Women in the Vanguard

by Dale E. Lehman

Appeared: 03/03/2001

Recently my son-in-law Bill asked if there are any role models for women and girls in the Bahá'í Faith. Given that equality of women and men is a crucial Bahá'í principle, it's not surprising that the history of our Faith is indeed liberally populated with prominent women. The service and sacrifices rendered by Bahá'í women over the past century and a half have left an indelible mark on our history. Let us take a moment to remember a few of them.

Although often overlooked in histories of the Bábí era, Khadíjih Bagum, the Báb's wife, was among the first to believe in Him and as the consort of God's Messenger suffered greatly. They had been married only two and a half years when He was arrested, and their only child had died at birth. Though the persecutions inflicted upon other Bábís were not leveled at her, what must it have been like to stand helplessly by as her Beloved was imprisoned and executed and His followers butchered by the thousands? Perhaps none of His followers were ever called upon to sacrifice so much.

The preeminent woman of the Bábí Dispensation was the poet Qurratu'l-'Ayn ("the Solace of the Eyes," a designation given her by Siyyid Kázim), who Bahá'u'lláh later named Táhirih ("the Pure One"). Although Táhirih never met the Báb, she was the only woman designated by Him as a "Letter of the Living", one of His disciples. Her fearless promotion of His teachings, including the equality of women, eventually earned her a death sentence. Before she was strangled and her body dumped into a dry well, she proclaimed, "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."

Ásíyih Khánum (often known as Navváb), the wife of Bahá'u'lláh, shared in her Beloved's exiles and sufferings through the course of forty years. From His imprisonment in the "Black Pit" in Tehran, when every day it was feared that He might be killed, through the long and often difficult journeys from exile to exile, to the squalor of 'Akká, the "Most Great Prison," defying ill-health at every turn, she remained His steadfast companion.

Bahíyyih Khánum (the Greatest Holy Leaf), Bahá'u'lláh's daughter, was only seven when Her Father was first imprisoned. During those days, she stayed home to care for her four-year-old brother Mihdí, while their mother and the young 'Abdu'l-Bahá ventured forth in search of news. She, too, accompanied her Father through all of His exiles, undertook delicate missions on His behalf while still a teenager, and grew to be a pillar of strength supporting 'Abdu'l-Bahá when the mantle of leadership passed to Him. Finally, when 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself passed away, she became the glue that held together the Bahá'í world until Shoghi Effendi was ready to assume the role of Guardian conferred on him by the Master's will.

Munírih Khánum, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's wife, also endured imprisonment in 'Akká, not to mention the long months of separation from her Husband when, late in His life, He traveled to Europe and America to spread His Father's teachings. Among her important contributions are the memoirs she left detailing life in the Most Great Prison.

Perhaps the most prominent Bahá'í woman of the twentieth century was Rúhíyyih Khánum, the wife of the Guardian. Named by him as a Hand of the Cause of God, the highest appointment one could receive, she traveled the world throughout the course of her long and active live, working for the spread and protection of the Bahá'í Faith. She made friends in every corner of the world, represented the Faith in a wide variety of settings, and became a living example to us all. Upon her death in January, 2000, we lost our last remaining link to the Holy Family.

Of course, women from all backgrounds have played equally important and inspiring roles. Other women were appointed by Shoghi Effendi as Hands of the Cause of God, including Amelia Collins, one of the foremost early American Bahá'ís; Clara Dunn, who with her husband Hyde (also a Hand of the Cause) left the U.S. to carry the Faith to Australia in response to the Tablets of the Divine Plan; and Dorothy Baker.

Moreover, the list of women who will be remembered as great Bahá'í pioneers and teachers is so long that only a handful can be mentioned here: Lua Getsinger, who 'Abdu'l-Bahá called His "flag"; Loulie Albee Mathews, who He said "would become 'Abdu'l-Bahá's lion and roar across the seven seas"; Louisa Gregory, who married Louis Gregory at 'Abdu'l-Bahá's prompting, thus becoming a living example of race unity, and who also rendered many services in Europe; Agnes Alexander, the first Hawaiian Bahá'í; Claire Gung, who was called "the Mother of Africa"; May Maxwell, Rúhíyyih Khánum's mother and a prominent pioneer in her own right; Effie Baker, the photographer who captured on film many of the buildings associated with the early Faith in Iran before their destruction by the Iranian government; journalist Martha Root, one of the most active Bahá'í pioneers and teachers of all time, who introduced the Faith to Queen Marie of Romania (the Queen became the first monarch to embrace the Faith); Corinne True, a prominent Chicago Bahá'í who worked tirelessly to build the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois; poet and artist Juliet Thompson, who drew sketches and portraits of 'Abdu'l-Bahá when He was in the U.S.; Lady Blomfield, a prominent early British Bahá'í who traveled to the Holy Land to interview members of the Holy Family and whose connections with the British government were instrumental in ensuring their safety during World War I; and Marguerite Sears, wife of Hand of the Cause of God William Sears, who introduced him to the Faith and was herself an active pioneer and teacher.

In the coming weeks we'll take a closer look at a few of these illustrious women.

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