In October, 1955, fifty plus years ago, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A voted in General Assembly to ordain women to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In 1956, the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York ordained Margaret Towner, the first women clergyman of the denomination. In 1965, the Hanover Presbytery in Virginia ordained Rachel Henderlite the first woman to be so recognized in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. These ordinations marked a climax in the history of Presbyterians among whom the role of women in the church had been growing for well over a century. Lois A. Boyd and R. Douglas Brackenridge* told this story in Presbyterian Women in America, Two Centuries of a Quest for Status (1983) published by the Presbyterian Historical Society. On the fiftieth anniversary of the extension of this ordination right to women it is appropriate to recall the women’s progress in the life of Presbyterians.
Over the centuries in our male-dominated country, women have been identified and treated in different ways in both society and the church. Early on they were considered mostly “ornamental,” as it was put. But males could not do without females. In those early days, a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft published the explosive A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1772), printed in Philadelphia shortly before Americans had adopted a Declaration of Independence in 1776. A Presbyterian woman (turned Unitarian), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, helped write the “Declaration of Sentiments” (1848) based on 1776 male-oriented document. Stanton published The Woman’s Bible (1895) in which she and other women celebrated the noted females whose contributions may be found throughout the Scriptures.
In August 1920, Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson signed into existence the XIX Amendment to the Constitution of the United States granting women the right to vote. At the same time women were gaining ground in public matters, they gained ground in ecclesiastical affairs. In the nineteenth century they had started women’s organizations apart from males. Women became deeply involved in the support of and participation in educational endeavors such as Sunday Schools, home and foreign mission work. They formed their own societies to further causes that interested them.
Moreover, because of the “unrest” in the churches, the PCUSA granted the right of women to serve as “brother deacons” (as they were called) in 1922-1923, and “brother elders” in 1930. Ruling elder and mission executive, Robert E. Speer, together with Katherine Bennet and Margaret Hodge, played important roles in this movement in the PCUSA, demonstrating a kind of “de facto” equality in the process. Later on Eugene Caron Blake led the movement in the General Assembly to ordain women as ministers of “Word and Sacrament.”
Enter Margaret E. Towner. Towner, a New Yorker, left a career as medical photographer at the Mayo Clinic to study education at Syracuse University prior to assuming the call of Christian education at the East Genesee (N.Y.) Church. Towner then pursued the three-year Bachelor of Divinity Degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She believed such training would be helpful to her in Christian Education. And she flourished as Christian Educator in Allentown, Pa.
She suggested, after her own ordination, that “ordained women” might prove the solution to the smaller churches’ problem. A women minister “could help with pastoral duties and guide the education program, too.” As a matter of fact, “at the beginning” she did not seek ordination and a pulpit. She thought it “unlikely” that she or many women would respond to the particular call that required ordination. Towner regretted these comments after her own ordination, and she became an advocate of women ministers seeking not only ordination but also solo pastorates. Her earlier remarks about women’s aspirations, she reflected, came back to haunt her.
She finally sought ordination and was properly ordained in 1956 by the Syracuse-Cayuga Presbytery in New York with about three well-wishers in the congregation. The service brought to Margaret immediate attention. She was featured in Presbyterian Life, and Life magazine dubbed her as “Lady Minister.” She even received an invitation to appear in “Stop the Music.” She returned to Allentown and resumed duties of educator. Almost immediately the First Presbyterian Church installed her as assistant pastor.
Towner’s ordination did not bring her equality with males. At the presbytery meeting following her official entrance into ministry, one man asked, “What do we do now, address everyone as brethren and sisteren?” This comment illustrates the problems she faced in dealing with language, along with performance of responsibilities, equal pay, and marriage. Her call for “real pastoring” came with the call to the First Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she was installed in 1961.
On the silver anniversary of her ordination in 1981, Towner reflected on her experiences. Discrimination was polite but heavy, she recalled. Salaries were low, since it was said women did not need large salaries. When they got married they would be “taken care of” by husbands. All this meant for arguments with budget committees over such things as low pension credits. But she considered even negative experiences as helpful “stepping stones” to new challenges. These included membership on the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship of the General Assembly Mission Council. Eventually she was nominated as a candidate for moderator for that year. As she looked back on her experiences she concluded that while women had made progress, they still suffered from discrimination, especially the feeling that people were more critical of women than they were of male pastors. She also concluded:
We have come a long way, but I still sense a falling backward. It is my vision that someday we will realize full equality as human beings called by God to the ministry of Word and Sacrament based upon our talent and ability, regardless of what gender one happens to be. It is my vision that the day soon will come when we will not be debating ordination of women, nor rejecting the use of inclusive language…
Let us remember that God created human beings, male and female with distinction, to be equal in partnership with God in creating a world of peace and love. We are called to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick and proclaim the day has come when God has saved the people. But until we all see ourselves as those imperfect human beings who are weak and in need of forgiveness, we still will set ourselves up as the programmers of God’s agenda and we will experience discrimination against women, minorities, and age.
Let’s get on with being the Whole People of God.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States, in the South, also experienced women-rising during these years. In 1956 the General Assembly instructed a committee to make a study of the Scriptures involving this issue of ordination. The committee’s report was adopted by a slim majority in the 1956 Assembly but rejected by the presbyteries in 1957 by a vote of 44 to 39. Studies after that indicated a change in attitude in the South. In 1962 the Assembly appointed a commission to suggest changes in the Book of Church Order including the ordination of women at all levels — deacon, elder, and minister. After a final debate on the floor of the meeting, commissioners acknowledged the right of women to be ordained to those offices.
In 1965, Rachel Henderlite, Ph.D. from Yale University, a member of the Board of Christian Education, Richmond, Va., was approached by a committee of Hanover Presbytery and encouraged to seek ordination. She did and the presbytery proceeded to ordain her in a service at the All Souls Church, an African-American congregation of which she was a member, on December 12, 1965. Henderlite served as Professor of Christian Education at Austin Theological Seminary until her retirement in 1971.
Since these earlier years women have played an increasingly important role in the church. In 1973, Elizabeth Howell Verdesi published In But Still Out (Philadelphia)*, reflections on women’s progress as members of the church. While they had made some progress they held only 440 seats on General Assembly committees out of a total of 6,180 despite the fact that women may have counted for about 57 percent of the denomination’s membership. She argued that women did not simply want womanpower. They wanted the welfare of the whole Presbyterian Church.
What a history! Mrs. Lois Stair, a businesswoman of Wisconsin, was elected by the UPCUSA in 1973 as its first woman moderator, and Sarah B. Moseley, a Texan, served in that capacity in the PCUSA in 1978.
Women are still doing so, numbering as of December, 2004, 4,430 ordained women out of a total of 21,287 Presbyterian ministers.
James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history, Union Theological Seminary-PSCE in Richmond, Virginia.
* See not only Boyd and Brackenridge but also Elizabeth Howell Verdesi, In But Still Out, Women in the Church (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1973); and Verdesi and Lillian M. Taylor, Our Rightful Place (1985).