Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven”

An hourlong teleconference with

Darlene O’Dell

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1 PM to 2 PM EDT

WATER is deeply indebted to Darlene O’Dell for her important new book, The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven (New York, Seabury Books, 2104). She describes the ordination of “the Philadelphia Eleven” (July 29, 1974) and “the Washington Four” (September 7, 1975), the first women to be ordained by the Episcopal Church in the United States. They represent many feminists in ministry, and their courage and pioneering spirit captured the imaginations of the world.

To honor them, we name them:

The 11 are:

Merill Bittner

Alla Bozarth-Campbell

Alison Cheek

Emily Hewitt

Carter Heyward

Suzanne Hiatt

Marie Moorefield

Jeannette Piccard

Betty Bone Schiess

Katrina Swanson

Nancy Wittig

The 4 are:

Lee McGee (Street)

Alison Palmer

Betty Rosenberg (Powell)

Diane Tickell

Following are Darlene O’Dell’s remarks, including several passages from her book.

Perhaps the best place for me to begin is by giving a brief background about the Philadelphia 11 and about that day 40 years ago when they were ordained. The Philadelphia 11 were the first women Episcopal priests in the United States. They were ordained in 1974 by 3 bishops and 1 supporting bishop and without the approval of the General Convention. The General Convention is the Episcopal Church’s governing body and it is made up of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies.

The ordinations set off a media firestorm which lasted for 2 years until the General Convention met again in 1976 and clarified its canons and made clear that women could be ordained as priests and bishops.

The day they were ordained, July 29, was hot. As one of the 11 remembered, it was beastly hot in the Church of the Advocate.  In fact, when you talk to people about their memories of that day, they almost always say 2 things: 1. It was hot and 2. It was filled with Spirit. Some refer to it as Holy Spirit. Charles Willie, who delivered the sermon at the service, would later refer to that day as a strange and enchanting one.

In the few old film clips of the service, you see the women and their presenters in the processional, and it seems more like a rock concert than an ordination. Huge crowd of 2000. There were camera and television lights everywhere. There was applause and laughter.

In fact, the rector of the church, Paul Washington, was speaking to the crowd as the women were moving up the stairs, up from the basement. The women couldn’t hear what he was saying, but they did hear a loud roar of laughter from the congregation. Washington had asked the 2000 there: “What is a mother to do when the doctor says, ‘Your baby will be born on August 10,’ but then on July 29 the water sack ruptures?” Of course, he is responding to critics who had asked for the women to wait and let the General Convention act even though it had failed to do so both in 1970 and 1973.

But what Washington didn’t know what he made the analogy to a woman going into labor was that the song following his comment was “Come, Labor On.” And hence the joyful laughter.

It’s important to keep in mind that Washington was taking a huge risk by allowing this ordination to take place in his church. He was an African-American priest in a predominantly African-American Church. In fact, it cannot be overstated in my opinion how this movement would have suffered without the support of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church. It’s difficult for me to imagine the success of it at all without that support. And that’s true of feminist support, too.

There were also a group of lesbians there serving as part of the security team, along with a busload of Philadelphia police officers, though the police stayed a block or so down the street. There had been bomb threats. There were protestors. The protestor who left the most lasting impression was a young and dramatic Episcopal priest who later converted to Catholicism. When he was given the floor, he stood and said,

“God here and now as Father and judge sees you trying to make stones into bread. You can only offer up the smell and sound and sight of perversion.”

And he could, he warned, smell the sulfur in the air.

So I hope this provides you with some sense of the atmosphere of the day.

Now, a little over a year later, the Washington 4 followed the 11 and were ordained in D.C. at St. Stephen and the Incarnation. This was such an important moment for the women’s ordination movement that I have heard members of the 11 refer to themselves as the 15. They believed that the 4 in Washington were essential because what that ordination showed was that the women were not just going to go away. That these ordinations would continue.

And one point I want to make about the media firestorm that the ordinations sparked. Yes, it was in the major outlets—the Wash Post, the NYT, the Chicago and Philadelphia papers. But I was 11 years old at the time and living in a small town in the foothills of SC. And I was following the story in my local papers. I could also see it on Phil Donahue and the nightly news shows, so it was in local sources even in predominantly Southern Baptist areas.

The political cartoonists also got hold of it. I’m going to stop for a moment and read a page from my book as a way of showing how some of the cartoonists were portraying the hierarchy and also what the House of Bishops was doing to heap this satire upon themselves.

For this reading you need to know that John Allin was the Presiding Bishop at the time and that he would eventually say that he was not in favor of women’s ordination. I also quote Bishop Paul Moore, who was the bishop of a few of the 11 who were studying at Union Theological Seminary in NY. And then I refer to 3 of the 11 in the reading: Alison Cheek, Jeannette Piccard (first woman in space), and Emily Hewitt. This reading is the beginning of Chapter 6: The Bishops’ Tale, Chicago. It was 2 weeks after the ordinations in Philadelphia and the bishops were meeting to try to figure out what to do with these women.

