The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith (2)

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The Women's Struggle

The election of an all-male House of Justice in Chicago was a development to which some of the women in the Baha'i community were never reconciled. It is Corinne True in particular who stands out in the struggle to overturn the exclusion of women from that body. After the election, she immediately helped to organize the Women's Assembly of Teaching which worked side by side with the House - and not always harmoniously - for over a decade. Beyond this, she appealed directly to 'Abdu'l-Baha, asking that women be elected to the House of Justice. 


Mrs. True's letter, which has recently come to light, indicates clearly that the change to an all-male body was the cause of some dispute. She writes to 'Abdu'l-Baha: 

There has existed a difference of opinion in our Assembly [that is, the Chicago community] as to how it should be governed. Every believer desires to carry out the Commands of the Blessed Perfection [Baha'u'llah] but we want to know from our Lord himself [that is, 'Abdu'l-Baha] what these Commands are, as they are written in Arabic and we do not know Arabic. Will Our Lord write me direct from Acca and not have it go through any Interpretor [sic] in America and thus grant me the Authority to say the Master says thus & so, for he has written it to me... 


Many in our Assembly feel that the Governing Board in Chicago should be a mixed Board of both men & women. Woman in America stands so conspicuously for all that is highest & best in every department and for that reason it is contended the affairs should be in the hands of both sexes. [39] 

She was, however, disappointed when the Master would not support her point of view. He confirmed the practice of electing only males to the Baha'i governing board of Chicago, admonishing her to be patient. She appears to have received her reply from 'Abdu'l-Baha in June of 1902, but refrained from sharing this Tablet with the Chicago House until the fall of that year. 

The Tablet is a famous one and reads in part (in modern translation): 

Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman. How many a handmaid, ardent and devoted, hath, within the sheltering shade of Baha, proved superior to the men, and surpassed the famous of the earth. 


The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God's, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.


As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these 
are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this? [40] 

Since 'Abdu'l-Baha had confirmed that women should be excluded from the Chicago House of Justice (later, House of Spirituality), this practice continued The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha'i Faith (2)
for some time, in Chicago and elsewhere. We might assume that the belief that women were to be permanently excluded from local Baha'i executive bodies was widespread, at least amongst the men. Women were to be involved in forming women's groups, which 'Abdu'l-Baha had named "Spiritual Assemblies" in one Tablet. 



In Kinshasa, (Conggo) young Bahá'ís and their friends study about how to work together to be of service in their families and community.


That did not end the issue, of course. It appears that American Baha'i women continued to discuss the possibility of membership on governing boards, with Corinne True being prominent among them. In 1909, Mrs. True received a Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Baha in response to her insistent questioning. It reads, in part: 

According to the ordinances of the Faith of God, women are the equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the Universal House of Justice [bayt al-'adl 'umumi], for, as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice are men. However, in all other bodies, such as the Temple Construction Committee, the Teaching Committee, the Spiritual Assembly, and in charitable and scientific associations, women share equally in all rights with men. [41] 

This new Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Baha to Corinne True appears to have opened up a nationwide controversy over the rights of women to serve on Baha'i institutions. The use of the term "Universal House of Justice" in this Tablet caused some confusion. Corinne True and others assumed that 'Abdu'l-Baha intended by this Tablet that women were now to be admitted to membership on local Baha'i bodies, and more particularly to membership on the Chicago House of Spirituality. 


Thornton Chase related the controversy which erupted in Chicago in a letter written a few months later (January 19, 1910): 

Several years ago, soon after the forming of the "House of Justice" (name afterward changed by Abdul-Baha to House of Spirituality on account of political reasons - as stated by Him - and because also of certain jealousies) Mrs. True wrote to Abdul-Baha and asked if women should not be members of that House. He replied distinctly, that the House should be composed of men only, and told her that there was a wisdom in this. It was a difficult command for her to accept, and ever since (confidentially) there has been in that quarter and in those influenced by her a feeling of antagonism to the House of Spirituality, which has manifested itself in various forms... 


...Mrs True received a Tablet, in which it was stated (in reply to her solicitation) that it was right for women to be members of all "Spiritual Gatherings" except the "Universal House of Justice", and she at once construed this to mean, that women were to be members of the House of Spirituality and the Council Boards, because in some of the Tablets for the House, it had been addressed as the "Spiritual Assembly" or "Spiritual Gathering". But the House of Spirituality could not so interpret the Master's meaning... [42] 

The difference of opinion was deep and serious. It took place within a wider context of gender tensions within the American Baha'i community at the time. The Chicago House of Spirituality consulted on the new Tablet to Corinne True at its meetings on August 31, 1909, and September 7, 1909. While it seemed clear to them that the Tablet did not admit women to membership on the House of Spirituality, they decided to write to 'Abdu'l-Baha for a clarification of His meaning. [43] 

It appears that no record of a reply to the House on this point has survived. But, in the event, the practice of excluding women from membership did not change. The men of Chicago assumed that 'Abdu'l-Baha's reference to the "Universal House of Justice" intended the local Chicago institution. This is a reasonable assumption, given the lack of fixed terminology at the time. 


