Winning Suffrage, Losing Equal Rights: 1912-1920 1
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from the moment he arrived in America, had argued that transforming America’s gender regime would require more than a legal victory. Although he supported suffrage, he told reporters that the underlying problem was not legal, but ideological. “The chief cause of the mental and physical inequalities of the sexes,” he argued, “is due to custom and training, which for ages past have molded women into the ideal of the weaker vessel.” “It has been objected by some that woman is not equally capable with man and that she is deficient by creation,” he told a gathering of suffragists. “This is pure imagination.”
Even as his steamship was still crawling up New York Harbor to its pier on April 11, 1912, he was already laying out a far broader agenda for women’s equality than what the progressive suffragists envisioned. Women, he argued, must have the same educational and occupational opportunities as men, and they must march forward into the front ranks of the sciences and the arts. “If women were given the same advantages as men, their capacity being the same, the result would be the same.” It was more important to educate girls than boys, he said, and if a family could not afford to educate both its sons and its daughters, they should give the priority to the girls. “When women participate fully and equally in the affairs of the world,” he declared, “when they enter confidently and capably the great arena of laws and politics, war will cease; for woman will be the obstacle and hindrance to it.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá visualized not merely a society of equal legal and political rights, but an entirely different kind of civilization built on feminine ideals. “The world in the past has been ruled by force,” he stated, “and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities of both body and mind. But the scales are already shifting — force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals — or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more properly balanced.”
Final Days in America: New York City 2
One of the few speaking invitations ‘Abdu’l-Bahá accepted was that, on November 15, to address the Divine Knowledge Club, comprised mostly of women, the leader of whom claimed clairvoyance and sat with her eyes closed most of the time to receive inspiration. On the way home,‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “‘Behold: what superstition and vain thoughts are yet prevalent in America!’”
There are two great blessings in the world of existence: one is innate capacity which is bestowed by the Creator; and the other, acquired perfections which depend upon training by a teacher and educator. 3
Mr [Roy C.] Wilhelm and other friends heard these words from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
Education and training are the most important issues in the world of existence. Without an educator, little progress can be made in material affairs, still less in spiritual affairs and divine morals. How can humanity find composure and eternal happiness without an educator? Apart from the human world observe the rest of creation, how each and every created things is in need of training by an educator. Without education they will not attain perfection. For instance, this flower cannot by itself reach this perfection and attain this charm, color and loveliness. Thus, there are two great blessings in the world of existence: one is innate capacity which is bestowed by the Creator; and the other, acquired perfections which depend upon training by a teacher and educator.
The Master went downstairs to join the assembled friends. Among His words were these: ‘The whole world is like a physical body and the power of Bahá’u’lláh may be regarded as the main artery in the body of existence.’
Today He called on Mr [Howard] MacNutt and spoke to him in strong terms about his relationship with the Covenant-breakers and showed him a letter Mr MacNutt had written to Chicago offering help to and praising Dr [William Frederick] Nutt, a friend of [Ibrahim George] Kheiralla. The Master asked, ‘Is this your writing?’ Mr MacNutt replied, ‘Yes, but my intention was something else.’ He tried to give a different angle to his purpose but could not. The Master was saddened about Mr MacNutt but His purpose was to admonish and warn him against his own conduct.
In the afternoon, after seeing Mr [Haigazoun Hohannes] Topakyan, the Persian Consul General, and other prominent people, the Master went to a meeting of the Divine Knowledge Club, whose members are mostly women. The president of the club is an educated woman who claims divine knowledge and heavenly inspiration through Bahá’u’lláh. Spiritualists, astrologers and Christian Scientists frequent her club meetings. She spoke with closed eyes, as if she were sleeping and receiving inspiration. She appeared to be in a trance and in a state of total absorption. Because she is known among the Bahá’ís for her sincerity and is a supporter of the Cause of God, the Master was very kind to her.
Today, at this lady’s request, the Master went to a meeting of her club and delivered an address concerning the circumstances of the time and the different seasons in the contingent world. He said:
The day of the Manifestation of God is the divine and spiritual springtime when the trees of human souls become green and flourishing, new beauty and freshness are brought to the gardens of the hearts and new inspiration and fresh bounties are bestowed.
His talk commanded their complete attention and all bowed their heads in humility and respect. On the way home, He remarked, ‘Observe what idle fancies and vain imaginings are still prevalent in America!’ The Master’s guidance on removing the superstitions and vain imaginings of these people is as follows:
Man explains things in two ways. One explanation originates from his personal feelings, thoughts and understanding. This cannot stand as proof or criterion for all and does not satisfy the hearts. The other is a statement supported by proofs. It produces significant results and promulgates momentous matters which are necessary to the world of man. It is like the explanations and proofs of the Bahá’ís, who invite all to the oneness of humanity and to universal peace. This explanation has proofs and is effective.
The Master continued with a story of the Jewish rabbis:
In Jerusalem every now and then they broadcast a promise giving a specific time based on the holy scriptures and say that on such a date the Promised One will appear to deliver the Jews. They say, ‘We have derived these from the holy texts.’ But when that time and day approach they cast a doubt over their promise and give another. Thus they keep the Jews under the influence of their wish and desires and deprive them of the truth. Now they refer to the time of Daniel [Dan. 12:12] and hold out a promise that the Promised One will appear in the year 1335 [AH, i. e. 1963].
