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To Leave or to Stay: How Women Can Change the Church

by Hannele Ottschofski | March 02, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

For a long time, I have wondered if a women’s church strike would be effective in changing men’s perception of women. Such a notion would probably shock quite a few women as they would see it almost as blasphemy to fight for justice and equality in a church setting. After all, Christ is the head of the church. Some think that church organization is divinely installed. I disagree. Even though it is God’s church, it is managed by mere men. If churches followed the example of Christ, they would be much more egalitarian, respecting the gifts and participation of women like the early church did. The patriarchal structures are man-made, not dropped from heaven in a divinely inspired book of rules.

The Strike at Putney: A Picture of Unity

Some time ago I came across a short story by L.M. Montgomery (1874–1942) called “The Strike at Putney.” The Women’s Foreign Mission Auxiliary of the Putney Presbyterian congregation invited Mrs. Cotterell, a returned missionary, to speak. They “made arrangements to hold the meeting in the church itself, as the classroom was too small for the expected audience.” When the pastor and the elders of the church heard of their plans, they “declared that no woman should occupy the pulpit of the Putney church.” The women were indignant and called an extraordinary meeting of the WFM Auxiliary. What should they do? They realized that there was no point in trying to convince the men. After a long discussion, one young woman finally came up with a solution. “I think,” she said, “that we must strike.”

“On Sunday morning the men were conscious of a bare, deserted appearance in the church. ... There were no flowers anywhere. … The floor was unswept. ... Dust lay thick on the pulpit Bible.” The five men who were sitting in the choir realized that there were no sopranos or altos. The organist sat in her pew. When asked if she was going to play, she replied, “No. ... You know, if a woman isn’t fit to speak in the church she can’t be fit to sing in it either.” Sunday School was a failure without the women. The women canceled all their activities.

“The men held out for two weeks.” Finally, the pastor announced that Mrs. Cotterell could “occupy the pulpit on the evening appointed for her address. The women all over the church smiled broadly.” The organist “got up and went to the organ.” Together the singing sounded much better. “The strike in the Putney church was over.”

I am particularly impressed by how all the Putney women agreed on the course of action—and all of them followed through. I have often thought about what would happen if women in my church were to strike. I’m afraid we are not united enough to act. It is not that the tasks usually done by women can’t be done by men. But conversely, women could take on many of the tasks traditionally held by men. A church should see itself as a unity in which all see themselves as children of God to whom he has given gifts. If women did not volunteer as nurses, accountants, secretaries, home educators, authors, teachers, Bible study leaders, children’s Bible school leaders, and musicians, how long would the church continue to exist as we know it today?

Woman’s Day Off in Iceland: A Picture of Progress

Maybe I should not call my idea a women’s strike but, adapted from the experience of the women in Iceland, a “Women’s Day Off.” Maybe.

Although women in Iceland got the right to vote in 1915—behind only the countries of New Zealand and Finland—women’s participation in politics was scarce for another sixty years. In 1975 there were only three female members of parliament, and comparing this number to the other Nordic countries was very frustrating. Something had to change. The idea of a strike came up, but many women felt it was too drastic. When the strike was renamed “Women’s Day Off,” it received great support from almost all women in Iceland.

On October 24, 1975, 90 percent of the women in the country decided to show how important they are by refusing to do what they normally would be doing: going to their jobs, caring for their children, and doing the housework. Instead, they went to the women’s rally for equal rights with men. "What happened that day was the first step for women's emancipation in Iceland," Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Iceland’s first female president said. "It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men."

Places of business, schools, and nurseries had to close, and many fathers had to take their children to work. Sausages sold out as they were easy to cook.

In a nation with about 220,000 inhabitants, 25,000 women came together in Reykjavik. They heard speeches, sang, and talked about how to make a change for women. There was a feeling of strength and solidarity among those who were standing in the town square.

Indeed, things changed very rapidly when Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland in 1980, becoming the first woman in the world to be democratically elected as a head of state. She held the position for sixteen years, and during this time Iceland became the world’s most feminist country. Women’s Day Off catapulted the nation to equality.1

There is power when women unite. In Iceland, the overwhelming number of participants in Women’s Day Off made an impact, showing the country’s men how important women are to their families, jobs, and society in general. It was a watershed moment. The people realized that they can only be successful when all join forces to promote the common good.

