Shaping Our History, Informing Our Future: Women from Our Past and Present
Honoring ABS's first female general secretary, Alice E. Ball, and the work of Dr. Mary Cordato.
American Bible Society is blessed with a rich legacy of female leaders and trailblazers, giving us plenty to celebrate during Women’s History Month. However, organizing more than two centuries of history is no small task. One person helping us tell stories of God’s faithfulness for new generations is Dr. Mary Cordato, a historian at American Bible Society. Today, we join Cordato in examining the life and achievements of Alice E. Ball, the first female general secretary in our history, as we celebrate past and present contributions of women at American Bible Society to the Bible cause.
The Gift of Stewardship
According to Mary Cordato, “there’s never a dull day” in the life of a historian. She first joined American Bible Society as an assistant archivist and historical researcher in 1990 after completing her Ph.D. in U.S. Social History at NYU. Since 2012, she has stewarded the history and stories of the organization as a part-time historian.
In her current position, Cordato curates electronic records, assists in the digitization of physical documents, and responds to reference requests from researchers within the organization and around the world. “American Bible Society has been involved with nearly every significant event in U.S. history,” Cordato says. “It has distributed Bibles during every war starting with the Mexican War. It has responded to issues like ethnicity, immigration, gender, and race by providing Scriptures that meet those needs. During times of natural and political trauma, the Society has been there to help in both physical and spiritual ways. . . . Our narrative has been an evolving one.” With such a breadth of history, every request for information is an adventure. “You never really know what topic will surface,” Cordato says. “I continue to learn new things about the Society that I hadn’t realized before.”
When asked which woman she would recommend the Society feature in honor of Women’s History Month, Cordato pointed to Alice E. Ball. Ball’s career “exemplifies the changing roles of women in the workforce over a period of several years,” and her decades of success and service at American Bible Society paved the way for future female leaders in the Bible cause.
A Legacy of Leadership
When Alice E. Ball began her career as an administrative assistant in 1942, most women in the United States worked in manufacturing, private households, or in offices as stenographers and secretaries. Women comprised just 24% of the workforce, and there were few opportunities for professional growth or advancement. Cordato, who started her own career 30 years after Ball, says that “companies assumed that women wouldn’t stay long.” This resulted in limited promotions and lower salaries than those of male coworkers. In spite of these challenges, Ball developed excellent organizational and leadership skills through both her work and her extensive volunteer experience with the Salvation Army. This foundation helped her rise quickly through the ranks at American Bible Society.
In 1955, Ball became an administrative assistant in the Overseas Department at American Bible Society. According to Cordato, Ball was considered “innovative, creative, and a woman with strong leadership skills,” resulting in her regular promotion within the department. In less than a decade, she became the associate secretary of the Overseas Department and began to shape many of American Bible Society’s global ministries. At the time of her promotion, there were just over 619,000 women serving as managers, officials, and proprietors in the United States, making Ball part of a small minority of working women in leadership roles.
As associate secretary, Ball cultivated strong ties with United Bible Societies—a global network of ministry partners including American Bible Society—and traveled regularly to Europe and Latin America. She assisted in developing Scripture publications for people who had recently learned how to read and helped create the United Bible Societies Latin America Center in Mexico City. As she oversaw Bible Society activity around the world, Ball consistently promoted the inclusion of activities and resources for women in ministry efforts. Her organizational skills helped her implement more effective Bible distribution strategies, accelerating the spread of God’s Word to unreached locations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Ball’s exceptional management of global-scale ministry led her to be named executive secretary of the new Department of Women’s Work in 1971. Around this time, Cordato had just graduated from college and was working in her first job with an insurance company. She remembers that while most women still served in administrative roles, “things were changing, and more women were going into professional and managerial careers,” following in the footsteps of women like Ball. There were also “more opportunities for women to advance beyond support roles within an organization” despite continued inequities in salary between men and women.
Ball’s experience with volunteerism made her the perfect fit for her new role overseeing the Department of Women’s Work, which was renamed the Department of Volunteer Activities in 1973. Her passion for mobilizing volunteers and involving them in the work of spreading God’s Word became an asset to American Bible Society as “many women . . . from grassroots and urban areas” around the nation joined the Bible cause. As part of her distribution strategy, Ball introduced Scripture Courtesy Centers, or “Good Newsstands,” which were located in homes, churches, gift shops, skating rinks, airports, and summer camps. The rare combination of a female-led department with majority-female volunteers proved successful: in just two years, the number of Good Newsstands grew from 202 to 1,200, providing widespread Scripture access to people across America during a decade of political and social change.
In 1979, the Board of Directors promoted Ball to general secretary of the National Division, one of the three chief administrative positions at American Bible Society. Ball was the first woman in the organization’s history to achieve this position, and she did so at a time when the majority of working women were more likely to be a secretary than a manager. While achieving this senior-level position was a feat in itself for a woman in Ball’s time, even more impressive was her new range of responsibilities. Ball had administrative authority over all Scripture distribution in the United States, maintained partnerships with more than 75 diverse religious denominations, and oversaw domestic fundraising efforts. In addition, she supervised approximately 35,000 church representatives and volunteers, shaping the landscape of Bible distribution and ministry in the United States for the next nine years until her retirement in 1988.
Ball passed away in 2009, leaving a legacy of more than 30 years of service and influential leadership at American Bible Society. Her strategy, wisdom, and passion for volunteerism left a lasting impact on the Society’s domestic and global ministry.
Celebrating Women in the Bible Cause
Is there value in retelling stories from American Bible Society’s history?
For Cordato, the answer is obvious. “In order to understand who and what we are today, it is important for American Bible Society to reach back into its past,” she says. Revisiting the stories of women like Alice E. Ball—who used her gifts to advance the Bible cause and became a trailblazer for women in the workplace in the process—helps us understand and appreciate the challenges they overcame. Furthermore, telling these stories inspires thankfulness as we praise God for the women whose leadership, diligence, and faith helped bring us to where we are today. Cordato notes that celebrating these stories “adds greatly to who we are as an organization and why the Society has remained an important part of American culture and life for over 200 years.”
As for her own role in this process, Cordato says, “I feel it is my responsibility as historian to make sure that records created today are preserved for future generations.” This gift of stewardship ensures that stories of God’s work in bringing his Word to the world through women like Ball and Cordato will be told—and celebrated—for years to come.
- Cordato, Mary. “Women’s Involvement in the Bible Cause: 1816 to the Present.” ABS Historical Working Papers Series. American Bible Society Archives. 1993.
- Cordato, Mary. Written Interview (23 February 2021).
- “100 Years of Working Women.” Women’s Bureau. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/wb/data/occupations-decades-100
- “Equal Pay Day is March 31 – the Earliest Since it Began in 1996.” United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/03/equal-pay-day-is-march-31-earliest-since-1996.html
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