Imagine a four-day road trip and a diverse group of thirty-four evangelical leaders from eighteen states. Imagine a collection of prophetic women who have the ear of ten million social media followers traveling from Seneca Falls to Washington DC. Picture a bus of female authors, activists, and pastors immersing themselves in the historical struggle for women's rights. This was the #RubyWooPiligrimage.
CBE was invited to sponsor the pilgrimage (founded by activist and author Lisa Sharon Harper), and sent along two representatives. We (myself and Rev. Tega Swann) joined leading evangelical thinkers on an experiential sojourn through the sites and stories central to our foremothers’ monumental struggle for women’s equality.
As pilgrims gathered in Syracuse and prepared to embark, we opened our swag bags and eagerly awaited the unveiling of an itinerary and schedule. We never got one. A pilgrimage is a journey of exalted moral and spiritual experience. This wouldn’t be a “tour” or a “retreat.”
Instead we would make our pilgrimage leg by leg—knowing only what the next few hours held. It was a small taste of the discomfort our trailblazing foremothers were forced to endure in their fight for equal rights.
There was a real sense of suiting up as we applied our Ruby Woo red lipstick and tried on our #RubyWoo t-shirts, which read: “We Are Our Foremothers’ Wildest Dream.”
Our first stop was the Women’s Rights Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY. As we stepped into the Wesleyan Chapel, home of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, the courage of our foremothers (who, in this hallowed space, dared to speak before a mixed group in public for the first time) was almost palpable. We marveled together, both at how far we’ve come toward realizing our foremothers’ dream for women and how very far we still are from our God-given status as co-heirs with men.
Women of color and/or non-US-born women comprised two thirds of our group, and white, US-born women made up the remaining third. The composition of the pilgrimage offers a small snapshot of what this journey was all about.
The #RubyWoo pilgrimage is what intersectional justice looks like when practiced. It sought to articulate the intersection of various justice issues for women, as well as the unique intersectional oppression women of color and non-US women face. I was familiar with intersectionality (the theory that oppressive systems are interconnected and thus, cannot be examined or dismantled separately) prior to #RubyWoo, but the pilgrimage plunged me into the complexity and pain of women of color’s lived experience.
We absorbed exhibits and artifacts at The Tenement Museum, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park Visitor Center, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and other historical sites. At each stop, pilgrims heard the stories of their ancestors—stories that echo the injustice and trauma women, and especially women of color, experience today. It was humbling and harrowing to journey alongside my brave sisters of color as a white woman—to listen to their lived and inherited trauma.
Our journey also featured invited speakers. Each woman shared her story, inviting us to enter thoughtfully into her experience and think deeply about how various social issues have intersected and impacted women throughout US history.
Famous activist Rev. Dr. Ruby Sales highlighted the under-recognized leadership and advocacy of women of color at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. She also spoke to the dual violation of black female slaves in this country: “black female slaves were worked like men and used like women.” She emphasized that black female slaves endured the same hard physical labor as men and were additionally forced to take on the added labor and trauma of producing children (for sale) like breeding livestock. When their owners “worked them like men,” they were even forced to dress like men—stripping them of their femininity.
We also heard from an undocumented Latina mother. She shared her torturous fifteen-year saga of entrances, detentions, and deportations going to and from Mexico and the US. This mother was driven simply and solely by the hope of any loving mother—to make enough money to spare her daughters from being trafficked. In her effort to do so, she was disowned by her family for not bringing back more money, tortured and sexually assaulted by border personnel, and eventually overcome with hopelessness and driven to the brink of suicide. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she told her story through an interpreter. We cried with her.
Rev. Dr. Grace Lee (executive director, Women of Wonder—WOW!) was a panel participant in a presentation at the historic Chinese Baptist Church in Chinatown, NYC. She and three others explained the struggles and vulnerabilities of Asian women immigrants both historically and presently, and how they advocate for and empower Asian women.
On the third evening of the pilgrimage, CBE Washington DC Chapter president, pastor Jeannette Cochran, and DC chapter member, pastor Rosetta Robinson shared their passion for mutuality and gender justice in the church. They told of their journeys as women in pastoral ministry, and the harmful effects of patriarchy on the lives of Christian women and in Christian marriages.
On the final day, we headed to Capitol Hill to advocate for women’s rights. We each had appointments with legislators on both sides of the aisle to share about the #RubyWooPilgrimage and voice our support for policies that benefit women and families.
As I reflect on the pilgrimage, I find it remarkable that the first people to demand women’s equality were Christians! These mid-19th century faith-driven revolutionaries gathered inside church walls to fight for justice! It was a full-circle moment when congresswoman Maxine Waters spoke to our group and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The church is the conscience of the state.”
God not only transforms individuals, but whole systems and structures through them. Policy returns full circle to bear on each of God’s beloved children. God is redeeming his image-bearers and reminding them of their creation-given vocation of dominion—to serve, protect, and cultivate the wellness of creation. And, those sacred image-bearers are in turn advocating for just systems, structures, and policies.
We are our foremothers’ wildest dream. We have freedom and power they could only imagine. We have come a very, very long way. And yet, the #RubyWooPilgrimage was a poignant reminder of how far we have to go before all women—especially women of color—are freed to fully realize our Creator’s wildest dream.