Mildred Fry passed away on December 23, seven months shy of her 100th birthday.
Mildred was the first woman to be elected president of the NC Council of Churches. It may be hard to believe, given the equal role now played by women in the NC Council, but it was only thirty years ago. She served from 1981 to 1983. Mildred held a variety of leadership positions in the United Methodist Church, including eight years on the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society and elected three times to General Conference (the UMs national, once-every-four-years meeting). The Council gave her our Distinguished Service Award in 2001.
Mildred’s memorial service was a Hayes Barton UMC, here in Raleigh. Becky Balentine, someone Mildred had nurtured in a variety of leadership positions, spoke movingly of the role Mildred played in bringing other women to positions of influence. The church’s pastor, Rick Clayton, included in his eulogy wonderful words about the Council and about Mildred’s leadership during the early ’80s. He called her, “a pioneer for inclusion of women, minorities, and anyone else on the fringes of society.” The service was attended by two Methodist stalwarts of the Council’s work for gender justice: Tibbie Roberts and Catherine Watson.
I was reminded of my first contact with the NC Council of Churches, in 1978. I had just come to work with the NC Baptist State Convention and had been sent to meet with the Council’s ERA Committee. (In spite of stereotypes, the part of the Convention I worked for had endorsed the ERA.) I was introduced to the NC Council of Churches and warmly welcomed by Mildred, Tibbie, Catherine, and others. It struck me, attending Mildred’s service, how welcoming these women had been of me – a young whippersnapper just out of seminary and law school, a male, and a Southern Baptist!
Another important thing I was reminded of: these trailblazers for full inclusion of women were brave pioneers. I was reminded of some of the grief directed at them for the audacious idea that women should be treated equally in society, paid the same as men, given the same legal rights, not excluded from jobs, etc. They had select passages of the Bible quoted to them and were told, sometimes in these very words, that they needed to know their place and stay in it. Sadly, they and we were not successful in securing adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. North Carolina was a key state, and we fell just short in our General Assembly. But, happily, the concept of equal legal rights for women has taken root, and we have made marked progress in Christ’s church and in society because of the efforts of these brave women.
–George Reed, Executive Director