What Women Want

a Mother’s Day Sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


Julia Ward Howe envisioned Mother’s Day as a day for women to speak publicly in favor of peace. For this All-Ages Service, Mark will be looking at women’s role in our nation, and will take on the dangerous job of a man trying to explain, “What Women Want.”

READING: From Annilisa Merelli, “America Was Never Ready For a Woman President,” Quartz (an online business journal) Nov. 9, 2016

Had [Hillary Clinton] been a man, there would have been no questions about her likability. Had she been a man, the scrutiny of the many years of her public service would have focused on her outstanding list of accomplishments, and not focused on the things she got wrong.

But America would rather have a president who calls its women pigs than elect a woman themselves. It would rather vote for a man who brags about sexual assault and unapologetically objectifies other people, rather than vote for a woman who has spent her life trying to convince her country, and the world, that “women’s rights are human rights.”

… Women all over America voted for Trump in enough numbers to see him to victory. In doing so, they have condoned everything that Trump stands for, and have absolved a sexist society (and a xenophobic, homophobic one) of its ills. They have shown that they have, if not a lack of respect of their own rights, then a sense that their own rights are not their most important priority.


I’ve chosen a sermon title today, “What Women Want,” that might be a risky subject for a man to take on. So I looked first to see what some other men said about women. John Lennon said, “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” Timothy Leary tells us, “Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.” And Groucho Marx quipped, “Any man who says he can see through women is missing a lot.”

What do women say? There’s this from Clare Booth Luce: “They say that women talk too much. But if you’ve ever worked in Congress you know the filibuster was invented by men.” Cher told us, “The trouble with some women is they get all excited over nothing – and then marry him.” Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag. You can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” And women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft gave us this more serious comment, “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”

In 2000 Mel Gibson starred in a romantic comedy, “What Women Want.” He played an ad executive, Nick, who had an alpha male attitude toward women. After an accidental electric shock, he woke up the next morning able to hear women’s thoughts. Nick found out that his macho behavior was actually a turn-off to most women. In the end Nick lost his ability to read women’s minds as quickly as he gained it. We are left to imagine that he has become a changed man.

“What Women Want” was a light comedy, nothing profound, and it probably answered the question, “What is it that women don’t want?” better than the question, “What do women want?”

Today is Mother’s Day. You may have heard that it was Julia Ward Howe who came up with the original idea for Mother’s Day, and she envisioned it as a day when mothers would take to the streets, making speeches to demand an end to all wars. Howe, a Unitarian, is best known today as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she wrote during the American Civil War and set it to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

As the Civil War went on, and the battles took an ever greater toll in lives and limbs lost, Julia Howe came to agree with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s assessment that “War is hell.” At the end of the war, Gen. Sherman wrote, “I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting.”

Mother’s Day Peace Day ~

And it was because of the experience of that terrible war – followed not long afterward by the
Franco-Prussian War in Europe – that Julia Ward Howe advocated for a springtime holiday called “Mother’s Day,” which she proposed as an anti-war observance

Howe called for an international alliance of women to hold a conference to oppose war and promote peace. We might think her Mother’s Day proclamation to be just a little naïve, and yet we must admire her passion, her hopefulness, and her vision for a better world free from the scourge of war. Mrs. Howe planned and led the first Mother’s Day observances in the United States, and it was celebrated for many years in Boston under her leadership. Then, when she was no longer young and healthy enough to organize it, the observance died out.

So to the question we started with today – What do women want? – Julia Ward Howe wanted an opportunity for women to speak up, so they could try to put an end to war.

Later, in 1907, another woman, Anna Jarvis, began a campaign for a holiday to honor her mother and other mothers. Like Julia Howe’s observance, Anna Jarvis also called her idea “Mother’s Day,” and it was this version of Mother’s Day that was made a national holiday by Congress in 1914. But Anna Jarvis soon soured on the holiday because, almost immediately, it was commercialized by those selling cards, flowers, and candy. She soon began campaigning against her own holiday! Jarvis said, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”

Julia Ward Howe’s vision of Mother’s Day, and her vision of a world in peace, are still dreams that are unfulfilled. Even as our technology becomes more deadly, human nature remains unchanged, and we humans seem to be unable, all to often, to resolve our disagreements without resorting to violence and the horrors of war.

