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Herstory Tablecloth

You are looking at a piece of folk art.

It is the work of many hands evolved over a period of 25 years. Not important simply for its loveliness, or the significant fact that it was created by both clergy and laity the tablecloth represents a period of stunning growth in the evolution of women ministers in Unitarian Universalism during the years from roughly 1980 to 2005. The names represented are not exhaustive. Signed by those who came in contact with the cloth, primarily at General Assemblies (GAs), the signatures represent an estimated one quarter of those who served our Association during that epoch of time.

The '70s and '80s saw the Women's Movement light a flame of hope and aspiration heretofore unknown. Partly due to the Second Wave of feminism, an increasingly educated female population began envisioning new possibilities for their lives. Instinctively concerned with matters of the spirit and ultimate meaning, and eager to set a more inclusive place in religious life for women, many women felt a call to the ministry. Theological education beyond college was a financial reach. Nevertheless, in the 1970s and 1980s, Unitarian Universalist women began preparing for ministry and coming into our Association in increasing numbers. It wasn't until 1980, that a critical mass of 40 female UU clergy was reached, and they were to claim their burning need to meet as a group in conference. These women, serving in congregations all over the country, had few to no colleagues with whom to test their skills or ask questions and share concerns, of which they had many. Role models were sorely needed.

The Ministerial Sisterhood Unitarian Universalist, or MsUU, was founded in 1974. At the time, it was the only clergywomen's organization, which met each year at General Assembly for the purpose of support, concern and encouragement of their ministerial sisterhood.

I was elected in 1979 as the third President of MsUU. It was during my tenure that the tablecloth project was born literally out of whole cloth. Stitching together two pieces of fabric, I formed a tablecloth to cover the MsUU table at General Assembly. I'd noticed that in previous years the bare table had looked unimaginative and rather forlorn, except for a few pictures of our foremothers, a stack or two of colleagues' sermons and bits of history scattered on it.

The fame and notoriety of Judy Chicago's magnificent art work, the "Dinner Party, created in 1979," was reverberating throughout the country with its bold ceramic dinner plates glorifying 39 mythical and historical famous women and their sexuality. Set on magnificent hand-embroidered place settings, the work included over 1,000 names of women scattered on porcelain floor tiles in the center of the three-sided work. Part of the artwork's magic was the venerating of women's craft and domestic art as opposed to the more culturally valued, male-dominated fine arts, (The work is on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.)

I hoped less ambitiously to set marking pens out on the bare cloth and invite ordained women to sign it, using "Rev." before their name.

The beginning of the tablecloth was modest yet significant, for as recently as 1973, there had been just four female ministers in pulpits. Seven years later we had grown substantially in numbers, and women comprised something approaching 50% of theological students in UU seminaries.

The first 15 or so names did not look as we had anticipated. The pens didn't write well on the textured fabric, and the result appeared rough and ragged. Disappointedly, I evaluated it as having been a good experiment and might have tucked it away in a drawer to be forgotten had Rev. Marjorie Learning not said, "No, keep it and embroider the names."

What an idea! I returned to San Diego and invited those in our church, including men, who might teach me to embroider to come to my home for an evening. On that occasion a core of what would ultimately grow to 29 women embroiderers was born. The tales we told, regarding nostalgically remembered sewing circles, and the delight we shared regaling one another with family stories made that event an auspicious beginning to an ongoing project of work and love.

Each year as ministers signed the tablecloth at GA, I brought it back to San Diego where women would gather and embroider ministers' names. If an embroiderer pricked her finger, she devised a flower to cover the reddened spot. One minister, misunderstanding the cloth's intent wrote a message in ink before her name. Having no way to erase it, San Diegan women creatively devised a decorative flower garden to cover the errant words.

After several years it was decided that some kind of border design would enhance the aesthetic dimension of the cloth. I invited my sister clergy to send me bits of lace from their grandmothers' and mothers' lace boxes. A Celtic border was designed, drawn, and damask was sewn in strips, and appliqued in place, incorporating the lace. This was all affected by a very creative woman in First Church, Mary Barranger. Fondly, she nicknamed the work the "Hagrag." More years went by and many more names were added.

The cloth was taking on a life and "herstory" of its own. It concerned me that while we were making visible and relatively immortal the names of female clergy, the women whose blood and time were being given to the project remained anonymous. In 1987, we gathered to find a way to add the embroiderers' names to the tablecloth. We decided that their autographs would be stitched in a floss color close to that of the cloth along the Celtic border. Across one end we embroidered, "Wrought with love by the women of First Unitarian Church from 1980 forward."

At a 1988 MsUU conference in Santa Barbara, women created worship incorporating the tablecloth, which now included 136 names. A time was made during which ministers remembered and called out the names of their sisters who were not with us. It was both thrilling and revealing that the calling lasted for minutes. At that point 20% of UU ministers were women. We sat around the cloth spread on a carpet in a lovely chapel, and made sacred its meaning in our lives.

When First UU Church of San Diego ordained its women interns, a signing of the tablecloth was made part of the ordination. In 2000, the tablecloth hung for several months in an exhibition of UU women's history, at the UUA headquarters in Boston, where more signatures were added. In 2005, at a Pacific Southwest District meeting some final signatures were penned, and attending women, and a man or two, embroidered names. Rev. Byrd Tetzlaff generously took the tablecloth home, completed the embroidery, had it cleaned and returned it to me.

A number of religious meanings are learned from this cloth. The most powerful lesson, perhaps, is the recognition of the love and respect that laywomen have shown their sisters in ministry. Countless hours of careful stitches have transformed this simple fabric into a sincere statement of prayerful regard. Each year the same women, as well as one or two others, came forward, needles and floss in hand to participate. No more than a few embroiderers considered giving up on the project until the cloth was clearly filling up and, coincidentally, this minister was concluding her ministry.

The tablecloth sends a message from sister to sister that we appreciate one another and that our leaders in faith are worthy of recognition. It is notable that this is not stone, but cloth — a woman's creative tablet. A feminine art, as ancient as time, has been employed to create a supple monument. The traditional time-consuming act of embroidery contrasts with our ever more technological lives. Its vivid, motley hues remind us that we need not be pretentious; we are precious in our most homespun ways.

Ministering to ministry is represented here. As female clergy care for their parishioners, their own partners and children, one can imagine their asking, from time to time, "Who ministers to ministers?" The cloth symbolizes the interdependence of ministry as in all life, and reminds us that to receive is as blessed as to give. Today, there are a total of 259 clergy, and 29 laywomen's names on the tablecloth.

It is appropriate that here, at Meadville Lombard, in the middle of the country where many women have prepared for ministry, the tablecloth should reside.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my colleague and dear friend, Rev. Bets Wienecke, with whom the project of seeing the tablecloth find its rightful place has been accomplished.

- Rev. Dr. Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle

Minister Emerita

First Unitarian Universalist Church, San Diego

Winter 2013

Meadville Lombard Wiggin Library
180 N. Wabash Ave.
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Chicago, IL 60601

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