Helen smiling into the camera

The Feministing Five: Helen LaKelly Hunt

Longtime women’s activist Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, has been passionate about women’s advocacy for more than eighteen years.Founder and president of the Sister Fund, a private women’s fund dedicated to women’s empowerment, Helen has helped to found a number of other women’s institutions including the Dallas Women’s Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation, and the Women’s Funding Networking, and has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Helen is also the co-founder of Imago Relationships International and with her husband, Harville Hendrix, developed Imago Relationship Therapy and the concept of “conscious partnership”. She is also the sole author of Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, about the relationship between spiritual conviction and social action.

Helen LaKelly Hunt’s latest book, And The Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists, out last month from The Feminist Press, features a forward from Cornel West and details the true story of an interracial group of abolitionist women who joined together at the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention, a decade before Seneca Falls.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I had the pleasure of chatting with Helen about what modern day activists can learn from America’s first feminists, how we can strive to make our movements intersectional, and how history can move us to raise our voices even louder.

Senti Sojwal: Your book is about the unknown history of the abolitionist feminist movement built in the 1830s, years before the Seneca Falls Convention. I was so struck by how inclusive the movement was — so many women across racial and socioeconomic lines bound together for a cause they believed in. What can our current feminist movement learn about intersectionality from the feminist political organizers you wrote about?

Helen LaKelly Hunt: They really cared about human dignity very broadly. They also realized that regardless of the law, or the culture, they had a responsibility to be engaged. They organized around abolition, but also around women’s marginalization. They pushed back against the cult of domesticity and this idea that women don’t deserve to be societally engaged. They looked at how issues like race and class and gender intersected. I think their faith also inspired them to feel passion in fighting for rights and dignity for all kinds of people. They are incredible models for us today.

Senti Sojwal: I was so struck by the similarities of how politically aware and passionate women were treated back in the 1800s and also now. Both then and now, women who are fierce activists are berated as undignified, unfeminine, and overstepping boundaries. Did you have this experience, doing your research, of being sometimes struck at how little things have changed? What was that like?


The book cover of And the Spirit Moved Me
Helen LaKelly Hunt: I discovered this story around seventeen years ago when I was doing my dissertation work. Only about four years ago did I look into publishing it. I was so honored that the Feminist Press wanted to bring these stories out of the dark. For me, it was about bringing these women out of the shadows of history. That’s really all I cared about it. I care about writing good books, but I don’t care how many people buy them. The right people will buy and read them. However, after the election, and seeing how women were treated and spoken about, even from other women, which did happen to these abolitionist feminists, things changed for me. This idea that women could have opinions and be loud and stand up for themselves and each other was so scrutinized and criticized back then, and that’s exactly what I saw happening during the election. I was horrified. There are incredible women who work so hard to lift up a vision of equality, justice, economic freedom, fair pay, and well, you can just see the way they’re treated and ridiculed. I really feel differently about the book now. These women in the book did not let attempts to silence them go unchallenged. They fought back. They fought confrontation with confrontation. I want their words to be an inspiration, for people to see the need to double up on our efforts to get their voices out in the world today.

Senti Sojwal: In the book, you explore the relationship between faith and feminism for nineteenth century feminist activists, who saw their progressive values and advocacy as part of God’s work. You argue that religion calls on feminists to be intersectional, and that today’s feminism can draw on the power of faith while pulling religion away from patriarchal practices. Can you speak more about that and what it means for you personally?

Helen LaKelly Hunt: At the Beijing Conference of UN Women in the 1990s, I decided to go around and do a survey about faith and feminism. I asked women at the conference to consider two groups of women: one doing economic justice work through a house of worship, be it a mosque or a synagogue, and another group of women doing economic justice work unrelated to a house of worship. The question was, do these women work in partnership, are they on parallel tracks, or do they work against each other? None of the women that I interviewed said that these two groups could work in partnership. There was a real distrust between the morals and values of these two sets of women: secular feminists and those who were faith-identified. The feminism of religious women isn’t taken seriously. Yet these religious women also often do care deeply about the marginalized, about economic justice, but they felt like non-religious feminists were dangerous to work with. Here I am stuck in the middle because my faith has a lot of meaning to me, and while there are things I take issue with that happen in houses of worship and religious communities, I still find that the essence of the rules of most religions are quite revolutionary. Let’s turn this culture upside down. Scripture tells us that everyone deserves to live with dignity. That’s what feminists want as well. I was so distraught by this division I saw between faith and feminism, so that’s why I wrote the book. Calling on women to get to know each other and see if they can find equal ground is so important. Today’s feminists are much more inclusive, and I find that really inspiring. 

Senti Sojwal: What was the greatest joy of unearthing this history and writing this book?

Helen LaKelly Hunt: The greatest joy was reading these women’s writing. They spoke in a way that was so much greater than anything I’ve ever heard. They were so courageous. Saying, “standing up for our sisters in the South…this is something we are willing to die for.” They were really willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed in. The joy was getting to know these women’s souls, bearing witness to their power. What thrills me is the idea of unleashing their voices and hoping that it will unleash in readers more voice and passion.

Senti Sojwal: What is the most important lesson you hope readers take away from this book?

Helen LaKelly Hunt: I think the most important lesson is that within each one of us, no matter our background or skin color or economic situation, we have a mighty calling to help turn the world upside down. The people at the top of the world should not be the loudest, the pushiest, the ones with the most money, the ones with skewed values. Gloria Steinem says it’s all about being linked, not ranked. I hope the readers understand that our power is in being linked, not ranked. Our power is embracing one another, working together in the service of everyone’s freedom.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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