A Guest in My Own House?


Last weekend, I attended a conference at the Gannon Center at Loyola University in Chicago. The conference, “Still Guests in Our Own HouseWomen and the Church since Vatican II,” looked at women and the church and explored just how much their lives have changed since the Second Vatican Council.

This conference was first and foremost a theology conference.  As a historian of American Catholic women, I have a particular interest in Vatican II and how women’s lives changed.  Vatican II factored heavily into my book about the Chicago Sisters of Mercy. Plus, I had never been to Loyola Chicago.  My very talented sister-in-law, Diane, also decided to go to the conference and we had a Girls Take on Chicago Weekend.  What’s not to like?  So, I braved a theology conference.

The conference began on Friday night with a keynote address from M. Shawn Copeland.  Copeland’s presentation set a very good tone for the next day.  We heard about the gender and racial disparity in Catholic theology and what we might think about to, well, do better.  Kathleen Sprows Cummings responded to Copeland’s talk and gave a different type of context, one that challenged our thinking both generationally and historically.  Copeland and Cummings set the tone by asking why did women’s ordination matter when the millennial generation of women were not showing up to church (I paraphrase…)?  Cummings is a historian, while Copeland is a theologian. And there was the running joke of the next twenty-four hours.  “I’m just a historian, but…”

Some highlights for me from the conference were Emily Sammon‘s paper, “Womanhood in the Church: Natural Ideal, Theological Decoration, or Unacknowledged Reality?”  Sammon challenged her audience to engage in open dialogue with the church, to have conservative and liberal voices hear one another.  Mary Henold pushed her audience to consider what happens when women lose their access to a “pulpit,” (voice) as in the case of the Catholic Daughters of America who found Vatican II removed their voice within the Church.  Henold’s paper, “Does Anyone Miss the Junior Catholic Daughters?: Assessing the Response of Laywomen’s Fraternal Organizations to the Second Vatican Council” was for me, the Best Paper of the Conference.  But, I am just a historian….  As is Henold who wrote the very important book about Catholic women and feminism.  However, besides the keynote, the most challenging panel was the last one I heard, “Doing Catholic Theology in a Multigenerational Context of Women” and more specifically, Susan Abraham’s paper “Mentoring (in)hospitable Places:  Collegiality in Catholic Academic Contexts.”  Abraham asked her audience to think hard about what do we mean by Vatican II and why, why, why do we only think about it in Western context.  Yes, why?

There were other panels and other presenters, like Jill Peterfeso and Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and Jeanine Viau‘s paper “Not Guests, Still Handmaids: An Analysis of Catholic Feminist Vocations after Vatican II” that were, well, dynamic.

Ultimately, an important question, however, is where exactly do women fit within the Catholic Church?  That’s a big question.  Is the challenge to the traditional church purely a liberal/feminist one?  What happens when there are no options for laywomen outside traditional throwbacks to the nineteenth century?

There is more to understand and learn from this conference.  That is for another day and another post!  Stay tuned.


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.”


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.

Getting Nearer to the Point

It has been a long time since I have read an article that has gotten nearer to the point of feminism – the need keep feminist ideals and agendas in mind – than a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I have long felt that each new title that declares one thing or the other about the condition of women in our society rings hollow.  This article, “Feminism Fizzles: Where is Betty Friedan When We Need Her?” by Rachel Shteir, is not perfect either, but it is, as I say, getting nearer.

Shteir makes a strong case for reconsidering the importance and relevance of Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground breaking work, The Feminine Mystique.  As a women’s historian, I have taught Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique.  It too is not perfect, but I have gained a new appreciation for the work after reading Shteir’s article.  Whatever its shortcomings, at least it has depth, something with which I agree with what Shteir has argued about the recent publication of works on women (Shteir calls these WOW).

Shteir quickly identifies her problem with this literature.

A more alienating problem is that the worlds these WOW describe seem to have come straight from Target. While the political realities and social conditions differ on the surface, at bottom they appear strangely similar—even Stepford-wifelike. The settings may vary, but only in the way that shades of bottle blonde do: a little elite college, a little Washington, a little Midwestern manufacturing town, a little Wall Street.

And continues with:

What bothers me most about these writers is not that they aren’t radical (that hardly enters the equation), but that their books and articles barely acknowledge the psychological complexities, the subterranean and contradictory forces pulling at women, as well as new possibilities offered.

Ultimately, I am tired of not finding space at the table of modern feminism.  Or that once there, finding the meal has not been well-planned or thought out.  I am equally tired of the continual nonrecognition that sexism persists in all aspects of professional (including the hallowed ground of equality – the academy), personal, and public life.  I agree with Shteir that we cannot vilify men (oh, there are some villains out there, but all men? Not so much).  That isn’t getting women (or men for that matter) anywhere. There is a deeper problem that I am not sure where to begin to identify.

Yet, in my daily life, I encounter rudeness, thoughtlessness, unkindness, insecurity, obtuseness, power negotiations, and garden-variety-fear (not the my life is in danger fear, but fear of sticking one’s nose out).  I also encounter mercy, charity, friendship, and mutual respect.  Some of these can be read with a gendered lens, but at other times both sins and virtues are not specific to one sex.

