Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Gordon Sisters, their Window, and Quiet Little Faults

Today in my church we dedicated a pair of stained-glass windows. The new set is a beautiful post-Katrina triptych, donated and made by volunteers who made many a trip to the city to rebuild. It's not a subtle piece, but it is very pretty, and hyper-relevant to the building in which it is now housed. It's history, though already pretty elaborate, is nothing compared to the main focus of this morning's service.

At the center of the morning, and at the center of the wall facing the congregation in our sanctuary, is the Gordon Sisters window. It's a piece of stained glass with more history than most towns, and it commemorates two little-known but tremendous figures for social justice, who just so happened to be members of the First Unitarian Church of New Orleans.

The sisters were fascinating people. Childless and never married, they brought sanitary water and sewage to New Orleans, worked to build a "model home-school for the care and vocational education of the mentally handicapped", spent ten years working for children's rights (which resulted in the Child Labor Act of 1906), one of them directed the Louisiana State Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and they "pushed for the state constitution to allow women to vote," where "partial victory was granted and women taxpayers were given the vote, in person or by proxy, on matters relating to taxation." It's about the perfect distillation of late 19th century progressive causes. Reading that, it's a wonder that we don't lionize Kate and Jean Gordon with Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton.

But there are reasons for this. For all the progressiveness of the Gordon Sisters, there are some quietly omitted flaws. Kate fought for women's' suffrage, but she fought for it through state rights. There's a reason Louisiana only gave the right to vote to women taxpayers - that's a category that is almost exclusively white women, and this was the Jim Crow south. Pursuing suffrage on the state level meant that you could still exclude some as you expanded the franchise. This was intentional. This is a stark contrast to the standard progressive discourse about late 19th century liberation movements. We remember Susie B as an abolitionist and a suffragette - they go together perfectly in the progressive canon. We forget, in praising our forebears, all the murky grey area and disagreeable positions that came before.

Jean, too, falls into the grey area of history. The second hit on her name is a book discussing eugenics in the deep south. At the above-mentioned model home school, Jean Gordon admitted only whites, and then sterilized them so that feebleness could be weeded out of the white race. We, as a church community, honor the fight against hardship and feebleness, but it is hard to look back with fondness on forebears who embraced so overtly racist a policy as eugenics. These are sins of omission, perhaps, but it makes a platonic ideal of what should be an examination of caring but deeply flawed people.

This will emerge into a new light soon, and it was already simmering at the service today. Racist predecessors are hard people to acknowledge. More challenging even than that is reconciling the tangible good they produced (sewage and drainage, child labor laws, and even the murkily reasoned good of expanded suffrage) with ulterior motives we would today find appalling. History is not the kindest of materials to work with, and Unitarian Universalism is not free from it's ill effects.

The window itself is still beautiful, it's figures all full of dignity. They're all white (and a dog), but that doesn't have to diminish from the dignity of the piece. It just requires that we are conscious of the exclusion, and mindful that when we focus on achieving justice, our definition of justice is limited to our experience. One day, history may well judge us for our biases, and it is good that it is done.

I'd worry if progressive meant the same thing after a century later.

2 comments:

bruce said...

kelsey,

bruce nolan here. i'm a reporter at the times-picayune. pls call me.

826.3344
bnolan@timespicayune.com

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