“We are Determined:” Suffrage, Ordination, and Coeducation




“I desire that you would remember the Ladies.” Abigail Adams’ suggestion to John Adams, as they contemplated the Declaration of Independence.[1]


[1] Although Americans revere the “founding fathers,” we pay far less attention to the women, of any race, who contributed to the American Revolution and the development of the United States. Abigail Adams, Ann Gwinnett, Sarah Jay, Eliza Pinckney, Phyllis Wheatley, and nine-year old Susan Boudinot all demonstrated leadership at the time of the Revolution. [2] All were dismissed because of their gender. Abigail Adams warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”[3]

[2] From the beginning, the question of women’s leadership in the public sphere rotated around two axes—the rights of women to full inclusion and the benefits to the body politic that such full inclusion would provide. Striking parallels exist between the struggles for women’s suffrage in the United States and the struggles for women’s ordination in US Lutheran church bodies. Many of the leaders of suffrage were people of faith. So were opposition leaders. Rationales and timelines varied radically by geography. The suffrage movement occurred within a context of reform movements—abolition, temperance—even as women’s ordination advocacy also took place in the context of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war and environmental activism, and feminist advocacy against male institutions. This essay looks at suffrage and women’s ordination, and examines the coeducation of American universities as a parallel to the coeducation of the Lutheran clergy.

[3] Women’s suffrage did not come quickly or easily. Despite pleas for rights for women (generally confined to white women), after the Revolution the states that had given women the right to vote rescinded it (New York in 1777; Massachusetts in 1780; New Hampshire in 1784; New Jersey in 1807).

[4] The movement towards women’s suffrage gained momentum in the mid nineteenth century. Suffrage was intertwined with abolition of slavery. Among the pioneer women speaking out against slavery were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, originally from a slaveholding family in South Carolina. At first they spoke only to women, mostly in churches. But Angelina became such a popular speaker that soon men were allowed to hear her speak as well. Gail Collins writes, “Abolition of slavery was different from other reform movements, partly because it drew women so clearly into politics, and partly because it drew them so near to genuine violence.”[4]

[5] The Grimke sisters moved quite naturally from advocating for abolition to advocating for equal treatment of women. In 1838, a series of letters from Sara Moore Grimke to Mary Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, were published under the title “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women.” Grimke points to Genesis 1 to claim that women and men were created equally in God’s image. And she goes further to add regarding the fall, “They both fell from innocence, and consequently from happiness, but not from equality.”[5] Harriet Forten Purvis, an African-American abolitionist and suffragist, formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.[6] She was also active in the American Equal Rights Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association.

[6] Women were not welcomed uniformly as leaders in the abolition movement. When leaders of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 refused to allow women to speak, a number of women peeled off from the male-dominated abolition movement and formed their own groups to advocate for both suffrage and abolition. The Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, held in a Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, issued a “Declaration of Sentiments,” their “Womanifesto”:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal,

that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.[7]


These words would have been music to Abigail Adams’ ears.

[7] Many of the proponents of women’s suffrage in the mid nineteenth century, both women and men, were religious. Quakers like the Grimke sisters and Lucretia Mott typified the movement with a commitment to justice and equality. Antoinette Brown, another suffrage and abolition leader, and a Congregationalist, became the first woman to be ordained in the United States.[8] Sojourner Truth, a formerly enslaved person, spoke out at an Ohio Abolition Convention in 1851, “If the first women God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down, all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” [9]And Elizabeth Cady Stanton, educated as a Calvinist, tried to make sense out of the Bible by pulling together a group of women to re-interpret it as “The Woman’s Bible.”[10]

[8] Many women’s suffrage advocates believed that the vote would be granted to African Americans at the end of the Civil War. Others fractured into groups focusing solely on women’s suffrage or on suffrage for African Americans.[11] The split into separate camps delayed the cause of women’s suffrage. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave the right to vote to formerly enslaved African American men, but not to women.

[9] At the same time, Americans were moving westward into the expanded territories purchased from the French and seized from the original indiginous inhabitants. Both women and men were among the settlers, and shared equal toil. In addition, there were educated and professional women who moved west, having experienced barriers in the east. Chris Enss writes, “While the frontier was influenced by the ravages of war, the distance suffragists there had from the conflicts and infighting of the previous twenty years offered a fresh start,”[12] adding,

Pressure grew, as early as the 1870’s for a national suffrage amendment in Congress. But faced with great opposition—or apathy—on a nationwide scale, many suffrage advocates saw the laws being written on the frontier as the best chance for the vote to take hold in law.[13]


[10] There were a variety of reasons that suffrage took off in the western territories and states—the example and advocacy of competent women already leading, a lure to get more women into the territory, and attitudes about immigrants.[14] Wyoming was first, in 1890, followed by Colorado in 1893, Idaho and Utah in 1896. In contrast, Illinois became the first state east of the Mississippi to allow women to vote, but only in Presidential elections. In 1916, Montana elected Jeannette Rankin to Congress, the first woman to serve. Yet, it wasn’t until 1920 that women received the right to vote across the country.

