In November 1992 Time magazine heralded the arrival of ‘a second Reformation’. The magazine’s cover story chronicled the moment in which the controversial Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure was passed by the Church of England’s parliamentary body, General Synod, on 11 November 1992. After decades of impassioned debate and discussion, the Motion to ordain women to the priesthood received the necessary two-thirds majority in the Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity.
The author of the cover story, Richard N. Ostling, argued that feminism was rapidly emerging ‘as the most vexing thorn for Christianity’. Ostling declared that ‘not since King Henry VIII broke with the papacy 458 years ago has the normally decorous Church of England known such passion as it did last week, when it swept away by a margin of two votes the rule that only men may serve as Anglican priests’.
On the day of the vote, supporters of the Measure anxiously gathered in Dean’s Yard outside Church House in Westminster where the debate was taking place. When the result of the vote was announced, those who had dedicated years of their lives to campaigning for women’s ordination cheered and hugged whilst others sang and danced to Jubilate Deo in joyful thanksgiving.
1,300 women deacons, who had been ordained since 1987, were now eligible for ordination to the priesthood. Among the jubilant supporters a group of Roman Catholic women stood alongside their Anglican sisters on the steps of Church House, with placards declaring ‘R.C. WOMEN NEXT!’ In a nod to the explosive decision undertaken by the Church, activists sent fireworks and champagne corks, soaring into the London skyline.
As supporters wearing crucifixes and dog collars dispersed from Dean’s Yard and entered pubs and bars across London, they were greeted by strangers who asked, ‘did you do it then?’ On that cold November evening these visual signifiers of religious devotion stimulated conversations about a topic which had captured the imagination of religious and secular observers alike.
Alongside the dog collars and crucifixes, many women also wore pieces of merchandise produced by the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW). Launched in 1979 MOW was the main organisation campaigning for legislative change to enable women to be priests in the Church of England. One of the most recognisable pieces of merchandise produced by MOW was a series of ‘Graffiti badges’ which were sold during the 1980s and early 1990s to help raise awareness of the cause and funds for the movement. These colourful enamelled lapel badges were available through MOW’s mail order service, costing 25p each.
The tone and message of these eye-catching badges varied significantly, providing visual depictions of the spectrum of emotions experienced by campaigners. Some were defiant, declaring ‘Despite considerable provocation, I will not leave the church’. Others were more playful and humorous, proclaiming ‘Mary Magdalene for Pope’. These tongue-in-cheek slogans provided MOW members with a vehicle to engage with deeply-held convictions about the validity of women’s ministry in a public and performative way.
Some of the badges framed the campaign as an issue of workplace equality. One particularly provocative badge drew attention to the Church of England’s exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) by asserting ‘God is an Equal Opportunities Employer – Pity about the Church’. For many supporters of women’s ordination, the Church’s commitment to challenging racism, discrimination and injustice was discredited by its continued sanctioning of male-only ministries. Highlighting the peculiarity of the Church’s attitude towards women when compared to wider society, a yellow badge with a black inscription announced ‘Real Life is not like this’. Similarly, a light pink badge stated ‘Priestly people come in both sexes’.
For many Anglicans the priesthood occupied a complex space within the job market. Whilst it is possible to make comparisons between the priesthood and other vocational careers, such as teaching and nursing, a pervasive feeling dominated in the late twentieth century which suggested that the priesthood was somehow elevated above secular professions. Comparisons with women’s gains in the professions of medicine, law, and higher education were often labelled by those opposed to women’s ordination as an attempt to apply secular values onto a sacramental matter.
A selection of the badges boldly challenged the arguments against women priests. One badge highlighted women’s full membership of the Church as indicated through their baptismal promises, declaring, ‘Ordain women – or stop baptising them’. Another badge challenged the glorious subordination associated with Christian womanhood. It encouraged women to defy the essentialised gender roles frequently ascribed to them: ‘Hands that rock the cradle should rock the boat’. Others expressed heartfelt and sincere sentiments: ‘I am a simple, Bible-believing, Christian feminist’. This badge in particular spoke directly to the opponents of women’s ordination who frequently characterised members of MOW as ‘militant feminists’, ‘goddess worshipers’, and ‘pagans’.
Regional branches of MOW also produced their own badges. A black and white badge created by MOW member Tom Hurcombe, which declared ‘WOMEN CELEBRATE’, was popular amongst London MOW members. Another badge, which became known as the Norwich MOW badge, was produced by Pamela Fawcett in 1989 and was designed for a celebratory service held at Norwich Cathedral. The white and blue badge had the letters ‘MOW’ inscribed in the centre of an Ichthus symbol (sometimes referred to as the ‘Jesus fish’). The acronym inside the Ichthus symbol served as a visual reminder of the central role women play in the life of the Church, and of the fact that MOW was committed to working within the Synodical structures of the Church of England, rather than operating at the fringes of Anglican life. This commitment was echoed in the demographic of MOW’s membership which included lay women and male clergy members, alongside women who had a vocation to the priesthood.
The assortment of badges produced and worn by members of MOW throughout the 1980s and 1990s, are testament to the bold and influential messaging of Christian women’s activism in the late twentieth century. These badges decorated vigils, marches, and rallies across England, serving as a powerful means of attesting to the existence and strength of the campaign for women’s ordination. The insistent language of these artefacts of activism calls out for change in a way that evokes a spectrum of emotions: from humour, to sincerity, to incredulity. More broadly, these objects and their owners, challenge historians to deconstruct the binary which has emerged between historiographies of faith and feminism post-1968.
Grace Heaton is a DPhil candidate in the History Faculty at the University of Oxford, and a Senior Scholar at Lincoln College. Her doctoral research explores the campaign for women’s ordination in the Church of England, 1968-1994. Her project utilises an oral history methodology and she would love to hear from anyone who was involved in the movement (Grace.heaton [at] lincoln.ox.ac.uk). Grace tweets @graceheaton93.