A sleek campus in a suburban area outside of Chicago once served as the center of operations for an oil company, but now houses The Salvation Army’s Central Territorial Headquarters. Each morning, Carol Seiler drives into the underground parking lot and takes the stairs, passing the women’s ministries department and heading for the floor reserved for territorial leadership. Her office, a small space once used for traveling officers, is around the corner from the territorial commander.
Just over 5-feet-tall, Seiler is not an intimidating figure, but has a commanding presence that fits the self-selected location of her office. As we sit, she straightens the fitted blazer of her navy polyester pantsuit, her shoulders adorned with maroon velvet epaulets and a silver Salvation Army crest—designating her as one of 10 commissioners, the rank just below the General, in the United States. By regulation, the wife of the territorial commander is appointed to lead the women’s ministries department, but Seiler brought a different background to the role. While she still holds that title by international regulation, she created a position of her own: strategic mission planning to keep the Army agile yet analytical in the Midwest.
“We have inherited a paradox in an organization that cares about empowering women in our programs, but uses gender and marital status to actually discriminate against officers who are married women,” Seiler said. “Even if it unintentionally happens, having one spouse be an attachment to the other, even though both complete training college and hold a rank, devalues the individuals.”
The Salvation Army began with a desire to treat women equally, allowing them to teach, preach and minister just like men. In its first 50 years in the United States, the Army often had women leaders. Yet that equality had some reservations, which William Booth, who started the Army with his wife, Catherine, told listeners at an 1888 meeting, as recorded in a May 1888 edition of The War Cry [ “In the way of our salaried officers we have a great difficulty to meet…the male officers are joined with the female officers, and then, by some strange mistake in our organization, the woman doesn’t count.” Now, some men and women of The Salvation Army are trying to return the organization to its intended egalitarian roots—for all officers, married and single.
How did The Salvation Army get sidetracked?
The 1900 edition of Orders and Regulations for Officers—“a manual of operations for furthering the mission”—named gender equality as “one of the leading principles upon which the Army is based.” This evangelical church ordains women and appoints them into positions throughout the nonprofit organization, including the April 2011 election of General Linda Bond as the international leader, but the foundational progressive perspective was sidestepped along the way. The 1987 edition of officer regulations stated, “the nature of such service [for an ‘officer-wife’] will depend largely upon her husband’s appointment. In most appointments…an officer-wife should assist her husband. He is of course, responsible.” Not until the 1997 edition did the idea of “individual vocation and mutual support” recognize instead the distinctive role of each officer.
Finding a niche to fit her skills was part of Seiler’s strategy as a young officer. Soon after receiving a master’s degree in public health, her husband became a finance trainee and she was tasked with corps cadets, a young adult Bible study program. “My previous work and education weren’t even factored into my role,” said Seiler, who is largely responsible at that time for starting Bethesda House, a shelter for homeless families affected by HIV/AIDS. “I found ways to be fulfilled without fussing about it, but when I became a divisional leader—and the divisional commander’s wife—I realized I needed to do more to help other women,” she said. “Once you get into a position of authority, you have to keep being a voice.”
In a 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life global survey of evangelical Protestant leaders, a third of worldwide leaders surveyed (33 percent) say they agree that “women should stay at home and raise the children in the family;” the number is higher among U.S. leaders with 44 percent agreeing women should stay at home.
The Salvation Army—an evangelical Protestant church and international humanitarian organization currently operating in 125 countries and 175 languages—is rooted in Methodism. The Christian Mission, later re-named The Salvation Army, originated in England in 1865 with a Methodist minister and his wife—William and Catherine Booth. Though Catherine was never ordained nor commissioned, in the Mission’s Foundation Deed the Booths included a provision that women have the same rights to preach as men, and the organization has made women ministers ever since—a remarkable advancement even today as just over half of American Protestant denominations ordain women.
Yet some see the opportunity given to married women officers as less than what is offered to single women and male officers. “I was basically dismissed when I married,” said one female officer with roughly 30 years of experience as both a single and a married officer, who asked that her name not be used. “As a single officer I was valued and people knew I could think and contribute, but as a married officer I’m expected to coordinate parties and place uniform orders. I’m an expansive thinker, and I feel boxed into a role that I don’t fit into.”
Despite this, it is women officers who are largely essential to the Army’s legacy, starting with its co-founder. Emerging from England’s working class, Catherine Mumford grew up in a world where all women worked and religion, specifically the local Wesleyan Methodist chapel, was at the center of the family. Women could not participate in decision-making bodies nor be ordained, but the theology did support women’s public ministry, according to Dr. Pamela Walker, a professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa and the author of Pulling the Devil’s Kingdom Down on The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain.
“The Army is a patriarchal organization, but it also endorses women’s authority,” Walker said of the Army at its beginning. “In that tension is the root of women’s position within the Army over the next hundred years.”
