By Jacqueline J. Holness
As this issue of The Lookout is devoted to women’s topics, I decided to devote this column to five revolutionary biblical women I rarely hear about: the five daughters of Zelophehad mentioned in Numbers 27.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah were faced with a dilemma after the death of their father, an Israelite who died in the wilderness after being led from Egypt. As their father had not sired any sons, they were concerned that his name would not be preserved after him and his family would not keep his property. Rather than simply accept this undesirable law, the sisters recognized the strength in their numbers and petitioned Moses.
The sisters said, “Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.” Rather than dismiss their contention, Moses took their case to the Lord, who agreed with these feisty sisters who were willing to challenge the status quo. “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Numbers 27:4-7).
Zelophehad’s daughters are among the earliest examples of what is possible when strong women come together for a cause. As this is Black History Month, I would like to highlight black Greek sororities, which also bring strong women together, and look at how they have impacted this country in ways the broader culture may have not realized.
Four black Greek sororities were formed at the beginning of the twentieth century to support black women who were entering colleges as never before but were still few in number. The sorority I joined in college, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., was formed in 1913 by 22 women at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The sorority’s first public act, less than two months after it was founded, was walking in the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 in our nation’s capital. Since 1913, more than 200,000 black women have joined the sorority and continue to positively impact this country.
Last year, likely more Americans than ever before were introduced to Delta Sigma Theta’s strength in numbers when they supported Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. Lynch, our nation’s first black female attorney general, waited several months to be confirmed while politicians in the prevailing parties deliberated their differences. “During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business,” according to an article in The Atlantic. Other notable American women in this sorority include: Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics; Brigadier General Hazel Johnson Brown, the first black woman to become an Army general; and Dr. Alexa Canady, the first black woman to become a neurosurgeon.
Members of other black Greek sororities also supported Lynch during the confirmation process, according to The Atlantic article. “Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.”
Members of these black Greek sororities have also made significant contributions to American life and culture. Notable members of Alpha Kappa Alpha include: Althea Gibson, the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon; and celebrated author Toni Morrison, who has won the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for her work. Noteworthy Zeta Phi Beta members include: prolific author Zora Neale Hurston; Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, the first black president of the National Education Association; and Violette Neatley Anderson, the first black female lawyer to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Finally, remarkable Sigma Gamma Rho members include Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to receive an Academy Award; actress Anna Marie Horsford; and gospel artist Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
As Zelophehad’s daughters demonstrated in the Bible and as these sororities demonstrate today, when women support one another and rally around a common cause, they can truly accomplish wonders. Consider how sisters in Christ can keep offering one another this same support.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).