The word 'umumi, with which 'Abdu'l-Baha qualified His reference to the House of Justice in Arabic, means public, general, or universal. Since it was known that Corinne True had asked about women's service on the Chicago House - which was understood to be a House of Justice, even if designated a House of Spirituality for various reasons - His reply seemed to indicate that only men could serve on the general (or universal) body, while women could serve on all subordinate bodies, such as the Assembly of Teaching, the Philanthropic Association, and so forth. And this is the interpretation of the Tablet that would stand for some years to come. 


In May of 1910, Thornton Chase wrote to a believer about this question, which was still being debated: 

As to women being members of the House, there is no question at all. 'Abdul-Baha's reply to Mrs True years ago, settled that, viz, that the members of the House should be men, and that the time would come when she would see the wisdom of that. This was in direct answer to her question to Him as to this matter. He has never changed that command, and He cannot, because it is the command of Baha'o'llah also, as applied to such bodies of business controllers. 


But, in a Tablet to me, 'Abdu'l-Baha said "The House of Spirituality must encourage the women as much as possible". There is the whole procedure. "Encourage the women as much as possible". That is what He does: that is what we should do. Not to be members of the H. of S., but to all good works in the Cause, which they can possibly accomplish. It seems to me that the matter of membership in H. of S. should be simply ignored, not talked about, but if it obtrudes itself too strongly, just get out that Tablet to Mrs. True and the one to me (just mentioned) and offer them as the full and sufficient answer. [44] 

Chase's views are undoubtedly representative of the understandings of the majority of Baha'is at the time. It was the common understanding that the Chicago House of Spirituality was properly composed of men only, and that ultimately all local Baha'i boards should be similarly composed. This was a position which was repeatedly sustained by 'Abdu'l-Baha, but which was never fully accepted by some Baha'i women. 


In Kenosha, which had had an all-male "Board of Consultation" for some years, the issue of women's service on the Board became a matter of dispute in 1910, as a result of Corinne True's 1909 "Universal House of Justice" Tablet. On July 4, 1910, the Kenosha Board wrote to the House of Spirituality in Chicago asking if they had any Tablets from 'Abdu'l-Baha which instructed that women should be elected to local institutions. They explained that two of the Baha'i ladies in their community had insisted that such Tablets existed. [45] 


The reply from the House of Spirituality, dated July 23, 1910, is very instructive. [46] The House was able to find three Tablets from 'Abdu'l-Baha which had bearing on the subject. One was the 1909 Tablet to Corinne True which had opened the controversy. Two others had been received from 'Abdu'l-Baha in 1910, in reply to more inquiries. 


In a Tablet to Louise Waite (April 20, 1910), 'Abdu'l-Baha had instructed: 

The Spiritual Assemblies which are organized for the sake of teaching the Truth, whether assemblies for men, assemblies for women or mixed assemblies, are all accepted and are conducive to the spreading of the Fragrances of God. This is essential. [47] 


'Abdu'l-Baha goes on to state that the time had not come for the establishment of the House of Justice, and he exhorts the men and the women to produce harmony and conduct their affairs in unity. [48] 


In another Tablet directed to the Baha'is of Cincinnati, where the question of women's participation in local organization had also become an issue, 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote something similar: 

It is impossible to organize the House of Justice in these days; it will be formed after the establishment of the Cause of God. Now the Spiritual Assemblies are organized in most of the cities, you must also organize a Spiritual Assembly in Cincinnati. It is permissible to elect the members of the Spiritual Assembly from among the men and women; nay, rather, it is better, so that perfect union may result.[49] 


The House of Spirituality concluded from these Tablets that: 
...in organizing Spiritual Assemblies of Consultation now, it is deemed advisable by Abdul-Baha to have them composed of both men and women. The wisdom of this will become evident in due time, no doubt. [50]

By this time, Baha'is in different parts of the United States had established a variety of boards and committees as a means of local organization. Women had served on the Washington, D.C., "Working Committee" since its formation in 1907. They had been a part of the Boston "Executive Committee" from its beginning in 1908. Women also acted as officers of communities in places where Baha'is had elected no corporate body. But these were regarded, for the most part, as temporary, ad-hoc organizations not official Baha'i institutions, which were thought to be properly all male. 


'Abdu'l-Baha's Tablets recognized all of these local bodies as "Spiritual Assemblies" (or Spiritual Gatherings, mahfil-i rawhani) and by 1910, He was urging that these Assemblies consist of both men and women. The House of Spirituality in Chicago was obviously puzzled by this command, though it expressed confidence that the wisdom of mixed Assemblies would "become evident in due time." 


