Standing Before Us: Four Women Who Changed the World

Rev. Dr. Emerson is a semi-retired Unitarian Universalist minister who has served both in the parish and the community. She served as founding coordinator of the UU Women’s Heritage Society and edited the anthology Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776–1936. Her newly published memoir is Sea Change: The Unfinished Agenda of the 1960s.

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Sermon Text

More than 100 years ago, in what was then the new Beacon religious education program, Ella Lyman Cabot wrote:

We sometimes speak as if the past were over and done with: “That’s past; that’s out of date; that’s ended.” Yet try to obliterate in your thought all that is past. It is impossible, of course, because in so doing we obliterate ourselves. Without the help of what we call the past we could not live at all.

 The past, instead of being done with, is, then, the real fiber of the world as we know it. Just as the food we eat nourishes us till it becomes what we act with, so the past is always what we think with.

Rev. Dr. Dorothy May Emerson

So here we are late in the second decade of the 21st century, with seemingly endless wars and severe economic and environmental challenges, and this past that we think with is missing major pieces—information about women and other marginalized groups who were part of our history. How can we think about ways to create a better future, when we’re missing key elements of the tool kit we need to think with?

As Unitarian Universalists, we cannot understand our faith tradition unless we know the wisdom and the stories of both women and men who stand before us in our great religious tradition. What meaning did these liberal religious faiths have for them? What spiritual insights led them to choose or maintain their faith? And how did these religious perspectives inform their lives?

Today I have chosen four of the many women it was my privilege to come to know through my work with the UU Women’s Heritage Society and the creation of the anthology, Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936. Although these four women are white, their work included advocacy for people of color.

The first two women I’m going to talk about provided the spiritual and intellectual grounding for a major shift in thinking concerning the relationship between the sexes. The other two used this understanding to provide leadership in what became known as the women’s suffrage movement. This movement led to the passage of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution, acknowledging women’s right to vote. Today we take this right for granted and forget that it was nearly 100 years ago that more than 70 years of organized effort culminated in the passage of that amendment.

Clockwise from upper left: Judith Sargent Murray, Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, Margaret Fuller

Two Universalists, Judith Sargent Murray and Mary Livermore, and two Unitarians, Margaret Fuller and Lucy Stone, were instrumental in this major paradigm shift. If these names are not immediately familiar to you, perhaps it is because the history of our women and their work has yet to be integrated into the past we think with.

For too long our understanding of religious and social history has been limited by focusing only on the lives and work of men. Women, however, were often the ones to activate and demonstrate the values of our faith, such as freedom, tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and individual rights. They translated liberal theology into real work to promote justice in the world. Their faith gave them the courage to rise up against the tide of their times to make the world a better place.

Judith Sargent

Judith Sargent was born in Gloucester MA in 1751 into a family that had accumulated wealth over several generations. Active in the community, they were cultured and politically aware. Judith learned basic reading and writing skills and read everything she had access to pretty much on her own. Because she was not allowed to join her brother in the preparation he received to enter Harvard, she began to question the inequality of women.

When she was 19, her father discovered an early Universalist book and gathered friends together to discuss this new theology. When he learned that a British preacher of this theology was nearby, he invited John Murray to come to Gloucester. Judith recognized immediately that she had found a spiritual teacher. She was already married, but she hoped they could become intellectual companions, so she wrote to him: “I am not much accustomed to writing letters, especially to your sex, but if there be neither male nor female in the Emmanuel you promulgate, we may surely, and with the strictest propriety, mingle souls upon paper.”[1]

In 1779, Judith became one of the founders of the first Universalist church in America, along with African American Gloster Dalton. John Murray was the first minister. A few years after Judith’s husband died, she and John were married.

Judith continued to educate herself and share that education with others, particularly those in her extended family. And she taught children at the new Universalist church. In response to a request from church leaders, Judith wrote what is considered the first American Universalist explanation of religious education. In the preface, she continued her efforts to bridge the gender divide:

If there is any thing that ought for a moment to take the place of those exquisite sensations, which we boastfully term peculiarly feminine, it is surely a sacred attention to those interests that are crowned with immortality. Whatever is essential to the ethereal spark which animates these transient tenements, will exist when the distinction of male and female, shall be forever absorbed.[2]

In 1790, she wrote what is generally acknowledged as the first essay on women’s rights published in America. It appeared in Massachusetts Magazine and was entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes.” Judith went on to publish poems and more essays, and later completed and published her husband’s autobiography.