Maria 2.0: A Picture of Dedication

More recently, a women’s reading circle at a Catholic parish in Germany decided to do more than just talk about the changes they wanted in their church. During the annual May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, they called for a week-long women’s strike during which they would not set foot in church. They held their own services outside. Since that strike in 2019, the Maria 2.0 movement has grown, with women all over Germany and even in neighboring countries participating. After the strike, the women wrote an open letter to Pope Francis that was signed by 42,349 persons. The letter and signatures were presented to the Apostolic Nuntius in Berlin on October 25, 2019. There was still no reaction from the church.

One of the founders of Maria 2.0, the painter Lisa Kötter, remembers how as a child attending a Catholic kindergarten, she was punished for speaking during a time of obligatory silence by the nun in charge, who placed a band-aid across her mouth. This experience led to the creation of the symbol of Maria 2.0: the Madonna with a band-aid over her mouth. Another founder, Andrea Voss-Frick, believes that the church as a moral authority must renew itself after the many cases of abuse and cover-ups. Maria 2.0 demands a new beginning of the Catholic Church, including the complete clarification of all cases of abuse and absolute gender justice, up to the opening of ordained ministries for women. They want women to be allowed to preach instead of just cleaning the candlesticks.

More than 500 years after Martin Luther, on February 21, 2021, Maria 2.0 fastened seven new theses on church and cathedral doors throughout Germany. Their demands included equal rights for men and women, common responsibility, respectful treatment, and transparency. They wanted a sustainable, diverse church without fear, where believers are treated as brothers and sisters equally. The posting of the theses was well-timed before the Spring Council of Bishops and attracted great news coverage. Now even the bishops had to take notice. Silence was no longer possible. The chair of the Bishops’ Conference, Georg Bätzing, asked the women to wait and have patience with the church. He said, “The Catholic church is a global church. The church is not yet ready.”

The question arises, can the reformation of a church happen from within? Even Martin Luther wanted to reform the church instead of leaving it. Some of the women feel that the church is waiting for them to leave so that it can get rid of these troublemakers and continue as usual. In her book, Schweigen war gestern: Maria 2.0 – Der Aufstand der Frauen in der katholischen Kirche (Silence was Yesterday: Maria 2.0—the Women’s Rebellion in the Catholic Church), Lisa Kötter explains why they are staying in the church while rejecting the demonstration of male power. They want a church that is based on love. Even though they are demanding change, they do not want to take anything away from believers who adhere to the traditional church. They want to add something good, to make Christ the center of the church again. However, not long after the book was published in March of 2021, some of the charter members, including Lisa Kötter, left the organized church because they saw no chance of change happening.

How Will We Act?

In many churches, women want full equality but are not prepared to take up the fight. Am I willing to risk my comfort for my conviction? Am I willing to raise my voice to advocate for women's equality in my church? Can I do more than write and talk? Some, like our Catholic sisters, leave their church because they see no prospect of reform and change. But in the Catholic church in Germany, public outrage about the handling of the many cases of abuse within the church is making an impact. I would like to think that the women’s voices that were among the first to call for change are finally being heard.

Are you ready to stay to fight for justice? In Iceland, not only the society changed but the church also changed. Rev. Auður Eir Vilhjálmsdóttir became the first woman to be ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland in 1974. At first, there was still a lot of opposition. “Many young women study theology and are ordained to serve as ministers today. In fact, there are so many motivated women who are making lasting changes in the church. I am confident that these women will continue positive change and influence the direction and daily activities of the church,” she said in an interview with the Lutheran World Foundation.

Maybe we should take an example from these courageous women-strikers—in Putney, Iceland, Germany, and beyond—and take action. Eyes need to be opened, and patriarchal attitudes need to be challenged. God wants his children, men and women, to work together and not against each other. Our challenge is clear: how can we exert our influence toward achieving this understanding?

Primary photo by Andreas Schwarzkopf on Wikimedia Commons.

Listing photo: Icon created by Lisa Kötter for the Maria 2.0 campaign week. "The materials on this site are free to use under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license." (http://www.mariazweipunktnull.de/downloads/)

Notes:

  1. All facts and quotes about Women’s Day Off from Kirstie Brewer, “The day Iceland's women went on strike,” BBC News, 23 October 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34602822

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