[11] Although women and men of all races worked for suffrage, women of color like Ida B. Wells, (a lifelong Methodist, awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020), still faced discrimination from suffrage groups.[15] And although Native American women like Zitkala-Sa also worked for suffrage, American Indians were not even recognized as citizens until 1924, with the Indian Citizenship Act.[16] It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the right to vote was backed up with the ability to vote freely for people of color.

[12] And what was the effect of the Nineteenth Amendment? Gail Collins writes:

In fact, the shock for suffragists was that it hardly seemed to have any consequences at all. Most women appeared to vote the way their husbands, brothers, and fathers did—not necessarily because they felt obliged to follow the men’s lead, but because they shared the same loyalties to class, ethnic group, and religion.” [17]


She continues,

The most surprising development was the virtual disappearance, almost overnight, of the political movement that had forced the government to approve woman suffrage in the first place.[18]


[13] It was nearly four decades and two world wars before the next wave of the women’s movement arose. Like the 19th century movement for suffrage, it materialized at the same time as other movements for social change, including civil rights, anti-war, student movement, lowering the voting age, poverty, gay rights, and environmental issues.

[14] As with suffrage, so with the church. There were at least five factors that influenced the church’s move to women’s ordination, besides the above social issues. First, there was, however marginalized, a tradition of women’s leadership in Lutheran churches. Beginning in the 19th century, missionaries who were deemed competent to preach and teach abroad returned home with education and experience to offer the church.[19] There was a movement in the 20th century to allow women as well as men to vote in congregational elections. Much of the research done on the enfranchisement of women in congregations was applicable to the question of ordination.[20]

[15] Second, the women’s organizations that formed the backbone of most congregations not only demonstrated leadership, but also were influential in the church’s decision to ordain women. Lutheran Church Women (LCA)[21] and American Lutheran Church Women (ALC)[22] were strong supporters, both nationally and at the grassroots, along with many male allies. But the women’s organizations were key.

[16] Third, there was the example of other Protestant churches ordaining women. Lutheran Churches were already ordaining women in the Church of Sweden and the Church of Norway, among others.[23] And, there was the example of other Protestant churches in the US who had women as pastors: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Unitarians.

[17] Fourth, there was serious study of Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, and Lutheran Theology. Both the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church appointed committees to produce studies on women’s ordination. There were seminary consultations. And the pan Lutheran (ALC, LCA, LCMS) Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA) produced a report on women’s ordination in 1969,[24] concluding:

  1. There is not conclusive biblical or theological evidence for or against women’s ordination.
  2. Sociological,psychologicaland ecumenical issues are not conclusive.
  3. Lutheran churches may differ.
  4. Lutheran churches should make their decisions in consultation with other Lutheran churches.
  5. The bigger issue is the office of ministry and the ministry of the whole people of God.


[18] And fifth, women’s roles in society at large expanded exponentially. Church people did not live in a vacuum. As they had greater exposure to women in leadership roles in society—in previously gender-determined roles—there was greater awareness of women’s gifts and struggles. Seeing women and men work together as equals in other arenas made it possible for church people to envision the same in the church.

[19] In 1970, both the LCA (by overwhelming “yes” vote)[25] and the ALC (560-414-1)[26] voted in national conventions to authorize the ordination of women. The AELC followed suit in 1976. [27] It should be noted that, unlike in some other churches, once ordination was open to women, theoretically a woman could be called to any position in the church. It took another 9 years for a woman of color to be ordained,[28] and it took 22 years for a woman to be elected bishop. [29] It was 39 years before women in same sex marriages could officially serve as pastors. The lag between 1970 and 2009 was not only a change of heart, but a change in policy.[30] The lag between 1970 and 1979 and 1992 was not one of official policy. Rather, it was how long it took the church to catch up with its decisions.

[20] Unlike some other denominations that had a cadre of women ready to be ordained as soon as the church made its decision, the Lutheran churches moved more slowly. The first women to be ordained had already earned MDivs, and were working in the church. It took some years for the church to reach a critical mass of women pastors, and for the institutions of the church to adjust to the presence of women in seminaries, congregations, synods and churchwide positions. It wasn’t until 2019, 49 years after Lutheran churches voted to ordain women, that the ELCA adopted a wide-ranging social statement on women and justice: Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action.[31]

[21] Women’s ordination in the church, like women’s suffrage in the country, had two foci: women’s equality and rights, and the gifts that women bring to the church, and to the country. Although women’s rights arguments predominated in the suffrage movement, the potential benefits to the country of women’s political involvement were a strong secondary theme. In the ordination arguments, the rights of women took a back seat to the argument that the whole body would benefit by fuller inclusion.

