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Who Wins the Battle 0ver Women’s Ordination? | Righting America

by Peggy Bendroth

Peggy Bendroth served over 15 years as executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston. She has written and edited eight books on American religion, including Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993)Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton; The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (North Carolina 2015); and, Good and Mad: Mainline Protestant Churchwomen (Oxford 2022). 

Drawing of Antoinette Brown of the South Butler, NY Congregational Church. Image via Who2.com

“We’ve been ordaining women since 1853!” Unlike most Facebook posts, this one was short and to the point. The United Church of Christ hasn’t had a lot to boast about lately, given its declining numbers and influence, but this little humble brag was probably too hard to pass up. While Southern Baptists are busily ousting congregations with female pastors, their liberal UCC cousins have only to invoke the name of Antoinette Brown, who was ordained to the South Butler, New York, Congregational Church more than a century and a half ago. 

American Protestants have rarely wasted much sympathy on each other. Moral schadenfreude is an old and established tradition, going back to the earliest days of religious disestablishment, when everyone suddenly realized that the devil would take the hindmost. 

This particular stick in the eye, however, set me to blogging. The statement is not just lacking in a certain Christian sympathy but it misinterprets Congregational history almost as egregiously as the Southern Baptists are misreading the New Testament. And not just Congregational history—we want to believe that today the mainline Protestant churches are a bastion of liberal tolerance, a standing rebuke to evangelical intolerance. But at least as far as women’s ordination is concerned, the story is far too messy, complicated, and discouraging for a single sentence in a Facebook post. 

First of all, Brown was ordained because she could be: nineteenth-century Congregational polity allowed local churches to make their own decisions about pastoral leadership. Though women’s rights certainly entered in, practical concerns did so too. In fact, the tiny smattering of women who were licensed or ordained to lead Congregational churches in the years after 1853 took on the hardship cases, churches without enough money or influence to hire a man. Until very recently, with the influx of female pastors in the 1990s and afterwards, the so-called “big steeple” congregations were reserved for big steeple men. 

And here’s the other thing: without taking anything away from Brown and her South Butler congregation, you don’t get points for doing something once, or even a few times afterwards. You have to keep on doing it, and then make it a rule. And on that score, Congregationalists, and mainline Protestants in general, have relatively little to boast about, even alongside their conservative evangelical cousins.

This is why I titled my recent book about mainline Protestant churchwomen “Good and Mad.” Though the gender politics in those mostly white, mostly northern moderate-to-liberal churches have never been as dire as the Southern Baptist case, the mainline moral cushion is hardly luxurious. Up through most of the twentieth century mainline churchwomen were prohibited from all forms of church leadership. They could not be pastors, nor could they be deacons or elders; they were all but entirely excluded from decision-making denominational boards or committees. Sometimes the reasons were related to polity and sometimes to theology, more rarely to biblical proof texting. The main rationale rested on stereotypes of women as vapid, disorganized, and power-hungry.

We now know all and more than we need to know about evangelical misogyny, the abuse perpetrated by tiny men in charge. But the historical record also demonstrates, over and over, that mainline Protestants worried about “feminization” too, if not more. In their case, fears of feminine takeover were almost justified. Women were the clear majority of church members, the vast majority of Sunday attenders, and really, really good at doing the churches’ business. Keenly aware of the institutional skills and fundraising prowess of denominational women’s organizations, the men in charge had a dilemma. They could not do without the income generated by Ladies Aid bake sales and sewing bees, much less the thousands of missionaries recruited, trained, and supported by unpaid volunteers running women’s missionary organizations. But what if the women became too powerful? What if they decided to run everything? One story line of twentieth-century mainline churches is, in fact, the dogged efforts by denominational officials to reign in this so-called “shadow church,” to co-opt by any means possible that formidable female network.

Everyone treaded lightly. For their part, the women knew that their separate power structure required compromise. They had to allow the men to at least look like they were in charge. That also meant that ordination was mostly off the table.  If the pulpit was the last bastion of masculine privilege, then so be it. Why start a fight that would in the end only benefit a handful of women with seminary degrees? “Sometimes I wonder,” a Congregational woman mused in a 1940 survey, “if our Christian life would be more vital and more vigorous if our men would . . . take over all the offices of the church.”

No wonder women’s ordination took so long. Far from championing Antoinette Brown et. al., the mainline churches dragged their feet until their reluctance became unseemly. As Methodist theologian Nelle Morton lamented to a gathering in 1970, “We have learned, through heartbreaking disappointments and dehumanizing work inequities, that competence, creativity, and efficiency are not enough to deal with a male supremacy that has become a pervasive structured force in our church.”

Feminism only made headway after a series of tradeoffs, and then not until about thirty or forty years ago. It happened once the vast network of women’s organizations had been crippled or dismantled, victims of ecumenical merger agreements and quests for “efficiency.” It happened when longstanding fears of feminization became less intense than the feminist critique gathering strength in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet even today, for example, the revolution is far from over. According to one recent study by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, the female minister is more a matter of theory than practice. Despite the fairly strong support for women’s ordination, only nine per cent of the respondents to a major survey attended congregations with a female minister.

Yet, in the end, if there’s anyone to feel sorry for, I don’t think it’s women in the mainline churches, or even their Southern Baptist sisters. Those most deserving of our pity are the Southern Baptist men fighting over the deck chairs on a sinking ship, now the sole owners of an institution with a depressing, if not frightening future. And not only that, the embattled patriarchy has summoned the wrath of smart, articulate, and spiritually dedicated women, thoughtful Christians with every reason to be both “good and mad.” That is something to worry about.