As with the other women I’m introducing today, I hope you will be intrigued about them and want to learn more. For now, what I hope you remember about Judith Sargent Murray is that she drew on her Universalist faith in publicly challenging the gender norms of her day. In so doing, she set the stage for the movement that was to emerge a century after her birth.

Margaret Fuller

The next women, Margaret Fuller, was born in 1810 in Cambridge MA, to an educated and politically active family. They were not wealthy but were among the early Unitarians. Margaret’s father was elected to the Massachusetts Senate, when she was three years old. By then he was already teaching her to read. By age 5 she was learning arithmetic and English and Latin grammar. Although she only attended school sporadically, she gained an excellent education, directed first by her father and then by her own quest for knowledge. She began teaching her younger siblings and later tutored young men preparing for Harvard. Quite an achievement in an era when education for girls was considered highly questionable!

Among Margaret’s close friends were several men who were studying for Unitarian ministry at Harvard and others who were already established writers and thinkers. Her deeply personal and intellectual conversations with them helped them shape their ideas, but because of her gender she struggled to find her voice and her vocation. Her struggle led her to invent new forms for herself and others.

Recognizing the lack of opportunities for women, she created new educational opportunities she called Conversations. These gatherings encouraged women to read, think, and articulate their ideas in an era when they were not supposed to have their own thoughts or speak in public. In so doing, she empowered the next generation of women writers and leaders.

Margaret was also part of the Transcendentalist circle and became the first editor of its journal, The Dial. In this work, she joined with luminaries like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Peabody, and Theodore Parker, to create the first major new philosophical and spiritual movement in America.

But her most famous contribution was the book she wrote called Woman in the 19th Century. Published in 1845 by Universalist Horace Greeley, this small volume found its way to upstate New York to the women who three years later called the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. Later, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, wrote that Margaret Fuller “possessed more influence on the thought of American women than any woman previous to her time.”[3]

These first two women—Judith Sargent Murray and Margaret Fuller—were trailblazers of ideas. Their primary venues were writing and teaching. They paved the way for those who followed, to use their ideas as foundations for the women’s suffrage movement. As Unitarian Universalists today, we need to know these women whose faith in this religious tradition we share, empowered them to think for themselves and articulate new ideas that would inspire generations to come.

Lucy Stone

Our next two women were two of the great organizers and public speakers of the women’s suffrage and other social reform movements of the 19th century. As children, both Lucy Stone and Mary Livermore questioned the beliefs and practices of the orthodox Christianity of their families and found their way to Unitarianism and Universalism as young adults.

Lucy Stone was born in 1818 on a farm in Massachusetts. As a young girl she questioned the position of women in the Bible. Her daughter wrote that Lucy was reading the Bible one day and was “filled with horror. She knew the laws and the customs were against the women, but it never occurred to her that God could be against them.”[4]

Lucy’s first public confrontation concerning women’s rights came in her Congregational church. At a meeting to decide if the congregation should expel one of its members for anti-slavery activities, she raised her hand to vote in objection and was told her vote would not count because she was a woman.

Despite the refusal of her father to support her financially, Lucy earned her own way to Oberlin College and became the first woman in Massachusetts to graduate from college. It was at college where she first declared herself a Unitarian.

When Lucy returned to Massachusetts, she began giving public speeches against slavery and for women’s rights. Because she was one of the first to speak publicly in favor of women’s suffrage, she was called “the morning star of the women’s movement.”

Lucy became a leader in the movements to end slavery and to gain the right for women to vote. She traveled all over the country by train, stagecoach, and horse-drawn carriage. She addressed every state legislature in the country, attempting to persuade them to change the laws that denied women equal rights. Because she wanted her presence to inspire ongoing political and social action, she organized small education and action groups in each community she visited. She also wrote pamphlets to educate women about the political process.[5]

Mary Ashton Rice Livermore

Our fourth woman leader, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, was born in Boston in 1820 to a strict Calvinist family. At an early age Mary began questioning her family’s Baptist religion, especially the belief that some people were saved and others not. When she was seven and a baby sister was born, she pleaded with her parents to send it back to God rather than risking that it might not be chosen to be saved.

Later another sister died before she was baptized. Teenage Mary was horrified that her parents could accept the idea that the sister had died unsaved, and she declared that she would rather go to hell and be with her sister than go to heaven with a God that would damn an innocent soul to eternal torment.[6]

These experiences set the stage for Mary’s discovery of Universalism, and her marriage to a young Universalist minister, Daniel Livermore. Together they served several Massachusetts parishes before moving to Chicago, where they co-edited a The New Covenant, a Universalist social reform journal.

