To Spinster Teachers and Unordained Preachers

This morning I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon preached by Anna Kendig, who will be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry this coming Saturday. I watched Anna grow up, and I still remember the sermon she gave on behalf of her fellow seniors on a Youth Sunday about ten years ago. It was a “real” sermon, a metaphoric tour de force that used the church’s stained-glass windows to articulate an already mature faith. I’m pleased that Anna found her vocation early. She’s a natural.

Of course her commanding presence in the pulpit set me thinking about all the would-be female ministers who were denied access to it in earlier times. Oddly, I can say that I am a beneficiary of that unjust exclusion. My earliest memories of worship feature at their center a round little woman in a blue suit named Florence Lien, who surely would have been an ordained Lutheran pastor had she not been born too soon. Instead, she became the Sunday School director at First Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, Minnesota. She gathered her underage charges in the smaller, modern chapel, not the dim, imposing, sacred space of the big sanctuary. I can still feel the smooth, blond finish on the pew and the stiffness of the starched dishtowel with a hole cut for my head that I wore as a member of the Cherub Choir.  Miss Lien’s words to us laid the foundation of our faith. One story she told us still serves me well:  Two girls were dawdling along on their way to school when they suddenly realized they would be late. One girl wanted to kneel on the sidewalk and pray that they arrive on time, but the other had a wiser idea:  “We can pray while we run,” she said.  It’s the best example I know of how grace and free will can co-exist.

Remembering Miss Lien got me to thinking about the spinster teachers who conducted my education at Lincoln Elementary School: Cleo Reiter, Agnes Preus (of the Minnesota Norwegian Lutheran Preuses, who, if male, were likely clergy), Bernice Olson, Mary Kampen, Lillian Purdue, and Lois Ann Kriesel (not a lifelong spinster). They were spinsters because the Albert Lea School District, like many others in the 1950s, did not hire married women. I left my second grade teacher, Madeline Feil, out of the list because she became an exception to the rule. She had announced just before Christmas vacation that we would have a different teacher when we returned to school because she was getting married. Yet she reappeared in January, for lack of a ready replacement, calling herself Mrs. Maceman, which the waxy-eared among us heard as Mrs. Basement.  The professions were no longer closed to women, but enterprising women were roundly discouraged from becoming the doctors or lawyers or public officials or artists or business executives they might be today. A woman of intellect became a teacher, and many of these spinster teachers instilled their unfulfilled ambitions in their promising female students. I am the grateful beneficiary of the limitations placed on their lives. I had an excellent education.

The exclusion of married women was lifted by the time I started junior high, but still the district enforced an anti-nepotism policy.  When teaching couples arrived in town, the husband usually got the job in Albert Lea while the wife waited for opportunities to open in the smaller rural districts nearby. The women employed in the high school tended still to be spinster teachers. I profiled one remarkable woman, career English teacher Sybil Yates, in Packinghouse Daughter.  My journalism teacher, Edna Gercken, held the local clergymen’s association at bay when they wanted me removed as editor of the Ah La Ha Sa for arguing against prayer in public schools. Freedom of the press was sacrosanct to Miss Gercken, even if those exercising it were minors. I still evaluate the layout of a newspaper page through Miss Gercken’s eyes. My sophomore World History teacher, Elsie Sebert, was the sharpest of them all, and I feel privileged to have been taught by her. One day she told us that when she was walking along the street uptown, boys who had been students of hers always stopped to greet her. The girls, however, went out of their way to avoid her.  “They think it’s contagious,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that some of us are old maids by choice.”  I was stunned. No one had ever said aloud what other girls besides me probably longed to hear:  That a woman could commit herself to a dream, an ambition, a vocation and let her prospects for marriage be as they may. Our spinster teachers had not simply been passed up in the game of romance. Many had chosen, and our education was richer for their choice, unfair though it was to make them choose.

3 comments to To Spinster Teachers and Unordained Preachers

  • gunnar berg

    Elsie Siebert – On the first day of class she stood before us, “As I look about the room I recognize many of the names and faces. I have had many of your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers as students in the past. Some of them were good students, some were not. Neil, is your father Marlin?” I was hesitant; I suspected my old man was not a good one. “Ah, yes.” My worst suspicions were realized. She went into a classic Siebert rant about how he never brought a book or paper to class, he slept, he missed class through the hunting season. She smiled, “But he brought me pheasants”.

  • Harry mueller

    I will echo the gift these women gave to us kids growing up in the 50′s in Albert Lea. Miss Davis, my 6th grade teacher at Ramsey, had me read Emil Zola’s Germinal as an extra credit assignment. This was 3 years before the strike at the plant. I remembered the ending of the book vividly and a few years ago reread it. This was never even discussed in our humanities classes in High school! Florence Lien and Helen Billings were two pillars at First Lutheran. This was in a day when a Phil Knutson was breaking new ground as a gay man.

    But having been involved in gay rights issues and serving congregations that were welcoming The thought has occurred to me: were some of these women same sex oriented and never allowed to be free in that day and especially in Albert Lea? We may never know.

  • Cheri

    Thanks, Harry. I just found your reply in a cache of spam I was deleting. I’m glad I recognized your email address. Comments are few; spam is plentiful. I’m sure your hunch about some of the female teachers is right, but it must have been so difficult to stay hidden. Sybil Yates even pulled the shades in her house before lighting up a cigarette! Someone who rented a room from her told me that after reading Packinghouse Daughter.

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