How Did Catholic Women Participate in the Rebirth of American Feminism?


Participants at the 1978 Women's Ordination Conference in Baltimore carry chains to symbolize
women's oppression at the church's hands. Delegates display the poster, "New Mexico Hispanics Con
Amor Hay Esperanza" (New Mexico Hispanics - With Love There is Hope)

Courtesy Marquette University Department of Special Collections and University Archives,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Documents selected and interpreted by
Mary Henold, Roanoke College
December 2005

   Any movement as controversial and significant as "second-wave" feminism was bound to leave numerous stereotypes in its wake, some shaped by the mainstream media and some produced by feminists themselves.[1] Whether these images are of angry "bra-burners," shrill man-hating harridans, independent career women, or proud lesbians, they all have something in common: they are all secular. One of the most persistent stereotypes of American feminists is that they reject religion when they embrace feminist consciousness.

   Perhaps the movement's vocal challenges to sexist institutional religion, and various churches' equally vocal responses, have encouraged feminists, scholars, and casual observers to remember second-wave feminism as a secular enterprise more often in opposition to religion and faith than not.[2] But in fact, women active in and committed to a large variety of faith traditions helped build the American second-wave feminist movement from its inception, participating in both church-centered and non church-centered feminist activism.[3] "Religious feminist" is not an oxymoron. (Nor are "Catholic feminist," "Jewish feminist," "Mormon feminist," "Muslim feminist," "Missouri Synod Lutheran feminist," etc.)

   But what are religious feminists, or alternatively, "feminist women of faith?" What role did they play in the development of second-wave feminism? How did they reconcile their religious faith and feminist activism? Why did they remain in their churches after gaining feminist consciousness? What unique challenges did religious feminists face, and what can their experiences teach us about the feminist movement and the development of feminist consciousness?

   This project will attempt to answer these questions by exploring historical documents from the Catholic feminist movement, documents that illustrate the extensive activism of religious feminists, but also the tensions produced when feminists attempted to reconcile divided loyalties. Like innumerable American women in the second half of the twentieth century, Catholic feminists took from the justice movements and social turmoil of the age a desire to re-evaluate their identities and pursue new paths as they fought for their own and their sisters' liberation. With feminist consciousness came new ways of viewing the world, causing Catholic feminists to reconsider commitments to family, marriage, home, vocation, faith, institutional religion, and community. While liberation in these areas led to joy and freedom, shifting commitments could also bring doubt, pain, anger, profound ambivalence, and considerable messiness.

   The experiences of Catholic feminists demonstrate that feminists could not, and did not, abandon all they believed when they came to espouse feminism, even if these previous beliefs seemed to contradict their new commitments. What took precedence--feminism or a beloved but sexist spouse? Feminism or life-long religious vocation? Life-giving yet misogynistic faith tradition or gender solidarity? When faced with divided loyalties, some women moved beyond what they could not reconcile. Others, like women in the Catholic feminist movement, attempted to create new forms of feminism that expressed and validated multiple commitments.

   This interpretation treats the adoption of a feminist consciousness as a process, not a sudden revelation. Histories of feminism often speak of feminist consciousness as a moment of revelation akin to a conversion experience, sometimes referred to as "the click."[4] Women who experienced "the click" recognized with sudden, sharp clarity their own oppression, saw the need to reject it, and chose to embark on a new path made clear by feminism. This phenomenon appears in too many personal narratives to dismiss it, but it begs the question: what came after "the click?" Did a woman suddenly become a new person when she came to feminist consciousness? Focusing exclusively on the moment of revelation implies that new-born feminists simply turned their faces forward, ready to leave behind everything that did not fit this new consciousness. But the experiences of Catholic feminists suggest that espousing feminist consciousness involved innumerable negotiated choices needed to reconcile a feminist outlook with pre-existing worldviews.

   For these women, the Catholic worldview remained dominant long after feminist consciousness occurred, acting as a source of both oppression and inspiration. Catholic feminists knew Catholicism and feminism were in conflict; if they saw no conflict they would not have directed their feminist activism towards the church. But they also believed that their Catholic faith could be life-giving as well as oppressive. On a fundamental, unshakable level they believed faith and feminism were compatible and mutually supportive. In fact, Catholic feminists often attributed their feminist commitment to their faith, meaning that their feminism emerged primarily from their understanding of the gospels and their practice of Catholicism.[5] As one Catholic feminist organization phrased it in 1971, "We are feminists BECAUSE we are Catholic."[6]

