won the right to vote in California, Caroline Severance was reportedly the first woman to register to vote.  She was a strong peace advocate as well. She died in Los Angeles in November 1914 at the age of 94.

        These three women from our heritage, one from the 18th century, one from the 19th and one who lived into the 20th were dedicated people to change the world, and the last one had the opportunity to finally vote! They were all women who saw early in their lives the injustice of inequality of the sexes and who went about trying to change it, None of them are as famous as Susan B. Anthony, another Unitarian, but all influenced their times, and led up to the women's right to vote and further work on what is now called feminism. I sometimes call myself a feminist by default, having helped raise three smart and beautiful girls who I wanted to make sure, had all the rights and opportunities as any male! They have turned out to be successful in their lives, and have in a very real sense, benefitted from the work of the three historical women I have spoken about this morning.

        Whenever I read the list of famous women from our heritage, I am struck at how many names I recognize in the pursuit of social justice and equal rights for all, not just women, but also African Americans. 

I am struck by how many ‘firsts’ there were in our heritage, by strong willed women who would not be passive and be told to keep her place and that meant in the kitchen or bedroom!

        Some day we will all be free! Someday justice will prevail and peace will come. But not unless we work together to change these things, to work for the betterment of all, not just a select few. I believe we owe a deep debt of gratitude to these three women for their courage, wisdom, and  compassion.

Peace, Love, Shalom, Assalaamu Alaikum, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos,Vaya con su Dios


Abigail Adams; One of our first strong-willed woman, wife of 2nd President John Adams, she kept the house, children, and logistics in Massachusetts while John was in Washington (there was no white house yet!)

Jane Addams 1860-1935 (social reformer, settlement house founder; author, Twenty Years at Hull House) (attended All Souls’ Unitarian Church in Chicago and the Ethical Culture Society in Chicago for many years; retained her membership in a Presbyterian congregation)

Sarah Flower Adams 1805-1848 Unitarian (British hymn writer: Nearer My God to Thee)

Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz 1822-1907 Unitarian (scientist, author, educator, first president of Radcliffe College; married to Harvard Biologist, Louis Agassiz

Louisa May Alcott; Novelist

Susan B. Anthony; 1820-1906 Women’s rights advocate

Clara Barton;1821-1912 helped nurse the wounded of both sides in Civil War, worked with Unitarian minister, Henry Bellows, to set up Sanitation Commission, precursor to American Red Cross which she would organize and run for many years

Elizabeth Blackwell, physician, first woman to graduate in medicine;

Anne Bradstreet 1612-1672 Nonconformist (first poet in new world, writer; descendants include Unitarians William Ellery Channing, Wendell Phillips, Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Olympia Brown, first woman ordained by a denomination, 1863; famous suffragette, and lived to cast her first vote when she was 84

Antoinette Brown Blackwell; 1825-1921first woman minister ordained-1852, but without denominational support

Rachel Carson, writer, of Silent Spring, beginning of environmental movement

Augusta Jane Chapin-ordained by Universalists, 1863

Lydia Maria Child;1802-1880 Unitarian Author (“Over the River and Through the Woods” author), staunch abolitionist

Maria Cook,1779-1835 one of first Universalist female ministers, sometimes considered the first women to preach in Universalism, perhaps as early as 1810

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886 Transcendentalist (poet; Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Unitarian minister, was an important figure in her career.]

Dorathea Dix;1802-1887worked to reform mental health hospitals

Sophia Lyons Fahs, 1876-1978 considered to be the “principal figure” in remaking liberal religious education for the Unitarians (AUA), ordained at 84, died in 1978 at 102

Fannie Farmer; famous for her cookbook, was first to standardize measurements for recipes

Margaret Fuller; 1810-1850 Early Transcendentalist Feminist, writer of one of the first books aimed toward women, First woman to be overseas correspondent for New York Tribune, editor of magazine “The


Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 suffragist, author of Battle Hymn of the Republic;

Helen Hunt Jackson; Poet and novelist

Amy Lowell; Poet

Carolyn McDade, Folk singing, author of ‘Spirit of Life’

Maria Mitchell 1818-1889 Unitarian astronomer

Judith Sergeant Stevens Murray,1751-1820, one of the earliest women poet, author, playwright and feminists, married to John Murray, founder of Universalism in US

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894 founder of Kindergarten movement in US, writer, bookstore owner, advocate of early childhood education

Florence Nightingale 1820-1910 British Unitarian (nurse; founded nursing as a modern profession; mathematician: invented the pie chart)

Lydia Pinkham 1819-1883 Universalist (eclectic) (patent medicine inventor, businesswoman, advertising writer, advice columnist)

Sylvia Plath poet, The Bell Jar

Beatrix Potter;1866-1943 Writer, artist, scientist, farmer, environmentalist

Aurelia Reinhardt Educator

Malvina Reynolds; Songwriter

Mary Augusta Safford, leader of the Unitarian “Iowa Sisterhood” group of women ministers who started many churches in the midwest in the 1880’s to 1920

Margaret Sanger, 1883-1966 early advocate of Birth Control, founded Planned Parenthood

May Sarton;1912-1995 Poet and writer

Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902 Unitarian (suffragist, organizer, writer, co-author of The Woman’s Bible)

Caroline Severance. 1820 – 1914 helped found first U Church in Cleveland, and found the The UU Church in LA, helped start Free religious Association with Emerson, and started ‘women’s Clubs’, also early advocate of women’s and African American’s rights

Lucy Stone;1818-1893 Feminist, abolitionist,

        Emily Jennings Stowe; The first woman doctor in Canada,

Celia Thaxter; Poet and Essayist

Catherine Vogel; Polish noblewoman burnt for Heresy, thought to be first Unitarian Martyr, preceding Michael Servetus

Mary Wollstonecraft; 1759-1797, Woman’s rights leader, author 1759-1797 Unitarian; married Unitarian minister (author, wrote “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” 1792, and Maria or the Wrongs of Woman; daughter was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein.)