On this International Women’s Day, here are some reflections on the history of women in the church and their experiences of equality and inequality.
During his ministry, Jesus relied on financial support from a group of women. During the first 20 to 30 years after his death, women had a prominent role in leadership in many of the new communities. By 70 years after his death, men had taken charge of the church and pushed women to the side. The only major place where women had leadership were in the convents, and even there they were subject to the control of the bishops. A few women like Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich were recognized as being exceptionally spiritual. If women were too assertive at times, they could be accused of being witches and killed. Women were workers and supporters, but had limited access to leadership.
In the 19th and 20th centuries as churches took on their modern form, women were initially limited to being workers or deaconesses. In several Protestant denominations, women began to gain a degree of equality by being eligible to be pastors and ministers. But there were interesting indicators of pervasive inequality.
In my first pastoral charge, I looked at annual reports from the 50s and 60s and found it interesting I had to know the name of the woman’s husband to know who she was. Was the Helen Brown I knew Mrs. George Brown or Mrs. Herb Brown? Most board and council members were men, sometimes only men. Women, like in the days of Jesus, seemed to be most important for fundraising and looking after food and cleaning and teaching Sunday School. That was the norm, and most women were not bothered by it.
From the 1850s to about 1970, people had to have a significant role in the church to have a significant role in the community or in business. During this time it was not difficult to get men to volunteer for leadership roles in the church. As society became more secular and men did not have to be involved in church to get into leadership positions in society or business, it became more difficult to get men to volunteer and it was easier for women to expand their presence in church leadership. In this, like many other areas of society, women have worked hard to achieve positions of respect and power, and often acquired positions whose place in society has become devalued.
The pervasive influence of patriarchy that started with the empire builders and changed the character of the church in the first century is still at work in subtle ways. Just as “white people” need to understand what white privilege is, men and women need to examine how male privilege is still at work and to stop pretending it does not exist.
One challenge for us in the church is to see how patriarchy continues to influence our perceptions and valuations of other people. Both men and women are under this influence, and I hope our awareness of this can help each of us carefully reflect on how we evaluate ourselves and others. My hope is that we will get better at not seeing others as male or female but as the people they are. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “in Christ we are neither slave nor free, Jew or Gentile, male or female.”