The 30th Anniversary of the MCC Women’s Concerns Committee

Luann Habegger Martin

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

The Environment that Gave Birth to the Committee

The resurgence of feminism in the 1960s took place during a decade of social protest – protest against racism and against the war in Vietnam. Women discovered that working for social justice could also mean advocating on their own behalf and on behalf of other women. While voting rights was the key issue of the first wave of feminism, reproductive rights, equal rights in the workplace, and an end to sex role stereotyping were primary issues for feminists in the ’60s and ’70s.

Several major events in the women’s movement took place in 1972, the year that seeds were planted for the MCC Peace Section Task Force on Women in Church and Society. In 1972 the US Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the States for ratification. Title IX banned sex discrimination in academic and athletic programs in schools. The US Supreme Court heard arguments for the legalization of abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade. The same year Ms Magazine began publication, and Helen Reddy sang her hit song, “I am woman, hear me roar . . . If I have to, I can do anything. I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.”

Helen Reddy’s words did not express the experience of women in the Mennonite church who grew up with such songs as “Faith of Our Fathers” and “Rise Up, O Men of God.” Why, they asked, did the church prevent them from using all of their gifts? They wanted liberation from restrictive language and images. Following the November 1972 MCC Peace Section Assembly in Chicago, interested individuals held a caucus and urged the Section to address discrimination against women as a justice issue.

In 1973 these concerns were brought to the attention of the Peace Section at its spring meeting in Ottawa. I reported on the Chicago caucus and showed a three-minute film that illustrated the impact of exclusive language. Dorothy Yoder Nyce, who was soon to be appointed to the Peace Section as the representative of the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission, read her paper, “Male and Female He Created Them.” Fern Umble and Lora Oyer, representatives of Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church women’s groups, spoke of women’s desires to contribute to the total life of the church. We rehearsed before the meeting and made a case for including women’s concerns for peace within the Peace Section. The Section appointed a sub-committee Task Force of the four women members of the Section along with two Peace Section staff, Ted Koontz in Akron and me in the Washington office.

Accomplishments, First Two Years

The first objective was to communicate the issues and engage others in the dialogue. The buzz word in the women’s liberation movement at that time was “consciousness-raising.” We communicated through a newsletter, a Peace Section Assembly on The Interdependence of Men and Women, a packet of articles, a seminar for women, a position paper on women and work, a presentation at the MCC annual meeting, and letters to Mennonite college administrators, department heads, and church curriculum writers. [Participants’ registration packets contained a sheet listing Task Force activities during the first two years.]

How the Task Force Made Things Happen

We began as a group of six, five women and one man, all of us middle class, white, and US citizens. Three were married. Four were in their twenties, two in their thirties. We knew little about each other, and we all lived in different states. Our first meeting was through a telephone conference call in May 1973. At that meeting we set our agenda for the year. As the name implies, we were task oriented. We didn’t worry about a mission statement or bylaws. We had ideas and felt a sense of urgency. A core group within the Task Force was willing to devote considerable time to move the agenda forward. MCC provided a small budget, less than $2,000, to support our activities.

Highlights of the First Years

Three highlights stand out. I was the editor of the first eight Task Force Reports, later named the Women’s Concerns Reports. In the first issue I wrote that one of the goals of the newsletter was to provide a forum for sharing concerns, ideas, and resource materials. I tried to present facts, such as the low numbers of women in leadership positions in the church, and to give voice to women’s personal experiences. I felt satisfaction in connecting women who might otherwise have felt marginalized in the Mennonite church. In rereading the first issues in preparation for this meeting, I came across a letter to the editor in the second issue. The writer said she read the first issue several times and hoped that other points of view would be expressed in the future. In particular, I think she did not appreciate my comments on maledominated language in speaking of God.

A second highlight was the Seminar on the Family that I organized in Washington in May 1974. Several times a year the Washington Office of the Peace Section organized seminars on various topics for schools, MCCers, and church groups. One of my first assignments after I arrived as a volunteer at the Peace Section was to accompany the Peace and Social Concerns Committee from Region V, which may have been Franconia conference or Lancaster conference. You guessed it: everyone in the group was male and all of the speakers were men. Sixteen months later I was escorting fifty Mennonite women from across the country. Of the twelve speakers, ten were women.

The seminar included a discussion of reproductive rights, women and work, the rights of children, and other topics still relevant today. Speakers included a sociologist, the coordinator of the National Organization for Women’s education task force, the vice chairperson of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether. Ruether spoke on “Sexism in Church and Society: Bad for Women and Children.” She later went on to write about twenty books and edited at least another eight, one just off the press. At a luncheon meeting on Capitol Hill, Representative Martha Griffiths spoke to the group on “Government’s Responsibility to the Family.” Griffiths was a tireless advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although the Amendment was three states short of the 38 needed for ratification, she saw women play a much greater role in politics by the time she died last month at age 91. In 1973 Griffiths was one of 16 women in the House of Representatives. At that time there was one woman Senator. Today there are 70 women Representatives and 14 women Senators. The Washington seminar ended with two powerful Mennonite voices – Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Marian Franz – and a panel discussion called “Listening to Each Other.”

The third highlight was the privilege of representing the Task Force at the NGO Forum during the United Nations International Conference on Women in 1975. The conference was part of the observance of International Women’s Year. Nearly 6000 women and men from 81 countries gathered in Mexico City to discuss three themes: equality, development, and peace. Although organizers hoped the conference would focus on inequities in status, employment, and opportunity, many speakers from developing countries instead expressed anti-American feelings. They saw women from the United States first and foremost as Americans and all that this represents. Nationality and class proved, as often is the case, to be divisive factors at the meeting.

The Impact of the Task Force on my Life

Being on the Task Force was an empowering experience that heightened my awareness of gender, justice, and development issues. In 1976 I wrote a monograph for MCC on women and development, and went on to get a masters degree in international development. For the past fifteen years I have focused on infant and maternal health in developing countries. I am continually reminded of the injustices that prevent women from experiencing full and healthy lives. In the late sixties, an organization known as Another Mother for Peace coined the expression, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” In March 1973 when the Task Force was created, the US dropped bombs on men, women, and children in Cambodia. In March 2003 the US dropped bombs on men, women, and children in Iraq. Equality, development, and peace: that was our task thirty years ago, and that is our task today.

Luann Habegger Martin is writes on technical and program issues for a global project on infant and maternal health and nutrition, managed by the Academy for Educational Development (Washington, DC).