Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Women and Vocation in the Episcopal Church: Reflections on Our History1

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Women and Vocation in the Episcopal Church: Reflections on Our History1

Article excerpt

A few years ago I was given one of those gifts most historians dream about." A box of papers belonging to Elizabeth Dyer, known in Episcopal Church history as Mrs. Randolph H. Dyer, and the first woman to be seated in the House of Deputies in 1946. A deputy from the diocese of Missouri, Dyer was nominated by her rector and elected by her diocese in order to emphasize the importance of the role of women in the governance "and a feeling in the diocese that women were not being given enough responsibility in the legislative body of the church."' At the fifty-fifth General Convention in September 1946 in Philadelphia, the national executive board of the Woman's Auxiliary prepared a resolution that proposed that the terms "laymen" and "laity," in the constitution, canons, and other official documents of the church be understood to include women.

Active in her local parish, St. Peter's Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Elizabeth Dyer came with an impressive Episcopal lineage: her grandfather was Frederic D. Huntington, the first bishop of the diocese of Central New York; her uncle was James Otis Sergeant Huntington, founder of the Order of the Holy Cross; her brother, George P. Huntington was rector of Immanuel Church, Bellows Falls, Vermont; and both her father Henry Barrett Huntington, a retired English professor at Brown University, and her husband, Randolph Dyer, sat on vestries and diocesan committees. Dyer went on record to confirm that the credit for her election belonged to the diocese that supported her candidacy.4 "I do hope they seat you, and that you will enjoy the experience," wrote Bishop Appleton Lawrence of the diocese of Western Massachusetts, a family friend. "I think it is grand that you are willing to be the guinea pig.;"5

Included in Elizabeth Dyer's papers is a newspaper clipping from Eleanor Roosevelt's syndicated column "My Day," dated 1 June 1946. Dyer did not note why she saved this particular column, though the systematic organization of her papers suggests that its inclusion was deliberate, and that perhaps Roosevelt's message was particularly inspirational to her. The column discusses the United Nations' Human Rights Commission's Subcommission on the Status of Women. An advocate for the rights of women, Roosevelt was also opposed to a federal equal rights amendment which she believed would wipe out protective legislation for women in industry. "We cannot change the fact that women are different from men," wrote Roosevelt. "It's true that some women can do more than men, and some can de men's jobs better than men can do them. But the fact that they are different cannot be changed, and it is fortunate for us that this is the case. The best results are always obtained when men and women work together, abilities and contributions may differ but that, in every field, they supplement each other."6

Dyer's record of her General Convention experience consists mostly of news clippings and reports from convention, as well as some of her notes and correspondence. While she joined the Episcopal Evangelical Fellowship, and made an appearance at the Triennial, it appears that Dyer turned down other opportunities to advance herself, including an opportunity to serve as acting chairman of the National Cathedral Association.7 While she appreciated the invitations to speak, she did not "purport to be a speaker." Instead of a public figure, Elizabeth Dyer saw herself as "not an aggressive person" or a person with "a wide circle of acquaintance" but as someone whose primary ministry was as a wife and mother, and who was dedicated to the wider work of the church.

Elizabeth Dyer was seated in the House of Deputies on the first day of convention, 10 September 1946, amidst "a great deal of excitement" and after an "enthusiastic" voice vote. "Mrs. Randolph Dyer Chosen as a Layman After a Flurry of Debate," read one of the headlines/ Deputies from the dioceses of Maine, Newark, and Oklahoma spoke against seating Dyer, and an attempt to postpone until the constitutional ramifications of the issue could be considered was blocked. …

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