   As a result, Catholic feminists consistently tried to live out their feminism through their understanding of Catholicism, which explains the unique character of their activism. Catholic feminists' activism reflected their commitment to a gospel mandate for social justice, personal and communal liberation, and radical equality. They considered feminism to be a Catholic principle, and so they named the scriptures, rituals, language, sacraments, social teaching, and ministry of Catholicism as their motivation for and preferred means of pursuing their feminism in the world. Their activism sprang from their attempts to reconcile their divided loyalties. As the documents will show, this ongoing attempt to harmonize faith and feminism was not so much an unwillingness to jettison a patriarchal past as a deeply personal realization that faith and feminism shared the same source in their lives, that is Christ, and the call to seek justice.[7]

   The development of the Catholic feminist movement can be divided into three phases: proto-feminist activity, early feminist writings, and organizational activism. In the first phase, Catholic women -- both laywomen and women religious[8] -- began to reassess their lives and their understanding of themselves as women in the Catholic church. They did not yet identify themselves as feminists, but their activity laid the groundwork for the later movement. Organizations like the Christian Family Movement and the Grail, both founded in the 1940s, gave lay women the opportunity to develop new ways of serving God and the church, while affirming women's capacity for leadership. The Christian Family Movement also pushed boundaries by supporting the right of couples to use artificial contraception.[9]

   Women religious also began to reassess their lives as church women at midcentury. In 1954, a group of women religious established the Sister Formation Conference (SFC) to promote education and professionalization for women religious. In addition to expanded educational opportunities, SFC provided forums for discussing matters important to sisters, subjects like liturgical and theological innovation, and most importantly, the "renewal" of religious orders. In the networks created by SFC, sisters discovered like-minded women interested in updating their orders for changing times, a controversial issue in the 1950s (see Document 1). At the same time, superiors (the leaders of religious congregations) organized as well, founding the Conference of Major Superiors of Women (CMSW) in 1956. CMSW began negotiations with the Catholic hierarchy, carefully asserting the rights of women religious to make decisions for themselves.

   This proto-feminist period also saw laywomen writing in Catholic periodicals, reflecting on their status as Catholic women. Although they did not consider themselves feminists, they railed against stereotypes, supported by Catholic theology, that confined Catholic women to submissive, passive, and impossibly saintly roles (see Document 2).

   By the early 1960s, change was in the air both inside and outside the Catholic church. Between 1963 and 1965, the Catholic church held a worldwide meeting called the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II), which changed many aspects of Catholic faith and practice, most noticeably the Catholic Mass, as the Council tried to bring the church into the modern world. What it did not change was its view of women; when it began, no women were allowed to participate officially in the Council. As a result, the Council both inspired and horrified progressive Catholic women. These women, also influenced by the civil rights and budding feminist movements, decided to challenge the church's treatment of women. The Second Vatican Council acted as the catalyst that gave rise to the American Catholic feminist movement.[10]

   In 1963 the second phase of the movement's development started when a handful of self-identified feminist women began speaking out in the Catholic press, challenging sexism in Catholic history, theology, liturgy, ministry, and at Vatican II (see Document 3 and Document 4). These writings offered a coherent critique of Catholic sexism, but also new ways of conceiving Catholic women's roles in the church and the world (see Document 5). Three important Catholic feminist authors -- Sidney Callahan, Rosemary Ruether, and Mary Daly -- emerged at this time, crafting three distinct interpretations of Catholic feminism (see Document 6, Document 7, Document 8). While their conceptions of feminism differed, each of these authors challenged the church's doctrine of "the Eternal Woman," an ancient concept based on a traditional interpretation of the Virgin Mary which confined women to a passive, docile position in the family and the church.

   The writings in the second phase of development aired grievances, challenged misogyny, laid the groundwork for Catholic feminist theology, and named Catholic feminist goals, among them equal participation in church governance and women's ordination. By the late 1960s, Catholic feminists were ready to organize for political activism. These organizations coalesced into four separate strands. The first was the Saint Joan's International Alliance -- United States Section, the American branch of an international organization, founded in 1965. The second strand consisted of radical Catholic feminists, led by women with strong ties to the secular feminist movement (see Document 10). Their activism centered around the National Organization for Women's Taskforce on Women and Religion. Feminist women religious comprised the third strand, often focusing on their specific concerns as sisters, and rooting their feminism in a commitment to social justice (see Document 9). Organizations in the third strand included the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the National Assembly of Women Religious. The final strand was led by women seeking ordination. Predominantly lay women, these feminists focused on Catholic feminist spirituality as they sought a means of entering the priesthood (see Document 11). These women came together through the Deaconess Movement. These four strands achieved mixed results when negotiating with the hierarchy, but achieved much more in consciousness-raising among their fellow Catholic women.

