Women Delegates: Early Attempts

The first attempt to include women in the House of Deputies was made in 1913 by Bishop Benjamin Brewster of Maine, who introduced a constitutional amendment according full rights and privileges to female communicants. The resolution was quelled in committee and, instead, a substitute was passed declaring it “inexpedient” to amend the Constitution to allow for female deputies. A similar resolution in the House of Deputies, brought by Robert Gardiner, also of Maine, was tabled without being voted on, also for reasons of “inexpediency” but with a courteous note that the House viewed women’s work with “the highest appreciation.” As historian Pam Darling notes, “This double message, of ‘highest appreciation’ coupled with the inexpediency of full participation, set the tone for the next fifty years.”

Other options for increasing the influence of women in the Church, such as creating a separate House of Churchwomen and allowing diocesan councils to include women, were also rejected or set aside. A second attempt at constitutional revision allowing female deputies was defeated at General Convention in 1925. The matter seemed at an end.

Elizabeth Dyer

In 1946, the Diocese of Missouri surprised the Church by electing Mrs. Elizabeth Dyer as one of its four lay delegates to General Convention. Mrs. Dyer duly presented herself to be seated at Convention, but her legitimacy was challenged. Judge Augustus N. Hand of New York offered a solution, opining that the language of the canons was not gender specific and moving that Mrs. Dyer be seated. The motion passed, and Mrs. Dyer represented Missouri for the remainder of the Convention. Nonetheless, the Committee on Amendments judged that the term “layman” was specifically meant to denote the male gender, and an amendment eliminating the gender requirement for delegates lost by a mere seven votes. Women were barred even more firmly from the House of Deputies.

Mrs. Elizabeth Dyer at General Convention in 1946.

The Witness, 1919. An article from The Witness in 1919 exhibits accidental optimism with the remark that, as women were denied equality at the 1919 General Convention, they would “have to wait until 1922" to be given their full rights within the Church.

Committee on Amendments, 1946. The report of the Committee on Amendments from the Journal of General Convention clarifies that term “layman” applies to men only.

Wedel Quote, 1952. Mrs. Cynthia Wedel, chair of the National Executive Board of the Women’s Auxiliary, reacts with disappointment to the 1952 General Convention’s continued rejection of female deputies.

A telegram addressed to Mrs. Dyer in her capacity as a member of the Joint Committee for National and International Problems, urging a favorable vote on a resolution supporting Jewish colonization of Palestine.
A profile of Mrs. Dyer from the February 1964 issue of The Episcopalian looks back at the day she was seated, and the history of women in the House of Deputies thereafter.