Words and Deeds: New Perspectives on Catholic Laywomen in Twentieth-Century America

AHA Session 123
American Catholic Historical Association 7
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Clarendon Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Carol Coburn, Avila University
Mel W. Piehl, Valparaiso University

Session Abstract

Each of the papers in this panel investigates Catholic laywomen’s attempts to live their faith in the context of the hierarchical church and the larger world of twentieth century America.  Many studies of laywomen focus on devotional practice or personal faith.  These papers differ in that they investigate how Catholic laywomen organized and then used their formal and informal groups as springboards to enter into the intellectual conversations and political debates of their day, both inside of the church and outside of it. 
Laywomen ranked near the bottom of the church hierarchy.  They had little authority in spiritual matters outside their role as mothers, and practically no voice in church governance.  Organizing, even in an informal sense, afforded them opportunities to participate in conversations about the intersection of faith and politics.  Centered around words and deeds, these groups offer historians rare glimpses into how American Catholic laywomen attemped to clarify the nature of their faith and their role as Catholic women determined to be active in the world. 
The panel begins with Monica Mercado’s paper on Catholic women’s reading circles at the turn of the century.  The women who joined these groups were ostensibly organizing for their own cultural edification, and certainly the movement’s organizers had their own agenda—promoting the superiority of Catholic education.  But Mercado argues that reading circles also served as invitations into conversations about the faith.  Even the idea of laywomen discussing, and thus actively engaging with, arguing, and defining their faith for themselves, is tantalizing in a world where the priest’s word was to be accepted and obeyed. 
Jeanne Petit’s paper picks up this theme in the 1910s, and explores attempts by laywomen to organize Catholic settlement houses.  Inspired by women’s unprecedented political organizing in the final years of the woman suffrage movement, these Catholic laywomen hoped to provide services as Catholic women, but also establish laywomen’s willingness and right to participate in the secular realm and the church as political actors.  Petit argues that while these women conceived of themselves as people with religious and political authority, few others shared that view.  As a result the organizers constantly battled the male authority within their own church, and the hostility of non-Catholic organizers who viewed them with suspicion.
The panel closes in the latter half of the twentieth century with Mary Henold’s paper on the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW).  Henold uses the group to take the pulse of moderate to conservative laywomen at the time of two enormous upheavals: the Second Vatican Council and the women’s liberation movement.  She argues that these women leaders were surprisingly open to change, not only in their faith, but in the very definition of themselves as Catholic women.  Like the actors discussed in the first two panels, NCCW members used their group as a means of entering religious and political debates that had the potential of redefining the status of Catholic laywomen.

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