This is the fourth installment in CBE’s celebratory series: Women’s History Wednesday. In our first installment, Rachel Asproth explored four strategies that patriarchal history has used to erase women. In our second installment, third installment, and in this installment, Sarah Rodriguez, a former CBE intern, will profile three subversive egalitarian women who bucked gender expectations to make history.
In shining a light on these women’s stories, we will defy patriarchy’s attempts to marginalize the historical contributions of women. Instead, we will unashamedly celebrate their courage and persistence.
Last week, we wrote about the life and work of Jo Anne Lyon, the first female general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church. This week’s article will focus on Rev. Emily Awino Onyango, an Anglican priest ordained in her native Kenya.
Emily was born and raised in a Christian home. She spent her childhood learning Christian values, having family prayers, and attending church. At the age of ten, Emily attended a children’s camp. It was at this camp that Emily first decided to have a personal relationship with Christ.
As she grew older, the people around her encouraged her in her faith. For instance, she said, “When I was in secondary school, I was greatly inspired by my Christian religious education teacher, Lorna Mwanga, who was very passionate about her faith. I also greatly admired the life and vocation of the prophets that she was teaching about.” Emily learned much from her religious teachers, and she grew to greatly admire the female evangelists and administrators in her church.
I also asked Emily to list some female missionaries who inspired her. She named Olive Owen, the wife of Archdeacon Owen who worked in Nyanza, Kenya in the 1940s. Olive Owen supported the women in her community and fought for women’s rights in the community and in the church. Thus, it is easy to see why she inspires Emily, as Emily has faced her share of uphill battles while entering church ministry in Kenya.
According to Emily, “Olive Owen said that her main mission was to liberate the girls in her community who were suffering. She was one of the people who worked hard for the establishment of a girl’s school… and supported the girls who were being forced into marriage with older men.”
Emily felt that God had called her to church ministry, so she applied to St. Paul’s United Theological College, from which she graduated in 1983. Next, she became a Sunday school coordinator in the diocese and a lay reader at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Kisumu, Kenya. She describes this work as “very fulfilling, as [she] had the opportunity to influence the worldview of the children.” Emily advanced in church leadership when she was appointed as a deacon on July 29, 1984. She was eventually ordained as a priest on December 15, 1985.
Naturally, Emily faced much resistance as she climbed church leadership. Although the Lambeth Conference in 1978 allowed for women to be ordained in the Anglican Church, each diocese was allowed to choose whether or not they were going to ordain women as priests.
The Diocese of Maseno South decided to affirm women’s ordination, and Rev. Lucia Okuthe became the first female Anglican priest in Kenya. Of course, Rev. Okuthe’s ordination was not without controversy. According to Emily, “People found [women’s ordination] difficult to accept because it was against African culture . . . Even as I was teaching, they had stereotypes, like ‘women are stupid’ and ‘women cannot keep secrets.’”. Emily had to contend with a great amount of gender-based prejudice when she started going through the process of ordination, something most women in ministry experience in pursuing their calling.
Many disagreed with the ordination of Rev. Lucia Okuthe, but according to Emily, she still had an advantage over Emily. She said, “People argued that Lucia was in a better position because she was a widow and she was past menopause, while I was young and single.” The clergy of the church in which Emily was ordained mainly objected to Emily’s marital status, because they believed that marriage made women distinguished and respectable in society. Nevertheless, Emily was ordained as a single woman.
When Emily first entered ministry, she saw a great gender disparity. She had graduated with men who immediately began earning twice as much as she did. Moreover, she did not receive housing allowances like the men. When she started teaching in a Bible school, “it was evident that most of the ordinands, who were predominately men, were against having women in the ministry.”
Every area of the world faces different challenges to gender equality. Emily noted that some parts of her culture have perpetuated gender disparity in the church. She said that African traditional culture contains “negative stereotypes and myths [about women] that inform the worldview of the people.” Emily believes that these beliefs, along with a patriarchal interpretation of Scripture, have impeded the growth of egalitarianism in Africa.
Nevertheless, Emily still remains positive. While she encountered resistance to her ordination, she also met many Christians and parishioners who encouraged her and praised her spiritual gift for ministry.
Emily is currently researching gender inequality. She aims to devise a curriculum that will empower members of the clergy and the laity to understand gender issues. She also continues to train clergy, evangelists, and others, as well as perform advocacy work in her community. Emily is one of the many women forging a path for other women in church leadership.
 Emily Onyango, interview by Sarah Rodriguez, October 6, 2016.
Since this article was written, Emily was consecrated as the Rt. Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango, the first female bishop in the Anglican Church of Kenya. And she has published her book, Gender and Development: A History of Women’s Education in Kenya.