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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
The strike in the Putney church was over.