Real Women’s History

This weekend, I was lucky to attend the funeral Mass of a woman who was a valued member of her parish community.  She was also a beloved mother, sister, cousin, wife, friend.  She was a real woman who had a remarkable history.

I use the word “lucky” because I didn’t have to go to this woman’s funeral. She wasn’t my sister, cousin, wife, mother, but she was one of these things to someone I love – someone I know is family. I went to be helpful and supportive, but what is remarkable is that I was lucky to have learned more about this woman than I knew before and to realize how she lead a life crucial to understanding American Catholic women in the second half of the twentieth century.

OK, so that is a big statement.  Understanding American Catholic women in the second half of the twentieth century, especially for laywomen, is something more historians of women and religion should be doing.  In some respects they are.  If you look to what is going on in the field of women religious or even the cross-over with theology – questions are being asked about Catholic women’s lives in new ways. I am thinking of the upcoming conference at the Gannon Center for Women and Leadership at Loyola University, Women and the Church Since Vatican II or the conference going on right now in London, the Nun in the World Symposium.  We are curious as to how women lived in the world – whether as women religious or lay – especially as the world in which they lived their faith changed.  A lot of these changes started before Vatican II, but what we see after the Second Vatican Council needs more attention.

I got a first-hand look at one of these women of history.   This woman was a mother of six, five of whom survived into adulthood.  She was a devoted mother and wife.  She was “active in her parish.”     All the important “historical” words to say she had agency.  She was active in her parish.  See, right there is a statement that one could gloss over and not understand the fullness of its meaning.  It’s a throw-away line.  It could mean anything or nothing from a distance, but if we consider what it means to be all those things and to be active in one’s parish, we can see that she (like many, many women) passed on culture, history, catechized children and friends, and cared for the sick, among so many other things.     The the priest/homilist at her funeral Mass spoke about her life as a wife and mother, but then talked about her life after her husband died, which involved volunteering in many parish ministries.  He remarked that in this second phase of her adult life, “she blossomed.”

What?

He meant all good things to indicate that she lead a very full and important life up to and through her husband’s passing, and then devoted herself to her parish community.  She visited the home-bound and new mothers.  She was a friend to many; she inspired vocations; she inspired her family.  She was a member of a church community and through her work (unpaid) she helped to sustain it.  How many hundreds of thousands of women acted as she did and do not get a notice?  I am not talking about recognizing the unsung heroes of the Church with a big parade (well that would be nice). I am at the moment contemplating how we think about history and the people that make it.

As I sat next to this woman’s granddaughters at this funeral Mass, I knew that this woman’s spirit lives in them.  I was honored to know her.  She, just like many, many women like her, embodies Real Women’s History.

“Full of Grace” is [Regrettably] Back!

For many reasons, I struggle with my Sunday obligation. I think I suffer from some nostalgic understanding of what Mass is supposed to be like.  I, like many who shuttled through a Jesuit Catholic university and came out a faithful Catholic, enjoyed the life and exuberance of Sunday Mass.  Not only was there music worth singing and everyone participated, but the homilies had weight (at least weight for my 18-22 year old self).  Then there was social justice and a crazy suggestion that I, a woman, mattered.  Not because I was a future wife and mother, but because I had a heart, a brain, and a soul.  I was an individual, not a future supporter and nurturer of others.  At no time was my sole duty in life to ensure anyone else’s salvation.  (I know, this all sounds very individualistic and self absorbing.  This is not my point.)

OK, so this is not a bad duty.  It is not a bad idea to help others and it is hardly wrong thinking to endeavor to nurture and support those nearest to us.  These are actually really good choices. The thing I struggle with is that the idea that my biology makes it the only  thing the Church wants me to do as a Catholic.  And that this is not the duty of Men.  I don’t want to shock anyone, but I think everyone, regardless of gender, should care about, nurture, and support those closest to them.

Well, if you step into most Catholic Churches lately (or at least MY parish), if there is actual mention of women, you will likely get a healthy dose of mom’s groups, who only meet during the day, because you know, moms don’t actually work outside the home (right).  You will also get the occasional reference in the readings of the town prostitute, adulterous wife, or Mary.  You know, the Blessed Virgin Mother.  The Mother of Our Lord.  