   As the movement began to mature in the mid-1970s, it faced several vital questions, many of which were offered as challenges from within the movement itself. African-American and Latina feminists asked if Catholic feminists were seeking their own liberation at the expense of racial justice. Were white feminists, particularly women religious, placing their own needs over the greater needs of minorities and people living in poverty? Many Catholic feminists of color concluded that they were, and chose only minimal involvement in the movement as a result (see Document 15 and Document 16), although two organizations for Catholic women of color, Las Hermanas and the National Black Sisters Conference (NBSC), espoused feminism.

   Catholic feminists also faced internal questions about abortion, an issue about which the movement could not reach consensus. Because the issue was so divisive, and because many women could not reach a conclusion--torn as they were between their beliefs as Catholics and their commitments to women's rights--Catholic feminists rarely spoke publicly about the abortion question. Evidence does exist, however, to show the various positions a Catholic feminist was likely to take. Not surprisingly, all sides used their understanding of their faith to support their positions (see Document 22 and Document 23).

   One of the most important questions to gain prominence at this time was whether Catholic feminists should even remain Catholic. Mary Daly, the movement's most prominent theologian, chose to leave the Church and the Christian faith in the early 1970s, causing many to re-examine their commitments to Catholicism and feminism. The option to leave would be ever-present for many women struggling to reconcile their loyalties, even as most activists openly affirmed their commitment to staying in the church (see Document 12 and Document 13).

   The majority of Catholic feminists chose to remain in the church. These women had to consider two central questions: how to make Catholicism reflect feminists' newfound understanding of themselves and their faith, and how to challenge the Catholic hierarchy. At mid-decade, Catholic feminists addressed the first issue by exploring new forms of feminist liturgy, designed to express Catholic feminists' beliefs and spirituality (see Document 14). The second question led Catholic feminists to join together for the first, highly publicized Women's Ordination Conference in November 1975, a gathering that expressed the movement's hope, its determination, its focus on ordination, and its desire to retain a Catholic identity (see Document 17 and Document 18). The meeting also produced a major new organization, the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC).

   After the high hopes engendered by that first conference, feminists encountered a painful setback when the Vatican announced its definitive prohibition of women's ordination in January 1977. The announcement caused Catholic feminists to initiate their first national public protests, many of which used feminist liturgy to express their outrage and redoubled commitment (see Document 21). Some responses to the document were optimistic, if angry, reflecting feminists' strong desire for reconciliation with the church (see Document 20). Other responses simply reflected the pain of betrayal (see Document 19).

   Soon, however, feminists found themselves growing more ambivalent about their positions vis-à-vis the institutional church when all efforts to lobby the hierarchy failed. Should Catholic feminists continue fighting from the inside, or should they find a new way of living their faith that did not cause them so much pain? This ambivalence made Catholic feminists bolder, and more willing to distance themselves from the institution if necessary.

   The movement's new sense of ambivalence toward the church was felt keenly at the second Women's Ordination Conference in November 1978. Previously unacknowledged doubts about continued loyalty to the institutional church came to the surface, as did differing positions about strategy, prayer, liturgy, and homosexuality (see Document 25, Document 26, and Document 28). But if the conference included women determined to stay and those ready to leave, it also offered a third way. Theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza called on women to maintain a critical distance from the church, while acknowledging that they could choose to retain a partial identification with the church (see Document 27).

   This idea became the dominant organizing principle for Catholic feminists in the 1980s, as efforts to convert the hierarchy to feminism receded. New organizations such as Women-Church and Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER) promoted the concept that Catholic feminists could practice their faith and pursue their feminist agendas on the church's margins. This position encouraged creativity, clarity, and radicalism in theology and liturgy (see Document 31 and Document 32).

   Such a position also encouraged feminists to take controversial and courageous stands in opposition to the hierarchy (see Document 24, Document 29, and Document 30). These stands prompted angry and sometimes harsh responses from national and international Catholic authorities throughout the 1980s. The most notorious of these cases involved a New York Times advertisement, sponsored by the Catholic pro-choice group Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), in which prominent Catholics affirmed that a "diversity of opinions" about abortion existed in the church (see Document 33). Activists who signed the advertisement became the victims of a brutal crackdown, forcing signers to retract or face consequences including dismissal from religious orders. The ordeal revealed feminists' determination, but also showed cracks in the movement's solidarity (see Document 34). [11]

   In addition to these developments, the 1980s witnessed explosive growth in the field of feminist theology. From the beginning of the movement, feminist theology and feminist activism co-existed, informing each other and encouraging feminists to put faith into action. Some of the most important innovations in this area came from Catholic feminist women of color, who worked to express themselves as they pushed the church and the feminist movement toward inclusivity and justice (see Document 35). These theologians provide one final example of how Catholic feminists committed themselves to reconciling faith and feminism in America.


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