[22] That said, women’s path in the church, both before and after ordination, has not been easy. I would like to compare it with another movement that was going on simultaneously—coeducation of elite male universities, namely Yale and Princeton.[32] At both Yale and Princeton there was great student demand for coeducation. While both had admitted women to graduate and professional programs for years, neither admitted undergraduate women until 1969. And, rather than responding to pleas for justice and equal rights, the university administrations caved to fear of enrollment numbers dropping if there weren’t women around.[33]

[23] In the early years of coeducation the universities were like the church in that they hadn’t prepared for all the implications of having women around, and did not have universal buy-in from all senior leaders. So it was rough at times. It was also difficult because of the imbalance of numbers. Whether at university or seminary, women routinely experienced being the only woman in the class, frequently asked to give “the woman’s point of view.” That was as absurd a question in Hebrew grammar as it was in mathematics. But while the church numbers were low because there was not yet a critical mass of women enrolling, the university numbers were kept artificially low by strict quotas of women enrolled. At Yale, for instance, the President promised that the inclusion of women at 250 would never jeopardize the university’s commitment to “a thousand male leaders.”[34]

[24] Just as coeducation in universities has not solved all gender issues, and universal suffrage has not solved all justice issues, the church’s decision in 1970 did not immediately change the relationship between women and men in the church. But it was a bold start, just as suffrage was a century ago. More than a century before the 19th amendment was ratified, there were states who permitted women to vote. In each case, that vote was rescinded. In the early days of women’s ordination there was fear that it, too, might be rescinded, that women would be sacrificed for ecumenical harmony.[35] But the threats did not change the trajectory of the church. And we move forward, proclaiming, reforming, lamenting and celebrating.




Additional Resources

Gladys Moore and Janet Peterman, “Women’s Ordination Anniversaries Adult Forum.” www.ELCA.org/50yearsofordainedwomen


Maria Erling and Susan Wilds McCarver, “The Americanization of American Lutheranism: The Democratization of Authority and the Ordination of Women,” Parts 1 and 2, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, October 1, 2011 and November 1, 2011. www.elca.org/JLE






[1] Gail Collins, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. (New York: 2003, Perennial), 82.

[2] Ibid., 77-82.

[3] Abigail Adams, Letter to John Adams, March 31, 1776.

[4] Collins, America’s Women, 165.

[5] Sarah Moore Grimke, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman. Reprint Edition. San Bernardino: University of California, 7.

[6] “Harriet Forten Purvis: Abolitionist and Suffragist.” www. womenhistoryblog.com/2016/08/harriet-forten-purvis (accessed June 24, 2020).

[7] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, quoted in editors’ preface to The Woman’s Bible. (Seattle: 1986, Margaret B. Johns), vi.

[8] Collins, America’s Women, 100.

[9] Chris Enss, No Place for a Woman: The Struggle for Suffrage in the Wild West. (Lanham, MD: 2020, Rowman & Littlefield), 9.

 [10] Stanton, editors’ preface to The Woman’s Bible, vi.

[11] Enss, No Place for a Woman, 22.

[12] Ibid., xxi.

[13] Ibid., 102.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Collins, America’s Women, 314-316.

[16] Erin Blakemore, “The Suffragists,” in “100 Women of the Year,” Time Magazine, March 5, 2020, www.time.com/579244/the-suffragists-100-women-of-the-year/

[17] Collins, America’s Women, 338.

[18] Ibid., 339.

[19] Gracia Grindal, “How Lutheran Women Came to be Ordained,” in Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry 1970-1995,ed. Gloria E. Bengstson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), 37.

[20] Maria Erling, “The Americanization of American Lutheranisn: Democratization of Authority and the Ordination of Women, Part I,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, October 1, 2011, paragraph 28.

[21] Dorothy J. Marple, “God at Work Among Us,” in Bengston, Ibid., 25-27.

[22] Margaret Barth Wold, “We Seized the Spirit’s Moment,” in Bengston, Ibid., 18-20.

[23] The Participation of Women in the Ordained Ministry and Leadership in LWF Member Churches, ed. Office for Women in Church and Society, Department for Theology and Public Witness of the Lutheran World Federation (Geneva, Switzerland: Lutheran World Federation, 2016), 11-14. An important influence was Krister Stendahl, The Bible and the Role of Women. (Philadelphia, Fortress,1966).

[24] Raymond Tiemeyer, The Ordination of Women (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), 54-55.

[25] Marple, “God at Work Among Us,” 26.

[26] Wold, “We Seized the Spirit’s Moment,” 20.

[27] Grindal, “How Lutheran Women Came to be Ordained,” 42.

[28] Lydia Rivera Kalb was the first woman of color, followed by Earleen Miller, both in 1979. M. Wyvetta Bullock and Cheryl Stewart Pero, “Introduction” in God’s Faithfulness on the Journey: Reflections by Women of Color, ed. Rosetta e. Ross (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2015)

[29] April Ulring Larson was elected by the LaCrosse Area Synod in 1992.

[30] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Minutes of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.” CA09.05.27. 372,373.

[31]Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action.” www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/SocialStatements/sexism.

[32] I have left out Harvard because of the complicated relationship with Radcliffe.

[33] Nancy Weiss Malkiel,” Keep the Damned Women Out:” The Struggle for Coeducation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 89.

[34] Anne Gardiner Perkins, Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant. (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2019), 141.

[35] This same threat was used in 2009, to discourage the ELCA from opening the clergy roster to LGBTQIA+ folks in committed relationships.