Eileen Norrington: A Woman of Firsts

Eileen Norrington is a pioneer.

She was the first single mother to attend Andover Newton Theological School. Later, she was the first woman to achieve the rank of Captain in the US Navy Chaplain Corps.

For the next 22 years, Eileen would shape the role of women in military chaplaincy.

Describing her transition from seminary to chaplaincy, she says: “I went right from Andover Newton into the Navy. They were desperate to get more women at that point, but it was still an unusual choice.”

At that time, gender roles were much more limited in the military. She experienced resistance to her presence. While trying to minister to military personnel, she found herself in a male-dominated profession, which was entrenched in military culture.

“The men didn’t want to deal with women,” she explains. “They had all kinds of experience working with women as mothers, wives, sisters – but not as colleagues.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

It took time for women to develop a larger presence and be appreciated as equals in the Chaplain Corps. Much of the current culture of equality is thanks to Eileen’s work.

“I felt like there needed to be more role models for the women and it felt like a serious responsibility,” says Eileen. When she started at the Navy Chaplain Corps, there were only four women in her program. When she retired, 22 years later, there were 60. During her tenure, she mentored both women and men by helping them navigate the challenges and demands of military chaplaincy. “I would show them ways to do things that they might not have thought of and I helped mentor as I became more experienced and comfortable in my position.”

Eileen explains that while equal pay remains an issue in our culture, the military’s ranking system prevented her from experiencing that specific injustice. In fact, she noticed a shift in the way her colleagues treated her as she rose through the ranks. “On my first day as a commander, I was treated differently. I used to feel ignored in meetings until I became a commander – people started listening to me as if I were a man. It was nice for me to be taken seriously and into consideration. I knew what I was talking about after all of my experience.”

Eileen believes Andover Newton was important in her success, though her life leading up to seminary was difficult. She married immediately after high school and had two boys. Her husband was an alcoholic and he was abusive. She found courage and strength within herself to leave him. Then, with only a high school diploma, she began raising her two boys on her own. Eventually, she joined a group at the University of New Hampshire, who helped advocate for her admission. With their advocacy and the help of a local church, who provided free day care, Eileen went back to school.

She graduated with honors.

She first found Andover Newton through a scholarship ad in the UNH newspaper. Though she didn’t receive the initial scholarship, she was admitted to the seminary, and she responded to the Call.

“Andover Newton was a great experience for me,” she says. “I grew a lot – gained a lot of tools in ministry. The things I learned at Andover Newton stayed with me my entire life. I had good professors all around me who taught me about life, being a mother, and being a student. That foundation was fabulous, and stayed with me over the years.”

May it continue to be so.