November 19, 2023

A Lifetime of Fighting for Equality
Ruth Daugherty’s Legacy for the Church and the United Board

Ruth Daugherty in front of her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Ruth A. Daugherty (née Sheaffer) has spent a lifetime volunteering in service of her Christian faith and for equality for all people.

As the daughter of a pastor, her strong Christian values can be easily explained. Her passion for inclusiveness, on the other hand, may seem anomalous for someone raised in a segregated community in Virginia during the Depression. But, fortunately, it was a belief instilled in her from an early age by her mother.

“My mother was very inclusive and didn’t make any distinctions between people, which had a great impact on me,” Ms. Daugherty recalls. “Our parsonage was located about a block from the railroad track. People would often jump off the box cars before they got into town to look for some food. My mother would always invite them to sit down on the porch and feed them whatever food we had to give, whoever they were. That was the first time I saw African-American people.”

Small town. Big heart.

The Sheaffer family would later move to a West Virginia town with less than a thousand residents. Living in such a small town posed challenges to someone with aspirations to go to college, like Ms. Daugherty had, and required her to take initiative to expand her horizons.

“I would read almost any book I could get my hands on,” Ms. Daugherty says. “I was fascinated by other cultures, and particularly liked reading about Asia and Africa. Of course, I also read the Bible through from beginning to end.”

Her studiousness paid off, as she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Modern History from London Valley College in Pennsylvania and worked as a high school teacher. She also met and married Robert Daugherty, then a seminary student and later a Pastor at several United Methodist Churches. The couple would have three children—Beth, Carole, and Steven—and Ms. Daugherty ended her teaching career to focus on motherhood.

In 1956, she began volunteering with the United Methodist Women. Early in her time with the Pennsylvania chapter, she participated in preparing resolutions and successfully working for the church to accept the ordination of women. Later, she moved onto the national Women’s Division, where she was eventually elected president.

She remained actively involved with the United Methodist Women for decades, taking part in medical and educational missionary trips to India, Pakistan, Nepal, Taiwan, and other regions of Asia and Africa. These experiences helped her to further build her understanding of other cultures, not just through the missionary work itself but also through her interactions with her fellow volunteers.

“The Women’s Division had the mandate to be inclusive,” Ms. Daugherty explains. “We had African-Americans, we had Asian-Americans, we had people from Native American backgrounds. I learned from their lives and how they had been harassed for who they were. Hearing about their experiences helped me to form a passion for preventing others from having those types of experiences.”

From United Methodist to United Board

Ms. Daugherty brought this passion for equality to the United Board. Her service with the United Board began in 1979 as a United Methodist Church representative and continued as a trustee-at-large and vice-chair until 1999.

A notable moment from her time with the United Board occurred in 1986, when she led an official delegation to China after the country had opened up earlier that decade.

“We learned that the educational system in China at that time was very heavily male,” Ms. Daugherty says. “So one thing we did was insist that some women be included when they gave scholarships for people to come to the United States. We also formed a Women’s Educational Concerns Committee to look at how women could be involved more in education and get the opportunities that they needed.”

Ruth (third from right on front row) at a United Board event in the late 1980s
Ruth with Ms Trudy Loo, Director of Development of the United Board

Ms. Daugherty found collaborating with the other trustees on the United Board to be incredibly rewarding and valuable to her personal development—and the feeling was very much mutual. As Paul Lauby, United Board General Secretary from 1970 to 1990, recalls in his book Sailing on Winds of Change, “Ruth’s practical sense and her ability to see issues clearly were of great value to the Board, which she served in many capacities. She was especially helpful as a member of the women’s concerns task force and as a Board representative to a number of Asian constitutions.”

As her time with the United Board came to a close, Ms. Daugherty was pleased to see the organization moving towards increased Asianization of its ranks.

“At first, there was only a few people from Asia who were on the Board. So we were a little inclusive, but if we were making policies and directions, the people who are affected by them needed to have more input. I was very pleased to see the improved representation of the United Board and the opening of an office in Hong Kong as well as the one in New York.”

Still busy with equitable deeds

To this day, Ms. Daugherty continues to support the United Board with donations to women’s leadership programs.

“Women’s education is important because we need both women and men. They have different abilities and ways of seeing things. If you deprive one, you diminish the whole,” Ms. Daugherty says. “We need to give women the right to develop their own potential, so women and men can work together and really make the world a better place.”

In recognition of her decades of service, Ms. Daugherty has been recognized with Doctor of Humanities degrees from both Shenandoah University and Albright College. She continues to fight for equality through current activities such as serving as chair of EMBRACE – an interfaith group assisting individuals, faith communities, and organizations in welcoming lesbian, gay, bixsexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) persons—and advocating for equitable funding for public schools in her state.

“If we can look at each other as equals and listen, it doesn’t always mean we’re going to agree, but we can at least respect the fact that we all have something to offer,” Ms. Daugherty notes. “That’s my hope for the future.”

Above photos: from the pages of a trip diary to China and Thailand in 1985 kept by Ruth. Ruth has given the diary to the archives of the United Board kept at Yale Divinity School Library