Matilda Joslyn Gage researched ancient goddess religions. She knew that in the distant past goddesses were divine and the head of their religion. Vestal virgins were the important acolytes. I was scheduled to be one of four panelists at a Women Transcending Boundaries Event. Our program consisted of sharing information about the role of women in the various religions represented. I was eager to participate, as I knew that Unitarian-Universalists had the very first female ordained minister in America. As our event had to be canceled/postponed because of the coronavirus situation, I am sharing my part of the program with you. Besides, it is still March–Women’s History Month!– and I haven’t written anything in quite a while. I think you will find this blog interesting as you are introduced to some amazing women.
Some of the first women ordained in the United States were Universalist or Unitarian. And now at the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. However, the path for women ministers in our faith tradition has not been easy. Of those early women who achieved ordination, few were allowed to serve in full-time ministries. Others were relegated to small, struggling parishes or assistant positions alongside their clergy husbands.
Nevertheless, one of the very first American female ministers ordained was Olympia Brown, a Unitarian, in 1863. She was a minister and a social reformer, an active campaigner for woman suffrage and one of the first American women to be sanctioned by a full denomination. Yet it was a struggle. Brown was refused admission to the University of Michigan because of her sex. Instead, she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then Antioch, in Ohio, where fellow students and faculty wives objected to her presence. She graduated in 1860 and three years later, having been inspired by Antoinette Blackwell, she graduated from the theological school of St. Lawrence University, making her the first woman to graduate from a theological school, as well as becoming the first full-time ordained minister. But she had to persuade the president of St. Lawrence to admit her, though he told her that he did not think women were called to the ministry. But the positive reception she received when she preached at local churches swayed the opinions of many of the ministers in her favor. Mr. Fisher, the president of the university, had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the ordination exercises. She went on to pastor at Weymouth, Massachusetts, Bridgeport, Connecticut and most successfully in Racine, Wisconsin. The Universalist Church in Racine was in an unfortunate condition when she agreed to take it on. She worked to rejuvenate the church and established it as a center of learning and culture and a forum for the discussion of social issues of the time, including women’s suffrage. She invited Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to air their views from the pulpit. Under her ministry, the women began to vote and hold offices in the church. Due to Brown’s strong speaking skills and beliefs, Susan B. Anthony continually sought the involvement of Brown. With the encouragement of Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, Olympia Brown decided to travel to Kansas in order to speak on women’s rights. Over the course of one summer, Brown delivered more than 300 speeches despite facing many hardships.
Despite the lack of encouragement, at the end of the 19th century, a group of extraordinary women claimed their role as ordained ministers. Following the Women’s Ministerial Conference organized by Julia Ward Howe in 1875, 21 Unitarian women founded the Iowa Sisterhood to serve churches throughout the Great Plains. Life was hard in the Plains states, with little glory to be earned by bringing liberal religion to the settlers of the area. Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.
The Iowa Sisterhood was a group of women ministers who organized eighteen Unitarian societies in several Midwestern states in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Between 1880 and 1930, these women changed the course of Unitarianism. The Iowa Sisterhood was led primarily by Mary Augusta Safford. Mary had the crazy dream of one day becoming a minister. Mary and her friend Eleanor Gordon decided to start their own Unitarian congregation right in their town of Hamilton, Illinois. To everyone’s amazement, it was a success. Mary Safford was a terrific preacher. And that caught the attention of Unitarians elsewhere, who recruited Mary to become the minister of a new church in Humbolt, Iowa. Meanwhile, Eleanor got a job as the principal of the local school. In 1880, Eleanor got her own chance to preach. Eleanor wrote, “there had been growing in my own mind a great discontent. While I loved to teach, I felt the need of a lesson to teach greater than found in a school textbook.” It had become her ambition to “win a place in the larger school, the church.” When Mary was called to be the minister at the Unitarian Church in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1885, Eleanor went with her and became her assistant. They were playing professional roles that were still unheard of for women. Most people thought they were some kind of weird novelty, but no one could deny how bold and effective they were. They recruited other young women into the ministry and organized a network of support. They trained these women. They mentored them and often helped them financially. When they were equipped for ministry, they fanned out across the Midwest and the United States. Eleanor preached that a woman “must rid herself of the notion that she is a peculiar creature, and as such must have peculiar treatment. She must know that there is no feminine road to excellence, no woman’s way to success. … She must believe herself a human mind with only the limitations of a human mind, a part of the universal mind, with all possibilities of growth and development.” Even among Unitarians, it wasn’t easy being a female minister. Male colleagues dismissed them and accused their movement of being a distraction. But they kept it up and they did not limit their energies to the church, but engaged in politics, especially Women’s suffrage. By 1907, she had become President of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. They were the first to push open doors that had previously been thought to forever be closed because of gender. But the pendulum swung backward after the first world war. In 1937, Eleanor wrote an open letter to the President of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, deploring a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians whose appeal for ministers made it “very plain that no woman need apply.” Eleanor observed and deplored a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians. “Since the world war,” she wrote, “there has been a distinct trend in both the professional and industrial worlds against woman’s place in both.”
Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life of the Plains states. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.
Perhaps, one reason for the success of the Iowa Sisterhood was the non-academic, pastoral approach these women brought to their churches. They sought to make their churches extensions of the domestic hearth, thereby expanding the traditional role of women beyond the home and into the church. The Sisterhood brought family matters into the church not only on Sundays but seven days a week, with social events and classes on domestic arts.
I would also like to point out that it was in some of these Great Plains states that women had the right to vote long before the rest of the nation. The Wyoming territory was the first to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by Utah and Washington State.
Unfortunately, the grassroots Western success of these women and their churches did not translate into wider denominational acceptance. The women were seen as an embarrassment among the clergy back in Boston. By the turn of the 20th century, society, in general, experienced a reassertion of male authority. Unitarianism’s leaders began a concerted return to a more manly ministry in order to revitalize the denomination. The move of rural populations to the cities further undermined the Sisterhood’s efforts and congregations.
Most of the women ministers were rushed into retirement. Others left to pursue work in peace, suffrage, and social work movements. Yet they remained vocal to the end about the rights of women and the place of the church in society. It was not a large movement, nor was it long-lasting. The Iowa Sisterhood did not radically alter the possibilities for women in the Unitarian ministry. But in its time and place, it was a shining vision of women called to minister and men called to support their work.
Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams was a black American educator and political and women’s rights activist. She was born shortly before the Civil War. She became one of the most prominent educated African American women of her generation. Aspiring to become a teacher, Barrier was the first African American to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now SUNY Brockport) in 1870. She was 15 at the time of her graduation.
Later, when she and her husband moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Samuel Williams started a successful law practice, the couple joined All Souls (Unitarian) Church in Chicago. Fannie and her husband joined All Souls (Unitarian) Church in Chicago. They may have first been attracted by the Abraham Lincoln Center, a reform settlement which the church-sponsored. The minister was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a free-thinker, pacifist, activist for women and blacks’ civil rights, and a founder of the World’s Parliament of Religions. Fannie’s friend, the Unitarian minister, Celia Parker Wooley, was a member.
There, she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization. UU’s are known for their social activism and Barrier Williams—better known as Fannie, helped found the National League of Colored Women in 1893 and its successor, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. She was also among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to create the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895. Barrier Williams addressed the World Congress of Representative Women and disputed the notion that slavery had rendered black American women incapable of the same moral and intellectual levels as other women. She called on all women to unite to claim their inalienable rights. She carried this new awareness to Chicago, where she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization.
She stated that a humane religion can impact their daily lives in positive, practical ways. She also called it a “monstrous thing” that so many Evangelical churches closed their doors to African Americans. “It should be the province of religion,” Williams said, “to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines.” In the audience sat the charismatic, 75-year-old Frederick Douglass. Moved by her address, he rose and praised the remarks of this “refined, educated colored lady,” saying that “a new heaven is dawning upon us.” After the success of these orations, she became a nationally-known writer and lecturer, who sometimes included a piano concert as part of her program.