Student View: Discoveries in the archives
In this Student View column, Erin Magoon ’21 shares how her summer CURI project provided an invaluable opportunity to enhance her research, discover women’s voices, and ignite her career aspirations.
“Women cannot face problems with the same strength as men do.”
When I came across this line in a 1968 letter written by Victor M. Rodriguez, I didn’t know whether to grimace or laugh. I was disheartened to see these sentiments reflected by Rodriguez, who was at that time the president of a regional synod of the Lutheran Church in America. He was providing his opinion of the potential decision to ordain women, and completed his remarks by speculating that “We [the church] would have more vacant congregations if women were allowed to be ordained because of the nervous breakdowns that they would have.”
Why was I reading Rodriguez’s letter in the first place? For the benefit of my research, of course! For 10 weeks this summer, I conducted collaborative undergraduate research with Professor of Religion L. DeAne Lagerquist through St. Olaf College’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program. CURI allowed me to dive deeply into the history of women’s ordination in American Lutheranism. Throughout the summer, I worked alongside Professor Lagerquist to research the history of women’s ordination and construct a website that documents the complex and dynamic themes connected to this topic.
For those who don’t know, St. Olaf is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) — a denomination that has allowed women to be ordained since its formation in 1988. All three predecessor bodies of the ELCA were ordaining women at the time of the merger. Our project focuses on two predecessor bodies — the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and the American Lutheran Church (ALC) — which both decided to ordain women beginning in 1970.
As the 50th anniversary of their decisions to ordain women approaches this coming year, our website “50 Years On: a Half Century of Ordaining Lutheran Women” presents the debates preceding ordination, the decision to ordain women, and the impact of this decision on the church and on the experiences of women.
As part of my CURI experience, Professor Lagerquist and I traveled to the ELCA Archives in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The CURI program covers travel and housing expenses for student researchers, which enabled me to immerse myself in the archives’ historical collections. For five days, we spent eight hours each day engrossed in documents, photographs, and audio clips that allowed us to better understand the emotions, opinions, and thoughts of individuals involved. There were so many resources to explore and documents to discover that we could easily have spent a second week there!
It was in the archives that I discovered Rodriguez’s letter in a file of Synodical Presidents’ responses to a survey of opinions regarding women’s ordination. I read that file on our first day in the archives and — though it was fascinating to read — I began to wish for materials authored by women. “What,” I wondered, “were the Lutheran women saying about their own potential ordination?”
I began to wish for materials authored by women. “What,” I wondered, “were the Lutheran women saying about their own potential ordination?”
The lack of female voices is a problem that I often encounter in my historical studies, but it was especially a challenge for us in this research project. Since the LCA and ALC had entirely male leadership teams prior to the ordination of women in 1970, few women were formally consulted during the decision processes.
In the decade of study and debate preceding 1970, there were no more than five women included across all the committees in both denominations. That’s right — five women. Five women representing more than half of the churches’ members. Due to the lack of women on official committees, there are limited resources from which to research their experiences for our project. However, as our week of research in the archives continued, we were able to discover some key sources that offer us — and the audience of our website — a glimpse into women’s experiences.
On our third day of research, Professor Lagerquist and I sat down in a conference room at the archives while Joel Thoreson, the ELCA’s archivist, played the audio reel recordings of debate about women’s ordination on the floor of the 1970 LCA Convention. After a half hour of the male voices offering opinions and amendments, one voice sent a shock down my spine. A female voice. It was Dr. Margaret Sittler Ermarth. Ermarth, a history professor at Wittenburg College, was a member of the LCA’s Commission on the Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Ministry and, specifically, the subcommittee on the ordination of women. She was chosen to present the motion for the convention to approve of women’s ordination, and she addressed the convention for five minutes. She was the only woman to speak to the convention during the debate about women’s ordination.
Ermarth was charismatic and humorous, reminding delegates that women constitute, among other things, “100% of the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of everybody here.”
However, she was also so insightful, reminding delegates that improving the situation of women in the church would not stop with women’s ordination. Instead, they would need to acknowledge the “rich matrix out of which this whole issue arose.”
When I heard Ermarth speak, a piece of our project clicked into place in my mind. Our objective was to illuminate the history of women’s ordination, which has yet to be collected in one convenient online location. A large part of this project is to display and preserve the women’s voices, as they are so often omitted from decision-making processes and historical accounts alike.
Throughout our week in the archives, I continued to find snippets of women’s voices, which collectively form a more complete narrative. In a folder of correspondence, I stumbled across a newsletter from Edina Community Church, which was the church that called and ordained Barbara Andrews, the first woman ordained in the ALC. Andrews died in 1978, only eight years after her ordination, so sources about her life are sparse. That newsletter filled in more facts about her ordination process and the motivations of the church to ordain her. Andrews’ ordination became more tangible in my mind as I realized that she was ordained by her home church, which noticed that she couldn’t pursue her calling as a hospital chaplain without ordination. The congregation put aside budget concerns to enable the dreams of one driven woman.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that archival research is hard. Really hard! We spent eight hours a day in the same room, pouring over document after document, folder after folder, box after box. But, in the end, it was so rewarding.
Archival research is hard. Really hard! We spent eight hours a day in the same room, pouring over document after document, folder after folder, box after box. But, in the end, it was so rewarding.
Our archival research had a significant impact on the trajectory of our project. It also had a significant impact on me, as a student. I am a history major, and during the semester I work in the St. Olaf Special Collections and College Archives. One day, I hope to pursue a career as an archivist.
In our week at the archives, I was able to see an archive from the researcher’s perspective and observe archivists at work. They even let me see the collection storage space. (I’ve never been more excited about a big room filled with boxes). I was awed by the ELCA’s archivist and his knowledge of the collection. He offered suggestions, presented us with materials that we didn’t even realize were there (such as a collection of photos from the 1970 conventions), and was willing to “go check in the stacks” every time we wanted to see more materials.
In all, my week in the archives was an invaluable opportunity to enhance my research, discover women’s voices, and ignite my career aspirations.