When I think of well-known figures of AFSC’s past, I think of men—Rufus Jones and Clarence Pickett, more specifically. I’m sure much of this has to do with the fact that I have spent numerous hours sitting in rooms named after them at Friends Center in Philadelphia. But I have little doubt that their familiarity is also due to the general attention that our society pays to men with big ideas and big voices, particularly the society in which the organization was founded.
Of course, Friends Center, where AFSC’s Philadelphia office resides, has also named a room after a famous female Quaker, Lucretia Mott. Mott was well known for her oratorical skills, rare for women in her time.
But her voice was supported by and in conjunction with the work of her Quaker community. Her big idea was equality, and she helped to make that idea a reality by organizing historical opportunities for connection, such as the Seneca Falls convention. That event turned her big idea into a real movement.
Often, the more constructive, relational aspects of social change work associated with women are undermined by the seductive appeal of “charismatic leaders”—men whose rhetorical talents have the power to mobilize large groups of people to do both good and evil. Women’s “behind-the-scenes work” is important, we tell ourselves, as long as a man is setting the stage.
Digging into the archives to find out more about women who worked for AFSC, a different story emerges: I learned of women doing radical, righteous work that was not based on the vision of any particular leader, but on the deeply felt truth in the value of each person.
These women were not “just” serving or doing the “behind-the-scenes work” to support the programs of their male counterparts; they were standing up for the truth through a fundamental commitment to the power of human connection.
Crystal Bird Fauset gave presentations up and down the East Coast on race relations in the United States, engaging white, privileged audiences with a topic that many chose not to see.
Elizabeth Gray Vining served as the first female tutor to the crown prince after World War II so that she might develop good relations between the two countries. “I am not here in Japan as a missionary,” she declared. “I will present my views and let my pupil go on from there… I hope I can contribute to the peace and understanding of the world. The emphasis will be on a world without war, and on nations working together for peace.”
In the 1960s, Connie Curry served as AFSC’s Southern Field Representative, helping the Carter family negotiate the prejudices they faced as the family desegregated local Mississippi schools. AFSC helped the family find work and affordable housing. Eventually Connie would write “Silver Rights,” telling the story of the Carter family and winning numerous awards for her work. Her relationships with that family facilitated their own passion to live in a more equal society and inspired her own work for justice.
Saralee Hamilton spent 30 years developing the National Women’s Program and building an international women’s movement. She helped AFSC confront issues of sexism within its own organizational structures by holding it accountable to its principles of equality and inclusion.
Creating change based on a deeper understanding of our shared humanity is often confused with fragility and ineffectiveness. Developing relationships often takes a bit more time. But that kind of on-the-ground work is almost always more successful for creating lasting peace.
Building bridges is radical because it’s hard. It requires vulnerability and time and faith. Women and men have been doing the hard work with the AFSC for years. When we all have an opportunity to connect and truly value that connection, our world will be transformed.