In Victorian Britain, most evangelicals understood women to be “domestic, dependent, and submissive, which necessarily precluded them from preaching or assuming positions of authority,” Walker said. When the minister of the Bethesda Free Church in Sunderland, Rev. A. A. Rees, published a pamphlet arguing that Paul specifically and unequivocally forbade women to speak in church, and because of Eve’s sin women were “under a denser cloud of suffering and humiliation” and must remain in subjection to men, Catherine Booth was enraged. She published her own pamphlet, “Female Teaching,” arguing that God made man and woman together, and subordination occurred as a punishment for Eve’s transgressions; the subjection was “neither natural nor eternal.”
She wrote: “Will he inform us why women should be confined exclusively to the kitchen or the distaff, any more than man to the field and the workshop? Did not God, and has not nature, assigned to man his sphere of labor, ‘to till the ground, and to dress it?’ And, if Mr. Rees claims exemption from this kind of toil for one portion of his sex, on the ground of their possessing ability for intellectual pursuits, he must allow us the same privilege for women.”
Because 19th-century British and American Protestants regarded women as passive and receptive by nature, Walker said the most innovative and ultimately significant aspect of Catherine Booth’s thinking was her assertion—radical at the time—that women could possess spiritual authority as women and could preach as a part of the natural order. She wrote to her mother, “I felt quite at home on the platform—far more than I do in the kitchen.” When William Booth became ill in 1860, Catherine Booth took his place in the Methodist New Connexion preaching circuit. The minutes contained no reference to her preaching, but the press did, including a Wesleyan Times article titled “A Minister’s Wife Preaching for Him!” She became well known for speaking and received many invitations to do so, often before wealthy crowds where she gained financial support for the ministry.
When Catherine Booth—the “Army Mother”—died in 1890, 30,000 people lined the streets of East London to watch her funeral procession. She was called the “most famous and influential Christian woman of the generation.”
The present tension
In the United States today, women account for roughly 53 percent of entry-level professional employees in the largest industrial corporations, yet they hold only 37 percent of middle-management positions, 28 percent of vice-president and senior-managerial roles, and 14 percent of seats on executive committees. According to McKinsey & Company analysis, the chances of women advancing are half of those for men.
This is further complicated in The Salvation Army because for the most part a wife seems to have opportunities only as far as they relate to her husband’s appointments. All officers complete two years of training at one of four colleges across the nation; each fulfills the requirements, and is ordained and commissioned individually. Territorial leaders and personnel departments then appoint officers to positions in Salvation Army corps (churches) and divisional and territorial headquarters. A newly commissioned officer lieutenant is individually promoted in rank to captain after five years of service and to major after 15 years of service. Any rank beyond major, which couples then take together, is given with elevated position.
For married women officers, the dilemma is not found as often at the corps level but in headquarters positions. Many headquarters (i.e. leadership) positions for a husband come with a “linked” appointment for his wife, generally in the women’s ministries department or as his assistant/associate. Colonel Sharron Hudson is the territorial secretary for women’s ministries in the West and wife of the chief secretary. “It’s a Catch-22 really, because I feel valued in my ministry to women and always have; women’s programs have been the lifeblood of The Salvation Army,” she said. “But after 20 years of working together in a corps, when my husband was appointed a divisional secretary and the linked appointment for me was in League of Mercy I had a hard time at first. I joked with him—kind of joked—about him being in an office with a couch next to the divisional commander and me being down in a cubby hole.”
However, Hudson, who is currently working toward a master’s in Christian leadership at Fuller Seminary, stresses that The Salvation Army does give her a position. “In most other churches, I would be a ‘pastor’s wife’ but in The Salvation Army I have my own appointment and title,” she said. “Even with its foibles, the Army is still radical in its use of women in leadership.”
Western Territorial Commander Commissioner James Knaggs said a male-dominated way of thinking leads to the husband generally having the more dominant role in headquarters appointments. He believes it needs to change and appointed a married woman officer as the property secretary in the West. Yet Knaggs noted that a number of married women officers he has discussed promotions with said they did not want a position over their husbands. “They pleaded, ‘Don’t do this to our marriage,’” Knaggs said.
“The Salvation Army’s early leaders stressed the creation account,” said Dr. Roger Green, professor and chair of Biblical Studies and Christian Ministries at Gordon College in Massachusetts and the son of Salvation Army officer parents, referencing Genesis 1:27-28.
Green said in this account, there is no gender distinction. “There is a oneness of purpose and jobs,” he said. “Following redemption in Christ there is no male nor female as we read in Galatians 3:28. Early Army leaders knew this applies primarily to salvation, but also to how we are intended to be in life and ministry—without gender hindrances.”
Some married women officers don’t see positions and titles as an issue at all, perhaps subscribing to the 1950s ideal of womanhood. “I personally wouldn’t want to be in charge,” said Major Sandra Turner, who served as a single officer in the Southern Territory for nine years before marrying; she recently moved to a corps appointment from the assistant secretary for program in the Central Territory’s Metropolitan Division under her husband. “I’m fine with the title of assistant. I had a big office when I was single and then when I got married I didn’t have an office at all.” When Turner married as a captain, she took on her husband’s title of lieutenant. “It didn’t bother me; I would much rather be known as Mrs. Turner,” she said.
In The Salvation Army, according to 2011 statistics from International Headquarters, women account for 57 percent of 26,254 active and retired officers around the world. The international leader (the General) is a single woman (the third single woman of 19 Generals in Salvation Army history). Nine of 61 territorial/regional commanders are female—all single and also appointed the territorial president of women’s ministries. Of the 5,289 officers in the United States, 56 percent are women. The vast majority of U.S. officers (82 percent) are married, 15 percent are single women and 3 percent are single men. Just two of 40 divisional commanders in the U.S. are women—both single.
William Booth wrote in a letter to Catherine before they married, “I would not stop a woman preaching on any account. I would not encourage one to begin.” Seiler says the same applies now. “[Catherine] was bold enough to take the first step; the boldness to start had to be hers,” she said. “This is not uncommon today. There are a lot of men who say they wouldn’t stop someone, but they also won’t encourage it. It takes individual initiative and boldness.”
The organization reportedly discussed appointments for married women officers at the 2011 High Council, the closed-door meeting of international commissioners that elects the Army’s worldwide leader. It was the largest ever High Council with 109 members. For the first time, more attendees were women than men (57 to 52) due to a vote to include officers holding the appointment of territorial president of women’s ministries—generally the wife of the territorial commander.
“Some worry about how it would work if the husband was subordinate; it’s curious though that we don’t even think about it the other way around,” National Commander Commissioner William Roberts said. “If I can have any influence on [recognizing the place of married women in Army leadership], I will. We need to explore it further.
One facet of concern
For those married women officers in the U.S. who feel devalued by the organization, the method of compensation and its result on Social Security considerations is a tangible illustration.
According to Seiler’s monthly statement from the Social Security Administration, she has no work history; a long list of zeros fills her income record for 31 years with the organization. The Army utilizes its prerogative as a religious institution to determine how it will compensate its workers. The officers are not employees but are members of clergy, and as such fall under Social Security publication 517 that says “if a husband and wife are both duly ordained, commissioned or licensed ministers of a church and have an agreement that each will perform specific services for which they are paid jointly or separately, they must divide the self-employment income according to the agreement.”
It is this “ministerial exception” that protects the organization from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Equal Pay Act that requires men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work, as well as from discrimination lawsuits. The Salvation Army won a case filed in 1972 by a disgruntled ex-officer, who claimed she was discriminated against in appointments on the basis of her sex, on the grounds that relations between a church and its ministers were exempt from the relevant provisions of the Civil Rights Act. This clause was affirmed with the January 2012 Supreme Court ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case that ministers may not bring employment discrimination suits against their churches.
In the Army’s case, the agreement for compensation is that the officer allowance be paid jointly to the husband—the check is written in his name. Officially, the wife is a “worker without expectation of remuneration,” and her husband receives 40 percent more of an allowance as a married man than he would as a single man. Social Security benefits following retirement include a non-worker benefit of 50 percent of the working spouse’s income, but this is complicated in times of divorce or early death.
If the Army were to begin paying all officers individually, a couple’s Social Security benefit would be reduced. Outside analysis determined that to make up the difference in retirement, each territory would need to begin to set aside $4 million annually.
“Do I think my wife should be paid for her work? Absolutely,” said Colonel Dave Hudson, chief secretary in the Western Territory. “But it’s not as easy to answer when you explain that it will cost the Army significant dollars a year to get what we are getting now. We have yet to come up with a format and price tag that is manageable.”
From separate pay to time spent on the job to the titles gained, the value an individual feels is the core of the issue.
“Everything comes down to that, and everybody receives value differently than others,” Hudson said. “We need to look at what the best needs are for the organization, the individual and the family and try to meld them all together. Every officer should be utilized to the fullest extent of his or her abilities and skills.”
The march forward
Despite The Salvation Army’s obligations and structures—a maturity that Booth wasn’t bound by—“We have to think about the issues of today and apply the elements of Booth: creativity, willingness to take on new things, and care for mission,” Seiler said.
Commissioner Nancy Roberts, national president of women’s ministries, who holds a master’s degree in counseling and guidance, agrees. “I’ll stand behind women who are speaking up and support and encourage the use of an individual’s strengths and gifts beyond just the traditional roles,” she said.
This is happening internationally, specifically with the first appointment of a married woman as chief secretary in June 2011. In the Germany and Lithuania Territory, Major Marsha-Jean Bowles was promoted from personnel and candidates secretary to chief secretary with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Her husband remained in his position as territorial youth secretary but also received the rank of Lt. Colonel.
“Women officers—married or single—should not be ‘lost’ to the Army, but valued equally,” Seiler said. “The Salvation Army was considered radical and progressive in its early years. We’re in the aging stage of an organization now and can affect how the future will look, but we have to break some old habits and be intentional.”