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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Dancing with Mill Girls

I was ordained in 1986 - to the diaconate on April 12 and to the priesthood on October 18, the Feast of St. Luke. My bishop, Fred Wolfe, thought that a suitable date to ordain someone who had been a nurse.

I was part of the first 10-12 year wave of ordained women in The Episcopal Church. Some thought a Tsunami had hit the church.

Indeed, some still do.

Women have always been part of the social revolution of institutions, especially the church – from Queen Elizabeth I and the Anglican Church to the eleven women ordained in the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia.

Little did I know that I was to be ordained into the rich heritage of other revolutionary women.

I had been called as a Chaplain at University of Lowell, so it was determined that the ordination service would take place at St. Anne’s Church, in Lowell, MA.

This seemed appropriate enough. St. Anne’s was known as “The Mill Girl Church,” because the rector, whose family was the owner one of the cotton mills in that city, demanded and arbitrarily extracted a tithe – 10% of their meager salaries – for the building fund of the church.

In a touching act of sensitivity, he named the church after a woman – his wife.

My mother and aunts and cousins were the updated 20th century version of “Mill Girls” in the sister textile city of Fall River, MA. My mother worked in the garment industry as a “presser” who worked on “pieces” – the automotive assembly line, adapted to the garment industry.

As the dress or blouse was made, a sleeve or the skirt was sown by one group of women, then passed on to another group who “pressed” (or ironed) it before it went to the next station of women on sewing machines, who sewed another “piece” which was sent onto another group of presser, and so on until the garment was complete.

The dirty trick to the work was that no one was paid an hourly wage. A woman was paid by the number of pieces she produced. The faster she worked, the harder her labor, the better her pay.

Well, nothing wrong with that, right? Sounds fair enough. Except, of course, when you factor in the mind-numbing, back-breaking monotony of this work – and, oh yes, the profit margin and the bottom line.

More specifically, who was profiting from the profit margin and who was at the bottom of the line.

It seems that some things haven't changed much in a little over 100 years.

The Lowell Mills were built during the first wave of the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution in New England. The first Lowell mills were built in 1823. By 1848, Lowell was the largest industrial center in America, producing a reported 50,000 miles of cotton each year.

Lowell was also known around the world for the “innovative solution” to the high demand for cheap labor to work these mills. Farm girls from around New England were recruited to work the mills for a few years and then return to the farms or marry.

This turned the tables on the “natural role” of women, who changed from “money saving” to “money earning.” Rather than improving her station in life, however, it often worsened it.

Mill Girls ranged in age from 10 to middle age, but most were between 16-25. The youngest girls were called “doffers” because they “doffed” or took off the bobbins from the spinning frames.

They worked from five o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening, with half hour each for breakfast and dinner. Even the doffers, little girls of 9 or 10, who actually worked about 15 minutes every hour, were required to work 14 hour days, six days per week. At the peak of their careers, Mill Girls earned about $2 per week.

Even so, several of the Mill Girls found time to write their stories. In 1842, two women, Harriet Farley and Harriot Curtis co-edited “The Lowell Offering: Writings By New England Women”

). Their stories are compelling for the harshness of their lives told in their own voices.

One anonymous woman wrote these words: “In vain do I try to soar in fancy and imagination above the dull reality around me but beyond the roof of the factory I cannot rise.”

A Mill Girl may have changed in status to be a money earner, but the law took no cognizance of a woman spender. In MA before 1840, a woman was not supposed to be capable of spending her own or anyone else’s money. Indeed, she could not inherit property from her father unless she agreed to remain single.

The Industrial Revolution may have produced benefits for society and the ruling class, but it was profited on the backs – and at the fingertips – of young girls and women. It has ever been thus. Indeed, it goes on today in East LA and Southeast Asia and Central America.

It was, therefore, no small thing that the daughter of a family of Mill Girls was being ordained in St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA. Indeed, the front page, bold type headline of the local newspaper proclaimed: First woman ordained at St. Anne’s.

I was keenly aware of the heritage of that church, and felt I was living into a reality the Mill Girls could never have dreamed. I was stepping into a revolution which had begun centuries before.

“In vain do I try to soar in fancy and imagination above the dull reality around me,” wrote that nameless Mill Girl. I felt the responsibility of rising beyond the factory roof for her.

Strange. The responsibilty did not feel heavy. Indeed, I felt a rush of wind under my feet, sweeping me up to the altar, beyond the factory roof that trapped the dreams of young Mill Girls.