And here is where I am left out.  Here is where I don’t fit the category.  Here is where I am not fulfilling my womanly duty.  So, sure, I am married, but I am not a mother.  Worse yet, I don’t volunteer for stuff and I work during the day.  I don’t join women’s organizations at my church and sometimes, sometimes, when my husband doesn’t want to go to church on Sunday, I don’t insist we do, because, I don’t want to go either.  I KNOW!!!!  (To be honest, I am curious about Christ Renews His Parish, but I am stymied by the whole joining thing and that women and men’s weekends are separate. And really, the whole sharing thing is truly frightening.)

This morning, we learned of the return of “Full of Grace,” a ten-week study program for women.  Apparently, I am, according the flyer in the bulletin, invited “to join …a ten week adventure to discover who [I am] in the eyes of God and embrace the great gifts of authentic femininity and spiritual motherhood.  With the Blessed Virgin Mary as [my] model and guide, this study will deepen [my] prayer life, increase [my] knowledge of the Catholic Faith, and discover and appreciate the great gift of Holy Mother Church.”

Awesome.  And this is where the whole women shouldn’t read books thing comes into play.  Because I seem to have read this in some archives or library. Oh, let me think, Bernard O’Reilly and The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World, 1877.

In the nineteenth century and with the cult of domesticity, women of a certain class (always a certain class and race) were designed to devote their lives and resources to making men’s lives better.  This means their husbands and children.  Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, has always been one of the options for Catholic women. We can be wives or nuns.  Sometimes we can be devoted to God and remain single, but that doesn’t happen as often as the whole religious and married life.  We are to emulate Mary because “Mary the mother of the New Life gave the Saviour and salvation to the world, just as the Church, the spouse  of Christ, evermore performs the divine office of motherhood here below toward the nations, – even so true woman in every home is the saviour and sanctifier of man.” (O’Reilly, 322)

 The “saviour and sanctifier of man” is not what I want my main focus of my life to be.  I want man to get on with it and save himself. Seriously.  And when I thought I understood where “Full of Grace” came from, I read further in the flyer that one woman felt like singing “I am Woman, I am Strong” because of this experience.  I am woman and I am flummoxed that this feminist anthem (awful as it is) would be hooked up with this subjugating sheep in misogynist clothing.

It would be a really nice day if I could get through a Sunday with 1. decent music, 2. a thoughtful sermon, and 3. a sense that I was not a failure because I was not a mother or joiner of church clubs.

For now, let us console ourselves with the words of the immortal Helen Reddy:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can face anything
I am strong
(Strong)
I am invincible
(Invincible)
I am woman

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman

A Post on Women of Faith at Religion in American History

9780823254736Earlier this summer, Monica Mercado spoke with me about my book, Women of Faith: The Chicago Sisters of Mercy and the Evolution of a Religious Community (Fordham University Press, 2014). That interview is now posted at Religion in American History.  

It was a pleasure to speak with Monica, who does wonderful work as a historian herself.  She is currently a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and Director of The Albert M. Greenfield Center for the History of Women’s Education at Bryn Mawr College.   Many thanks to Monica and to the editors of Religion in American History for featuring my work!

Go check out the post!

A Call for Papers: Religion and Spirituality in Society

I just read an email notification for the Call for Papers for the Fifth International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society being held at the University of California at Berkeley in Berkeley, USA from 16-17 April 2015.  This conference looks very intriguing.  According to the call, the special conference focus will be “Social Movements and Faith.”

Religious commitments are, as often as not, social commitments. In addition to its usual range of themes, this year’s special focus of the Religion and Society knowledge community is the relation of religion to social movements, ranging from movements for nominally “progressive” or “liberal” social change, to “fundamentalisms” whose religious practices are often explicitly or implicitly social and political. The conference will ask the questions: Under what conditions and to what extent are religious communities social activists, either in their doctrine or their practices? How do religious communities support or align with other social movements?