Progress toward equality ~

So today, we celebrate Mother’s Day with a mixture of emotions – grateful for our mothers, who have given us so much; perhaps sad that Mother’s Day has been commercialized; and also sad that despite the efforts of good people like Julia Ward Howe, the scourge of war is still with us.

Julia Howe and Anna Jarvis weren’t even allowed to vote on who our national leaders might be. Today we can celebrate the progress that women have made since their day – and yet we acknowledge that, considering the derision and disrespect shown toward women during the 2016 election campaign, we still have much more to do before women and men will be treated equally in our society. Anilisa Merelli, in the essay we quoted earlier, suggested that Secretary Clinton wasn’t judged fairly or taken seriously enough because she is a woman.

We are often inspired, of course, by women in the public eye, such as the courageous and accomplished Sally Yates, who recently testified brilliantly before a Senate committee about her time as Acting Attorney General, and her decision to defy the Trump Administration’s executive order on immigration. And so another answer to the question, “What do women want?” may be this: Women want to be taken seriously, to be judged on their accomplishments and abilities, not their looks.

During Julia Howe’s lifetime, much progress was being made. Antoinette Brown Blackwell, for instance, became the first woman ordained to the ministry in the United States. A graduate of Oberlin College, she was a well-versed and charismatic public speaker, and she was ordained in 1852 by the Congregational Church of South Butler, New York. Her ordination, however, was recognized only by her local congregation, and after five years she left the ministry.

In 1863 the Universalists ordained the Rev. Olympia Brown, and her ordination was respected throughout the Universalist denomination. So the Universalists were the first denomination to accept the ordination of women. The Unitarians followed soon after, and in 1878 Antoinette Brown Blackwell returned to the ministry, this time as a Unitarian.

Therefore, if we count Rev. Blackwell, a Congregationalist who became Unitarian, the first six women ordained to the ministry in the U.S. were all either Unitarian or Universalist.
It wasn’t easy for women in the ministry. For Unitarians and Universalists, the most desirable
pulpits were usually in New England. Women ministers were generally called to serve churches out in new settlements in Indiana, Wisconsin, or Iowa. Often the women built those churches and served until the churches were doing so well that they could afford to pay a man, and then the women moved on to build up another small congregation.

So, asking again, what do women want? These women wanted an equal chance to serve our churches, the chance to prove they could do the work they believed called to do.

Today more than sixty percent of our clergy are women, and some of our largest churches are led by a woman senior minister. And for a few decades now the Unitarian Universalist ministry has also been open to clergy who may be lesbian or gay, and now also to clergy who are transgender.

What women want ~

Finally, I want to go ask again,our original question – what do women want? And to answer it, let’s close with a somewhat silly story inspired by Arthurian legend.

According to this story, young King Arthur was ambushed and imprisoned by the queen of a neighboring kingdom. The queen offered Arthur his freedom on condition that he give the correct answer to one question: “What do women really want?” Arthur would have a year in which to figure out the answer. But, on his honor, he must return in a year and answer the question correctly. If he could not answer he would be put to death. Of course, honor was very important to King Arthur, and he promised to return with the correct answer.

Such a question might perplex many men, and to young Arthur it seemed impossible. He returned to Camelot and began to ask everyone. The bishop said, “Women want salvation, of course” but that didn’t seem right to Arthur. Merlin said he didn’t understand women at all, and what his wife wanted was a divorce. Lancelot said, “Kisses.” Guinevere said, “Romantic love.” That seemed insufficient to Arthur, but it was better than any of the other advice he had received.
Arthur wasn’t satisfied by any of the answers they gave him. If you were giving advice to King Arthur, what would you say to him? What do women really want? (Ask for answers from the congregation at this point. Women, men, and children all gave their answers… )

What in the end, did King Arthur’s say? He finally came up with this answer: “What women really want is to be in charge of their own lives.” How well do you think he did? Should the queen let him live?

Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.