I may have looked as if I were walking, but in my heart, I was dancing. Dancing for the Mill Girls who could not. Dancing with my sisters who dared not. Dancing into the revolution which had begun and into which I had been ordained to continue. Dancing on history and into the future. Dancing with Mother God.

Four days after my ordination, one of the women in attendance – a reporter and the granddaughter of Mill Girls – sent me a letter. I still have it, written in longhand on legal paper, tucked in the back pages of my photo album.

Even as I read it now, twenty years later, I find deeper levels of meaning and understanding of the sacramental grace of my ordination at St. Anne’s – the Mill Girl Church – in Lowell, MA - and, I feel even more deeply indebted to their legacy.

She begins, “I cannot remember the exact words Elizabeth spoke in blessing me . . . I began to cry when I heard her say, “Mother God.”

"It seemed a dream, a thing that could not happen in real life; at once a horrible sacrilege and a joyous, long-overdue righting of wrong. It seemed the kind of thing you’d expect to see only in heaven, so unearthly was the vision. A dream of women.”

“There were lots of women . . . and few men in the procession, and then, Elizabeth, radiant as a bride. I felt the same rush of mixed feelings when I saw her that I did when the procession began – hatred for these women who were living what I felt denied, the hatred of the poor for the rich, the kind of blind, ugly hatred that must belong in prejudice, but also deep and admiring and vicarious joy in their forbearance and their triumph. . . . .”

“ . . . . .As I prepared to receive communion at Elizabeth’s ordination – something I hadn’t done for years but which seemed so right – I began to tremble and tears kept welling in my eyes, and I tried urgently to understand my agitation."

"A story from Alice Walker came to me. It’s from “When The Other Dancer Is the Self,” an essay, and in it she describes how she once had a recurring dream in which she was dancing and dancing and could not find her partner.”

“Alice Walker has a glass eye – the result of a childhood accident involving one of her brothers – and in the essay she recounts how she grew up being very self-conscious about her appearance because of it.

"One night, putting her toddler daughter to bed, the child looked up from her crib and – thinking of something she’d seen on T.V., a globe – looked into her mother’s face and said, “Mommy, you have a world in your eye.”

“And something in Alice Walker was healed by that baby sentence."

"And that night, when Alice Walker slept, she dreamed she was dancing and dancing and a partner approached to dance with her and the partner was herself.”

“That’s what I felt approaching the communion rail – I felt I was approaching my other self whom I had blinded years ago."

"I don’t know what she has for me now – whether God or church or those painful memories can inform me – but I know I must learn to dance with her.”

“God our Mother.”

“I wish someone had said that to me so long ago, before my leaving began.”


Timotheos Prologizes said...

A truly fascinating history about the parish and the "mill girls."

But who is "Mother God"?

Is it Cybele? or Gaia? or Rhea? or the "Heavenly Mother" in the theology of the LDS Church?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


You are kidding, right?

Mother God is also Father God.

You know, the one in the Creeds?

That we say every Sunday in church, and during Morning and Evening Office and at Baptisms, Confirmations, Receptions and Funerals?

Well, at least I do.

Those Creeds.

Which I can say without crossing my fingers behind my back and still pass a lie detector test.

And, I can still direct my personal prayers and blessings to "Mother God."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

In a message dated 10/19/2006 3:34:04 PM Eastern Daylight Time, TIMOTHEOS PORLOGIZES writes:

TP: Yes, in slight jest, but with a point. While I would not say that motherly imagery, descriptions, and terms should never be used for God, I think this way of putting it ("Mother God") goes too far.

TP: I would say that for four reasons:

TP: 1. Revelation--that God has chosen to reveal himself as Father to the people of the Old Covenant. Jesus, of course, stressed the concept of God as Father (e.g. the Pater Noster).

EK: God also revealed Godself to Moses as a burning bush, through the prophets as an eagle, through Jesus as a Mother Hen - among many other images.

EK: God continues to reveal Godself to the people of God - through sculpters and painters and musicians and composers.

TP: 2. Theology/Sociology--God as Creator is Father to his creation, or masculine in terms of relationship, and we are feminine. Jesus is feminine to God the Father and masculine to us. We, as the Church, are feminine to Jesus as his bride.

EK: Excuse me? This is the silliest thing I've ever read. You should warn a person before spouting this kind of stuff. I was sipping hot tea and I almost burned my computer screen.