The 2015 meeting will feature a special focus on this provocative subject. We welcome open debate, discourse, and research from participants that center on this special topic, as well as any other themes or issues relevant to religion and spirituality in society.

“Provocative subject,” indeed.  Check out the conference website for more information, including themes, and where to submit a proposal.  Looks like the deadline is February 16, 2015.

Remembering That It IS a Big Deal to Publish a Book

Recently, I was visiting with my in-laws and friends in New Hampshire and sitting around the dinner table on the Fourth of July, and someone asked me about my book.  I hadn’t forgotten about my book (I think about it all the time!), but it has been some time since it has come up in conversation.  Two of the people at dinner have published books – they have published bird guides, among other things.   We had a nice chat about the work of writing and publishing.  (Apparently people get royalties for books they sell.  Who knew?  People sell books? Apparently I am #151,924 in Books on the Amazon Best Sellers List.)  We also talked about the work of promoting one’s own work.  When they started publishing books, their publisher asked what they were on, social media-wise.  This of course led to a discussion of social media and its purposes in promoting oneself.  There was an entire article in the January 2014 Perspectives on History on this.  According to Vanessa Varin in “Managing Your Digital Self,” creating an online profile is a positive thing:

In the end, you may find that creating and maintaining a digital persona will open up new and different professional networks and inspire another creative outlet for your research and teaching interests, as many historians in our field have.

More and more historians (even tenured professors!) are turning to digital media to promote their work.  They are doing it for more reasons than to simply up their Amazon number; they are doing it to engage in a larger discussion and reach a larger audience than they would normally through traditional methods.  Joseph M. Adelman spoke about this in his post in March at The Junto, “Audiences, Publicity, and Engaged Academics.” While stressing that historians write articles to address a specific audience, they also must consider how they publicize their work – to, in a sense, get the word out to those outside the academy.  Adelman writes:

Doing a better job of publicizing our work in the humanities and social sciences, that is, translating our arguments for an educated public, would immeasurably improve our public engagement, and consequently our public perception.

My conversation at the Fourth of July Dinner reminded me that “ah jeez, I am not doing enough to talk about my book.”  My author-friends reminded me that I need to do a better job.  Articles like Varian and Adelman’s remind me of that as well.  Sure, I need to publicize my work for my personal and professional development, but I would also like it if scholars I have read and admire read my work. I would like it if  anyone read my work!  What’s the point of doing the work otherwise?

So, with that moment of self-doubt and negative thinking to endure over dinner, our conversation also reminded me that “Heck, I published a book! That’s pretty neat,” even after a few months.  And to further stroke my ego, I read a review of my book.  It is my first review!

The book (the more I say that, the more I feel I should capitalize The Book every time I type it) was reviewed for the History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland.  This group of scholars are doing wonderful things to promote and develop scholarship on the history of women religious. Granted their main purpose is Britain and Ireland, but they cast they net widely to include Americanists from time to time.

So the review is positive and the reviewer is someone whose work I admire.  To say that I am relieved, grateful,and pleased is an understatement.  I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars.

The other question at dinner last week was “what is my next book project?”  Oh…yeah…right…

Preservation

When I began my Phd studies, I also became more acquainted with other side of historical research – archives and preservation of history.  I had already made the connection to the importance of having primary sources in my masters work, but it really sunk in when I began work in my university’s archives as a part-time job and eventually when I did more archival work for my dissertation.  Sifting through documents, especially holding them in my hands, I wondered what we did not know because one thing or another was not preserved.  What could I and others learn from the odd item, like a church bulletin, a telegram, or an advertisement for perfume in a lady’s magazine?  From reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, I knew I could learn a lot from little things.  The day to day accounts of things, the scraps of things pulled together, could reveal something larger about the past, if only I looked at them from the right perspective.

This I learned and this I tried to employ as I researched and wrote my dissertation and then the Mercy project.  Americanists are not nearly as hampered by the lack of preservation as say Medievalists, but that doesn’t mean that everything isn’t universally preserved either.

