by Margaret Barth Wold

“Excuse me, Dr. Schoitz, but are there any women on this committee?”

My question seemed an affront to the polished dignity of the conference room next to the president’s office on the fourth floor of the building that housed the American Lutheran Church (ALC) offices. I had interrupted the deliberate flow of well-chosen phrases in the President Frederick Schoitz’s annual report to the Executive Board of American Lutheran Church Women (ALCW) for 1969. I suddenly became acutely aware that all eyes were now turned in my direction.

Briefly, I thought back to my election to the ALCW board at its Triennial Convention held in Portland, Oregon, three years earlier. I must confess that, as a pastor’s wife, I had been more involved with organizing and directing Lutheran preschools and day care centers than with women’s organizations. But, after my election, I had a growing sense that the women of the Lutheran church had been given a moment in God’s time to effect some change in what many of us had come to believe was an unscriptural policy of the church with regard to the ordination of women.

At this first meeting of that board, I felt myself to be part of a group of women unique to their time in church history. Under the leadership of the president Mildred LeRud from California and executive director Arna Njaa, both long-time advocates for full partnership for women in the church, there was a growing sense among board members that this was a historic moment in the church.

Discrimination and Restrictions

As women in the church, many of us had become sensitive to discrimination. On the congregational level, we had been assigned to tasks that were deemed “appropriately feminine”: serving dinners, quilting, taking charge of the nursery, teaching Sunday school classes, and singing in the choir. In some congregations women were still not allowed to hold office or even to speak or vote at congregational meetings. In fact, in one district of the ALC, women were not permitted to serve as delegates at district conventions until 1966. No one disciplined such congregations.

Some of us had experienced vocational restrictions. As a student of Greek and Bible at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, I had had a powerful sense of call to become a teacher of biblical studies at one of our church colleges. At the time of my graduation I was told that women were restricted from teaching the Bible at Lutheran schools because of a biblical injunction in one of the epistles that says no woman is permitted to teach or have authority over men. I questioned the advisor who informed me of this practice, especially since I was being graduated summa cum laude, while male classmates of mine who had struggled through Greek and religion classes were being accepted at seminaries without any restriction. If I could do the work, why should my gender make any difference, I wondered?

Later, when I applied to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America for work overseas, I was accepted to be a Bible teacher in China. At that time I puzzled over the fact that my Letter of Call contained no restriction against my teaching Scripture to Chinese men.

As I looked at the women seated around the conference table in Minneapolis back in 1969, I thought of the many abilities represented in this group. Each was creative, dedicated, hard-working, and capable. I knew that any one of these women could have served as a pastor had she wanted to do so and had she been given the opportunity.

I knew, of course, that not all of the ALW staff or board members felt that changes in the current policies were needed or even desired for women in the church. In fact, the body language of some of those around the table expressed some irritation at my question. As a mother of five children, I could agree with them that caring for one’s children and being a homemaker was a very important vocation in itself. The ALCW’s concern for women as caregivers was evidenced by the many articles about mothers and young children that appeared in Scope, the organization’s monthly magazine.

However, we had not yet begun to address the problems facing a growing number of single mothers, or the concerns of unmarried or divorced women. Dual career marriages, with or without children, were overlooked. Noting that our membership was becoming older every year, we tended to blame younger church women for not attending ALCW meetings rather than admitting that the cause might be our own lack of programming relevant to their needs.

Since ordained men controlled church budgets and allocated program funds, many issues that were becoming vital to women both inside and outside of the church were just not being addressed.

Battered women, incest victims, female alcoholics, and discrimination in the workplace were mentioned rarely, if at all. In fact, sexual matters were largely ignored in our program resources.

For that reason, when Schiotz mentioned in his report that he had just appointed an ad hoc committee to study the ordination of women and to make a recommendation for or against that practice to the ALC Church Council at its meeting in June 1970, I felt a powerful conviction that this was the Spirit’s moment for Lutheran women in the United States. My question was spontaneous.

“Dr. Schiotz, are there any women on this committee?”

The question hung in the air of the conference room, partly challenge, partly prayer, demanding an answer.

After a brief moment of silence, Schiotz replied, “No, and of course, there should be.”

