The No Boys (except sort-of Jason and Rick, and I guess John in spirit) Allowed Tea Party
A lot of things have happened at 755 8th St., NW, in Washington, DC, over the years. There was the construction–and re-construction after a fire–of a giant red church building during the American Civil War–a sign of faith that the District and nation it served would remain intact following those tumultuous years. There’s the local legend that that building’s steeple became the spot where John Wilkes Boothe checked the time on his way to Ford’s Theater one fateful night. There were the Supreme Court justice and president and senators who sat in the building’s pews next to Washingtonians who possessed considerably less political power and often had no physical house–let alone a White one–to call home. There were the abolitionists who split with others in their denomination to found a new Baptist Convention dedicated to inclusiveness and everyone’s favorite twenty-first century buzzword–social justice. There were the Sunday School classes for deaf students, the English as a Second Language classes, and the immigrant outreach groups–each among the first of their kind in the United States.
And beginning in the twentieth century, there was the Burrall Sunday School Class. The Burrall Class began in 1918 as a place for young women to gather as they moved in increasing numbers into the District to search for employment. It grew in both size and scope during World War I, swelling from six members to more than 1,100, as female workers moved to the nation’s capital and began working at the jobs their male counterparts had left to go fight a war. One of the greatest legacies of the class was its pension fund. During the middle of the twentieth century, as women entered the workforce, many decided to forego the til-then traditional sphere of domesticity and, thus, the security that would come from having a man and children to provide for them through ensuring a strong financial future and end-of-life care. So the Burrall women, knowing that they’d one day lack in familial care, began paying in to a pension fund for each other, vowing to care for their sisters emotionally as well as financially. The fund still makes disbursements to the class’s surviving members.
A few of the class’s members remain at the church where they had vowed to take care of each other, and as a physical reminder left in that space their china and tea sets. So on August 17, 2012, the women of Calvary Baptist Church decided to take care of each other in a different way. One of our dear ones is getting married next month, and she wanted nothing more than a fancy high tea to celebrate her upcoming nuptials.
The tea party marked a historic event in and of itself, since it’s unusual for 755 8th St. NW to host anything so . . . gendered. The building is a place where men are as likely to be found child whispering in the nursery as women are to be found sermonizing from the pulpit (though to be fair, we do let the men lead songs, read Scripture, and even sometimes preach. They may not be fit for church leadership, but it’s awfully nice of us to let them contribute from time to time). It’s a place that is open and affirming and has participated vocally in the District fight for marriage equality. It’s a place that has found a niche in mentoring young female ministers. It’s a place where one young boy often attends dressed in his favorite color–pink–and one young girl for whom the glass ceiling has always seemed broken aspires to become a pastor. It’s one of what must be a few places in the world where women who serve as presidents of their denominations and faithfully prepare Sunday evening dinners for a women’s shelter founded at the church giggle hysterically while telling each other that “You look just like a church lady in that tea party hat!” without noting the irony (because frankly, if some of you are not church ladies, I don’t know who is). It’s a place where weddings and babies usually mean co-ed showers or dinners, not tea parties for the girls.
Calvary prides itself on a certain type of rebellious spirit that–whether it always exists in the way we romanticize it or not–would seem to deem things such as a women’s tea party to be unusual. But 755 8th St. NW in Washington, DC, is a place where nothing–and I do mean nothing– is ever considered unusual. So most of us donned skirts and dresses (gasp!), hats, gloves, and English aprons for the celebration.
The oldest attendee had recently celebrated her ninetieth birthday:
And the youngest, who recently celebrated her ninety-minus-eighty-sixth birthday, arrived with a new manicure and hat-wearing Kitty:
The beautiful bride opted to show off in a fascinator which broke with fancy English tradition by not being shaped like a toilet bowl:
Far from being out of the ordinary, the unusual event turned out to be a fitting tribute to the rebellious spirit. The women who so devotedly cook shelter meals arrived early to wash the Burrall Class china and prepare it for use.
Nothing in that spirit seemed to have been lost between the radical young women who flooded Washington, DC, during World War I in search of work that had until then reserved for men, to the radical young women who during World War II decided that marriage and children were not part of their life plans and vowed to care for each other as they sought to maintain gainful employment, to the radical women of the twenty-first century who have the option of deciding which path they want to pursue (we’ll leave the Anne-Marie Slaughter discussions for a more cynical post). Although girl power is a prevalent theme at 755 8th St. NW in Washington, DC, we so often shy away from anything that seems too stereotypically feminine in an effort to deconstruct gender. But on August 17, it seemed appropriate to affirm one dear one’s choice by celebrating in a most stereotypically feminine way and using the physical relics of the sisters who fought so hard for opportunities to tea party while remaining unencumbered by gendered expectations.
The tea party was a great success, even if Rick helped us a bit with the set-up, and Jason took some photos for us. In fact, there was talk on Sunday of hosting tea parties for future special occasions–or even just because. Some have gone so far as to suggest that next time maybe we’ll let the men join us. That’s an idea I’d vouch for–just as long as they agree to wear hats and gloves.