GFraser Sketch 1916
A sketch drawn by my grandfather, 1916

I have been thinking about preservation of history, specifically of manuscript records and material culture, recently because I recently lost my uncle. He passed away and we are left to do something with his papers.  He didn’t save everything, but he did hold on to a few interesting bits of material culture that is very relevant to my family’s history.  This has prompted the question of what is relevant beyond my personal connection.  Is my uncle’s life of interest to the larger narrative of twentieth century America?

What’s more, he is the last of his generation of our family (my father passed away over a decade ago) and with both a historian’s eye and a member of a family, I am keen to preserve connections to our family’s history.  What am I to do with this material culture that has meaning for me?  Can this pen and ink sketch drawn by my grandfather when he was a teenager reveal something important?  Or am I just touched by the fact that it was preserved at all, from father to son, to us?

This of course prompts a question about genealogy and the study of Family History as a subfield.  In the past I have used my own family history in the classroom to help my students understand everything from how to research, what’s the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how the questions we ask about our sources can reveal a fresh perspective on the past.  What’s more, we have other microhistories that deal with subjects other than my family (shocking, but true).  Can my personal family documents contribute to a large discussion of the past?  Should they?

Ultimately, what do we (my siblings and I) do with these things?  I am not an unrepentant hoarder if I wish to save these papers, pictures, Zippo tape measure, or Thrift Card from WWI.  No, not really.

A Little Name Dropping for a Friday Night

Tonight, I had dinner with pretty much every historian I admire and wish to emulate.  (Maybe not all but close.) Tonight, as dinner wound down, Jay Dolan got up and gave a talk about Vatican II, Pope John XXIII, and the changes in Catholic life.  And there were jokes.  Jay Dolan! It was his book that inspired me as an undergrad back in the early 1990s to consider history.  Catholic history.  I wouldn’t understand or know for certain until I was in the midst of my graduate work NOT studying Catholic women’s history that I needed to wake up and smell the incense.  Or in my case find the right sort of habit.

It has been that kind of a day.  I shared an elevator with Robert Orsi.  Twice.  I heard Jeffrey Burns talk about Vatican II, Sexuality, and San Francisco.  From across the room, I saw Philip Gleason be Philip Gleason.  I chatted with Margaret Susan Thompson and Patrick Hayes. I got a chance to catch up with one of my professors, Leslie Tentler, and then later hear her talk about Detroit, race, and Vatican II.  I had lunch with Elizabeth Smythe and Kathleen Sprows Cummings.  I hung out with Carmen Mangion and Mary Henold.   (Carmen gave an interesting paper on English and Dutch women religious.  Tomorrow, I will hear Mary give a paper on American Catholic laywomen.)

Better yet, I met and heard papers from people who I had not known yet, but don’t you worry, while they were talking I surreptitiously ordered their books from Inter-library Loan.  (Yes, Alana Harris’ books are hopefully on their way to my mailbox.) And even better, I talked with people who knew about my book.  (I was even at one paper given by Josephine Laffin, which was awesome, and she mentioned my book in her paper.)  I felt, I feel like a member of a community of scholars.  It has been twenty-two years in the making but whose counting?

vatican_logoI have been hanging out at the University of Notre Dame at the Cushwa Center at the Lived History of Vatican II conference.  This conference is the culmination an international project to study the impact of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the course of the day, presenters have talked about the conflicts between traditional and progressive Catholics, how they defy the usual liberal and conservative categories, when it came to the introduction of the vernacular in the Mass.  They have challenged my understanding of class and education. I was reminded of the seemingly universal desire to find authenticity in religious vocation and pushed to consider an emotional response to Vatican II renewal.  I have been immersed in women religious history for so long that I had not considered that young men in seminaries also wished to be treated as adults, just like sisters, who were treated like children for decades.  (Of course with ordination that all changed, but we won’t split hairs tonight.)

My day job, while fine, does not afford me the opportunity to be a historian very often.  I interact in the world of academics and higher education, but it’s not the same.

It has been a long day and there’s another one ahead of me tomorrow.