Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University
Women's access to leadership in religion is almost universally limited by the foundational texts, most of which incorporate the blood taboo in one form or another, rendering women unclean and hence too bodily to be allowed access to the sacred. While Australian Indigenous religion contained this tension by designating strictly gendered spheres in which men and women exercised authority over their own 'business', in most of the religions imported since, women have been confined to a lesser status. For Christians, the restrictions inherited from the Old Testament were confirmed in the New, particularly in the dichotomy drawn between the Virgin and the Magdalene, and in the Pauline epistles, which provide the basis for the doctrine of headship-the notion that a woman should not have authority over men. While the work of feminist theologians in the late 20th century encouraged women to employ the hermeneutics of suspicion in deconstructing such texts, they nevertheless remain powerful in many religious organisations. Religion generally has functioned to legitimise rather than challenge existing gender hierarchies, constructing men as leaders and women as nurturers. This construction predominantly shaped the opportunities for leadership for women within the religious sphere and continued to curtail their participation in key leadership roles throughout the 20th century.
A second constraint resulted from the way that leadership is understood in a religious environment. The notion of the call or vocation serves to disguise the ambition or aspiration that marks the leader in secular society; however, it also facilitated the rise to leadership of 'exceptional cases', women who were able to argue that they were following God's call even though this involved a transgression of gender norms. This argument worked most effectively in relation to women called to the missions, where racial privilege allowed the exercise of leadership at a level impossible at home, but it was also employed increasingly in local debates. Many women have found religion empowering, fitting and inspiring them for leadership. For some women, this leadership was made possible through a reading of the key religious texts in terms of equality and empowerment, which led them to develop a starkly oppositional stance to dominant interpretations. However, the headship model, too, articulates complementary roles for women that have also allowed them to assume substantial if subsidiary leadership positions.
For most of the century, religious orders, contained and constrained as they were, provided the most visible opportunities for women to develop and display their leadership abilities. Such opportunities were most numerous within the Catholic Church, where women religious staffed the many schools, hospitals and charitable institutions conducted under church auspice. Most were members of orders or institutes that had their origins in Europe but a small number were Australian foundations, most notably the Sisters of St Joseph, founded by Mary MacKillop (Thorpe, ADB; Lemon, 'MacKillop', AWR), Australia's first saint. As heads of religious orders, school principals and managers of hospitals and charitable institutions, they constantly had to defend their autonomy against the demands of the male hierarchy, yet many found within the orders a space in which they could develop talents that may not have been so readily recognised or exercised in the secular world. In a time when few women occupied senior executive positions, Mother Mary Berchmans Daly (Donovan, ADB) was an acclaimed administrator of a major city hospital and the founder of several more, sometimes alternating responsibilities with fellow Sister of Charity, Sister Gertrude Daly. Through the Loreto sisters, Mary Gonzaga Barry (McTigue & Palmer, ADB) was able to develop an international reputation as an educationalist. Catherine O'Brien (Leavey, ADB; Henningham, 'O'Brien', AWR) exercised a national leadership role amongst the Dominicans as did Mother Mary Berchmans McLaughlin (Pullen, ADB) for the Good Samaritans. For trade union activist, Maude O'Connell (Kane, ADB; Heywood, 'O'Connell', AWR), the Grey Sisters, which she founded, offered both the support of community living and the opportunity to gain church sanction for the social work she wished to undertake (O'Brien). Sister Joan Healy joined an established order but credits the Sisters of St Joseph with enabling her to develop leadership talents both nationally and internationally. Sydney hospital founder, Gertrude Abbott (Cunneen, ADB; Henningham, 'Abbott', AWR), was seeking similar support, although she never received official sanction for her small community.
