Uncovering Women's Invisible Volunteer Work: The Role of Women's Work in an Episcopal Church in the United States

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:30
Location: Hörsaal BIG 2 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Catherine BERHEIDE, Skidmore College, USA
The labor of volunteers is an essential yet often invisible part of non-profit organizations, especially churches. In a church, laity perform many critical functions, some of which parishioners see during worship. Other functions occur behind the scenes, particularly those of women. This paper considers the various forms of volunteer work that women have performed at an Episcopal Church over the course of its 200-year history. Church archives, newspaper articles, and public records provide only fragmentary evidence about this 200-year history of volunteer work. Only when the invisible work became visible, for example when the priest thanked a woman for her years of service, was there even any record of a woman’s volunteer work.  To make visible women’s more recent contributions, I also conducted oral history interviews with 13 women who were long-time active members of the parish. 

For most of the 200 years, women were excluded from the decision-making roles.  Instead, they engaged in highly gendered work.  They cleaned the church and the parish house, sewed vestments, washed and iron the vestments and linens, visited the sick and elderly, and prepared countless meals.  They baked and sewed for fundraisers that paid off the church’s debt, bought coal to heat the parish house, and purchased new choir robes.  Yet it was not until 1938 that women could vote in parish elections and not until 1968 that the first woman was elected to the governing board of the church.  While the previously all-male domains of parish life, such as the governing board and the ushers, are now sex-integrated, the invisible work that women have historically done, especially the cleaning, washing, ironing, and sewing, is still done only by women.  The gendered knowledge and skills passed on to each successive generation of women have proved vital to the well-being of this church.