Sex in the pulpit: The feminist preacher for Aussie flappers

Englishwoman Maude Royden arrived in Sydney on May 29, 1928. Why did her public lecture tour set Australian feminists ‘all in a flutter’?

 Agnes Maude Royden, in Sex and Common Sense (1922). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Agnes Maude Royden, in Sex and Common Sense (1922). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Something unusual has happened in this city of dreadful sinners,’ claimed the papers in June 1928, ‘the keeper of the keys of a church had to lock the doors in order to prevent the building from bursting through too many people entering’. They came hear a celebrity preacher: Englishwoman Maude Royden.

Royden was the first woman to preach in an Anglican church in Australia when she addressed the Darling Point congregation in 1928. Not your average touring preacher, Royden smoked; she told girls to be more selfish. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the crowd at her ‘Sex and Common-sense’ lecture ‘threatened to become unmanageable’ as police struggled to hold people back from the entrance. Royden thought there would be a riot.

The 1920s is famous for jazz, Hollywood and flappers – not religion. The young single working woman – the flapper – became a symbol of the times. Christian women’s groups were often apprehensive about these girls. By drinking, smoking and dancing, flappers spelled the collapse of Christian civilisation. Imagining they were society’s moral guardians, Protestant critics condemned the flapper lifestyle. Known more for their partying than church attendance, few historians have investigated these girls’ religious lives. But when Royden came to preach in Australia, young women flocked to church.

Royden was born in 1876 in Liverpool. A feminist and a pacifist, once women achieved suffrage in the United Kingdom, she turned to the Church of England, campaigning for women to become priests. Royden advocated sex education and mutuality in marriage and the harmony of science, religion and Christianity. She also, eventually, affirmed lesbian relationships, endorsing Radclyffe Hall‘s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) in 1929.

St Mark's Church, Darling Point, Sydney, Australia. Image via Powerhouse Museum.
St Mark’s Church, Darling Point, Sydney, Australia. Image via Powerhouse Museum.

Royden arrived in Sydney on May 29, 1928 and continued on to Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Kalgoorlie, and Perth. In Sydney, she preached at St Mark’s Darling Point, St Thomas’ in North Sydney and Pitt St Congregational Church, as well as delivering addresses at the Town Hall, the Women’s College and the Chapter House of the Anglican Cathedral. In Adelaide, the bishop invited her to preach from the pulpit of the Cathedral, the first woman ever to do so in Australia. Royden also spoke at a conference alongside Keith Hancock, then chair of modern history at the University of Adelaide; Chave Collisson, the American-Australian feminist who managed Royden’s tour and joked that Royden converted her to Christianity; and Archdeacon John Moyes.

In addition to ‘Sex and Common-sense’, Royden lectured on a range of topics: ‘Can we set the world in order?’, ‘Peace and the British Empire,’ ‘Old Phases and the Younger Generation’, as well as ‘Women and the Ministry.’ Her message was popular and young women were her biggest fans. In the words of the Adelaide News, ‘feminists are all in a flutter.’

Royden liked to talk about sex. Although Protestant women’s organisations had long encouraged mothers to teach children about sex, this was mostly in order to discourage it. In contrast, Royden wanted girls to know about pleasure and used religion and science to prove her point. ‘The modern science of psychology,’ she said, showed the dangers of repressing women’s sexuality. She also used sacramental religious language, calling sex ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace’. If this were the case, women’s bodies (and their sex-drive) were not dangerous or taboo but God’s gift to women.

Part of her appeal to girls was the way she confronted expectations for women. This was most obvious when she entered pulpits. The pulpit was a symbol of the church, (masculine) clerical authority and the word of God (also masculine). Since women could not enter, it positioned men and women differently in the spiritual world. So when Royden spoke from pulpits, she exposed the double standard operating in churches; although women and men were supposedly spiritual equals, they related in church as unequal, and the restriction of women in the pulpit proved it. Australian newspapers saw the symbolic meaning of Royden’s preaching from pulpits and so focused on her female body entering a taboo masculine pulpit space. The pulpit was ‘the last stronghold of sex exclusiveness’, ‘still inviolate from the touch of feminism,’ but Royden was issuing the greatest challenge yet to its exclusivity.

St Thomas' Anglican Church, North Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Mike Young. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
St Thomas’ Anglican Church, North Sydney, Australia. Photograph by Mike Young. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Public opinion on her pulpit preaching was mixed. A Congregational minister was adamant that ‘what the world needs today is the faithful fulfilment of the normal, natural functions of woman – not feminine priests and bishops’. Yet even he conceded he did ‘not see why the Lord should put only men in the pulpit’. Others praised the bishop for ‘discarding all man-made restrictions … as regards sex.’ Even conservative religious papers described Royden’s preaching in terms opening new spaces for women. The evangelical Australian Christian World concluded that though women were normally ‘called’ to be ‘high priestess of the home, rather than the prophetess of the pulpit’, Royden proved that some women’s place was in the pulpit.

After she left the country, the Methodist and Presbyterian churches had major debates over women’s ordination (the Congregrationalists had already started ordaining women the year before). The Methodists accepted female ministers in principle in 1929 (though in practice there were none until 1969). But the Anglican Church was slow to ordain women to the priesthood, lagging well behind when it did in 1992. The Sydney Anglican diocese, however, still will not ordain women, and neither does the Catholic Church.

Although the 1920s is famous for its flappers and their parties, this did not mean young women were anti-religious. The 1920s was also a period of religious heterodoxy and experimentation, largely driven by women, disillusioned with churches and their treatment of women, but not with religion itself. Into this mix, Royden taught a Christianity suited for modern feminist women. Although Australian feminism tends to think of itself as secular, Royden’s success shows that our flapper foremothers were busy creating modern Christianities for modern women.

See full article: Laura Rademaker, “Religion for the Modern Girl: Maude Royden in Australia, 1928,” Australian Feminist Studies 31, no. 89 (2016): 336-354.


rademaker-profile-picLaura Rademaker is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research covers themes of race, gender and religion in twentieth century Australia. Her work on Aboriginal missions in Australia has received numerous prizes, including the Australian Historical Association’s Serle Award for best Ph.D. in Australian History, the Australian National University’s J.G. Crawford prize for most outstanding doctoral thesis and the John Molony Prize in History. Currently, she is working with Tiwi Islanders to write book on the history of Catholic missions that foregrounds the memories and perspectives of Aboriginal people. She is also researching Australia’s ‘religious realignment’ (or ‘secularisation’) in the 1960s and 70s, focusing particularly on questions of gender and race.

Follow Laura on Twitter @laurarads.

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