PC(USA) celebrates 60 years of women clergy

Remembering six decades of pioneering pastors

May 24, 2016

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle from Wayne (Pennsylvania) Presbyterian Church preaches at the 2016 Next Church gathering in Atlanta.

The Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle from Wayne (Pennsylvania) Presbyterian Church preaches at the 2016 Next Church gathering in Atlanta. —Gregg Brekke


For some, there has never been a time where there were not women ministers. But others remember when there were no women preachers, no women role models in seminaries and divinity schools, and no women engaged in pastoral care, at least not professionally. 

A few years ago, the Rev. Cynthia Campbell, pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville and former president of McCormick Theological Seminary, was keynote speaker at the Clergywomen’s Leadership Institute held at Big Tent. Campbell remembered the day she was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), June 30, 1974. “One thing that stuck in my memory was the ordination certificate,” she remembered. “San Gabriel Presbytery’s stated clerk had to add an ‘S’ to the printed ‘He’ on the certificate. Likewise, ‘his’ was typed over on an IBM Selectric typewriter with ‘her.’”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of women teaching elders in the PC(USA). On October 24, 1956, the Rev. Margaret Towner was ordained as the first woman minister in the Presbyterian Church. Despite the attention and recognition she received—her photo was featured in Life magazine and other publications—Towner said she "chose to avoid the limelight and continue my work in the local congregation."

Towner recently celebrated her 91st birthday, and though honorably retired, she is still an active member of her presbytery.

The Rev. Rachel Henderlite was the first woman ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (or the Southern Church) in 1965. Last year commemorated the 50th anniversary of her ordination, another important event in Presbyterian history. In 1965, the year of the Selma marches and the first campus protests against the Vietnam war, Henderlite (1905–1991) was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. 

On the anniversary of her ordination last year, the Rev. Peggy Howland shared historic photos and articles on her ordination. Ordained on October 19, 1958, at the Union Church of Bay Ridge, The New York Times carried the story the next morning. The headline read, "Presbyterian Church Gets Woman Minister."

Other important names and dates include:

  • The Rev. Katie Geneva Canon, the first African American woman ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in 1974.
  • The Rev. Rebecca Reyes, the first Hispanic/Latina woman ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, ordained in 1979.
  • The Rev. Elizabeth Kwon, who transferred her ordination from Japan, was the first Korean-American clergywoman in the Presbyterian Church, 1979.
  • The Rev. Holly Haile Smith Davis was the first Native American woman ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, ordained in 1987. 

In 2015-2016, 110-years of women deacons and 85 years of women ruling elders is also being celebrated. Elder Sarah Dickson was the first woman ruling elder, and Elder Tillie Paul Tamaree was the first Native American woman ruling elder, both ordained in 1930, and there have been numerous women deacons over the past 110 years.

There are other pioneering women whose names are not in record books, including new immigrant women who, even today, are becoming the first women in their ethnicities and cultures to be ordained in the church. There are experienced and new clergywomen, ruling elders and deacons, who are charting new paths in this changing environment in the church.

We follow in the footsteps of many named and unnamed women who have steadily and faithfully spread the good news of Jesus Christ, and they have significantly impacted our church, our community, and the American culture.

The Rev. Dr. Rhashell Hunter is director of Racial Ethnic and Women’s Ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

  1. I remember the obstacle that Rev. katie G. Canon over came as the first African American female to be ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian church USA. thank for this article.

    by Magdalene Lewis

    May 29, 2016

  2. Upon my ordination on July 15, 1973, I received a certificate of ordination which was on presbytery letterhead because the stated clerk had thoughtfully prepared it using the feminine pronouns, etc. It's a piece of the history of our journey.

    by Louise N Armstrong

    May 26, 2016

  3. Great article! Thank you! I believe that the Rev. Louisa Woosley was the first ordained women in the PC., back in 1889 at the Cumberland PC. In 1891, Rev. Woosley wrote the book "Shall Women Preach." Just wanted to make sure that she is given recognition as the first woman ordained in the church! Peace!

    by Rev. Carmen Cox Harwell

    May 26, 2016

  4. Re. Bob Davidson's remark about woman in his class whom he asked why she was seeking the M.Div ( then B.D.) I was that student. My Presbytery firmly believed that women would be ordained so urged me to take the 3 year course.

    by Margaret E. Towner

    May 25, 2016

  5. Rev. Dr. Laura Lewis, who became the professor of Christian Education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary for many years, was the first woman in the South with a triple ordination to the PCUS, UPCUSA and the Union Presbytery that existed at that time (Mission, I believe, maybe Grace). I'm sorry I do not remember the year.

    by Christine Blair

    May 25, 2016


    by Rev. Rebecca Aqeel

    May 25, 2016

  7. I know this sounds picky, but it has been a stumbling block in the 42 years since I finished seminary. I have spent most of my journey trying to be understood as a woman who is a preacher or pastor or minister. Not a woman preacher, woman pastor, woman minister, woman clergy. I challenge us to watch our language. It makes a difference.

    by Wanda Neely

    May 25, 2016

  8. Does anyone remember Holly Bartges, graduated from San Anselmo and ordained in 1965?

    by Patti Hidalgo

    May 25, 2016

  9. This is a wonderful article celebrating some important steps ahead in our part of Christ's Church. Lest we be too proud, however, we should remember that the first woman minister in the Presbyterian or Reformed tradition was Louisa Mariah Layman Woosley. She was ordained by our still separated cousins, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, in 1889.

    by J. Heckerman

    May 24, 2016

  10. I remember a comment of Rev. Bob Davidson , then pastor of West Park PC in Manhattan who grew up in the Hollis PC in Queens. He was asked about openly gay men in seminaries going for an M.Div when they were barred from ordination. He said that in the 1950's there was a woman in his class in seminary and everyone was asking her why she was bothering to get an M. Div. when she knew that she would never be ordained.

    by Diana Bartelt

    May 24, 2016

  11. The first Japanese American woman to be ordained as pastor was Umeko Momii, daughter of evangelist Kagawa. She served the Lincoln Ave. Presbyterian Church in Salinas, CA from 1981 to 1989--then moved to Seattle, WA.

    by Alice Thorn

    May 24, 2016

  12. Thanks for this nice article highlighting the first women serving as Pastors in the Presbyterian Church. Very well written article.

    by Laura Starck

    May 24, 2016