Before #MeToo and #ChurchToo — before there even was the internet—there was Winnipegger Peggy Unruh Regehr.
Unruh Regehr, who died Sept. 27 at the age of 89, was a pioneer in championing the cause of women in leadership in Mennonite denominations in Canada and the U.S.
Born in Winkler, Man., to Mennonite Brethren missionary parents, she studied at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. It was there she saw women giving significant leadership in a church institution for the first time — something that left a strong impression.
After graduation, she returned to Manitoba to teach. She married Walter Regehr in 1951.
In the late 1960s, she became interested in feminism. By the late 1970s, the mother of three went back to university to study feminist theology.
Speaking at her funeral at River East Church, the Mennonite Brethren congregation where she and Walter were members, friend Esther Epp-Tiessen remembered Unruh Regehr as “a middle-aged biblical feminist who believed that Jesus wanted women to flourish.”
She grew up, she said, “at a time when women in the church had secondary status and limited roles. She chafed under it, and it sparked a passion to change things.”
In 1984 she was hired by Mennonite Central Committee Canada in to start its new Women’s Concerns program.
Although Unruh Regehr relished the job, she encountered challenges and obstacles right from the start.
As Epp-Tiessen put it: “She knocked on the doors of Mennonite denominational leaders, asking them to open them to women in leadership. They were resistant.”
Reflecting on that experience in the 1990s, Unruh Regehr said: “As I tried to address some of those issues, I found I [was] treading on toes. . . . In fact, I had some personal attacks and criticisms for what I am doing.”
While that door for women in leadership stayed mostly closed, another opened.
During her travels, Unruh Regehr was often pulled aside by women who told her about the abuse they were suffering in their families — physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual.
Although the stories weighed her down, she always took time to “tap into the secret traumas experienced by women across the country,” Epp-Tiessen said.
“She validated those women by hearing their stories and bore their pain in her own soul,” she said.
In response, Unruh Regehr was at the forefront of helping Mennonite churches and MCC respond by creating resources for pastors.
Sometimes she met women who were ready to give up on their faith because of their treatment by the church. Although wounded herself, she encouraged them to stay — if not for themselves, then for the women who would follow.
Her work with MCC came to an unsatisfying conclusion in 1989 when she was let go. She always believed her dismissal was because of her forceful advocacy on behalf of women and also for battling for equal pay for women at MCC. It was a bitter pill that gnawed at her for the rest of her life.
Today, things are very different for women in most Mennonite churches. Yet these gains would not have been possible without people like her.
“We stand on the shoulders of others who have gone before, people like Peggy,” Epp-Tiessen said. “She was ahead of her time, committed to justice and equality for women, and we are deeply indebted to the sacrifice she made.”
John Longhurst is a freelance writer and communications and marketing consultant in Winnipeg, Man.