Following a national church vote upholding the ban against ordaining female ministers, Seventh-day Adventist women around the country have mobilized to overthrow what they believe is "second class citizenship" in their church. The vote by the general conference in July "broke the twig," according to Iris Yob, who teaches at the State University of New York and writes on feminism and the Adventist church. The general conference is the church's main legislative body and meets every five years.
Thousands of Adventist women are writing letters, marching and discussing strategy and options.
On Oct. 21, the denomination's Southeastern California conference was forced to deal with a regional proposal to ordain women. Though voted down 440-274, the action was unusual, according to Jocelyn Fey, a conference spokeswoman, because a regional body was voting on an issue already decided by the national church.
The proposal's backers wanted to dispute what the national body did even if they were not sure if they could legitimately overturn the national ban on women ministers, she said.
Some Adventist women are leaving the church. Discouraged by the ban on women ministers and the lack of women in top leadership positions, even where allowed, they have given up trying to change their church and gone elsewhere.
"I couldn't stay in and watch the creativity, idealism and energy of women being annihilated," said Fay Blix, a 39-year-old lawyer and "loyal" Adventist who left the church in August.
Others stay on the denominational rolls but worship elsewhere. "We're not the crazy fringe, or bra burners or anti-family or anti-men," said Vickie Danielson of Denver. "We just want women to be treated equally."
Then there are the silent supporters of equality who are afraid to speak publicly for fear of losing jobs and status in the tight-knit Adventist communities. "Adventist doctrines are too conforming," said a lifelong Adventist in a church-related position who now attends another Protestant church. But the woman, who is a grandmother, said she stays in the church "to be a role model for all the young girls."
Adventists often live close together. They are closely bound together by family ties, intermarriage with other Adventists, distinguishing beliefs such as Saturday (Seventh-day) worship, and a strict set of rules that forbid drinking, smoking, movies, ballets, jewelry and makeup.
About 60 percent of the 6-million Adventist members worldwide are women, but only 2 percent of Adventist leaders are women, according to Ms. Danielson.
An Adventist official thinks the "general thesis" of the women's movement is wrong. Marshall Chase, the secretary-treasurer of the denomination's Rocky Mountain Conference, discounted claims that women are leaving the church or that there were no women leaders in the church.
Women have their own leadership positions, he said, pointing out that women can be deacons and "do what they are more comfortable with, such as preparation of communion and visitation."
Change in the Adventist church is made on a worldwide basis, and most countries around the world don't want women ministers, said Chase. As for mandating that 30 percent of delegates must be women, he said that "delegates are elected by congregations" and most congregations elect more men.
He also denied that women speaking out publicly for change in their status in the church would be punished or lose their jobs. The Adventist church has no policy of shunning, although he acknowledged "they might face the shunning of their own friends if they are vocal."