From “Summer School Girls” to “Progressive Women”: The Place of Catholic Women’s Culture in Turn-of-the-Century America

Sunday, January 6, 2013: 9:10 AM
Chamber Ballroom I (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Monica L. Mercado, University of Chicago
This paper considers Catholic laywomen’s encounters with space and place in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America by focusing on women’s history at the Catholic Summer School of America, founded in 1892 as a “Catholic Chautauqua.” In an era just before the widespread availability of a Catholic women’s college education and decades prior to the formation of national political networks such as the National Council of Catholic Women, the Summer School provided a small but “conspicuous place for women” in what some observers called “a Catholic utopia.” Its main site on the shores of New York’s Lake Champlain quickly became a central meeting place for laywomen interested in organizing around Catholic education. Compared to the better-known Catholic congresses and religious exhibitions of the same period, where laywomen’s voices were generally muted, I examine the ways in which other women experienced and transformed the Summer School’s mission of coupling retreat with studies, recreation, and religious fellowship.

Based on memorial volumes, Summer School memorabilia, and articles and advertisements in both the Catholic and secular presses, this paper places Catholic laywomen outside of the church pew and the convent, the spaces in which historians usually study them. Using the stories of women including Katherine E. Conway, Helena Goessman, Martha Avery, and other writers, educators, and Catholic spokespeople who lectured and lived at the Summer School, I argue that this meeting place provided middle- and upper-class laywomen with a temporary retreat for the purposes of building a stronger social, intellectual and cultural life. By contrasting depictions of “Summer School girls” and “progressive women” gathering at the retreats, I argue that Catholic Summer School attendees claimed a place for women’s culture within a space still coded by patriarchal church norms.

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