Women against Women
Quaker Woman Preaching in New Amsterdam
It’s the late 1970s in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m a religion student at Vanderbilt University, studying for my Ph.D. The pastor of my United Presbyterian church has asked me to preach on Women’s Day. It’s my first sermon ever, and he wants me to preach about women’s issues and women’s liberation.
I worked hard putting together a lively sermon, then shook in my trousers as I stood in the pulpit and delivered the goods. Because there were a number of ‘liberated’ women in the congregation, it never occurred to me that I would get any kickback.
Indeed, comments and hugs after the service reassured me that all was well.
I was wrong. One of my best female supporters was seething with rage. She was older than I, highly educated and married to a professor. She didn’t hesitate to speak her mind to our pastor and to me.
My sermon sounded angry, and I wore trousers in the pulpit. I also think she might have liked to preach a sermon herself. Not only was she highly educated, she’d been a member of the church longer than I. Why had I, a relative newcomer, been singled out?
Fast forward to my first year of teaching at the seminary. It’s spring 1984. I’m in Philadelphia, teaching at a multiracial, multicultural seminary that has over 30 percent women students. I’ve been invited to speak to the Women’s Auxiliary, a group of faithful, diligent, smart women who support the seminary in dozens of ways, including fundraising efforts.
We met in a parlor-like room. The group included many pastor’s wives who had been around the seminary for years. I’d been asked to talk about myself and how I see women fitting into the work and mission of the seminary.
When I finished, we had time for discussion. Though most of our conversation was constructive and positive, I’ll never forget one woman’s painful, angry comments.
Here I was, younger than she, teaching at the seminary. And here was the seminary supporting women for ordination. And here was the Field Education Office, wanting to send a young woman to do her field education work under the supervision of her husband.
And here was this older woman, educated, experienced and clear about her role at the church as the ‘first lady.’ In fact, she believed she could have been a pastor. She was probably correct.
Nonetheless, she didn’t want seminary women working with her husband, taking over the place that rightfully belonged to her as his spouse. She didn’t trust women, including the women at the seminary. Over the years she had found a way to make space for herself in ministry without the “Rev.” and all the trappings that go with that. I’ve sometimes wondered whether she trusted her husband, the pastor.
I’ve seen this anger many times in older, well-educated, even brilliant women who for many reasons never followed their dreams. How sad when we make it women against women instead of holding each other and weeping for what we’ve all lost.
The valley of the shadow of death runs deep through the history of women against women. And still threatens to undo us.
©Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 March 2018
Image found at marybarrettdyer.blogspot.com