Susan Bowman '69 never let being a woman get in the way of what she wanted to do - whether it was in the secular or spiritual realm. That's one of the reasons why she didn't think twice about becoming an ordained Episcopal priest at a time when women were not welcome in the profession. "All the way through the process, people kept saying, 'You have to write a book,'" explains Bowman. After more than 20 years in the ministry, she finally took their advice.
Bowman recently published Lady Father, a story chronicling her journey through the ordination process in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia during the 1980s. It was a bittersweet experience for Bowman, and one she felt was necessary to share with others.
"There were so many things that happened that were just mind-blowing," she emphasizes in regards to the discrimination she experienced as one of the few female priests at the time. Bowman became an ordained priest in 1986, only 10 years after the first Episcopal ordinations of women to the priesthood in the United States, when 11 women were "irregularly" consecrated in Philadelphia.
At the time, being a female priest in southern Virginia was unheard of. "I was ready to walk out a number of times," she remembers, "just because of the painfulness of the rejection from those who didn't accept how I felt and what I wanted to do, what I needed to do." She found the unlikeliest of allies in her bishop, who had long been at the forefront of the battle against women taking on leadership roles in the church. "He finally changed his mind, slowly and prayerfully," she reflects. "He received a lot of angry criticism, which brought much pain and agony for that decision."
Although the journey to becoming one of southern Virginia's first ordained women priests was a difficult one for Bowman, it was not unfamiliar territory. In fact, it was not her first foray into a male-dominated profession. Before pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a priest, Bowman worked for many years for the city of Petersburg, Va., wearing various municipal hats. It was in her initial role as the first, and at the time, only female engineering assistant for the city, that she learned to deal with work discrimination.
"The men had these little tricks that they played on me when I first got the job," she explains with a laugh. "We were out surveying a property for a new firehouse. It was really bad terrain, and I had on my long, good coat and wasn't dressed for it at all. They did not care about that, so they played their little tricks that they always play where they get the person to pull the line and pull and pull and pull, keep pulling it tighter, tighter, tighter, and then they let it go and you fall on your butt. I went through that."
Bowman now reflects on the experience fondly; she's even remained good friends with many of her former municipal coworkers. "I had to fight, but I didn't fight like some people would fight," she emphasizes. "I just fought by being who I was, and by being the best I could be."
Bowman attributes the way she handles herself in the face of adversity in part to her time at William and Mary. "I always felt comfortable at William and Mary," says Bowman, a philosophy major. "I didn't feel like I had to fight my way up some kind of ladder. I never felt like we were fighting battles, which was fine with me because I'm not a battle fighter." Although Bowman does not consider herself a battle fighter, she's never backed down from what she sees as unjust. Even as a student, she wasn't afraid to challenge the status quo. Bowman attended William and Mary at a time when female students still had curfews, and is particularly proud of how she helped change the school's policy toward male visitors in women's dorms. "One of the best things that happened was that we organized this great sit-in on a Sunday afternoon," she explains. "We had all the doors open, and guys came in; we sat and visited with them. We did it, and we did it right. Nobody made a big deal of it, and then they changed the rules. After that, they let us have male visitors in our dorms on Sunday afternoons."
Tim O'Brien writes in his Vietnam war memoir The Things They Carried, "The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you." When we write a story, we often write it for something or someone beyond ourselves. For Susan Bowman, her memoir is not only a way to share her experience with the world, it's an ode to the bishop who stood by her, going against his clergy and his strong feelings to do so. "I really wanted people to know what a hero he was for what he did," she says. "I needed to write it as a tribute to him if nothing else." Today, Bowman's reflections appear on Ladyfather.com, where her memoir is available.
There is a hint of pride in Bowman's voice as she reflects on her road to priesthood, and how against all odds, she fulfilled a childhood ambition. "I loved the church when I was growing up," she reflects. "I would sit with my grandmother because my parents sang in the choir. Years later, I remembered sitting with her and wishing I was a boy - I always wished that I had been a boy so I could carry the cross. What I didn't realize until years later, was that I wished to be a boy so that I could grow up to be a man, so I could do what the preacher was doing. I felt called from the very beginning."
This article first appeared in the William & Mary Alumni Magazine. Full article available at the W&M Alumni Association.