United Church of Christ

The Congregational Training School for Women

Written by Dorothy C. Bass

"What shall I do with my life?" a recruiting pamphlet from the Congregational Education Society early in the twentieth century urged its readers to ask themselves. Careers of service in the church, the pamphlet answered, offered exciting opportunities to make a difference in the world and to develop one's own life to the full. "The need is great. Christian leaders are called for at home and abroad. The strongest and best of our young men and women are wanted. No others can fully meet the need. Where and how will you invest your life?"(1)

Congregational women who sought to invest their lives in Christian leadership during the early decades of this century responded to this challenge. They were supported by the Congregational Training School for Women, established by Congregationalists in Chicago in 1909. The school aimed to be "a school for women where a high grade of instruction is offered along the lines of modern thought in religious life and modern methods in social work."(2) According to the school's founders, the churches sorely needed trained laywomen to take on staff positions in congregations and agencies. However, the Congregationalists' dominant image of paid leadership was that of the clergyman. Could the churches be convinced to hire professional women? Those who supported and attended the school hoped to develop new forms of employment for laywomen that would both enrich the churches and provide women with an opportunity to answer the call to Christian service.


Although women who devoted their lives to Christian service can be found in every era, women have often been excluded from paid leadership and service in the churches. Around the turn of the century, however, a mass movement of American Protestant laywomen developed new models for women's participation in ecclesiastical life. Like the woman suffrage movement of the same period, with which it was closely connected, this movement of churchwomen raised women's expectations about their own ability to make public contributions.

Early in the nineteenth century, women had discovered the rewards and effectiveness of unified moral action in support of missions, education, and social reform. By 1900 they had developed large organizations to further these ends, and hundreds of women held paying positions as Christian workers in bodies such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). The foreign mission field also provided opportunities. In 1900 more than half of all American Protestant missionaries overseas were women, most of them single women supported by denominational women's missions organizations. In addition, more and more institutions of higher education were opening their doors to women. For middle-class women, the period was one in which the excitement of emerging opportunities and the genuine necessity of many women to support themselves financially created a quest for new careers, inside and outside of the church.

Progressive church leaders were open to receiving the public contributions of this generation of women. It was an era of growth and excitement about the mission of the churches. Advocates of the Social Gospel, which had a strong following among Congregationalists, were aware of the pressing need for a Christian response to the turmoil and injustice that accompanied rapid social change. Christian workers were needed to respond to human crises in rapidly growing cities transformed by industry and immigration. Many city congregations explored new forms of social outreach to their communities. Overseas, the foreign missions movement was at its peak, as confident American Protestants sought to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of a vast but shrinking world. For millions of liberal Protestants, at the turn of the "Christian" Century, the task