The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women Advocating for Women for 50 Years

This year, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) marks its 50th year in advocating for women in the life of the Church, leaving in its history a trail of incredible ministry programs and projects that have challenged and continue to provoke the Church to consider how it can achieve full and equal participation of women.

In order to see the progress of GCSRW, one must glimpse at its historical progress through its fifty years and see how much the United Methodist Church has accomplished in providing more equity to all of its members and leadership. In upcoming months, GCSRW wishes to celebrate the tools that have maintained women’s presence and participation in the life of Methodism. Each month, we will highlight a specific ministry of GCSRW and how its function contributes to the agency’s mission and to the Church’s everyday function. This momentous walk through the history of GCSRW shows the agency’s necessity in our past as well as its continuance into our future. In exploring our journey, we will examine the programmatic and advocacy functions of GCSRW on its various levels and highlight many of the courageous people who committed themselves to this work, and on whose shoulders we, as an agency, stand today.

1972: A Banner Year for Women

In America, the year 1972 proved to be a banner year for women.

  • Ms. magazine began production and distribution, giving women across the country an insider’s look at the feminist movement and how to incorporate its workings into everyday life;
  • The FBI hired their first women agents;
  • The Boston Marathon allowed women to officially compete for the first time and created a division for female competitors;
  • Shirley Chisolm ran for President, making her the first female candidate for the office;
  • Sally Preisand became the first female rabbi in the United States; and
  • The incorporation of Title IX legislation legally prohibited the discrimination of people based on gender, providing the means for women to expand their capabilities in education and the workforce.(1)

However, Americans were not the only beneficiaries of the international women’s movement:

  • In Kuwait, the Arab Women’s Conference called for equal rights and the ballot for women, while also asking that the minimum age of marriage be raised to 16 years of age and they petitioned for the abolition of bridewealth;
  • Australians adopted equal pay for equal work, while also establishing the Child Care Act, which funded daycares from federal and state coffers;
  • Finland’s Helvi Sipilä became the first woman elevated to the role of Assistant General Secretary at the United Nations; and
  • Finland established the Finnish Council for Equality Between Men and Women. (2)

With all of this progress emerging from the international women’s movement in the background, Methodists joined this record-breaking year by launching the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW) in 1972. The Commission, initially the result of a study of the denomination, gave Methodists an agency to singularly focus on the full participation of women in the life of the Church. Fashioned from the petitions of women across the denomination and the prowess of the Women’s Division (which became United Methodist Women in 1968), GCSRW’s nascent life manifested a precise vision, which expanded over its existence. Yet, its function and programs verified its necessity and the agency earned permanent status by the 1976 General Conference.

How GCSRW Emerged

Within Methodism, women fought for clergy rights during most of its American iteration. In 1880, Anna Oliver and Anna Howard Shaw sought credentialing as women preachers and were denied by the Methodist Episcopal Church. Shaw departed the denomination for ordination in the Methodist Protestant Church, but Oliver remained Methodist to continue advocating for women’s right to preach. In 1924, women finally earned licensure to the pulpit but were denied full membership to conferences. When the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church reunited and consolidated with the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939, women lost their preaching privileges once again in The Methodist Church. The status of women in the pulpit maintained challenges until 1956 when women finally received rights to full membership as clergy in annual conferences.

Prior to women’s inclusion in preaching, the Women’s Division remained the sole place where women could express vocational callings and serve neglected communities. While the Women’s Division emerged as a means to create legitimate spaces for women to serve within the church, they realized that their work focused on the missional aspects, while holding the Church accountable for equal participation of women was unrealized and unchecked by any other organization. The initial architect of this necessary work in the Methodist Church came from Grace Bragg, who during her presidency in the Women’s Division, prepared a report titled “Women and the Church.” In her analysis of the Discipline, she found egregious discrimination toward women within the polity and structure of the denomination. Using her initial study as their framework, the Women’s Division began their advocacy for full clergy rights for women.(3)

The Women’s Division provided the necessary foundation for the forthcoming legislation to establish GCSRW. However, it became a battle fraught with challenges. In 1968, the Women’s Division petitioned the General Conference to establish a study commission “of both men and women of high competence to make a study of the extent to which women are involved at all structural levels in program and policy-making channels and agencies of The United Methodist Church.” The General Conference of 1968 approved the study, authorized the commission, and referred it to the Program Council, but refused to fund it. Likewise, the Women’s Division declined to pick up the bill, believing the responsibility remained with the entire denomination. Disavowing complacency and pressing forward without funding, the UMC’s Program Council formed a task force to begin the study, using the denomination’s Social Principles (1968 Discipline) as a guiding document.(4)