This is the beginning of Chapter 6, “The Bishops’ Tale, Chicago,” pp. 84-98,

“If it hadn’t been evident from the beginning that the bishops were going to have an image problem, the photograph taken at the House of Bishops emergency meeting in Chicago by a staff member of U.P.I. would have driven the point home. In the background of the photograph, the Presiding Bishop is shown celebrating the Eucharist with his brother bishops in a reserved room in the O’Hare International Towers Inn. In the foreground, a large sign sitting on a pedestal reads “Bishops Only.” To the side, separated from the bishops by the sign, stands Alison Cheek watching from a distance. Sitting below her is the seventy-nine-year old Jeannette Piccard.

In an era when “Whites Only” signs had only recently been thrown into city dumps or hidden away in the storerooms of hotels, restaurants, or movie theaters, the sign that the bishops used to keep others out of their territory was saturated and dripping with cultural significance and historical memory. It was the sort of move on the bishops’ part that led to the coming onslaught from editorial cartoonists across the nation. In his cartoon Punk, Pat Oliphant, winner of the Pulitzer in 1967, drew a shriveled-up bishop praying on his knees. According to a newspaper lying across his bed, the bishop had just rejected women priests and is assuring the Almighty that His will has been done. On the wall in the bedroom hangs a framed poem: “God is a gentleman through and through/And in all probability, Episcopal, too.”

Bill Mauldin, also a recipient of a Pulitzer, released a cartoon titled “Machismo” in the Chicago-Sun Times. In this cartoon, the Episcopal hierarchy is represented by a frightened bishop in his cassock, standing on a chair. The drawing was meant to remind readers of the stereotypical images of women jumping on chairs to escape mice. Here, the “mouse” is a tiny woman dressed in black and carrying a briefcase with “lady priests” written across the front. And Mike Peters, who distributed through King Features Syndicate, drew a male priest in the pulpit expounding on the fact that women priests were nonsense, given that God had made men in his own image. In the next frame, a hand descends from the sky and whacks the priest with a giant purse.

John Allin had called the meeting in Chicago, interrupting the August vacations of many of the bishops, who had arrived—as Paul Moore wrote—angry and, at times, nervous, neither condition helped, he believed, by the environmental factors. To begin with, he observed, they had been “hermetically sealed from the world” in a room with the air conditioner running on high to counteract the August heat. They had been pulled away from mountaintops and boats, from vacation spots like of Martha’s Vineyard and the Florida beaches, and were now surrounded by “plastic potted plants” and busy wallpaper. While understandable on one level, this reaction of the bishops only further underscored their positions of privilege. And while perhaps not aesthetically uplifting, the hotel was an expensive one, unlike the cheap motel rooms the women had reserved for themselves. They had to drive to the hotel, Emily Hewitt remembered, to “sit where the boys were.”

Of course, the primary reason for the bishops’ anger was the ordination that had occurred in Philadelphia. And over the course of the two-day meeting, their anger showed no signs of abating. In fact, in Moore’s estimation, the bishops were angrier when they departed Chicago than when they had arrived. Edward Welles described it as a “hot anger,” and one that “had not cooled enough to permit reason to function calmly.”

A few more comments about the media: There were at least 3 extremely important women reporters who kept the story alive: Eleanor Blau of the NYT, and Marjorie Hyer of the Washington Post, and Betty Medsger, who was a freelancer at the time and served as the women’s press agent.

There were also columnist who took an interest in the story. Carl Rowan of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a critical and somewhat rollicking piece about the church in relation to the 2 trials that were held concerning the ordinations. It was actually 2 male priests who were tried for allowing Alison Cheek and Carter Heyward to preside over the Eucharist. Anyway, in one short column Rowan managed to compare the trials to the Salem Witch hunts, to Watergate, to the Prussian command system, to the comic strip Beetle Bailey, and to the British writer Samuel Johnson who infamously wrote that “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find

it done at all.”

And Mike Causey of the Washington Post was following the irrepressible Alison Palmer of the Washington 4. Palmer worked for the State Dept. In her position there, she ended up saving 3 journalists from execution in Africa, her office was bombed in South America just minutes after she had left it, her helicopter had to make an emergency landing behind lines in Vietnam. She had the nickname Tally, short for Tally-ho, because she rode a horse named Houdini in Africa. And she sued the state department . . . twice . . . for sexual discrimination. And, of course, these suits were making the headlines. So Mike Causey writes about this and he concludes that the State Department should stop fighting her and should focus on issues like world disarmament. He wrote, “You know, the kind of thing where it stands a chance.”

