With the news coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher and stories of her powerful, controversial and interesting life, an image that has remained in my mind for decades now has come to the forefront. I have a memory of flipping through one of the news magazines back when she was in office and the centerfold opened to show a long row of world leaders posing for photos at some summit. There they were, men in dark suits and somewhere toward the middle of the row was a splash of color, the only woman standing there confidently, with her purse on her arm.
The first time I saw that photo I had a strong sense of identification with the Iron Lady as I looked at her and asked her audibly, “So, Maggie, where does one put one’s purse?”
Ever since then I think of that photo when I am at a wedding or a funeral, or guest preaching or processing in my robe in an ordination or academic ceremony. The question always comes, “Where does one put one’s purse?” It was a more frequent question when I was newer in ministry than now days. Back then it was generally the case that I was the only woman in a room of clergy. And where to put my purse was not the only question.
When I first started seminary it took me a long time to find the Women’s restroom. I went to the end of the hall in the area where the classrooms were and there was the Men’s room. I figured that the Women’s restroom was on the floor below, but again it was a Men’s restroom. Finally, I figured out that if I looked where the secretaries were I would find a Women’s restroom. Sure enough!
When I was pregnant with my first child there was no provision in the personnel manual for maternity leave for professional staff. Why? I was only the second woman on professional staff of the more than 80 year old ministry organization and the first who was married and of child-bearing age. My maternity leave of 6 weeks came as a special dispensation by the Executive Minister. That worked well because we carefully planned to have our child at the beginning of summer and since I was a campus pastor I could actually take my baby to work until school started in the fall. When our second child came there still was no provision in the personnel manual – maybe they thought that it was a fluke to have a married woman of child-bearing age on the professional staff and there was no need to be hasty about changing the personnel manual. This baby was not as cooperative as the first and came at the end of the summer. The Executive Minister decided that 6 weeks was not enough and so he gave me 8.
There are many other stories that I could tell that could be represented by the question, “Where does one put one’s purse,” but I will end this post with one other that I will never forget. On the day that I was ordained I received many lovely comments from those who came to celebrate with me. It was a truly affirming experience. One comment came in the form of a note from a woman who was married to a man who had been pastor of his first church for almost 60 years at that point. Her note said, “I always prayed that my sons would grow up to be pastors. Today I realized that I wish that I had prayed the same for my daughters.”
And so as the world says good-bye to Lady Thatcher, I would say this: Maggie, you and I would have argued over many things – if I would have been brave enough to argue with you. But I must say, thank you for stepping up in a world that thought a woman could not do what you did. And thank you for not worrying about what to do with your purse.