While women religious were bound to obedience, the centrality of their labour to the church's success gave them some room to control the nature and extent of the tasks they were prepared to undertake. MacKillop, for instance, cautioned her sisters, of the need to 'look before us, do what we do well and refuse undertaking too much' (McCreanor, 292). Women religious in leadership positions controlled large budgets and managed both lay and religious staff. In so doing, they provided a powerful example of female leadership, particularly to the young women they educated, some of whom credited their willingness to engage with the women's movement to the role models they had found during their convent education. The emphasis on modesty and sometimes even anonymity means that the leadership of women religious is mostly evident through the testimony of others. Such testimony provides compelling evidence of the impact of the leadership of religious women in the world, but the evidence that this leadership was having an impact within the church is harder to find. However, with the advent of second-wave feminism and the changes to religious orders in the aftermath of Vatican II, women religious have worked alongside lay women to produce a Christian/Catholic feminism that calls for a substantial reform of the prevailing patriarchal practices. Their numbers, however, are small and declining. The orders reached their peak in the 1950s, but, by the end of the century, very few women felt called to this type of religious life and the establishments they had founded had all come under lay control.
The small number of women religious within the Anglican church have faced similar freedoms and constraints. Kate Clutterbuck (Stewart, ADB) used her membership of a religious order as a base from which to build a career in child welfare but found herself sidelined by the church and forced to work more closely with government later in her career. Appointed as a deaconess within the predominantly evangelical diocese of Melbourne, Emma Silcock (Jolliffe, ADB; Henningham, 'Sister Esther', AWR) went to the neighbouring diocese of Ballarat to take the vows that enabled her to become a fully professed sister (Sister Esther). Others followed in her path, enabling her to reconstitute the inner-city mission to which she had been appointed as the Community of the Holy Name in 1912. Over sixty years later sculptor Wendy Solling followed a similar path. Taking the name of Sister Angela, she founded a small community outside Newcastle, which was to provide an important site of retreat and inspiration for the women who led the campaign for women's ordination towards the end of the century.
The influence of the doctrine of headship ensured that most Anglican women seeking to exercise leadership in the church became deaconesses, a lower order of ministry that remained firmly under the authority of male clergy. While deaconesses and other women who went to the missions were able to exercise high levels of autonomy in the field, at home they found that their opportunities for ministry were constrained, with the Pauline injunction against women speaking in public frequently invoked. The church recognised that 'the tremendous development of women's education and opportunities' (Advocate, 2 November 1922) had created a group of women anxious to step outside their traditional roles, and hoped that the institution of orders of deaconesses would satisfy this demand without threatening existing male control. Returning from mission work in China, Deaconess Mary Andrews occupied several leadership positions in Sydney, Although she felt constrained by the limits on her ministry, she rationalised these as God's will, concluding, 'when God calls you he is utterly faithful and he will finish what he has set out to do' (Lamb, 207).
Melbourne's Elizabeth Alfred was less content. She had become a deaconess in 1944 and rose to the position of head deaconess for the diocese in 1968 but was frustrated by the failure of all but the diocese of Gippsland to recognise deaconesses as equal to male deacons. After encountering women priests on a visit to North America in 1975, she recognised that she, too, was called to the priesthood. Addressing the church's General Synod in 1979, she declared: 'If I had been born a boy I would have been allowed to test my vocation 40 years ago' (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 1981), but she had to wait until 1986 for her calling to be recognised. In the other mainstream Protestant denominations that had established orders of deaconesses in the early years of the 20th century, a similar dynamic prevailed, with women like the Methodist, Coralie Ling, who had begun their careers as deaconesses, proceeding to ordination when the option became available.
In other traditions, opportunities for women to enter the religious life have been more limited. Prior to World War II, the number of Orthodox Christians was small, so there was no attempt to replicate the religious orders that existed in the home countries. The first woman to be professed was Coralia Christides, who had founded the Christian Ladies and Girls Greek Orthodox Society of Australia shortly after she arrived in Australia at the beginning of World War I and was finally professed in 1971. By 2013, there were seven communities associated with the various branches of Orthodoxy in Australia but numbers in each were extremely small. Buddhism, too, has monasteries for women in several states, the largest of which is the Nan Tien Temple south of Wollongong, founded by nuns from Taiwan in the 1990s and an influential centre in contemporary Buddhism. However, in some of these monasteries there have been tensions, as Western women have found it difficult to accept the lesser role accorded to them by overseas trained nuns (Adam, 142).