However, since it knew that the Kenosha Board of Consultation had been established as an all-male body in accordance with earlier instructions from 'Abdu'l-Baha, the House of Spirituality suggested that the Kenosha Baha'is might wish to take a vote to determine whether a majority of believers would be in favour of a change. [51] 


Rather than do this, however, the Kenosha Board of Consultation submitted the question to 'Abdu'l-Baha. The "supplication" (as they termed it) was signed by all of the men of the Board. It asked if the Board should be dissolved, to be reelected with women as members. The Board members pledged to the Master that if it was His wish they would dissolve, but they stated that their intentions had been pure at the founding of the Board and that it had been established in accordance with a Tablet that had been revealed for the House of Spirituality some years before. [52] 

'Abdu'l-Baha, however, would not support the idea of dissolving the all-male Board. 


His reply, received March 4, 1911, explains: 

Now Spiritual Assemblies must be organized and that is for teaching the Cause of God. In that city you have a spiritual Assembly of men and you can establish a spiritual Assembly for women. Both Assemblies must be engaged in diffusing the fragrances of God and be occupied with the service of the Kingdom. The above is the best solution for this problem... [53] 

As in other Tablets, He stated that conditions for the establishment of the House of Justice did not yet exist, and He urged unity between the men and women of the Baha'i community. And so, through 1911, the status quo that had been established by Mirza Assadu'llah in Chicago in 1901, with the election of the first American House of Justice, held firm. 

All-male institutions continued to function in the most important Baha'i communities. These were supplemented by parallel women's groups. A variety of committees and boards had been established in smaller Baha'i communities that included women as members, but these were regarded by most Baha'is as only informal groups. While 'Abdu'l-Baha was urging that new "Spiritual Assemblies" include both men and women, He would not sanction the reorganization of the longer-established male bodies. Baha'i women in various parts of the country continued to discuss the need for change. 


The Change Comes

It was not until 1912, during the visit of 'Abdu'l-Baha to America, that a decisive change was finally made. While 'Abdu'l-Baha was in New York, He sent word to the Baha'is of Chicago that the House of Spirituality should be reorganized and a new election held. He chose Howard MacNutt, a prominent Baha'i from Brooklyn, to travel to Chicago as His personal representative. MacNutt was instructed to hold a new election for a "Spiritual Meeting" (probably mahfil-i rawhani) of the Baha'is of Chicago. For the first time, women were eligible for election to this body. 

MacNutt arrived in Chicago on August 8, 1912. At 'Abdu'l-Baha's instructions, a feast was held on August 10, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Lesch, where the entire Chicago Baha'i community was invited to be the guests of 'Abdu'l-Baha. MacNutt delivered to the community 'Abdu'l-Baha's message of unity and love. The election was held the following day on August 11. 


The Baha'i magazine, Star of the West, carried this account of that historic election: 

On Sunday evening, the 11th, the Chicago Assembly [meaning here, the whole Baha'i community] selected a "Spiritual Meeting" of nine, composed of men and women, whose service - according to the wish of Abdul-Baha - is, first, to promulgate the teachings of the Revelation, and, second, to attend to other matters necessary to the welfare of the assembly. Mr. MacNutt was present and gave an inspiring address. [54] 

A long struggle had ended. 


Baha'i Institutions in the East

From the time of the dissolution of the Chicago House of Spirituality and its reelection, service on local Baha'i institutions has always remained open to women in America. 'Abdu'l-Baha had made it perfectly clear that the restrictions placed on women in this regard were intended to be only temporary ones. From that point forward, women were fully integrated into the emerging Baha'i Administration erected in the West. 

The same was not true in the East, however. In Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world, social conditions made it impossible for the restriction on women's participation on local institutions to be lifted for some time. Local and National Spiritual Assemblies in Iran were limited to male membership during the entire period of the ministry of 'Abdu'l-Baha, and for most of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi. Again, the principle of gradualism was at play. 

Of course, there were Baha'i women in Iran, as well in the United States, who campaigned for a greater role for women in the Baha'i community. Their concerns were not only with participation on local Houses of Justice, but also with the elimination of other social restrictions, such as the use of the veil in public. In a Tablet to one such woman activist, 'Abdu'l-Baha urged restraint and recommended a gradual approach: 

The establishment of a women's assemblage (mahfil) for the promotion of knowledge is entirely acceptable, but discussions must be confined to educational matters. It should be done in such a way that differences will, day by day, be entirely wiped out, not that, God forbid, it will end in argumentation between man and women. As in the question of the veil, nothing should be done contrary to wisdom.... 


