Changing Roles of Women in Mainstream Protestantism

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Tue, 03/01/1988
End Date: 
Wed, 07/31/1991

The Episcopal Women's History Project Team of Joanna B. Gillespie, Catherine M. Prelinger, Mary S. Donovan, Nancy Van Scoyoc, and Sandra H. Boyd undertook over 1988-91 a study of the changing roles of women within the Episcopal Church in the United States. The team divided their study into two related tracks, an empirical investigation of women's experience within a congregational context, and a theorectical component dealing with gender issues within the Episcopal church across the United States drawing insights from historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and theologians. The empirical component 1) profiled the general context of a local congregation through review of newsletters, bulletins, and other instruments of the congregation as well as structured conversations with its members and on-site participation in worship services and parish meetings; 2) gathered demographic data on the congregation under study through survey questionnaire that included questions regarding church participation and programs; and 3) conducted in-depth guided interviews of five to ten women in three age groups and identified various categories of women such as single, married, divorced, widowed, unemployed and retired. Utilizing the data gathered under three categories mentioned above, the team produced a substantial profile of three generations of women within the Episcopal church. The team concluded that the younger generation of women (up to and including age 40) aimed to carve out their own identity and place in a religious body, the “bridge generation” (age 41-60) explored aspects of new experiences opened to them by the secular women’s movement, and the older generation (age 61 and above) focused on preserving and valuing the role of church in their lives.

The team published a book titled "Episcopal Women: Gender, Sprituality, and Commitment in a Mainline Protestant Denomination," (Oxford University Press, 1996) that resulted from the theorectical component of their study. Various authors, including the core members of the team wrote on topics such as theological ambivalence between the official position of the Episcopal Church and the spirituality of women; women and social projects in urban churches; aging and the Episcopal church; women's organization within the Episcopal church; history of women's experience within a local Episcopal congregation; clerical leadership with respect to gender; and the Sunday School as a source of vitality. The book also included a narrative on the empirical component of study on how various factors such as age, life-cycle, experience, marital status, education, income and family traditions produce different perspectives on church and organizational participation.