Last week’s coverage here of Albany’s first Episcopalian Bishop, William Croswell Doane (1832–1913), focused on his opposition to women’s rights, particularly the suffrage movement. There’s much more to his story, including humanitarian works, but the intent was to address his role in thwarting those battling for women’s rights. This is, after all, Women’s History Month.
Although he was a famous man of the cloth, Doane’s comments on suffragettes were sometimes described by the media as caustic, hostile, and vitriolic. But as I discovered, like many other components of his life, they were hardly original. This was an extreme case of the apple not falling far from the tree.
William’s father, George Washington Doane (1799–1859), was the guiding force in his life. The parallels between the two are uncanny. They were either the same age or less than a year different for graduation from college, ordination as deacons, and ordination as priests. Both exerted great influence in the cities where they became bishops, George at Burlington, New Jersey, when he was 33, and William in Albany when he was 37.
At the same age, 38, each established a girls’ school that in some form still exists today, Burlington’s St. Mary’s School in 1837 (today it’s the Doane Academy), and Albany’s St. Agnes School in 1870 (today it’s the Doane Stuart Academy). That both schools still exist after 178 and 145 years respectively is amazing.
During their service as bishops, at ages 55 and 56, each oversaw the construction of cathedrals that still stand today. Both buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Both men wrote hymns that have remained famous, and both were ostentatious in their bearing, applying great attention to the pomp and circumstance of church-related events and the use of traditional church vestments that had largely vanished from use elsewhere.
As manager of a diocese, George W. Doane incurred great debt and was nearly put on trial for financial troubles. There the two differed sharply, for the son learned from the father’s mistakes. While Dad endured financial struggles, William aligned himself with many very wealthy parishioners and patrons, among them J. P. Morgan, one of the world’s richest men.
The stance of George and William on women’s rights is reflected by two strikingly similar events occurring a half-century apart. William, the son, instructed the 1895 graduates of St. Agnes School to become good sisters, mothers, and wives, using their intelligence to help educate the children and carry on meaningful conversations with their more worldly husbands.
Fifty years earlier, George expressed his hopes for the graduates of St. Mary’s. “As mothers of children, they would wisely change the characters of young people. As companions to their husbands and as educated women, they would be able to discuss history, philosophy, and literature rather than just colicky babies and local gossip.”
Obviously, father and son shared the same vision on what was expected of women. Both men also employed biting, hurtful language in describing the negative effects of women battling for their so-called rights.
In 1909, William criticized those who deserted the traditional Biblical expectations for females. Women’s rights activists, he said, were becoming “unsexed” by delving into a man’s world through the pursuit of voting, seeking jobs, and playing sports. That type of woman, he said, was “a horrible, misshapen monster.”
The push for suffrage, he added, was nothing more than “a hysterical clamor employed in the pursuit of this chimera. Your womanhood is your especial gilt of grace and honor equal to, but different from, the glory of manhood. Nothing but mischief and misery … can come from the attempt to make the two the same. The masculine woman, the effeminate man, like bearded women or a long-haired man, is a monstrum horrendum [terrible monster].”
The words “unsexed” and “monster” might seem inappropriate, coming from a preacher’s mouth at a girls’ school graduation, but more than fifty years earlier, some of the very same terminology was used by his father at St. Mary’s graduation ceremonies as he blamed women for society’s ills.
“The times are out of joint. Corruption stalks in our high places. Licentiousness has, well nigh, lost it shame. Infidelity is bold and brazen-faced. The wave of barbarism is rolling back upon us. For these things, your own sex is answerable.
“They forget their Bibles … their Prayer Books. They are women of fashion. They are women of the world…. In this way, the home is stripped of its sanctity…. The woman is no longer what she was made to be—a help-mate for the man. And man ceases to be what God designed him for—her partner, her prop, and her protector.
“Intellectual powers … not subordinated to the providential orderings of God … are at this time unsexing women, and thrusting on the astonished world a race of monsters in that Amazonian crew who clamor, now, for ‘Woman’s Rights.’ ”
Such powerful sentiments from moral leaders held no small sway among tens of thousands of followers. But in the face of it all, women stood strong, counterattacking with equal strength and eventually winning the vote. It’s ironic that a few St. Agnes School graduates went on to become leaders in the fight for women’s rights.
In 1912, after a high-profile suffragette march all the way from New York City to Albany, the female assemblage was referred to by William Doane as “a band of silly, excited, and exaggerated women…. This demonstration will not help their cause.”
But William may have overlooked a persuasive point argued by several leaders of other churches. Women, they said, were deeply involved in social issues like education, child labor, and temperance. If they could vote, helpful legislation addressing those problems could be more easily passed. For churches working to help the poor, suffrage represented hope.
But as always, William Croswell Doane stuck to his guns. In 1912, his rant against suffragettes included an ominous warning about the future should women gain the franchise: “The privilege of voting entails that of being voted for. It means, therefore, potentially women Congressmen, women Senators, a woman President.”
That statement was meant to frighten the public, but a century later, William is right on two of three counts, and without the downside he so feared. The upside? President is next, and when that happens, Bishop Doane can be pronounced a prophet.
Photos: George Washington Doane; St. Mary’s Church, built by Doane in Burlington, New Jersey, in 1854 (Wikipedia, by user:magicpiano)