Women’s History Month: Celebrating Pioneering Women Leaders in the Episcopal Church
by Patricia Harden
Leadership of the world’s great religions has long been exclusively male. For literally thousands of years. From the Pope to the Ayatollahs and the Dali Lama, men head the world’s major religions. But to quote one of Bob Dylan’s most popular songs from 1964, “The times, they are a-changin.” Albeit slowly.
Women’s History Month (every March) provides us with an opportunity to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women leaders. Our American Episcopal Church has much to celebrate. We were among the early denominations to ordain women for the priesthood, with our first woman bishop ordained in 1989. The journey of women in Church leadership culminated with the election of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US in 2006.
Long before these modern “firsts,” pioneering Episcopal women played a seminal role in the long journey of humanity toward creating a better, more just and compassionate world. The book, Holy Women, Holy Men, published by the Episcopal Church celebrates 700+ pages worth of Saints. Among them, are the stories of many noteworthy, even iconic women, who from ancient times through today have impacted their communities—and shaped the course of history. Here are excerpts from this book saluting three brave women, all saints in our Church, whose accomplishments and life work made a lasting difference.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902 Women’s Rights Pioneer
She and four other women organized the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, July 19–20, 1848. The event set her political and religious agenda for the next 50 years.
Although Elizabeth blamed male clergy for women’s oppression, she attended Trinity Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls, with her friend Amelia Bloomer. As a dissenting prophet, Elizabeth preached hundreds of homilies and political speeches in pulpits throughout the nation. Wherever she visited, she was experienced as a holy presence and a liberator. She never lost her sense of humor despite years of contending with opposition, even from friends. In a note to Susan B. Anthony, she said: “Do not feel depressed, my dear friend, what is good in us is immortal, and if the sore trials we have endured are sifting out pride and selfishness, we shall not have suffered in vain.”
Vida Dutton Scudder, 1861-1954 Teacher and Social Activist
Her love of scholarship was matched by her social conscience and deep spirituality. As a young woman, Scudder founded the College Settlements Association, joined the Society of Christian Socialists, and began her lifelong association with the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross in 1889, a community living in the world and devoted to intercessory prayer.
In 1911, Scudder founded the Episcopal Church Socialist League, and formally joined the Socialist party. Her support of the Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers’ strike in 1912 drew a great deal of criticism and threatened her teaching position at Wellesley College. Though she initially supported World War I, she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1923, and by the 1930s was a firm pacifist.
Throughout her life Scudder’s primary relationships and support network were women. After retirement, she authored 16 books on religious and political subjects, combining her intense activism with an equally vibrant spirituality. “
Adelaide Case: 1887 – 1948 First Full Professor at Episcopal Theological School
Adelaide Case received her undergraduate education at Bryn Mawr and her graduate degrees from Columbia University. By the time she completed her doctorate a position had been created for her on the faculty of the Teachers’ College at Columbia and she quickly rose to the status of full professor and head of the department of religious education. In 1941, while her professional accomplishments were at their height, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was able to convince her to leave her distinguished and comfortable position at Columbia and join the faculty as Professor of Christian Education. Although other women had taught occasional courses in the seminaries of the church, Adelaide Case was the first to take her place as a full-time faculty member at the rank of Professor.
Case believed that the point of practicing the Christian faith was to make a difference in the world. As an advocate for peace, she believed that Christianity had a special vocation to call people into transformed, reconciled relationships for the sake of the wholeness of the human family.
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