In 1971, the Committee on the Study of the Role of Women presented “Data on the Participation of Women in the Organizational Units of The United Methodist Church” to the Program Council. While some 54% of the denomination’s membership were women, less than 16% had ever been a delegate to a General Conference, roughly 11% had been elected as jurisdictional members, and less than 40% of them held annual conference membership. Most regrettable of all, less than 1% of United Methodist clergy were women within the 13 years since attaining clergy rights. The Program Council’s analysis drilled down through all structural levels of the United Methodist Church, even identifying the meager numbers of women serving on local church boards and in local church leadership.(5)

While the UMC conducted their own research, a denominational movement swelled in 1971, known as the United Methodist Women’s Caucus, whose sole purpose was to empower women and engage in the work necessary to sway the General Conference. They articulated their membership was solely for women for the promotion of women but emphasized that they were a temporary ad hoc committee focused on the delivery of the promises of the General Conference for women’s inclusion. The Women’s Caucus proposed a Commission on Women, but it was rejected, along with the recommendation that they instead form a women’s unit within the Lay Division of the Board of Discipleship.

These denied proposals left women in the denomination without sufficient hope for the cause of women’s equality in the church. However, in an ambitious attempt, Thelma Stevens, a longtime member of the Women’s Division and social justice advocate, petitioned the General Conference for a study commission on the status and role of women. In her report, she stated the rationale for such a commission was “to understand the biblical, theological, societal and historical backgrounds which bring their influence to bear on the issue of the participation of women in The United Methodist Church.” Reiterating the data of the Program Council’s committee, Stevens substantiated the commission by revealing the data of the 1971 report and emphasizing the vast underrepresentation of women in all levels of the denomination. The General Conference approved the decision on April 21, 1972, which happened to also be the 81st birthday of Dr. Georgia Harkness, a prestigious professor of feminist theology and a long-time advocate of clergywomen rights in Methodism. Consequently, it was also Dr. Harkness’s last General Conference to attend before her death in 1974. In addition to the establishment of the commission, a resolution regarding the discriminatory language of the Discipline first highlighted in 1944 by Grace Bragg, passed the General Conference in Atlanta in 1972.(6)

Once it finally received its charter, the burgeoning commission discovered much of the same data as its predecessor committee. Partnering with the Women’s Division and the Women’s Caucus on research, GCSRW quickly identified the significant underrepresentation of women within the denomination and used it as a motivator for its newly-chartered board. At the initial meeting of the commission, the members ordered their work, adopted a budget, and elected officers, while collectively focusing on specifically-articulated organizing principles: “doing and collecting research, developing new understanding of theology and biblical history affecting the status of women, ensuring the full participation of both women employed by the church and of laywomen, and developing understandings of changing lifestyles affecting women.”(7)

Initial hopes for the GCRSW board in 1972 included:

  • Support for women in ministry;
  • Recognition of women as competent and serious;
  • A desire that women might take their places of leadership at all levels of the church;
  • A desire to pioneer in the humanizing process and the liberation of both women and men;
  • Freeing women not just in the church but in society as a whole;
  • Broadening women’s vision in local congregations;
  • Hope for equal pay for equal work developing support groups;
  • The desire to be accepted without stereotyping and without facing the demand for excellence at all times;
  • Hope for sharing images of ourselves and of feelings we have about who we are as sexual persons; and
  • Doing exposés of places in the church where people are hurting because of sexism.(8)

The early work of the first board, under the presidency of Barbara Ricks Thompson, featured a focus on how women were treated within the structures of the Methodist Church. To accomplish this work, they realized the need to assist in cases of discrimination within the Church. The Board also created a Talent Bank to help women find employment and leadership in the Church. One of the agency’s first publications was Themes of Oppression (1975), which amplified concerns of women employed by the Church including poor job descriptions, unequal policies and procedures, and inequitable evaluations. From this analysis and in partnership with the Women’s Division, the commission co-sponsored training events across the country to prepare women for election as general conference delegates and to promote women’s inclusion in leadership across the structures of the church.(9)

Leading up to the 1976 General Conference, the commission worked diligently to provide resources and curricula to local churches about fulfilling women’s participation in all levels of the denomination. Additionally, the agency’s publication Images: Women in Transition, distributed in 1976 and written solely by women, gave Methodists a wider understanding of how women served their churches and their communities beyond their own homes. GCSRW gave women their own voice of vocation. By the 1976 General Conference, more than 60 annual conferences organized local chapters of the commission and formed unique ways to advocate locally for women. At the quadrennial meeting, the commission report “stressed that while there had been small but significant gains during the quadrennium, the Commission's agenda was not complete.” The productivity and necessity of GCSRW found approval and continuation during the 1976 General Conference, and it was given permanency as a standing agency of the United Methodist Church. The General Conference of 1976 also featured the first twelve elected clergywomen delegates in Portland, a true testimony of the empowering and important work of the agency.(10)

GCSRW Resilient in Its Work

Dawn Wiggins Hare, General Secretary of GCSRW visited with UM leaders in Africa to discuss women's issues.

