What many did not realize is that newly elected Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie of Baltimore had already made a political deal with the old-boy network that all but guaranteed her election while shutting the other female candidate out of the race. Without her help, the Rev. Carolyn Tyler Guidry finished fifth in the election for four episcopal openings.
Church politics is a tough game, and advocates of women in ministry who are energized by the historic election of a woman bishop say their struggle is far from over. Even with an AME bishop as a point woman, they say it will take years for women to be accepted in prominent pulpits in many local churches and may create a backlash in conservative areas.
Still, despite the stinging rebuke of women pastors by Southern Baptists earlier this year, the cause of women in ministry is moving slowly ahead, observers said. Last week, a prominent Pentecostal bishop and Episcopal leaders added their voices in support of women clergy.
Add it all up, and "It will probably be two steps forward, one step back," said Adair Lummis, a sociologist at Hartford Seminary who has done a major study on women in ministry.
Several large denominations, including the nation's largest--the Roman Catholic Church--still do not permit women pastors, basing their position on a biblical interpretation that Jesus' appointment of male apostles indicated his desire for an all-male priesthood. The 15.8 million-member Southern Baptist Convention said earlier this year "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."
While women have been elected bishop in the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 1980, none of the major black denominations had elected a woman bishop before last week.
It was a milestone, but McKenzie guaranteed her election the old-fashioned way--in a back-of-the-hall political deal with male leaders. When she was one of the top four vote-getters on the first ballot, McKenzie huddled with the other three camps, and they made a quick bargain to run as a team. Campaign workers quickly spread through the Cincinnati Convention Center passing the word.
When she was elected on the second ballot, her emotional acceptance speech recalling the struggles of women throughout the decades to reach this point included an appeal to elect two men to the remaining spots, leaving the other female candidate out of luck.
If some women were disappointed in the lack of sisterly solidarity, it was more than outweighed by their enthusiasm over the election of the first woman bishop in a mainline black denomination.
"It's a milestone. It's a major happening in the history of the church. It's one more step toward breaking that stained-glass ceiling," said the Rev. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Program on Black Women in Church and Society at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.
The Rev. Lillian Frier Webb, president of the AME's Women in Ministry from 1988 to 1996, said the election of McKenzie first hit home for some women standing in line for the restrooms, a place where male leaders would go in the past to negotiate political deals on their own.
But Grant, Frier-Webb and others say it will still take years, more likely decades, for women to approach equality in the pulpits and boardrooms of local AME churches.
Just as mainline Protestant churches followed one another in elevating women to top spots, some are hopeful the AME decision will affect other churches.
Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, an independent Catholic group that favors the ordination of women, said the falling of the episcopal barriers in the male-dominated AME church gives greater hope to her group, even if they may have to wait another papacy or two.
"Every time that happens, that hastens the day it will happen in Catholicism, also. I really rejoice. I really rejoice with my sisters," she said.
There have been other recent signs of support for women in ministry.
Bishop Paul S. Morton, presiding bishop of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, declared last week that leadership roles should remain open to women, and suggested Southern Baptists might have to apologize for their recent defense of an all-male clergy.
In the Episcopal Church, the House of Deputies, meeting at the Church's General Convention, passed a resolution on July 8 criticizing conservative dioceses that have been slow to accept the ordination of women.
With God, Grant said, all things are possible, even the acceptance of women clergy in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church.
"I do believe in the miracles of God," she said. "God is still in the miracle-working business."