From the mid-19th century, religious organisations had provided leadership opportunities for women. These leadership opportunities gained social sanction because they may have extended, but did not transgress, accepted notions of women's place. Many philanthropic organisations had a religious base, while more specifically religious organisations for women, which developed within and across denominations, provided opportunities for leadership on a local, national and international scale. Concerns in the aftermath of World War I that religion was becoming feminised, and hence less attractive to men, had the potential to constrain the development of women's leadership, but this potential was never realised as women, freed by smaller families and greater access to household technology, utilised their increasing levels of education to strengthen such organisations.
This development was strongest in non-hierarchical denominations where women's organisations were able to develop without the constant need to seek male approval. The greater the degree of congregational autonomy, the more important women's fund-raising efforts were to survival, and women built on this position to develop national and, later, international organisations to foster both their growth in faith and to bring Christian influence to bear on social policy. Freer Latham (Mansfield, ADB) moved from Sunday school and youth group leadership in the Methodist Church to head the local branch of the Women's Auxiliary for Overseas Missions. She was instrumental in founding the national federation for Methodist Women and was later its delegate to the international Methodist women's organisation. Protestant women dominated such non-denominational Christian organisations as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). Between the wars, Australian women who had gained their early experience at a local level played a leading role in the international arms of these organisations. These inter or non-denominational women's organisations became important vehicles for developing the leadership capacities of women: Isabel McCorkindale (Langmore, 'McCorkindale', ADB) through the WCTU, and Eleanor Hinder (Foley & Radi, ADB; Carey, J., AWR), Constance Duncan (Langmore, 'Duncan', ADB; Warne) and Gertrude Kumm (McCalman, ADB; Bussey, AWR) through the YWCA. Jewish congregations also developed welfare and community organisations in which women were able to develop and exercise leadership roles, with the rebbetzin, or rabbi's wife, often accorded a central role as exemplified in the life of Bertha Porush.
Although Catholic women had always been critical to fund-raising, the need to seek approval from the hierarchy both delayed the foundation of women's organisations that crossed parochial boundaries, and limited the autonomy of those which did develop. A Catholic Women's Society was founded in Sydney in 1907 but it was 1916 before a corresponding organisation, the Catholic Women's Social Guild (CWSG), was established in Victoria. In 1928, these organisations came together with the Catholic Women's League of South Australia and the Queensland organisation, the Catholic Daughters of Australia, to establish the Federal Council of Catholic Women. The women like Mary (Queenie) Barlow (O'Carrigan, ADB) and Kate Egan (Carey, H., ADB) who rose to prominence through such organisations had to be able to gain the patronage of the male hierarchy without succumbing to it. Early leaders of the CWSG were less comfortable with such restrictions. Mary Glowrey (Heywood, 'Glowrey', AWR) resolved any conflicts she might have felt within the CWSG by taking up missionary service in India, where she entered a religious order. Anna Brennan (Campbell & Morgen, ADB; Francis & Heywood, AWR) left to pursue her social interests elsewhere rather than alienate the organisation from the hierarchy. Later she occupied leadership positions within the St Joan's Alliance, an international Catholic organisation that provided a space for women who felt limited by attempts from the hierarchy to control church women's organisations. The Alliance also provided an important space within the church for Catholic women such as Norma Parker (Land & Hennningham, AWR) and Alice Blackall who played an important role in the development of social work in Australia.
