Women's suffrage at General Conference
By Paul Black
When the 2015 Annual Conference gathered to elect its delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference, the issue of gender was never openly discussed.
In fact, one clergy and three laity delegates elected are female for the 2016 General Conference and three female clergy and two laywomen will join the General Conference delegation as Jurisdictional Conference delegates with an additional clergywoman and three laywomen selected as jurisdictional alternates.
What we take for granted was a long struggle within the church and its predecessor denominations to grant both representation of women as well as eventually, ordination of women clergy – something that wasn’t attained until some 60 years later. And there are some Illinois connections.
The United Methodist Church is the product of five antecedent denominations – Evangelical, United Brethren, Methodist Protestant, Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal South.
The Methodist Protestant Church was the first in the United Methodist family to seat women at their General Conference in 1892 when Eugenia St. John of Kansas was seated as a ministerial delegate was were three lay women – Melissa M. Bonnet of West Virginia; Mrs. M.J. Morgan of Indiana and A.E. Murphy of Iowa. The MPC was not only the first to allow women to participate as delegates but the first to recognize the full ministerial status of a woman in allowing her a seat as a ministerial delegate.
In 1893, the United Brethren in Christ for the first time included two women as General Conference lay delegates – Mattie A. Brewer was seated with the Lower Wabash delegation and Mrs. S.J. Staves with the Des Moines delegation. This was also the first General Conference where lay delegates were elected as lay representation was only established four years earlier.
In the M.E. Church North, five women were elected lay delegates for the first time in 1888 with another 16 elected as lay reserves. But opposition to their eligibility prevented them from being seated. The controversy over “the woman question” continued to persist until 1900 when Mattie Yates McMahon of Griggsville was elected but not seated at General Conference (see related story). Despite not being seated, the controversy led to the acceptance of women delegates and their inclusion in 1904.
In 1904, 24 women were elected as lay delegates and reserves. While McMahon was again elected by the Illinois Conference (a predecessor of the Central Illinois Conference), Emeline A. Hypes became the first woman elected from the former Southern Illinois Conference.
The M.E. Church South first extended laity rights to women in 1918 and at the 1922 General Conference, 20 women took their places as lay delegates.
Lay delegates first attended the General Conference in the United Evangelical Association in 1898, representation in church governance in 1903 and lay participation in General Conference in 1907. However, women were not admitted even after the 1922 merger to form the Evangelical Church. It would be 1946 before women were extended laity rights. Among the “laymen” elected that year was Mrs. Edward Stukenberg of Freeport, Ill., and Irene Haumerson of Wisconsin.
Other women 'firsts' and Illinois connections...
(Information for the article was largely adapted from “Ecclesiastical Suffrage: The First Women Participants at General Conference in the Antecedents of The United Methodist Church,” by Karen Heetdeeks Strong, Methodist History, Vol. 25, No. 1, October 1986)