The Strike at Putney by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The church at Putney was one that gladdened the hearts of all the ministers in the presbytery whenever they thought about it. It was such a satisfactory church. While other churches here and there were continually giving trouble in one way or another, the Putneyites were never guilty of brewing up internal or presbyterial strife.
The Exeter church people were always quarrelling among themselves and carrying their quarrels to the courts of the church. The very name of Exeter gave the members of presbytery the cold creeps. But the Putney church people never quarrelled.
Danbridge church was in a chronic state of ministerlessness. No minister ever stayed in Danbridge longer than he could help. The people were too critical, and they were also noted heresy hunters. Good ministers fought shy of Danbridge, and poor ones met with a chill welcome. The harassed presbytery, worn out with "supplying," were disposed to think that the millennium would come if ever the Danbridgians got a minister whom they liked. At Putney they had had the same minister for fifteen years and hoped and expected to have him for fifteen more. They looked with horror-stricken eyes on the Danbridge theological coquetries.
Bloom Valley church was over head and heels in debt and had no visible prospect of ever getting out. The moderator said under his breath that they did over-much praying and too little hoeing. He did not believe in faith without works. Tarrytown Road kept its head above water but never had a cent to spare for missions or the schemes of the church.
In bright and shining contradistinction to these the Putney church had always paid its way and gave liberally to all departments of church work. If other springs of supply ran dry the Putneyites enthusiastically got up a "tea" or a "social," and so raised the money. Naturally the "heft" of this work fell on the women, but they did not mind--in very truth, they enjoyed it. The Putney women had the reputation of being "great church workers," and they plumed themselves on it, putting on airs at conventions among the less energetic women of the other churches.
They were especially strong on societies. There was the Church Aid Society, the Girls' Flower Band, and the Sewing Circle. There was a Mission Band and a Helping Hand among the children. And finally there was the Women's Foreign Mission Auxiliary, out of which the whole trouble grew which convulsed the church at Putney for a brief time and furnished a standing joke in presbyterial circles for years afterwards. To this day ministers and elders tell the story of the Putney church strike with sparkling eyes and subdued chuckles. It never grows old or stale. But the Putney elders are an exception. They never laugh at it. They never refer to it. It is not in the wicked, unregenerate heart of man to make a jest of his own bitter defeat.
It was in June that the secretary of the Putney W.F.M. Auxiliary wrote to a noted returned missionary who was touring the country, asking her to give an address on mission work before their society. Mrs. Cotterell wrote back saying that her brief time was so taken up already that she found it hard to make any further engagements, but she could not refuse the Putney people who were so well and favourably known in mission circles for their perennial interest and liberality. So, although she could not come on the date requested, she would, if acceptable, come the following Sunday.
This suited the Putney Auxiliary very well. On the Sunday referred to there was to be no evening service in the church owing to Mr. Sinclair's absence. They therefore appointed the missionary meeting for that night, and made arrangements to hold it in the church itself, as the classroom was too small for the expected audience.
Then the thunderbolt descended on the W.F.M.A. of Putney from a clear sky. The elders of the church rose up to a man and declared that no woman should occupy the pulpit of the Putney church. It was in direct contravention to the teachings of St. Paul.
To make matters worse, Mr. Sinclair declared himself on the elders' side. He said that he could not conscientiously give his consent to a woman occupying his pulpit, even when that woman was Mrs. Cotterell and her subject foreign missions.
The members of the Auxiliary were aghast. They called a meeting extraordinary in the classroom and, discarding all forms and ceremonies in their wrath, talked their indignation out.
Out of doors the world basked in June sunshine and preened itself in blossom. The birds sang and chirped in the lichened maples that cupped the little church in, and peace was over all the Putney valley. Inside the classroom disgusted women buzzed like angry bees.
"What on earth are we to do?" sighed the secretary plaintively. Mary Kilburn was always plaintive. She sat on the steps of the platform, being too wrought up in her mind to sit in her chair at the desk, and her thin, faded little face was twisted with anxiety. "All the arrangements are made and Mrs. Cotterell is coming on the tenth. How can we tell her that the men won't let her speak?"
"There was never anything like this in Putney church before," groaned Mrs. Elder Knox. "It was Andrew McKittrick put them up to it. I always said that man would make trouble here yet, ever since he moved to Putney from Danbridge. I've talked and argued with Thomas until I'm dumb, but he is as set as a rock."
"I don't see what business the men have to interfere with us anyhow," said her daughter Lucy, who was sitting on one of the window-sills. "We don't meddle with them, I'm sure. As if Mrs. Cotterell would contaminate the pulpit!"
"One would think we were still in the dark ages," said Frances Spenslow sharply. Frances was the Putney schoolteacher. Her father was one of the recalcitrant elders and Frances felt it bitterly--all the more that she had tried to argue with him and had been sat upon as a "child who couldn't understand."