So this story grew much bigger than the Episcopal Church. It spoke to people concerning the place of women in the larger culture. And it also raised questions about the very nature of God. Meg Greenfield of Newsweek wrote that the 11 were “asking the faithful, in a particular way, to alter their whole image of God.”

Many of them, I should add, are still asking for that. In fact, in one situation happening right at this moment, a few of the 11 are arguing for a more inclusive liturgy to be used in one of the 40th anniversary celebrations occurring across the country. At this point, they are running into a wall. We’ll see what happens in that situation.

On this note, I want to read one more paragraph or two from the end of the book. In this section, I’m going to pick up with the moment just after the General Convention of 1976 has voted to allow women priests and bishops, but have not yet voted on the fate of the 15. So it’s 7 pm and the vote was taken around 5. And six of the women priests have gathered for a press conference.

This is a selection from page 195, Chapter 13 “Farewells: The General Convention of 1976,” pp. 190-202.

“The women priests were subdued. Some of the members of the media seemed taken aback by their lack of enthusiasm, but after enduring two years of accusations, oppressive theology, suspensions, and admonitions . . . after receiving death threats and materials with which to hang themselves . . . after being called fat and bucktoothed, mother fuckers, whores, and sluts . . . and after being denied employment after years of education in schools such as Radcliffe, Union, Smith, Duke, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Yale all because they were perceived not to be proper matter, closer to jackasses and monkeys than to the priests they were . . . after those two years, they saw their lives within the Church through a different lens than they had in the summer of 1974. In fact, they saw the Church through a different lens as well. It was no longer enough for them to be allowed access to the Church. They wanted a drastic change within the institution regarding its sexist treatment of all women, whether those women wanted to be priests or not. Many wanted changes in liturgy to reflect a much broader image of God. And some voiced deep concern over a group, particularly a predominantly male group, voting on their validity to their calling. Alison Cheek told the reporters that she had come to the conclusion that it was “an arrogant and shameful thing” for the convention to have voted on whether women could be called to the priesthood.

Though Bozarth had believed that the Church had restored some of its “own integrity” with the vote, she, too, was concerned about the General Convention’s validation of their priesthoods as being indicative of tokenism rather than substantive change:

‘A positive response from the Convention could easily lead to co-optation, the easy pacification of women by a Church that was still male-dominated, allowing a few token women into the sacred male ranks of priesthood and episcopacy, but maintaining its misogynist posture toward lay women at the grass roots level.’

So when asked their opinions about the vote at the press conference, the women agreed: “This is just the bare beginning.””

This reading ties into an interesting question Mary E. Hunt had asked me a few days ago when we were talking about this conference. And the question as I remember it was has anything changed in 40 years? And the question raises other questions—What has been the effect of their act of disobedience? Do we need women priests and bishops or priests and bishops at all? Is it the concept of hierarchy that’s the real problem and not gender.  These are huge questions and not ones I can finally answer, never mind in a minute or two. But I will make a few quick points and then I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions.

1. The first thing I would say is that I don’t know if we need priests and bishops, but I do know that we have them now and that they’re not likely to go away any time soon. I know that they are powerful and have a lot of money at their disposal, much of this money raised by women. Given that we are in this particular historical moment, I think we are definitely in need of bishops who are intelligent and big-hearted, full of love and Spirit, are not afraid of change, leaders who know how to talk to people, how to listen to them, and how to work with them. Those qualities are not easy to find in a person—so for me, the larger the pool of potential priests and bishops the better. And of course we need leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences.

2. And one more point in relation to this historical context in which we find ourselves and in which the Phil 11 and Wash 4 found themselves. The women were very aware that times were shifting in 1974. They realized that we were about to enter a more conservative time in our history and it was why they insisted on acting immediately. I don’t know if they expected the rise of such an extreme conservative agenda, but they did know that we were moving in that direction. Then in 1979, fundamentalist Southern Baptists brought about a hostile takeover of their denomination that was designed, in part, to create a conservative political voting bloc in the country. And they have been wildly successful. Their policies have been toxic to women and to other vulnerable groups. At the same time there have been breakaway conservative churches in other small Protestant denominations. And the Roman Catholic hierarchy has exerted its massive political pressure often at the expense of women. The Episcopal Church has a population of around 2 million. The Southern Baptists are about 16 million in this country and the Catholics about 75 million. There is a lot of money and power in that 90 million. But even given the small numbers in the Episcopal Church, I have wondered what would have happened if the 15 had not acted at that moment. People have argued that the General Convention would have acted regardless and approved women priests. Given what was happening in other denominations, I’m not so sure about that. For me, the fact that the 15 were savvy enough and courageous enough to plow their way through before the doors shut on them seems to me quite remarkable in hindsight.

