By David Schultz
Mattie Yates McMahon was born near Griggsville on Aug. 5, 1851. Although largely forgotten by history, she holds the distinction as the first woman elected to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The first General Conference she was to attend was held in 1900 in Chicago. Delegates came from all regions of the United States as well as foreign conferences such as the Foochow Conference in China.
Methodist Episcopal annual conferences had elected female delegates to General Conference as early as 1888. Among them was temperance leader and educator France Willard. Earlier delegates, however, withdrew their names. McMahon holds the distinction of being the first woman elected to General Conference (in 1900) who was also admitted to General Conference (in 1904). She also arranged to have her voice heard at the 1900 General Conference.
In 1900, the Women’s Suffrage movement was in full swing in America; however, the right to vote had been granted to women only in four states and full suffrage would not occur until passage of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26, 1920.
A May 3, 1900, newspaper article provides a colorful background as to why Mrs. McMahon declined:
The only woman reserve delegate to the General Conference is Mrs. Levi W. McMahon of Griggsville, Ill. A great many of the church dignitaries are in consternation for fear her appearance at Chicago will upset all the provisional brethren. Let them fly to Dr. Buckley for defense. O these women! Like Banquo’s ghost, they appear at the table and spoil the entertainment.
In the 1900 Illinois Conference Journal (page 58), the presiding elder for the West Jacksonville District confirmed that consternation. On the other hand, his report also betrayed his discomfort with inclusive language concerning women as he gave his own opinion of the debate:
The serenity of the District was undisturbed by the “Storm Centers” that prevailed around the Auditorium in the city by the lake during the month of May….Had it not been for the graceful and gracious withdrawal from the General Conference of that elected and gifted lady “lay member,” from the West Jacksonville District, Mrs. Mattie Yates McMahon, the storm would, no doubt, have developed into a cyclone. There were probably not more than 30 persons, including ministers and members in the 30 pastoral charges of the District, who were anxious for the accomplishment of the changes effected, while many regarded them as unnecessary and unwise. They have the feeling that frequent tinkering of the Church in the way of doubtful legislation is weakening, if not disastrous. Indeed, it may reasonably be questioned whether much of the radical legislation of the last 25 years has really added to the moral power and efficiency of the Church. It would be difficult to demonstrate that such has been the case in some instances.
As to the tinkering, the Journal of the 1900 General Conference (page 106f) reflects a debate concerning the admission of lay delegates to the conference as well as equal representation of clergy and lay delegates. Equal representation was adopted; however, the General Conference retained the right to challenge whether or not individual elected delegates would be duly admitted. Presumably, this meant they retained the right to refuse admission to women. Rather than test the resolution, Mrs. McMahon “graciously withdrew.” Had she been admitted, she would have been seated among 400-plus delegates.
She did not withdraw without a voice, however. Mrs. McMahon requested D. H. Moore to present a short speech to the conference on her behalf. Her speech is recorded in the Journal of the 1900 General Conference (page 107):
To the members of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Chicago, Ill.:
Greeting. In presenting to you my greetings, I desire to say that I have not swerved one iota from the views I have always held in regard to the rights of women to a seat in your honorable body.
I believe the General Conference is the supreme court of the Methodist Episcopal Church (editor’s note: the current Judicial Council body wasn’t created until the 1968 merger), and that it was in its power to have so interpreted the Constitution of the Church that the question of women’s eligibility could have been settled 12 years ago, when Frances Willard, of blessed memory, and other elect women of the Church presented themselves for admission.
I have no doubt of my own eligibility. I believe that the Church will never attain its highest plane of usefulness until there is equal representation, clerical and lay, in its great lawmaking body. Unequal representation is un-American!
Therefore, waiving none of the principles involved in the eligibility of women, yet, for the sake of removing every possible hindrance to the immediate seating of these provisional candidates, so far as that hindrance may be occasioned by the question of admission, I shall not present my credentials for admission to this Conference. When elected a provisional (lay) delegate by my own Lay Conference, a responsibility came with it that could not be lightly treated. That responsibility is now transferred to you.
The question of women’s eligibility is not a question of personal preference, but one of solemn duty to the Church militant. So long as it is left unsettled, so long is our beloved Church out of harmony with the divine comprehensiveness of the Gospel of Christ and the spirit of the age. May our great Church take no backward step!
Very respectfully yours,
(Mrs.) Mattie Yates McMahon
“Fairview Farm,” Griggsville, Ill.
Four years later, it was time for another General Conference. Mrs. McMahon was again selected as a lay delegate representing Illinois at the 1904 General Conference held in California. In so doing, this native of a rural, downstate Illinois community secured a place in history. This time, however, Mrs. McMahon was not alone. Twenty-four lay delegates and 30 lay reserves were women.
(Adapted from a biographical sketch that was used as part of a Mattie McMahon Day celebration at Griggsville UMC when Rev. Schultz was pastor)