TP: 3. Religious history--that female deities have always been pagan. There are many "Mother Gods" known in different cultures (like Cybele, Gaia, and Rhea), but Yahweh was not one of them. Is to describe someone as a different sex really to describe them at all? If I was talking about "that man named Elizabeth Keaton," would anyone in their right mind think I was talking about you? Or that I even knew who I was describing?

EK: Not so. Ever read any of the mystics? Meister Eckhart? Dame Julian of Norwich? Or, some of the prayers of Anslem?

I've blogged about it in my essay: "Mother Jesus" But, I suspect you've already read it.

TP: 4. Reason--as Christians we believe in a personal God, but is a God who is both Father and Mother a personal God? In my opinion, that description de-personalizes God. I have a human Mother and Father; I can understand that. But I cannot conceive of them both being the same person, a Father/Mother. "Mother God is Father God"? He/She doesn't sound like something one could have a personal relationship with. Or, to say that God is a Father to men but a Mother to women is equally problematic.

EK: In YOUR opinion Mother-Father God depersonalizes God? Fair enough. In MY opinion, it does not. You don't understand it? I do. You can't have a personal relatiohship with God who is beyond our comprehension? I can. It's problematic to you that God is Father to men but Mother to women? Not to me.

Oh, but wait. You must be right because YOU are male, right?

Ummmm . . . .Not so much.

TP: That's why I find the "Mother God" or "God our Mother" terms to be both unwise and outside our tradition. But then, I always figured that a "a passionate radical Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic with a joyful Evangelical spirit" would know these things.

EK: Well, my brother, what you know about passionate radical Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic women with a joyful Evangelical spirit obviously would not fit in a thimble.

TP: Thanks for letting me comment.

EK: You bet.

TP: Happy anniversary in your ministry.

EK: Thank you.

Grace said...

Mother Kaeton,

I want you to know that this post really gave me alot of "food for thought."

It had never occurred to me that just a reference to God as "mother" could mean so much to someone, and be a means for them to return to the church. This is something that normally would never come to my mind.

Thank you for sharing your experience and thinking.

Kenneth Wolman said...

So he's generally referred to as male. As a Jew by birth, I grew up with this image (which I wasn't supposed to have because it's a graven image) of God looking like the Michelangelo figure in the Sistine Chapel (oh wow was I in trouble early). He was God the Punisher, and eventually I decided His existence was non-essential. Scare someone enough times and you disinherit both of you. That is what I did.

Then, when I came to the Catholic Church in 1998, I found the same God waiting for me: the butcher, the Wild Thing of my childhood nightmares. Until I attended a 5:00 PM Mass at St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street in Manhattan, where the young Fr. Something, SJ, invoked God the Father and God the Mother. I was floored. I still am.

Yet even in many Episcopal churches (for I crossed over in 2000), God is still steadfastly He. Saying He gives him the possibility and problem of imagery. Similarly, saying She alone creates the same possibility and problem.

Which male does God look like? Who am I supposed to see? Barry Fitzgerald? Karl Malden? Gregory Peck? (I like that one best of all)

Which female does God look like? Dorothy Day (if I MUST choose, she gets my vote)? Mother Teresa? Audrey Hepburn?

The argument that if God is not one or the other, then God is being declared out of existence, strikes me as utterly spurious. To me, God is what looks at me in the morning and forces me to look back. I don't see God except as I see me. That used to be horrible; I don't mind it anymore.

A woman may have the same experience. So is God a man or woman? God is a mirror of my own hopes, dreams, and fears. God is there but I am not God. God shows me the man I am but God is not necessarily a man.

I go along with the Creeds because I accepted a tradition. A bunch of them, Heaven help me. I actually believe that the sacrament of Baptism marked me indelibly and forever. That's not about God as gender; it's about me as touched by whoever that Being is.

By the way, as long as the Creed is a part of this...I believe that stuff happened. I don't know why I believe it; I don't really care. As I told an RC priest once, if it isn't literally true, it should be. I don't know what Jesus looked like either. Certainly not some Nordic ski instructor as he's shown in old representations. Right, he grew up in Nazareth, looks like an Aryan, and I'll sell you this 1946 used car with only 30,000 miles. Most of those old blond Jesus portraits actually resemble James Gurley, the lead guitarist in the old Big Brother and the Holding Company. He may be a He but the image is hardly reverential.

As we used to say back in The Bronx, "He, She, a bi gezint."