And then when I think about some of the women who have stepped forward as priests and bishops, I get quite encouraged.

I think of Alison Cheek standing up in her position as a priest in the Church and telling it that it was acting in a shameful way.

I think of Carter Heyward going into churches and into other groups and speaking constantly on any number of social issues.

I think of Alla Bozarth telling women to climb down from their crosses and of Betty Bone Schiess suing the church from her position as a priest. People took notice of that.

Betty Powell is working to reimagine the image of a patriarchal God.

Other priests and bishops outside of the 15:

Sally Bingham in California and the miracles she has achieved with her work in trying to save the environment.

Ann Franklin and her work with Palestinian concerns.

Gay Clark Jennings, the President of the House of Deputies, working as she put it, “to foster the leadership of young people, people of color, and others who have not always been at the table.”

Bishop Barbara Harris—has any bishop ever spoken more truthfully and forcefully to a church?

This is just a handful of the women out there, women working for justice, working to broaden our imaginations and save ourselves from ourselves.

So I think those acts of disobedience 40 years ago mattered in profound ways. I think they are providing groundwork that helps to push back against an out-of-control and terrified fundamentalism. I hate to think about our religious and political landscapes without these acts and without the millions of less visible ones that occur on a daily basis in this country.


Questions and Discussion
1. An ordained Protestant women minister asked what support came from other ordained women at the time of the ordinations.

Darlene brought up the October 27, 1974 Reformation Sunday service at Riverside Church in New York City where many women, clergy and lay, participated. One argument against the ordination of the Episcopal women was that it would upset relations with the Roman Catholic Church though no one mentioned how it would improve relations with other denominations that ordain women.

2. A caller from Boston spoke of how moved she was by the story of the 11.

Darlene spoke of the many letter women priests received. Some of the letters, including those of Carter Heyward, Alison Cheek, and Suzanne Hiatt, are in the Burke Library Union at Columbia University.

She mentioned a recent book signing at a small bookstore in North Carolina where people had to be turned away because there were so many interested readers. All of this shows how people are still very moved by the events of forty years ago.

3. A WATER intern asked Darlene her advice for contemporary graduate students in religion.

Darlene suggested seeing what issues people have as well as expecting to learn from the inevitable failures along the way.

4. In light of the recent decision to ordain women as bishops in the Church of England, one person asked about the relations between U.S. Episcopalians and British Anglicans.

Darlene reported how supportive women in England were of the 15 and how supportive the 15 were of the women in England. Alison Palmer went to England and celebrated the Eucharist there early on.

5. A questioner asked about the different reactions to the ordination of out LGBTIQ people and the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. The former seemed to happen with struggle but not the same publicity.

Darlene mentioned timing, among other factors that account for the difference. She went on to say that in the 1974 case there were liberal bishops who were “pro-labor, marching in Selma, but where women were concerned they would shut down; stop moving their feet.”

She mentioned the 1977 ordination of Ellen Barrett by Paul Moore. Ellen was the first out lesbian to be ordained. Ellen’s courage and fortitude are now part of the proud history.

Darlene suggested that there is something about women qua women, about how women image God/spirit with which the culture at large and churches need to deal.

Editor’s Note: Subsequent to the teleconference, Darlene reflected on the fact that lesbian women among the 15 decided to keep their sexualities hidden. One told her that they believed that it would simply have been too much for the church to handle and they decided to fight that battle another day. In addition, one of the lesbian ordinands is still not out because she lost dearly when she did speak honestly. The fact that the 15 got ordained with their lesbians in the closet is history, though if there had been 15 out lesbians Darlene doubts that it would have happened. This is something to ponder 40 years later.

6. A United Church of Christ minister who worships at an Episcopal monastery noted a significant change among the brothers are that house who all are known as “Brother” even though some are also priests. Still, there are few changes in the language of the liturgy. She said that unless we change images of God, society will not change. “If we don’t change image of God we will have hierarchy forever.”

A caller spoke of an Episcopal women’s convent in NYC that has changed the language of the liturgy but in most churches it is still male exclusive. Even in plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the women’s ordinations there are struggles over language.

7. In response to a query about her own writing plans, Darlene spoke of several projects.

She has written 3 mysteries for middle grade readers that she hopes to publish. She is thinking about a cultural critique of the south and the other a spiritual journey book though these two may be rolled into one.

{Note to readers: she is a wonderful writer! MEH}


This audio recording is on our Web site



WATER will not have a teleconference in August, our time of vacation. Our next teleconference will be Wed. September 10, 2014 , 1 PM with Andrea Smith, professor at UC Riverside, who will discuss “Addressing Violence Against Women of Color.” All are welcome.