"I'm more surprised at Mr. Sinclair than at the elders," said Mrs. Abner Keech, fanning herself vigorously. "Elders are subject to queer spells periodically. They think they assert their authority that way. But Mr. Sinclair has always seemed so liberal and broad-minded."
"You never can tell what crotchet an old bachelor will take into his head," said Alethea Craig bitingly.
The others nodded agreement. Mr. Sinclair's inveterate celibacy was a standing grievance with the Putney women.
"If he had a wife who could be our president this would never have happened, I warrant you," said Mrs. King sagely.
"But what are we going to do, ladies?" said Mrs. Robbins briskly. Mrs. Robbins was the president. She was a big, bustling woman with clear blue eyes and crisp, incisive ways. Hitherto she had held her peace. "They must talk themselves out before they can get down to business," she had reflected sagely. But she thought the time had now come to speak.
"You know," she went on, "we can talk and rage against the men all day if we like. They are not trying to prevent us. But that will do no good. Here's Mrs. Cotterell invited, and all the neighbouring auxiliaries notified--and the men won't let us have the church. The point is, how are we going to get out of the scrape?"
A helpless silence descended upon the classroom. The eyes of every woman present turned to Myra Wilson. Everyone could talk, but when it came to action they had a fashion of turning to Myra.
She had a reputation for cleverness and originality. She never talked much. So far today she had not said a word. She was sitting on the sill of the window across from Lucy Knox. She swung her hat on her knee, and loose, moist rings of dark hair curled around her dark, alert face. There was a sparkle in her grey eyes that boded ill to the men who were peaceably pursuing their avocations, rashly indifferent to what the women might be saying in the maple-shaded classroom.
"Have you any suggestion to make, Miss Wilson?" said Mrs. Robbins, with a return to her official voice and manner.
Myra put her long, slender index finger to her chin.
"I think," she said decidedly, "that we must strike."
* * * * *
When Elder Knox went in to tea that evening he glanced somewhat apprehensively at his wife. They had had an altercation before she went to the meeting, and he supposed she had talked herself into another rage while there. But Mrs. Knox was placid and smiling. She had made his favourite soda biscuits for him and inquired amiably after his progress in hoeing turnips in the southeast meadow.
She made, however, no reference to the Auxiliary meeting, and when the biscuits and the maple syrup and two cups of matchless tea had nerved the elder up, his curiosity got the better of his prudence--for even elders are human and curiosity knows no gender--and he asked what they had done at the meeting.
"We poor men have been shaking in our shoes," he said facetiously.
"Were you?" Mrs. Knox's voice was calm and faintly amused. "Well, you didn't need to. We talked the matter over very quietly and came to the conclusion that the session knew best and that women hadn't any right to interfere in church business at all."
Lucy Knox turned her head away to hide a smile. The elder beamed. He was a peace-loving man and disliked "ructions" of any sort and domestic ones in particular. Since the decision of the session Mrs. Knox had made his life a burden to him. He did not understand her sudden change of base, but he accepted it very thankfully.
"That's right--that's right," he said heartily. "I'm glad to hear you coming out so sensible, Maria. I was afraid you'd work yourselves up at that meeting and let Myra Wilson or Alethea Craig put you up to some foolishness or other. Well, I guess I'll jog down to the Corner this evening and order that barrel of pastry flour you want."
"Oh, you needn't," said Mrs. Knox indifferently. "We won't be needing it now."
"Not needing it! But I thought you said you had to have some to bake for the social week after next."
"There isn't going to be any social."
"Not any social?"
Elder Knox stared perplexedly at his wife. A month previously the Putney church had been recarpeted, and they still owed fifty dollars for it. This, the women declared, they would speedily pay off by a big cake and ice-cream social in the hall. Mrs. Knox had been one of the foremost promoters of the enterprise.
"Not any social?" repeated the elder again. "Then how is the money for the carpet to be got? And why isn't there going to be a social?"
"The men can get the money somehow, I suppose," said Mrs. Knox. "As for the social, why, of course, if women aren't good enough to speak in church they are not good enough to work for it either. Lucy, dear, will you pass me the cookies?"
"Lucy dear" passed the cookies and then rose abruptly and left the table. Her father's face was too much for her.
"What confounded nonsense is this?" demanded the elder explosively.
Mrs. Knox opened her mellow brown eyes widely, as if in amazement at her husband's tone.
"I don't understand you," she said. "Our position is perfectly logical."
She had borrowed that phrase from Myra Wilson, and it floored the elder. He got up, seized his hat, and strode from the room.
That night, at Jacob Wherrison's store at the Corner, the Putney men talked over the new development. The social was certainly off--for a time, anyway.