The most notable of the hierarchical attempts to limit women's leadership was the move by Sydney's Cardinal Gilroy to unite all existing Catholic women's organisations in the Legion of Catholic Women, founded in Sydney in 1941. Personally appointing the organisation's office-bearers, he urged them to focus members' attention on devotional rather than social issues, returning them firmly to their helpmeet role. Reorganised as the Catholic Women's League in 1960, the organisation regained the right to self-management but, in the interim, women were able to exercise leadership despite the limitations imposed from above. Chosen by the archbishop to lead the Legion in 1949, Kate Burrow (Payten, ADB), for example, assumed the leadership of the Australian Council of Catholic Women in 1957 and was its delegate to the World Council of Catholic Women's Organisations from 1957 to 1965.
The quality of the education offered to middle-class girls in convent schools encouraged some to proceed to tertiary education and, even within their constraints, church organisations offered opportunities for leadership to some. Adelaide convert Frances Margaret Cheadle Maguire, largely now remembered as the helpmeet of her far more famous husband, played a critical role as director of studies for the Catholic Guild for Social Studies, developing the courses that were offered to members during the Depression years. Rosemary Goldie first displayed her leadership potential in Catholic student organisations and then rose through the lay apostolate to a position in Rome. One of only two women auditors at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, in 1967 she was appointed undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the first woman appointed to the Papal Curia.
Anglican women's organisations were also subject to hierarchical control, although its impact was moderated by the role played by clergy wives such as Dorothy Mowll who took leadership positions in local branches of the Mothers Union, an international organisation founded in Britain in the late 19th century. The democratic governance structure of the church was meant to mute hierarchical control but initially only men were eligible to stand for membership of the church's representative bodies. The struggle for women to gain positions on vestries and synods was long fought, echoing debates over women's suffrage in earlier decades. Following the recommendation from the church's international council in 1920 that women should be eligible to stand for election to Synod, the issue was debated around Australia, with opponents arguing that women should be content to exercise their power within the home, and expressing fears that the election of women would lead to a further feminisation of the church. Like the suffragists in Britain and the United States, advocates drew on the record of women during World War I to justify the expansion of their legitimate sphere. 'If the women of the Empire could do such great service in the recent world conflict', one Synod member of argued, 'then, surely they would admit them into their ecclesiastical affairs' (Register, 7 September 1921). These arguments were revisited in the 1940s and 1950s as synods debated, and eventually ceded, the right of women to sit on vestries or parish councils. Women who had exercised leadership in secular women's organisations argued that the church should utilise the talents they had displayed (Argus, 3 October 1947), while opponents continued to express the fear that warned 'the Church would lose the active help of many young men who had returned from service if women were appointed' (Argus, 2 October 1947).
Often after the legal barriers to women's participation in church governance were removed the culture remained unchanged, with meeting times and procedures remaining attuned to the existing masculinist practices. The decision at the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977 was designed to challenge this norm, setting in place quotas for women in its early years, with the aim not only of ensuring fair representation but of challenging the underlying culture of church decision-making. The regulations lapsed after six years, disappointing the women who had fought for their introduction and leading some to conclude that the church was irretrievably patriarchal; however, the prominence of women leaders in the years since, and the changes they have been able to bring to decision-making processes, would suggest that this early judgement was unduly pessimistic. Appointed initially as moderator of the Tasmanian Synod, Jill Tabart, was later elected as the church's national president and was influential in its decision to adopt a consensus model for decision-making, a model on which she later consulted for the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
In non-Christian religions, opportunities for lay leadership tend to follow those of the countries from which adherents have come. The one exception to this trend is Buddhism, which, in the early years of its emergence in Australia in the wake of World War II, was dependent on the support of women like Elizabeth Bell and Marie Byles (Radi, ADB; Lemon, 'Byles', AWR) who both facilitated early meetings for Buddhists and in their writings helped interpret the faith for an Australian audience. The importance of such women leaders diminished from the 1970s with the rise in immigration from Buddhist countries seeing the gendered patterns of leadership from those areas replicated in Australia. In reform Judaism, women have been seen as equals since its introduction to Australia in the 1920s, but, in more traditional forms, parallel pathways are the norm with women only permitted to exercise leadership within what is seen as their accepted sphere. Islam, too, has generated many women's groups that focus on providing services for women and children, but, in the wake of the animosity towards Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, organisations like the Australian Muslim Women's Association and the Muslim Women's National Network have arisen both to offer advice to women in their own community about their rights and responsibilities and to seek greater understanding from non-Muslim groups. It is in this context that Aziza Abdel-Halim has become identified as a leader both within the Muslim community and in representing her community to the non-Muslim world.
