By Erin Kane, GCSRW Director of Research and Monitoring
Over Independence Day weekend, I attended an event that included a reading of the Declaration of
Independence. Many citizens become familiar with this document in their American history classes as
children, but few know the declaration
served as a model for an important
document in women’s history 72 years
later. The Declaration of Sentiments was
signed on July 19, 1848, at the very first
Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls,
N.Y., an event convened to address
women’s rights and women’s issues,
most notably suffrage.
Methodism has a special place in the
history of women’s suffrage. Anna
Howard Shaw was not only one of the
first women to be ordained by the
Methodist Protestant Church, she also
was an ardent suffragist. After her
ordination in 1880, she would go on to
promote women’s suffrage through
grassroots leadership and later as the
president of the National American
Woman’s Suffrage Association from
1904-1915. She died just a few months
before the ratification of the 19th
Amendment, which won women the
right to vote.
The United Methodist Church relies on
a democratic voting process to elect
leaders and determine doctrine in the
Church regionally at annual
conferences and more universally at
General Conference. This quadrennium,
for the first time, annual conferences
had the option to choose General
Conference delegates two years in
advance of the event instead of one, so
11 U.S. conferences elected delegates in
May or June this year.
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and
usurpation on the part of man toward woman, having in
direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over
her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right
to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of
which she had no voice. . . Having deprived her of this first
right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her
without representation in the halls of legislation, he has
oppressed her on all sides . . . After depriving her of all rights
as a married woman, if single and the owner of property, he
has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her
only when her property can be made profitable to it… He
allows her in church, as well as State, but a subordinate
position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from
the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public
participation in the affairs of the church. . .
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the
people of this country, their social and religious
degradation--in view of the unjust laws above mentioned,
and because women do feel themselves aggrieved,
oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred
rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all
the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of
the United States.”
Click here to read the full Declaration of Sentiments
Some United Methodists have expressed concerns that early elections combined with a reduction in the
overall number of General Conference delegates (to 850 from about 1,000) might result in less diversity
among delegates. From a gender standpoint, however, that doesn’t appear to be the case in U.S.
conferences so far.
In the 11 conferences, 39 of the 84 (46%) delegates elected are women, and 45 (54%) are men. More
laywomen (23, or 55%) were elected than laymen (19, or 45%), and more clergymen (26, or 62%) were
elected than clergywomen (16, or 38%). Interestingly, clergywomen were 25% of U.S. elders in 2011,
the most recent figures available.
These delegates are nearly 10 percent of the total and represent a good start toward gender parity at
General Conference 2016. The percentages compare favorably to the 2012 General Conference, when
44% of U.S. delegates were women, 44% of delegations were headed by women, and 39% of clergy
delegates were women.
If the 2012 General Conference delegation were compared with countries globally in terms of gender
representation within legislative bodies, it would rank among the top five. The congressional body of the
United States lags far behind with only 18.5% women. (Women hold 20% of the seats in the Senate and
18.2% of the seats in the House of Representatives). This puts the United States at a ranking of 98th
But why does women’s representation matter?
A recent study shows that citizens are more engaged when they have elected women. Both men and
women constituents know more about their elected official’s voting record if they are women than if they are men. Citizens also hold the women accountable to those votes more frequently than they do
Secondly, statistics have shown that U.S. Congresswomen are more
legislatively effective than their male counterparts: “when compared
to the average member of their party, women in the minority are about
31% more effective, and women in the majority are about 5% more
effective than their male counterparts, all else equal.”
And lastly, as discussed in last month’s “Women by the Numbers,”
gender diversity in representation matters for women and girls. Girls
need to see women in positions of authority contributing to the
decision-making and laws that affect their lives. Right now, bills about
women’s issues have a 2.1% success rate and are more likely to
have a high gridlock rate. And according to the Institute for Women’s
Policy Research, it will take another 107 years for the US to achieve gender parity in Congress. That
means that American girls won’t see a Congress that is reflective of the population until 2121 if women
continue to be elected at current rates.
Who in your Annual Conference is running for election to General Conference?
Are women in your Annual Conference being encouraged to run?
How would electing more – or fewer – women delegates affect your Annual Conference?
If you’re considering a run for 2016 or 2020 General Conference delegate, check out our step-by-step
You can read more about Anna Howard Shaw (and other women in Methodist history) in the gallery on
our website as well.
If you want to respond to these discussion questions, or if you have an idea for an article or research,
email Erin Kane, our director of research and monitoring.