"Best let 'em alone, I say," said Wherrison. "They're mad at us now and doing this to pay us out. But they'll cool down later on and we'll have the social all right."
"But if they don't," said Andrew McKittrick gloomily, "who is going to pay for that carpet?"
This was an unpleasant question. The others shirked it.
"I was always opposed to this action of the session," said Alec Craig. "It wouldn't have hurt to have let the woman speak. 'Tisn't as if it was a regular sermon."
"The session knew best," said Andrew sharply. "And the minister--you're not going to set your opinion up against his, are you, Craig?"
"Didn't know they taught such reverence for ministers in Danbridge," retorted Craig with a laugh.
"Best let 'em alone, as Wherrison says," said Abner Keech.
"Don't see what else we can do," said John Wilson shortly.
* * * * *
On Sunday morning the men were conscious of a bare, deserted appearance in the church. Mr. Sinclair perceived it himself. After some inward wondering he concluded that it was because there were no flowers anywhere. The table before the pulpit was bare. On the organ a vase held a sorry, faded bouquet left over from the previous week. The floor was' unswept. Dust lay thickly on the pulpit Bible, the choir chairs, and the pew backs.
"This church looks disgraceful," said John Robbins in an angry undertone to his daughter Polly, who was president of the Flower Band. "What in the name of common sense is the good of your Flower Banders if you can't keep the place looking decent?"
"There is no Flower Band now, Father," whispered Polly in turn. "We've disbanded. Women haven't any business to meddle in church matters. You know the session said so."
It was well for Polly that she was too big to have her ears boxed. Even so, it might not have saved her if they had been anywhere else than in church.
Meanwhile the men who were sitting in the choir--three basses and two tenors--were beginning to dimly suspect that there was something amiss here too. Where were the sopranos and the altos? Myra Wilson and Alethea Craig and several other members of the choir were sitting down in their pews with perfectly unconscious faces. Myra was looking out of the window into the tangled sunlight and shadow of the great maples. Alethea Craig was reading her Bible.
Presently Frances Spenslow came in. Frances was organist, but today, instead of walking up to the platform, she slipped demurely into her father's pew at one side of the pulpit. Eben Craig, who was the Putney singing master and felt himself responsible for the choir, fidgeted uneasily. He tried to catch Frances's eye, but she was absorbed in reading the mission report she had found in the rack, and Eben was finally forced to tiptoe down to the Spenslow pew and whisper, "Miss Spenslow, the minister is waiting for the doxology. Aren't you going to take the organ?"
Frances looked up calmly. Her clear, placid voice was audible not only to those in the nearby pews, but to the minister.
"No, Mr. Craig. You know if a woman isn't fit to speak in the church she can't be fit to sing in it either."
Eben Craig looked exceedingly foolish. He tiptoed gingerly back to his place. The minister, with an unusual flush on his thin, ascetic face, rose suddenly and gave out the opening hymn.
Nobody who heard the singing in Putney church that day ever forgot it. Untrained basses and tenors, unrelieved by a single female voice, are not inspiring.
There were no announcements of society meetings for the forthcoming week. On the way home from church that day irate husbands and fathers scolded, argued, or pleaded, according to their several dispositions. One and all met with the same calm statement that if a noble, self-sacrificing woman like Mrs. Cotterell were not good enough to speak in the Putney church, ordinary, everyday women could not be fit to take any part whatever in its work.
Sunday School that afternoon was a harrowing failure. Out of all the corps of teachers only one was a man, and he alone was at his post. In the Christian Endeavour meeting on Tuesday night the feminine element sat dumb and unresponsive. The Putney women never did things by halves.
The men held out for two weeks. At the end of that time they "happened" to meet at the manse and talked the matter over with the harassed minister. Elder Knox said gloomily, "It's this way. Nothing can move them women. I know, for I've tried. My authority has been set at naught in my own household. And I'm laughed at if I show my face in any of the other settlements."
The Sunday School superintendent said the Sunday School was going to wrack and ruin, also the Christian Endeavour. The condition of the church for dust was something scandalous, and strangers were making a mockery of the singing. And the carpet had to be paid for. He supposed they would have to let the women have their own way.
The next Sunday evening after service Mr. Sinclair arose hesitatingly. His face was flushed, and Alethea Craig always declared that he looked "just plain everyday cross." He announced briefly that the session after due deliberation had concluded that Mrs. Cotterell might occupy the pulpit on the evening appointed for her address.
The women all over the church smiled broadly. Frances Spenslow got up and went to the organ stool. The singing in the last hymn was good and hearty. Going down the steps after dismissal Mrs. Elder Knox caught the secretary of the Church Aid by the arm.
"I guess," she whispered anxiously, "you'd better call a special meeting of the Aids at my house tomorrow afternoon. If we're to get that social over before haying begins we've got to do some smart scurrying."
The strike in the Putney church was over.