Throughout its existence, GCSRW received multiple dissents and threats of discontinuance as it challenged power and discrimination within the structures of the church. Yet, the progress that GCSRW achieved continually justified the necessity of its presence. From the advocacy of GCSRW and the work to promote women in the life of the Church, the United Methodist Church elected its first woman bishop, Marjorie Swank Matthews, in 1980. By 1996, every U.S. jurisdiction had consecrated at least one female bishop for the office. GCSRW provided guidance for women to be elected as General Conference delegates, increasing the number of women contributing to the Church’s legislation and direction. By promoting the inclusion of women in ministry, the numbers of clergywomen serving the United Methodist Church continued to increase since 1972. GCSRW incorporated the establishment of a sexual ethics program, which holds the church’s leadership accountable against pornography, harassment, and assault, and as a result, creating a safer space for women leaders. GCSRW’s work now spans the globe and connects Methodists to valuable resources that enable all levels of the church to join in the necessary work of full inclusion of women in the life of the Church.

GCSRW’s work now spans the globe and connects Methodists to valuable resources that enable all levels of the church to join in the necessary work of full inclusion of women in the life of the Church.

In 50 years, GCSRW accomplished much in terms of advocacy for women, but the agency’s staff, directors, and supporters know that the work of GCSRW is far from complete, as the data continues to reveal. While GCSRW receives its funding from The United Methodist Church, the agency employs a small, but mighty team dedicated to the work of women’s full and equal participation in the life of the UMC. Still, as we begin to acknowledge the achievements over our fifty years, we hope that you will join us in celebrating these successes, commemorating this difficult journey, and organizing future work of the agency through this blog series in 2022. Without a doubt, GCSRW resiliently commits itself to greater advocacy for women, regardless of the challenges it faces, but it is grounded with the enlivening hope that one day we will together fulfill our mission.

References:

(1) “About Ms.,” Ms.: More Than a Magazine, A Movement, January 17, 2022, https://msmagazine.com/about/; “1972: Joanne Pierce Misko and Susan Roley Malone: First Female Special Agents in the Modern FBI,” Barrier Breakers in History, January 17, 2022, https://www.intelligence.gov/index.php/people/barrier-breakers-in-history/659-1972-joanne-pierce-misko-and-susan-roley-malone; “History of the Boston Marathon,” Boston Athletic Association, January 17, 2022, https://www.baa.org/races/boston-marathon/history; “Shirley Chisolm,” African American Heritage, January 17, 2022, https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/shirley-chisholm; Pamela S. Nadell, “Sally Jane Priesand,” in Jewish Women’s Archives, The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, June 23, 2021, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/priesand-sally-jane; U.S. Department of Education, “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance,” The Daily Journal of the United States Government, January 17, 2022, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/05/19/2020-10512/nondiscrimination-on-the-basis-of-sex-in-education-programs-or-activities-receiving-federal.

(2) Robin Morgan, TotalBoox, and TBX, Sisterhood Is Global. (Open Road Media, 2016), http://www.totalboox.com/book/id-2443506281087803295.

(3) Carolyn Henninger Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home (Chicago: General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, The United Methodist Church, 2015); Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).

(4) Oehler, Journey.

(5) Alan K. Waltz, “Data on the Participation of Women in the Organizational Units of The United Methodist Church,” Prepared for Committee on the Study of the Role of Women (The Program Council of The United Methodist Church, June 17, 1971), Oversize VB4415.W3 C.1, Boston University Theology Library; “Journal of the 1972 General Conference of The United Methodist Church” Volume II (Atlanta, Ga.: The General Conference of The United Methodist Church, April 16-28, 1972).

(6) Oehler, Journey; 1972 General Conference Journal; “Women’s Caucus Guidelines for Workshops and Programs” (Boston, Mass.: The Women’s Caucus of the Southern New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, n.d.), Women’s Caucus, Boston University Theology Library Archives; “Journal of the 1976 General Conference of The United Methodist Church” (Portland, Ore.: The General Conference of The United Methodist Church, April 27-May 7, 1976).

(7) Oehler, Journey.

(8) Oehler, Journey.

(9) Oehler, Journey.

(10) Oehler, Journey; 1976 General Conference Journal.

About the author

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She's an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.