There was a public meeting in the evening at the home of Miss Juliet Thompson. The Master spoke about the greatness of this cycle, the victory of the Cause and the influence and importance of the teachings and laws of Bahá’u’lláh. His talk was delivered in such awe-inspiring tones that the minds were dazzled and the hearts captivated by the grandeur and majesty of the Center of the Covenant. Both before and after the meeting many people were honored to visit with Him in a separate room.
Talk at Home of Miss Juliet Thompson, 48 West Tenth Street, New York 4
First among the great principles revealed by Him is that of the investigation of reality. The meaning is that every individual member of humankind is exhorted and commanded to set aside superstitious beliefs, traditions and blind imitation of ancestral forms in religion and investigate reality for himself. Inasmuch as the fundamental reality is one, all religions and nations of the world will become one through investigation of reality. The announcement of this principle is not found in any of the sacred Books of the past.
A second characteristic principle of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is that which commands recognition of the oneness of the world of humanity. Addressing all mankind, He says, “Ye are all the leaves of one tree.” There are no differences or distinctions of race among you in the sight of God. Nay, rather, all are the servants of God, and all are submerged in the ocean of His oneness. Not a single soul is bereft. On the contrary, all are the recipients of the bounties of God. Every human creature has a portion of His bestowals and a share of the effulgence of His reality. God is kind to all. Mankind are His sheep, and He is their real Shepherd. No other scriptures contain such breadth and universality of statement; no other teachings proclaim this unequivocal principle of the solidarity of humanity. As regards any possible distinctions, the utmost that Bahá’u’lláh says is that conditions among men vary, that some, for instance, are defective. Therefore, such souls must be educated in order that they may be brought to the degree of perfection. Some are sick and ailing; they must be treated and cared for until they are healed. Some are asleep; they need to be awakened. Some are immature as children; they should be helped to attain maturity. But all must be loved and cherished. The child must not be disliked simply because it is a child. Nay, rather, it should be patiently educated. The sick one must not be avoided nor slighted merely because he is ailing. Nay, rather, he must be regarded with sympathy and affection and treated until he is healed. The soul that is asleep must not be looked upon with contempt but awakened and led into the light.
Bahá’u’lláh teaches that religion must be in conformity with science and reason. If belief and teaching are opposed to the analysis of reason and principles of science, they are not worthy of acceptance. This principle has not been revealed in any of the former Books of divine teaching.
Another fundamental announcement made by Bahá’u’lláh is that religion must be the source of unity and fellowship in the world. If it is productive of enmity, hatred and bigotry, the absence of religion would be preferable. This is a new principle of revelation found only in the utterances of Bahá’u’lláh.
Again, Bahá’u’lláh declares that all forms of prejudice among mankind must be abandoned and that until existing prejudices are entirely removed, the world of humanity will not and cannot attain peace, prosperity and composure. This principle cannot be found in any other sacred volume than the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.
Another teaching is that there shall be perfect equality between men and women. Why should man create a distinction which God does not recognize? In the kingdoms below man sex exists, but the distinction between male and female is neither repressive nor restrictive. The mare, for instance, is as strong and often more speedy than the horse. Throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms there is perfect equality between the sexes. In the kingdom of mankind this equality must likewise exist, and the one whose heart is purest, whose life and character are highest and nearest to the divine standard is most worthy and excellent in the sight of God. This is the only true and real distinction, be that one man or woman.
Bahá’u’lláh has announced the necessity for a universal language which shall serve as a means of international communication and thus remove misunderstandings and difficulties. This teaching is set forth in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (“Most Holy Book”) published fifty years ago.
He has also proclaimed the principle that all mankind shall be educated and that no illiteracy be allowed to remain. This practical remedy for the need of the world cannot be found in the text of any other sacred Books.
He teaches that it is incumbent upon all mankind to become fitted for some useful trade, craft or profession by which subsistence may be assured, and this efficiency is to be considered as an act of worship.
The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are boundless and without end in their far-reaching benefit to mankind. The point and purpose of our statement today is that they are new and that they are not found in any of the religious Books of the past. This is in answer to the question, “What has Bahá’u’lláh brought that we have not heard before?” Therefore, it is conclusive and evident that the Manifestation of God in this day is distinguished from all former appearances and revelations by His majesty, His power and the efficacy and application of His Word.
- Menon, Jonathan. “Winning Suffrage, Losing Equal Rights: 1912-1920.” 239 Days in America, 15 Nov. 2012, https://239days.com/2012/11/15/winning-suffrage-losing-equal-rights/. [return]
- Ward, Allan L. 239 Days: ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s Journey in America. Wilmette, Ill: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979, 187. [return]
- ’Abdu’l-Bahá, and Mirza Mahmud-i-Zarqani. Mahmúd’s Diary: The Diary of Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání Chronicling ’Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey to America. Edited by Shirley Macias. Translated by Mohi Sobhani. Oxford: George Ronald, 1998. https://bahai-library.com/zarqani_mahmuds_diary&chapter=9#section237 [return]
- ʻAbduʼl-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ʻAbduʼl-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Edited by Howard MacNutt. 2nd ed. Wilmette, Ill: Baháʼí Publishing Trust, 1982, 433-435. https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/32#451466439 [return]