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Woman’s Call to the Ministry

May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL


It will doubtless be conceded that some one of the following propositions is true:

1. Woman is in her mental, moral, and spiritual nature substantially the same as man, and his equal; or,

2. She is, in these respects, substantially like man, but inferior to him, a “lesser man so to speak; or,

3. She is in her mental, moral, and spiritual nature substantially different from man. (Whether his equal, inferior, or superior we need not now ask.)

Now, if woman is in her mental, moral, and spiritual characteristics substantially the same as man, and his equal, then she has precisely the same call as man to enter upon the work of the ministry, in which mentality, morality, and spirituality are the supreme tests of qualification. But if, secondly, she is substantially the same as man, but his inferior, how can the fact of her inferiority in any department be ascertained except by allowing her a free field, without favor or hindrance, so that she may demonstrate her innate inferiority, which the world is growing so skeptical about? It does not comport with the most advanced ethics that the stronger should deny the weaker a fair trial of their strength. It is too much for fortitude to be born neither free nor equal. The matter of equality can never be settled till freedom be granted, and then the law which governs “the survival of the fittest ” will determine woman’s lease of the pulpit as of all other mundane things. But, thirdly, if woman is in her mental, moral, and spiritual constitution substantially different from man, then by that difference is she unerringly called to the work of the ministry, whether the sum total of woman’s gifts is an exact equivalent of man’s gifts or not.

Humanity is made up of two halves, male and female, and it seems to me a self-evident fact that, if these two halves of humanity are substantially different in their mental, moral, and spiritual traits, the one half can never fully understand, interpret, or represent the other half.

I wish to elaborate this third proposition, self-evident though it appears to me, because most persons who oppose woman’s entrance into this and other fields which have been hitherto exclusively occupied by men do not, of course, do so from the standpoint of conviction that woman is substantially the same as man — nor do most of the opponents base their opposition upon woman’s supposed inferiority — but the claim is made that woman, being essentially different from man, has a proper orbit of her own which must not impinge upon the orbit of man; and so she is shut out of participation in much of that work in life which affords the best self-development and the largest usefulness to the world.

But let us glance at the fundamental facts. Woman is first of all a human being; before she is a woman, before she is a mother, before she is a preacher, before she is a parishioner, back of all, and fundamentally, she is a human being. As such she possesses in common with man those traits which distinguish humanity from the lower animals — reason, conscience, sympathies, coördinating faculties, the desire and the capacity to help and to be helped by other human beings toward more ideal ways of life. Now let us dismiss the silly notion that man is all reason and woman all intuition. Both reason and intuition are human powers, and the man or the woman who is destitute of either is a defective human being.

Whether the difference between manhood and womanhood consists in the possession of some quality or qualities by each which the other does not possess, or whether the difference lies in the usual preponderance of certain qualities in the one sex and of certain other qualities in the other sex, still the two resultants are substantially, and let us trust ineradicably, different, so that the ideal humanity is not man and is not woman, it is both. And thus it is that humanity, being made up of two diverse halves, needs to draw its interpreters, its teachers, its ministers from both, else the interpretation, the teaching, the religion must be warped, incomplete, ineffective, and not roundly human. Does that mean that a man and a woman should minister in each church? That would indeed be an ideal arrangement, and one, as you have heard to-night, not wholly unrealized. But it would not be universally practicable, nor is it necessary. There is another way of infusing the dual and complete human element into the religious life, and that is to get it into the fountain-source. Then it will flow through all the channels. What is the trouble to-day with the creeds from the tyranny of which so many of the churches are trying to free themselves? What but that they were formulated by one-half of humanity for both — the woman element was utterly ignored, the mother heart was not permitted to speak. Relentless “logic,” which we say preponderates with man, was allowed full sway, without having first determined whether the fundamental premises upon which men built were in harmony with the thought of love at the heart of the universe. When women help to formulate the expressions of religious faith which contribute so powerfully to mold the religious life of those who subscribe to them, the church itself will be humanized; and whether it be a man or a woman who ministers from your pulpit, the genius of the church, the spirit of the religion taught, which is greater than the individuality of the minister, will be broadly and highly, strongly and tenderly, bravely and purely human and divine. But exclude woman from the pulpit and never will you have her unique and humanizing influence at the fountain-head. Nay, you degrade her everywhere. For what is the work of the ministry but to teach the art of life? What is the true church but the school in which we are to learn how to live and act nobly, purely, unselfishly, helpfully, day by day, here and hereafter? If in this school man is always the teacher and woman the pupil, if he must always speak and she listen, if he must preach and she practice, what does not she and the world lose by this constant repression of her genius, this rejection of her point of view, this perpetual silencing within her soul of her divine call ?

Moreover, nothing but woman in the pulpit can give her rightful place and dignity to woman in the pews, or woman anywhere.

And yet I would make no extravagant claim for woman as a teacher of religion. I would not say woman is so good, so raised above temptations that assail man, that she should therefore be the religious teacher. A class so good by nature that it could not comprehend or sympathize with the tempted — angels, for instance — could not much help the average man or woman with its preaching. We should be very apt to say: “You can not possibly comprehend my situation ; you are too far above the trials, and turmoil, and the motives that touch me.” I make no such plea of superiority for woman. When made it weakens her cause.

We want in our religious teachers and preachers everywhere not mere ignorance of sin and sinful motives, but virtue which blooms from overcoming these.

And again, I for one should regret a great preponderance of women preachers over men preachers, even more than I regret the present overwhelming majority of women as teachers in our public schools; yes, as much as I regret that so many children are robbed of their full rights of paternal care and training, and are wholly dependent upon maternal influence. We all of us men, and women, and children — need not only guardians, teachers, ministers who shall interpret and reveal ourselves to us; we need also those who shall reveal and interpret to us that other half of humanity with which, as husband and wife, father and daughter, mother and son, brother and sister, friend and friend, we are, to our blessing, inextricably commingled.

But to-day, while the present abnormal state of things exists in the church, I believe that the greatest need of the church is to be mothered. Until the creeds are humanized, which were formulated by the early “church fathers” and by our Puritan forefathers; until the lost balance of religion is restored by the restoration of the woman element to the mutilated human and the mutilated divine; until the motherhood as well as the fatherhood of God is recognized by this world of self-made half-orphans; until these things be, the supreme call to the ministry that vibrates through the world to-day is to womanhood to give herself to the service of unifying and uplifting humanity, and bringing it up to the true knowledge and glad service of our Father and Mother God.



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 164-175. p. 229-233.