August 2, 2022

Spotlighting Women’s History at Historic Houses of Worship

The relationship between women and organized religion is complicated, varied, and constantly shifting. History often documents how religious institutions have oppressed women, restricted their rights, and enforced antiquated gender roles—all phenomena that unfortunately still prevail today. Yet this narrative is only part of the story.

A lesser known and equally important story is how religious institutions have served both as a platform for the advancement of women’s rights and opportunities, and how women have played critical roles in advancing religious traditions. From hosting prominent women speakers, funding institutions advancing women’s education, and participating in the women’s rights movements, historic houses of worship of all faith traditions have uplifted women in their religious and secular lives. The leadership and community building opportunities within these sacred sites have been critical to increasing female independence outside of the home and allowing women to develop institutions that strengthen their congregations and broader communities.

photo by: Steve Greer/iStock

Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois.

The four historic houses of worship highlighted below embody positive examples of how the histories of women and religion are inherently linked. These congregations embrace the spirit of Where Women Made History (WWMH), a program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that identifies, honors, and elevates sites across the country where women have changed their communities and world.

They are also participants in the National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust that offers financial support and technical assistance to community-serving historic houses of worship undertaking major capital work. These examples showcase how historic houses of worship have had a strong impact on and been strongly impacted by women throughout history.

Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Chicago, Illinois)

Founded in 1844 and now Chicago’s oldest Black congregation, Quinn Chapel AME’s history of activism by and for women is extensive. The original church building was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Known as “The Big Four,” congregants Emma Jane Atkinson, Mary Richardson Jones, Joanna Hall, and a woman documented as “Aunt Charlotte” served as conductors and aided enslaved people in reaching freedom.

Quinn Chapel served as an activist space in the fights for gender and racial equality, including the women’s and universal suffrage movements. Upon being denied the opportunity to speak at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, suffragist Susan B. Anthony spoke and held meetings at Quinn Chapel per the recommendation of Frederick Douglass. Quinn Chapel was among the few venues in Chicago that would allow a woman speaker.

The congregation also helped activist Ida B. Wells fundraise for "The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Exposition." Wells’ relationship with Quinn Chapel was ongoing after she relocated to Chicago in 1894. She lectured and led meetings there and founded the Alpha Club, the nation’s first Black women’s suffrage organization, with Quinn Chapel women in 1913.

Women’s history at Quinn Chapel is ongoing and not limited to these events. The National Association of Colored Women, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has ties to Quinn Chapel. Additionally, the church has hosted prominent female performers over time, including Ella Fitzgerald and Patti Labelle, and has been a filming location for 2 films by Harpo Productions, founded in Chicago by Oprah Winfrey.

Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (Honolulu, Hawaii)

Exterior of the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin a white building.

photo by: Alan Kubota

Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Women have been active in Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin, the state’s main Shin Buddhist temple, since its founding in 1898. The formation of the temple’s fujinkai (women’s club) or Hawaii Betsuin Buddhist Women’s Association (BWA) occurred that same year. More than 100 women joined the BWA in its inaugural year, creating early leadership opportunities and a gathering space for women in a heavily male-dominated Japanese immigrant community.

The BWA provided spiritual, financial, and community support to the temple and facilitated social and religious activities. According to scholar Kelli Y. Nakamura, women planned plays, concerts, and trips that forged an intergenerational community identity. They participated in many aspects of religious life, from cooking meals and maintaining the temple to participating in memorials and preparing offerings to supporting youth education and completing humanitarian work. In 1918, more than 400 women helped transport the cornerstone for the new temple, and in 1940 the BWA raised over $40,000 to construct a temple annex for community activities.

Additional fujinkais emerged as Hawaii Betsuin facilitated the formation of Buddhist temples statewide. In 1954, 34 fujinkais formed the Hawaiian Federation of Honpa Hongwanji Women’s Associations with 7,000+ members. This organization remains active today in sustaining Buddhism and affirms former BWA president Atsuko Hasegawa’s comment that women are the “backbone of the temple.”

First Church in Oberlin (Oberlin, Ohio)

Exterior of the First Church in Oberlin with a historic plaque in front.

photo by: First Church in Oberlin

First Church in Oberlin in Oberlin, Ohio.

First Church in Oberlin was founded in 1833 and developed a commitment to abolition, women’s rights, and universal suffrage. Many prominent women were among the early graduates of Oberlin College, which became the nation’s first college to admit women in addition to men in 1837. While at Oberlin, Antoinette Brown Blackwell was a worshipper and leader of women’s prayer groups at First Church.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell was the first known woman ordained as a minister in an organized Protestant denomination in the United States. She completed Oberlin’s women’s course of study in 1847 before studying in the all-male Theology Department, led by the pastor of First Church, Reverend Charles Grandison Finney. Although rarely allowed to speak in class and barred from obtaining a degree or preacher’s license, Brown developed a passion for active ministry and lectured in churches about women’s rights.

In 1853, a socially radical Methodist minister ordained Brown, and she became the minister of a strict Congregational church in rural New York. Brown resigned after ten months but continued to lecture and author books on women’s rights, science, and theology, later becoming a Unitarian preacher. The United Church of Christ established the Antoinette Brown Award for Outstanding Clergywomen in 1975, and a plaque was installed in her honor at First Church in 2014. For its association with Brown, First Church was submitted as part of WWMH’s 2020 crowdsourcing campaign.

Lovely Lane United Methodist Church (Baltimore, Maryland)

Founded in 1772 and constructed in 1884, Lovely Lane UMC is best known as the “mother church” of American Methodism. A lesser-known part of the history of Lovely Lane UMC, then named First Methodist Episcopal Church, is its role in advancing women’s education. In the early 1880s, the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church voted to start a women’s college. Reverend John Franklin Goucher of First Methodist deeded church land to the college, and Mary Fisher Goucher, his wife, became the college’s largest early benefactor. The Woman’s College of Baltimore opened adjacent to the church in 1888.

The couple was committed to women’s education, with Mrs. Goucher opening numerous girls’ schools in India and Reverend Goucher becoming the college’s second president. Mrs. and Reverend Goucher welcomed students into their home for holidays and meals. Their commitment helped the school provide women with a college education of the same quality available to men. The college was noted for its state-of-the-art laboratories and physical education courses at a time when society discouraged women from studying science or completing rigorous physical exercise.

Exterior of Lovely lane UMC.

photo by: Lovely Lane United Methodist Church

Lovely Lane Archival File courtesy of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church.

The legacy of the Gouchers and the church remains strong despite the college moving to Towson, Maryland by the 1950s and becoming coeducational in 1985. The school was renamed Goucher College in 1910, and the first dormitory on the new Towson campus was named after Mary Fisher Goucher. Notably, many historic preservationists have trained at Goucher College over the past twenty-five years.

Untold stories of women and worship continue to be discovered, and women’s history is made at historic houses of worship every day. Many congregations are led by female clergy and lay leaders, share space with organizations that empower women and girls, continue hosting vibrant women’s groups, and participate in ongoing women’s rights activism. This ongoing female empowerment creates more equitable and inclusive religious traditions.

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Emily Kahn is the former associate manager of the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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