Reconciling Faith and Feminism
Second-wave feminism posed a major challenge to religious women, particularly within the Christian churches. The emerging analyses of women's subordination in Australia society articulated for women who were exercising leadership within denominational and interdenominational organisations the degree to which such leadership was constrained and restrictive rather than empowering. This process began in Sydney with the foundation in 1968 of Christian Women Concerned (CWC), a group Anne O'Brien has described as 'the logical heir of groups such as the WCTU and the YWCA, but it spoke the language of the new time: of rights rather than duties alone; of equality not difference' (O'Brien, 2005, 234).
The founders of CWC, Marie Tulip, Dorothy McRae-McMahon (Francis, 'McRae-McMahon', AWR) and Jean Skuse (Heywood, 'Skuse', AWR) were Protestant women who found the language and structure of their churches increasingly at odds with their growing feminist consciousness. They began to articulate their concerns in the CWC newsletter, Magdalen. Biblical studies scholar, and Anglican clergyman's wife Barbara Thiering brought these concerns to a wider audience with the publication in 1973 of her book, Created Second?, which identified the church as 'one of the main agencies in the limitation of women' adding that 'on the question of its attitude to women it has departed further from the meaning of the Gospel than on any other social question' (Thiering, 9). The book's release coincided with Jean Skuse's success in persuading the New South Wales Council of Churches to establish a Commission on the Status of Women. In the following year, funded by a grant from the International Women's Day organising committee, the commission went national, its aim, to 'shake up' women's acceptance of their place in the church so as to make it 'a live issue' to which the churches had no choice but to respond (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1975).
These stirrings came later within the Catholic community but the foundation in 1984 of Women and the Australian Church (WATAC) provided a platform from which these concerns could be explored. Established with the assistance of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and Women Religious, WATAC attracted women with a high degree of theological literacy, including some holding teaching positions in theological school and seminaries. Camille Paul, WATAC co-founder, had been 'introduced to-and convinced by-feminist theologians and their arguments against sexist discrimination in the church' while undertaking theological studies (Lindsay). She became the first woman to teach theology at St Patrick's Seminary in Manly and co-editor of the journal WomanChurch, which extended on the work done by Magdalen, actively encouraging women to write theology. The aim of Catholic Christian feminists was to reform the church from within and they persisted despite the 1994 papal decree forbidding discussions around the ordination of women. As Marie-Louise Uhr declared: 'If we cannot speak in churches and in the catholic press then we must speak in public … whenever the opportunity arises' (Uhr).
Over time the focus within these groups crystallised around two issues. The first, which drew particularly on the resources of the feminist theologians, was about feminising the language and practices of religion, including a recognition of the female aspects of the godhead. The focus of the second was on removing barriers to women's access to positions of leadership within religious organisations. In religions without a priestly hierarchy, this has been less of an issue, although most of the major traditions remain highly gendered in their worship, restricting opportunities for women's leadership to gender-segregated groups. Within Judaism, divisions over allowing women to lead worship and to teach follow the orthodox-reformed divide, with the more liberal branches striving for a re-reading of sacred texts to allow for the leadership of women on terms equal to men, while the more traditional restrict leadership opportunities to the separate sphere. The first female rabbi, American-born Karen Soria, was appointed to the Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne in 1981 where she served until 1989. The first Australian-born rabbi, Aviva Kipen, was ordained in London in 1991, returning in 1996 to Melbourne where she served in the rabbinic team at Temple Beth Israel, before becoming sole rabbi at Bentleigh.
