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.

Campaigners demonstrating outside Sheffield Cathedral in 1984. Photo credit: Joanna Bagshaw

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.

Badge sold by the Movement for the Ordination of Women. Photo credit: Dr Gillian Murphy, LSE’s Women’s Library.

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’.

‘WOMEN CELEBRATE’ badge. Photo credit: Grace Heaton’s personal archive.

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.

Logo of the Movement for the Ordination of Women.
Photo credit: Grace Heaton’s personal archive.

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.

 

2 Comments

  1. Dr Rowena Edlin-White

    Hello Grace, Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Bookshop sent this on to me and I apologise for not dealing with it sooner. I was a member of MOW and I had those badges! However, I recently donated them with all my MOW stuff to the new Feminist Archive which will be held at Manuscripts & Special Collections at University of Nottingham. Pretty sure they haven’t catalogues it yet so probably not available. However I still have some postcards current at the time and happy to send you copies if you let me have your address.
    All good wishes with your research, it’s important this isn’t forgotten.

  2. In my thirties, and a divorced mother of two boys (so on two counts not eligible for priestly ordination), I nonetheless continued to have the strong sense of calling to that ministry as I had had as a 16 year old. I also was a fully engaged member of the same Anglo-Catholic church that I had been attracted to at 14 – a church which hadn’t allowed female participation at all in the sanctuary until the mid-80s, when I and a teenage girl were finally admitted to the serving team! The Vicar, most of the PCC and a large percentage of the congregation were against women becoming priests. However, somehow I still managed to break barriers in that church, including becoming the first female Lay Reader to preach and lead worship in the mother church. I was a parish representative to Deanery Synod when the debate over women priests was brought. My Vicar spoke against and I spoke for the ordination of women to the priesthood, even though there had been attempts to prevent me from doing so because our PCC had voted against (I had to point out the rules allowing me to do so!) I took a lot of stick, and was advised to go to America if I wanted to be a “priestess”. I stood for General Synod, and got quite a long way in the process, but finally fell to some better known names. Not too long after that, when it seemed more and more likely the CofE was getting closer to that historic moment, the divorce barrier dropped and I was accepted as an ordinand. Of course, my Vicar had to write a reference!! When the bishop interviewed me he asked if I knew what my Vicar had written. I did! He had finished the reference with, “If Vanessa was a man, I would have no hesitation in recommending her for ordination to the priesthood”. I went to Westcott House at the age of 40, was ordained Deacon in 1993, and priest in 1994, one of the first women to be ordained alongside (some of) the men with whom I was deaconed. As with so many others, the battles were not over, but I served my curacy and two incumbency in the CofE over 18 years, before following my sons to America, where (ironically) I have now served in the Episcopal Church for ten years. The church where I was strangely nourished and challenged for 26 years still does not accept women priests, so I can sadly never celebrate the Eucharist there. I am still friends with the (now retired, and now Roman Catholic) Vicar of that church and his family (one of his daughters is godmother to my eldest grandson), and he still struggles with his perception of me being clearly called to a priesthood he cannot acknowledge!

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