Story: Gender inequalities

Page 8. Religion

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Women in the 19th-century church

Christianity’s influence on colonial New Zealand society extended well beyond the church doors. The mainstream denominations – including Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans – presented the subordinate position of women as divinely ordained, embedding this belief in their language, rituals and institutional structures.

Women could not become ministers or priests, could not hold official positions, and could not speak during services or official meetings. They were members of the congregation, supporters and fundraisers, and (for Prostestants) hard-working ministers' wives.

In the non-conformist churches – all much smaller than the mainstream denominations – women had a more equal place. In the Society of Friends (Quakers), Bible Christians and Salvation Army, women were on more equal terms with men. Congregationalists and some Methodist and Baptist groups allowed women to preach or speak on religious matters in public.

Women’s church organisations formed from the 1870s onwards. Methodist women’s guilds, Anglican mothers’ unions and Presbyterian women’s associations provided fellowship and spiritual support to members while raising funds for church activities. Some organisations supported missionaries (some of whom were women).

Women’s groups were not always welcomed by the ‘fathers and brethren’ of their parent church. The 1896 Otago and Southland Presbyterian Synod, for example, approved the forming of a women’s missionary union by just one vote.

Women’s work

Tasks traditionally associated with women – caring for children, the elderly, the sick and the poor – remained their responsibility. Protestant churchwomen formed welfare groups, and deaconesses, at first trained overseas and then locally, often cared for women and families in difficulty. Many Roman Catholic orders of nuns had specific roles in relation to teaching and caring for the sick or the poor.

These activities were overseen by men. Welfare groups had male advisory boards, and when their activities were reported to official meetings of the church, it was a man who spoke. Orders of nuns were under the guidance of priests, and like the welfare groups, their activities were spoken about by priests.

Out on her own

Some women worked well outside their accepted role. Often alone and on foot, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert travelled in Hawke’s Bay in the 1860s, healing and spreading the word of God. Far beyond the reach of priests, Aubert was determined to rely on her own judgement.

Speaking rights

From the 1890s women in mainstream Protestant denominations pressed for the right to speak about their activities to church gatherings. By the late 1930s all the churches involved had agreed to this.

For many women churchgoers in the 19th century, religion, political involvement and action against the evils of alcohol were closely related to their Christian beliefs. Many women in the Baptist, Methodist and Congregational churches became involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s and 1890s. They campaigned against the sale of alcohol and in favour of women’s right to vote and a range of social welfare reforms, including women’s access to education and paid work. For these women, Christian belief involved addressing issues relating to poverty, prostitution and family welfare.

Women as ministers and priests

The ordination of women as ministers and priests has been, and in some churches remains, particularly controversial. Actively debated from the mid-20th century, it was accepted by the Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Anglican churches, and the Associated Churches of Christ, between 1951 and 1977. The first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Methodist Church was Phyllis Guthardt in 1959. It was not until 1990 that a woman, Penny Jamieson, was consecrated as a bishop within the Anglican Church. Within the Roman Catholic Church, women remained excluded from the priesthood in the 21st century.

How to cite this page:

Anne Else, 'Gender inequalities - Religion', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gender-inequalities/page-8 (accessed 15 October 2019)

Story by Anne Else, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 20 Jun 2018