To celebrate all the ordinations at this time of year (not to mention the new female bishops in the Church of England), I dug out this fascinating and baffling image. We found it in a second-hand bookshop in Oxford (no prizes for guessing if you know the city) a few months ago, and bought it out of sheer curiosity. The label assures us it’s an 1896 illustration, and the caption reads “In days to come the churches may be fuller”, but there are few other clues to pin down its meaning. After a few suggestions from friends online, I wanted to offer it for your interpretation.
I think it’s pretty clear it’s not a whole-hearted support for the ministry of women, but I can’t quite work out what the angle of the satire is here. Was the possibility of women’s ordination being mooted seriously in the Church of England at the time? (From my sketchy knowledge of church history, I don’t think so, but would love to be told otherwise.) If ordination wasn’t a serious institutional possibility, is it a joke about how demanding the vote would only lead to women trying to usurp positions which they were ludicrous to even imagine. Possibly, given the caption, with a sideswipe at “and we all know female ministers would have no spiritual authority, they would be reduced to their proper place by being sexualised in the eyes of male lay people”. (A slightly odd or misfiring joke, given the way that young male curates were one of the few male figures stereotypically sexualised by the female gaze in this era?)
Alternatively, since some US denominations were ordaining women in the nineteenth century (some Wesleyans in the 1860s, some Methodists in the 1880s and 90s), is this a joke about the dangerous modern American influence on British life? It might be something allied to the joke in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories about needing a protectionist tariff on British husbands, to stop them being stolen from debutantes by (rich, forward) American girls. At the same time as the Vatican was concerned that the Catholic hierarchy of the US was teaching “Americanism” (an ill-defined combination of positions declared to be heretical) and deploring its influence on Catholic thought, perhaps this was a jab at the supposedly pernicious of strapping American gels who think they can just take things over and get things done. Even in a church, can you imagine?
It also makes me wonder where this fits in with the representation of religious figures in the late nineteenth century. Anyone who has seen the sepia photographs of seminarians at St Stephen’s House, or indeed marvelled at a pre-Raphaelite stained glass (such as the one nicknamed “Christ and the Beloved Undergraduate” in Worcester Chapel), will know that the woman in this illustration is not the most stereotypically “feminine” figure in religious life and art. The imagination of some late nineteenth-century religious artists had been caught by androgynous, beautiful features and figures. Is there some playing with images of beautiful young men and handsome young women going on here? Or merely a slight smirk at a sexualised “woman in uniform”? I’d love to hear what people think.
UPDATE: Having put the illustration through a reverse image search, it seems that some of the assumptions I made above may be unfounded. It appears to be an illustration for Life magazine by Charles Dana Gibson. So the publication is American, and Gibson was apparently known for his depictions of “the Gibson girl”, an image of female independence and achievement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Could this after all be an image presenting a splendid future in which all the churches ordained women, and young women could take their place as preachers and curates just as well as aeroplane pilots, judges and sporting champions?