Whistling Girls and Crowing Hens: The Struggle for Women’s Ordination in the Episcopal Church

Throughout Women’s History Month, Yonkers Public Library staff have offered stories of women role models who represent and expand what is possible. Mary Robison, head of adult services and reference at the Riverfront Library, was inspired by her mother and her mother’s commitment to raising her in a religion with strong female leadership. In her own words, Mary celebrates Women’s History Month by provideing a tribute and history of the women ministers and leaders in the Espicopal Church.

The woman I admire most is my mom, Louise Robison, who made sure that her daughters were raised in a church where they could encounter ordained women as ministers and church leaders. My siblings and I were baptized Episcopalian, but raised Presbyterian (PCUSA), as the Episcopal Church didn’t formally approve of women’s ordination until 1976.

When I returned to the Episcopal Church as an adult, I stood in awe of these women who fought to preach and to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, and I’ve since had the privilege of meeting several of them. Let’s see how we got there.

Women’s ordination begins with women’s education. In 1821, the Troy Female Seminary was established by Emma Willard, and in 1824, the first public school for girls was opened in Worcester, Massachusetts. Before this time, girls’ education was limited, but once these institutions were established, girls could study classical languages, the sciences, and mathematics. 

Before the “irregular” ordinations of 1974, women had been involved and active in the mission of the church from at least the 1840s, when women’s religious orders were organized and took on  the mission work of ministering to immigrants and other city dwellers. (The Episcopal Church has religious orders very similar to those of the Roman Catholic Church, people who have taken vows and live as nuns and brothers in community.) 

By the late 19th century, powerful fundraiser Mary Abbot Emery Twing, founding member of what later became the organization of Episcopal Church Women (ECW), uses her influence to establish the role of Deaconesses in the church. 

In 1889, the role of Deaconess was approved by the national church’s governing body, and women were “set apart” (NOT ordained) to fulfill their mission of teaching, nursing, and mission work. If working alone in a parish, they carried the authority of a priest, and were encouraged to take on their own mission work, rather than serve as a helper to the clergy. 

In this way, educated women were able to take on independent, professional roles in the church, without taking vows as nuns or sisters. Potential deaconesses were required to be unmarried, pass a physical examination, be capable of post-secondary study in theology and Greek, and provide more than a dozen written references to enter the program. 

Practically speaking, this meant that most deaconesses and religious came from comfortable middle- and upper-middle class homes: where girls went to school (and didn’t work for pay), and where it was possible to send a girl away to do religious work, rather than help support the family through her labor. 

By the 1920s, deaconesses were teaching and working in large American cities and rural areas, as well as in Asia. Deaconess Margaret Peppers of western Washington State was the rural minister for Japanese-American congregations in Seattle, and served Japanese people imprisoned by the United States 1941-1945. Deaconess Peppers was the only white woman to serve in the internment camps in Minedoka, Idaho

In 1944, Deaconess Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion, because the priest could not travel from Japanese territory to preside at the Eucharist. She served as priest until the end of World War II, and was again recognized as a priest after women’s ordination was approved. 

By the 1960s, Episcopal seminaries had opened their doors to allow women to learn, and fewer women were interested in becoming deaconesses. Religious orders also experienced decline once the role of social worker became a credentialed profession and roles for women in the workplace began to expand. 

Deaconesses became deacons in 1970 and were considered to be ordained. In 1970 and 1973, General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s elected governing body, refused to authorize women’s ordination to the priesthood. 

In 1973, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, qualified women deacons were presented for ordination to the priesthood alongside men, but Bishop Paul Moore refused: “My hands are tied.”

In 1974, eleven women were ordained priest by two retired and one resigned bishop. The House of Bishops declared the ordinations invalid and tried to keep the women from presiding at services. 

In 1976, women’s ordination was finally approved by General Convention. Today, more than 2,000 women (40 percent) are employed as priests in American Episcopal churches.