Then he asked, “Mrs. LeRud, will you appoint two women to serve on the committee?”

LeRud wasted no time. She immediately told Schiotz that Evelyn Streng, a geology professor form Texas Lutheran College in Seguin, Texas, and I would be the ALCW’s representatives on his newly appointed committee.

Thus, two lay women (and weren’t we all lay women at that time?) joined the clergymen on the committee. With some fear and trembling because of the great weight of responsibility we both felt, but with much prayer that this might be a Kairos moment for Lutheran women in the United States, we went to our first meeting.

Dr. Bruno Schlachtenhaufen, president of the Iowa District of the ALC, was chairman and Dr. William Larsen, former president of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC), was the staff person assigned to work with the committee. At that time Larsen was the executive director of the Division for Theological Education of the ALC. Many years later, Schlachtenhaufen tole me that up until the final meeting he had expected the committee to recommend that a study of ministry be made by the church before it made a decision on the ordination of women.

Streng and I had on mutually agreed-upon strategy in going into the meetings. We wanted to keep our minds open and to do a faithful job of reading all the materials and weighing all the issues. Since neither of us had had any previous contacts with the other committee members, we had no idea how any of them felt about ordination or about women. It didn’t take long for the two of us to realize, however, that these men had no intention of recommending that women be permitted to join the clergy roster.

The materials on which our deliberations were based consisted mainly of studies prepared be three theologians, one man from each of the major Lutheran synods (Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod). The Lutheran Council in the USA (LCUSA), had asked these men to make an exhaustive study of all the reasons- biblical, ecclesiastical, sociological, emotional, psychological, and so on- that were for or against the ordination of women.

We met, studied, and met again, and Streng and I were sure that the committee was going to vote against ordaining women.

Our study of the LCUSA documents and the other recommended readings had only served to strengthen our conviction that the church, by its denial or ordination to women, was in grave error and was acting contrary both to the intent of the gospel and to the practices of the earliest Christian communities.

We requested and were each given permission to address the committee. In 1969, many Lutheran lay women were searching the Scriptures for all the evidence we could find of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. We were reclaiming our identity as persons made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), affirming our liberation by Jesus from patriarchal proscriptions imposed on our God-given physiological processes (Mark 5:25-34; see Leviticus 15:19-30), and acting on our conviction that Jesus had given his blessing to women as bearers of the Word of God (Luke 11:27-28).

Our quest was a lonely one. Women who are considered major theologians now were little known in the 1960s. Mary Daly’s landmark work, The Church and the Second Sex, was published (by Harper & Row) in 1968. I had found her book, along with Krister Stendahl’s The Bible and the Role of Women (Fortress Press, 1966), helpful reading. But, oddly enough, it was a Missouri Synod pastor’s study of the relevant scriptures that had motivated my own journey most significantly. The book by Russell C. Prohl was published in 1957 (Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids, Mich.) and entitled Women in Church.

Streng was the first the address the committee. When she spoke, I could hear the strong emotion behind her words, and I felt that same emotion trembling in my own voice when I spoke. There was no way we could hide the pain of so many years of our perceived devaluation by God and our rejection as whole persons by the church we loved and served.

Apparently our presentations were effective. When Larsen, at our final meeting, came with a strong and positive resolution that the ALC Church Council recommend the ordination of women to the General Convention that fall, it was accepted unanimously.

When members of the ALCW Executive Board received the report on the resolution to go before the ALC Church Council, they were so confident that both the council and the convention would support the recommendation that a victory celebration was planned to replace the routine oral report of the ALCW president, a report that was included on the agenda of every biennial convention of the church.

Our board report was scheduled immediately before the convention was the vote on the ordination resolution. But, instead of the ALCW president standing up on the platform alone, all of us—board members and staff—marched in to the convention hall to the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Clapping and singing along with the recorded voice of Nat King Cole, we brought the mostly male delegation to their feet.

The vote that followed was more than enough to carry the motion.

It was indeed the Spirit’s moment for women in the American Lutheran Church.

This essay is excerpted from Lutheran Women in Ordained Ministry, 1970-1995, published by Women of the ELCA. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the Lutheran church, we have published a number of excerpts from this resource. Browse the full collection here.