During the Civil War, Mary became a leader in the Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross. Besides frequent trips to the battlefield, she began her career as a public speaker to raise money for much needed supplies. In the process, she helped organize thousands of local aid societies!

After the war, the Livermores came back to the Boston area. Mary’s fame as a lecturer grew and for the next quarter century she traveled from coast to coast and to Europe, delivering over 3000 lectures and earning the accolade “Queen of the Platform.”

In one of Mary’s best-known speeches, “What Shall We Do with Our Daughters,” which she delivered over 800 times, she challenged people to think about the future for the young women in their care. She advocated for full education for girls so that they might be prepared to support themselves and live independent lives, if they so choose.

She chided her audiences for their “culpability in neglecting to give [their] daughters some knowledge of business affairs. With utter indifference,” she said, girls “are allowed to grow to womanhood unfamiliar with the most ordinary forms of business transactions.”[7] Unfortunately, this is far too often the case even today.

‘Make the world better’

These four women were inspired and empowered by their Unitarian and Universalist faith to step beyond their comfort zones and speak out for what they believed was right. We are the inheritors of this tradition as much as we are the inheritors of this church building and this congregation’s history. As such, we have a responsibility to reincarnate the essence of our faith in the context of the challenges of our generation, to blend our efforts with those of the past, to continue the living stream of Unitarian Universalism.

UU minister Keith Goheen writes: “We study [history] so that those who have labored before will not have done so vainly, and we do it so their work now mingled with ours will offer Unitarian Universalism’s redemptive power to those who follow us.”[8]

For our understanding of history to be complete, however, it must include women and people of color. We need all our history, because the past is what we think with. You’ve heard the saying that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but I’m not sure that’s true. The past we do not know may be the very information we need to survive and to grow. Not knowing the past can hurt us, because it deprives us of strength we need to make it through the problems we face today. The past we do not know is part of us, like a deep inner well of resources we can mingle our work with, once we realize this source is ours to use.

“Make the world better” were the last audible words said by Lucy Stone. I believe that’s what we all want to do, and I for one am grateful to have discovered these women who led the way. May they inspire you, too, to continue the work of making a better world.


[1] Dictionary of UU Biography, online at

[2] DUUB

[3] DUUB

[4] Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone: Pioneer Woman Suffragist (1930), 15.

[5] Elea Kemler, Biographical Sketch of Mary Livermore in Standing Before Us (2000), 32-33.

[6] Mary Livermore, The Story of My Life (1899), 60-61.

[7] Mary Livermore, What Shall We Do with our Daughters? Superfluous Women, and Other Lectures (1883)

[8] Keith Goheen, UUHS chat


Invocation from Ramona Sawyer Barth, Journal for Liberal Religion:

Our Unitarian and Universalist women of the last centuries … have had one virtue in common. They have been pioneers….

These women who have literally made history were not outstanding persons who happened to be Unitarians or Universalists in their religion. Not at all. It was their dynamic religious liberalism which made them great …

The Unitarian and Universalist religion was … an ethical leaven, and the result was an era of “Feminine Foment.”


Meditation from “Confession of Faith,” by Anita Trueman Pickett

Our meditation this morning comes from an early 20th century Unitarian minister, the Rev. Anita Trueman Pickett. In her “Confession of Faith” she shares her sense of connection with the Divine. During the silence that follows, you might consider how you describe your own sense of faith.

Let us enter, then, into a spirit of meditation, as we hear this “Confession of Faith.”

The Divine Self has created within its Being many separate selves
That in each it may enfold a revealer and a beholder of its own perfection.

I am one of these separate selves, and I follow my destiny.
Every day is a romantic adventure.
Every place I visit is holy ground.

All persons I meet are Divine Companions, seeking me as I seek them,
That we may reveal the Divine in our souls one to another,
And share the Divine that we discover in our Universe.
To realize and reveal the Divine within my soul,
To see, serve, and worship the Divine in all else:
This is my life, my faith, my religion.

Closing Words

A wise person once said, “Take from the past not its ashes, but its fire.” May we feel the fire of inspiration of these Universalist and Unitarian women, knowing that our presence forms a bridge between the past and the future.

As we extinguish our chalice, may we take this fire with us. May it empower us to act boldly for justice in the present world. And may it burn brightly in our lives as a beacon for future generations. Amen. Blessed Be.