As women entered the ministry, Unitarian Universalist language and habits changed.
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I came into the UU ministry at a propitious time of change and opportunity and found doors open to me often previously closed to women.
The General Assembly passed the Women and Religion Resolution in 1977, the year before I began my ministry. In the late 1970s, entering the ministry was still a novel experience for a woman. Females constituted but 5 percent of UU clergy. How well I remember the first intentional gathering of women ministers at Grailville in Loveland, Ohio, in 1978. Seriously lacking role models, we women were hungry for exchange of experiences with one another. Sisters in need, we clung onto one another’s words and presentations. We discussed issues of authority and leadership, as well as tensions with our male colleagues. The ministry was still a men’s club in those years, and calling a woman was an experiment in bravery.
The Ministerial Sisterhood Unitarian Universalist had been formed by one of our earlier colleagues, the Rev. Marjorie Leaming, which gave women clergy a forum in which to ground ourselves with one another.
There were many new topics to share in sermons and writing. We introduced inclusive language, making the case for taking all people into account. Issues of human rights escalated as women preached on such subjects as women’s right to choose and tackled the many “isms” that harm and diminish. A feminization of God evolved in language and song.
An unforgettable experience was creating a service for the 1980 General Assembly in Albuquerque about women’s roles in UU congregations. With music and story, we celebrants drew our gathered Association into the drama of its “herstory” as founders, congregants, religious educators, and ministers. We referred to some of our subjects as Mrs. James Comstock and Mrs. Charles Brooks because we could not find their given names. A painful chord was struck, as women realized they had given away their names before having claimed them.
As women clergy escalated in numbers, the tone of ministers’ meetings softened, and as trust grew, ministers of both sexes began to share the deeper concerns of their common vocation. Slowly but surely, competition morphed into cooperation.
We're still on the path.
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The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle is minister emerita of First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, which she served with her husband, the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, from 1978 to 2002. She was a candidate for the UUA presidency in 1993.
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