Within the Christian traditions a more complex pattern has emerged. The relatively free structure of the Unitarian Church created a space for women leaders. During the 19th century, Martha Turner (Serle, ADB; Lemon, 'Webster', AWR) led the Melbourne congregation for a time and, in South Australia, Catherine Helen Spence (Eade, ADB; Land, AWR) was a regular speaker from the pulpit. In the Salvation Army, from its very beginnings, women were accorded the same rank as their husbands, although, in practice, roles tended to be gendered, with the result that it was only single women, such as Eva Burrows who rose to high office. The early years of Pentacostalism were dominated by female preachers, with Jeannie Lancaster and her female converts founding eleven of the eighteen churches planted before 1925. As the churches became more established, leadership typically passed to men and, in the megachurches that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, the pattern was for women to exercise ministry in partnership with their husbands. Hillsong pastor Bobbie Houston preaches regularly to large gatherings of women, as well as to mixed congregations alongside her husband but recognises that 'Brian is … senior pastor, and because I'm married to him and connected in heart and soul with him … I am seen and respected as senior pastor with him also' (Australian Story).
The first formal ordinations of women took place in the Congregational Church. When Winifred Kiek (Phillips, ADB; Lemon, 'Kiek', AWR) was ordained in Adelaide in 1927, she argued that her vocation was God-given, writing: 'All alike are souls; all share, in the love of God and the redemption of Christ. The one thing that matters is personality, not the accidents of Physical form. We don't join the Church as sexual beings, but as spiritual beings. God's gifts are not conditioned by sex' (Register News-Pictorial, 29 May 1929). Isabelle Merry was ordained in Melbourne ten years later, and, throughout her career, articulated her choice in terms of women's rights, arguing that she had 'studied for the Church because she believed women had their place in every profession' (Argus, 16 October 1954). The Methodist Church followed suit in 1966, more in response to 'a liberal push for equality between women and men' than any commitment to feminism, according to deaconess Coralie Ling, the first Victorian woman to be ordained (Age, 25 October 1994). Although all of the early women ministers experienced difficulties at times in gaining parish appointments, there were 36 ordained women in the denominations that came together to form the Uniting Church in 1977, a total that increased dramatically in the first twenty-five years of the church's operation. Other non-Conformist denominations followed their lead, with the Church of Christ and the Baptists ordaining their first women ministers in 1978. The Continuing Presbyterian Church in Australia no longer ordains women and ordination continues to be denied in the Lutheran and Orthodox churches.
The Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW) was founded in NSW in 1983 and went national in 1985. Although it drew its members from across a range of denominations the focus of its activism was on the Anglican Church. Amongst its early members were women like Irene Jeffreys (Secomb, AWR) and Colleen O'Reilly who had long been working within the governing bodies of the church to bring about the changes necessary to advance the cause. MOW, under the leadership of Patricia Brennan gave this internal campaigning a stronger media presence but also allowed opponents to depict the call for women's ordination as a feminist movement rather than a call from God (Porter). The first women were ordained in Perth in 1992 with almost all of the other dioceses (Sydney was the major exception) following by the end of the century. Once this goal was achieved, the focus of campaigners moved to the episcopate with the first bishops, Kay Goldsworthy and Barbara Darling consecrated in 2008.
The struggle for women to be recognised as leaders within the churches did not end with ordination, as masculinist authority structures proved harder to change. The women who are now exercising leadership acknowledge the importance of male mentors who helped them to recognise and realise their vocation but are also aware of a responsibility to feminise models of leadership, broadening notions of ministry without being confined within female-designated roles. The theological objections to women's ordination continue to have influence, even within denominations where such ordination is now commonplace, and the opportunities for women to exercise leadership continue to be constrained. Although the landscape changed dramatically during the course of the 20th century, it would be overly optimistic to argue that that change has seen a complete transformation in masculinist patterns of authority and practice in religious organisations.
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