Now the world of women should be a spiritual world, not a political one, so that it will be radiant. The women of other nations are all immersed in political matters. Of what benefit is this, and what fruit doth it yield? To the extent that ye can, ye should busy yourself with spiritual matters which will be conducive to the exaltation of the Word of God and of the diffusion of His fragrances. Your demeanour should lead to harmony amongst all and to coalescence and the good-pleasure of all... 


I am endeavouring, with Baha'u'llah's confirmations and assistance, so to improve the world of the handmaidens [that is, the world of women] that all will be astonished. This progress is intended to be in spirituality, in virtues, in human perfections and in divine knowledge. In America, the cradle of women's liberation, women are still debarred from political institutions because they squabble. (Also, the Blessed Beauty has said, "O ye Men [rijal] of the House of Justice.") Ye need to be calm and composed, so that the work will proceed with wisdom, otherwise there will be such chaos that ye will leave everything and run away. "This newly born babe is traversing in one night the path that needeth a hundred years to tread." In brief, ye should now engage in matters of pure spirituality and not contend with men. 'Abdu'l-Baha will tactfully take appropriate steps. Be assured. In the end thou wilt thyself exclaim, "This was indeed supreme wisdom!" [55] 


Baha'i women were not admitted to service on the institutions of the Faith in Iran until 1954. But this restriction was understood to be temporary, to be removed as soon as circumstances would permit. As Iranian society allowed a greater role for women in general, and as Baha'i women became more educated and more prepared for administrative service, this restriction was lifted. The Guardian eventually made women's participation on Baha'i institutions in the East one of the goals of the Ten Year World Crusade (1953-1963). His hopes were rewarded by the signal distinction which some Baha'i women have achieved as administrators on local Assemblies and on the National Assembly of Iran. 


The International House of Justice

The only remaining body within the Baha'i Faith whose membership continues to be limited to men is its supreme institution, the Universal House of Justice. First established in 1963, the Universal House of Justice is elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the world. Naturally, the electors include many women. But the members of the House of Justice itself, from its inception, have all been male. 

Shoghi Effendi anticipated that the Universal House of Justice would be established as an all-male body, even though he passed away before he could see this implemented. He did not comment generally on the subject, and he does not seem to have devoted a great deal of time to the issue. But in answer to questions from individual Baha'is, some letters were written on the Guardian's behalf by his secretaries which comment on the composition of the yet-to-be-formed House of Justice. For example, his secretary writes: 

As regards your question concerning the membership of the Universal House of Justice, there is a Tablet from 'Abdu'l-Baha in which He definitely states that the membership of the Universal House of Justice is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be fully revealed and appreciated in the future. In the local, as well as national Houses of Justice, however, women have the full right of membership. It is, however, only to the International House that they cannot be elected. [56] 


And in another letter: 

As regards the membership of the International House of Justice, 'Abdu'l-Baha states in a Tablet that it is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be revealed as manifest as the sun in the future. [57] 


Again: 

Regarding your question, the Master said the wisdom of having no women on the International House of Justice, would become manifest in the future. We have no indication other than this... [58] 


Again: 

People must just accept the fact that women are not eligible to the International House of Justice. As the Master says the wisdom of this will be known in the future, we can only accept, believing it is right...[59]

The remarkable similarity of these letters to individual believers should be noted. In each case, the Guardian directed his secretary to refer to the Tablet of 'Abdu'l-Baha to Corinne True which was written in reply to her petition that women be elected to the Chicago House of Justice. This Tablet explains that the reason for the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future. 

Subsequent events demonstrated that 'Abdu'l-Baha had intended that this exclusion be only temporary - an exclusion that would be followed by the full participation of women on this body. 

The exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice today is observed by the Baha'i community primarily in obedience to these letters of the Guardian. Most Baha'is assume that this exclusion was intended to be a permanent one. However, since this instruction of the Guardian is tied so closely to the meaning of the one Tablet of 'Abdu'l-Baha which promises that the wisdom of the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future, and since it is known that the meaning of the Tablet was that women should be excluded only temporarily from the Chicago House, the assumption that women will be permanently excluded from the current Universal House of Justice may be a faulty one. A temporary exclusion may be intended. 

The answer to this question, as with all other questions in the Baha'i community, will have to be worked out over time. The elements of dialogue, struggle, persistence and anguish which are so evident in the history of the gradual participation of women on local Baha'i administrative bodies will, no doubt, all attend the working out of that answer in the future. These elements are all present today.


A Tablet of Assurance


'Abdu'l-Baha repeatedly assured Baha'i women in His writings that the women of the future would achieve full and complete equality with men. In one of these Tablets He refers to the composition of the House of Justice. The Tablet is dated August 28, 1913, and it appears to have been written to a Baha'i woman in the East. In it, 'Abdu'l-Baha repeats His promise: 


In this Revelation of Baha'u'llah, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs. 

Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present conditions; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious,