Women have played an undeniably important, but not undisputed, role in Methodism ever since the days of John Wesley. The organization of the early societies gave women ample opportunity to exercise their gifts as class leaders, teachers, carers and housekeepers. Though he placed restrictions on their preaching, Wesley recognized that some women had an 'extraordinary' ministry and permitted them to give brief addresses at what were to be called prayer meetings rather than preaching services. On one occasion when a young preacher proposed a toast 'to the ladies', Wesley is said to have reproved him, saying, that he should have called them 'sisters'. The cost of being the wife of one of the early itinerant preachers is spelled out by Janet Kelly (2013).
After Wesley's death the Conference of 1803 pronounced 'preaching by women both unnecessary and generally undesired' and ordered women preachers to address only those of their own sex. But this did not deter some 25 women already preaching publicly from continuing to do so, notably Mary Fletcher and Mary Taft who corresponded extensively with one another. Despite considerable opposition, a number of new women preachers emerged in WM during the first half of the nineteenth century.
In the PM and the BC connexions, some women were accepted as full-time preachers and pastors, though discrimination in other respects continued.(The BC Minutes in 1819 list fourteen women who were recognised as itinerants at that time.) At the time of the Union of 1907, only one 'Female Preacher', Lillie Edwards at Hastings, was listed in the BC stations. Her disappearance from the stations of the UM Church in 1908 probably reflects the fact that the MNC and UMFC had never approved of women ministers.
Shortly before the Union of 1932, a joint committee was set up to discuss the ordination of women. It reported to the Conference of 1933 that it could find no reason for disqualifying women from the same ministry as men. But the Conference of 1934 rejected a scheme for the ordination of women. New proposals, brought to the Conference of 1938, were approved, but then delayed by the outbreak of war. The Conference of 1945 again declared its willingness to ordain women and referred the matter to the Synods. But the Conference of 1948 declined to admit women to the ministry.
The question was reopened in 1959, when a committee was appointed to consider the status of deaconesses and the admission of women to the ministry. It reported inconclusively to five successive Conferences. In 1965 its recommendation raising the status of deaconesses was accepted, but Conference resolved that, whilst accepting in principle the ordination of women, it would not take unilateral action during the Anglican-Methodist negotiations. When these failed, Conference finally accepted the admission of women to the ministry and the first British Methodist ordinations took place in 1974. (The Rev. Peggy Hiscock had already been ordained in the United Church of Zambia in 1968.)
The first woman to become President of the Conference was Dr K.M. Richardson in 1992. Meanwhile the role of lay women had been recognized in the election of Mrs Mildred Lewis as the first woman Vice-President in 1948, followed by an increasing number of others since. In 2001 both the Presidency and Vice-Presidency were held by women for the first time (Dr. Christina Le Moignan and Mrs.Ann Leck). The wardenship of the Deaconess Order remained ministerial and male until the appointment of Sister Sheila Parnell as 'Deaconess Warden' in 1980. It is now generally accepted that all committees of the Methodist Church include women and all offices in the Church are open to women as well as men. A leading figure in this development was Pauline M. Webb, who held various connexional and ecumenical offices, though she herself was never ordained.
A further transformation in the women's movements of the Methodist Church in Britain took place on 1st July 2011, when Women's Network and the British Unit of the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women (WFMUCW) joined together as part of Methodist Women in Britain (MWiB), a new movement aiming to develop the work of training pioneered by Women's Fellowship, along with the World Church emphasis of Women's Work, both of which had been continued through Women's Network with its motto of 'encouraging, enabling and equipping' women. MWiB is committed to finding new ways to engage with women throughout British Methodism and ecumenical churches as well as linking them with women around the world. MWiB operates through a brand new website (www.mwib.org.uk), regular newsletters, regional, national and international conferences and training events. It is run by a small executive of volunteers and a larger Forum, on which each district is represented, along with other areas of women's activity in the church. Creative spirituality along with a passion for social justice in a global context shape the activities and emphases of the movement.
Bible Christian Minutes of Conference, 1819:
' Q.4. What are our thoughts on female preaching? A. First: We believe God can enable a Woman, as well as a Man, to "Speak to edification, and exhortation, and comfort." 2. God hath promised, or declared, that females shall prophesy in His Name;Joel ii.28,29. Thus we see divine inspiration of females, and female prophesying, was to accompany the great outpouring of the Spirit of God; which had its dawn on the day of Pentecost… 3. It hath been practised in different ages. 4. In our days as heretofore, the Lord hath owned their labours, in turning many to righteusness through their word; and what but this is the end of all preaching? Namely, that sinners may be converted to God, and eternally saved. We believe, we ought to praise God, that the kingdom of darkness is shaken, and the kingdom of the Redeemer is enlarged, whoever be the instruents God is pleased to use; and that we dare not be so insolent,as to dictate to HIM, who he shall employ,to acomplish His gracious purposes. Q.5. But do not many object to female preaching? A. Yes, and we are sorry on the part of the gainsayers, that they have so far committed themseves, as to oppose it without ever producing an argument (worth being called an argument) against it.'
Leslie F. Church:
'Whilst it is evident that only an "extraordinary call" [to preach] was officially recognized in the case of a woman it is impossible to define the precise difference between this and the "ordinary call" to preach which was, apparently, sufficient ground for granting authority to men. Between the time of the death of Wesley in 1791 and the Conference of 1835, there was an appreciable number of women who served the Kingdom of God nobly, as local preachers in the Methodist Society. Their precise status matters little, when one remembrs their valient srvice. Some few travelled far and wide over the countryside. Others served within the boundaries of their own circuits, but to leave them out of account would be to censor an important chapter in the history of the Methodist Church.'
More about the Early Methodist People (1949) pp.172-3
E. Benson Perkins, President of the 1948 Conference:
'The major debate that year was on "women in the ministry". It ran through the whole of one morning and, regarded purely as a discussion of an important issue, it was first-class, showing the Conference at its best. There were seventeen participants in the debate and the speaking on both sides was excellent. To me it is an extraordinary fact that in the fifteen Conferences since, we have not had another debate of that order and excellence... The resolution asked for the admission of women to the itinerant ministry on exactly the same terms as men. I am satisfied in my own mind that if the proposal had sought the ordination of selected women to meet special needs at home and overseas, it would probably have been carried. There was little objection on principle, and a beginning in the way suggested could have led to the solving of the serious practical difficulties. It was these difficulties in the main which led to the rejection of the proposal by a majority of approximately two thirds.'
So Appointed: an autobiography(1964) p.131