I fear I am not getting anywhere with this and that this post is one of those underdeveloped thought pieces that tend to crowd the conversation.  All I am sure of is that I am bothered and tired of the same patterns of stereotyping of women.  I caught myself the other day apologizing for my feminist beliefs.  I qualified, so as not to put anyone off.  I am hardly a radical feminist (and here I go again, qualifying).  I do not scream poster-child for a firebrand.  And sexism is more than bad behavior, ill manners, or a lack of civility, but it is that too.  People more often than not, are not knowingly mean or hurtful.  But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t.  Or that hierarchy/patriarchy/power relations don’t exist.


Another [Un]helpful Book about Modern Women?

The New York Times Book Review featured a review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, And the Rise of Women, on September 13.  When I saw the headline, I must confess I was intrigued.  Could it be that the feminist revolution had actually worked as anti-feminists of the 1970s and 1980s feared?  Did Feminists finally put an end to men in their campaign stamp out social constructions of gender and rid the world of patriarchy?

All kidding aside, I was curious and did something I haven’t done in some time.  I read a book review in the New York Times.  (Seriously, between my full-time day job, teaching a class, and revising my manuscript, who has time to read book reviews?)  Jennifer Homans has provided a pithy and insightful review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, which if I understand the reviewer’s take on the text, is a frustrating evaluation of the status of women in contemporary American society.

According to Rosin, we are in an era of women, where they dominate in education, work, and at home.  They are better at love and marriage, and generally speaking, women have more success in the global economy.  Wow…The trouble with Rosin’s book, as Homans sees it, has to do with how Rosin characterizes women and men’s roles, and their successes.  She relies on stereotypical gender traits for women and men and overlays them onto the existing social, political, and economic situations where by the numbers it looks like women are more successful all around.

Women have reached this pinnacle of achievement (despite still earning less on average than men) because they are more caring, have better people skills, and better at time-management (what with all the juggling of home, family, and work, where men can’t seem to find their way out of a paper bag).  These traits that women seem to naturally possess are in reality stereotypes and to a lesser extent social constructions of gender expectations.  As Homans put it:

Is it really a good idea to say that we are, by gender if not by sex, open, empathic, flexible, patient, prone to communal problem-solving and the like? We’ve known for a long time that men do not hold a monopoly on being rigid, hierarchical, close-minded or authoritarian. Yet the women in this book are almost all organized go-getters, whereas the men come across as lazy, unambitious couch potatoes.

Right, and women are not universally better at cooperating and nurturing.  Just like men are not universally knuckle-dragging neanderthals.  Homans continues:

To suggest, in other words, that success — material, social, sexual, emotional — depends on (our!) gender traits and not on the legal and institutional frameworks we live in? I’m all for each of us remaking ourselves from within, but this kind of argument seems carelessly apolitical, especially at a moment when we are faced with public officials actively working to undermine access to birth control, abortion, equal pay for equal work.

Having not read the book,  I wonder if Rosin deals with an equity feminist or legal feminist approach to women’s rights.  Legislation was necessary to move the feminist movement along in the second half of the twentieth century to provide the structure (albeit not often adhered to) to guarantee women’s equal right to education, work, and maybe some day, pay.  It seems we, as a culture and society, cannot move beyond the understanding that women and men are different, therefore unequal.  We do not know what to do with difference.  How do we respect that while gender exists, it should not fundamentally determine or limit women’s or men’s status in society.

“Who Can Find a Virtuous Woman?”: or How are women valued in twenty-first-century American society?

Recently, the question of women’s status, their success, and whether or not women can have it all has made it back into the news cycle.  Ann-Marie Slaughter in the July/August issue of the Atlantic moved this issue back into the forefront of American media (not that answering this question hasn’t been on many women’s minds all along).  Since second-wave feminism attempted to answer this question in the 1970s, the media periodically drags out this question and dusts it off, on morning shows, in breezy articles in women’s magazines, and frightfully on prime time news programs.  There is no good answer to this question.  Women and men who say women cannot have a successful career and a fulfilling family at the same time are demonized as anti-women and those who say that they can are often believed to be fooling themselves.  Or they are privileged women who have a lot of help.  Or both.  The trouble is when we start having this debate (again and again and again) it is difficult to tell whether we get anywhere.  Or if something else pops up to distract our attention elsewhere.

The most reasoned statement on women having it all I have read lately is this one by Kristin van Ogtrop, who is the managing editor of Real Simple and author of the blog, Adventures in Chaos.  Van Ogtrop correctly identifies that men never seem to have to answer this question.  They are not judged in the same way as being good fathers or husbands by how much time they spend with their children.  Often men are celebrated for doing the very things that women are condemned for (i.e. bringing children to work, taking personal time when children are sick).  It’s all a mess.  Add to that race and class and it gets even messier.  Who is actually having this debate?  It is most often white upper middle class women who have a degree of economic security.  About eight years ago, Caitlin Flannagan published an article in The Atlantic, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars,” which reviewed several books new books at the time dealing with working mothers.  Flannagan pointed out that economically successful  working mothers had their success because they had hired a nanny or a housekeeper.  (And my how she was vilified for her article!) The suggestion in 2004 and again in 2012 is that if a woman works full time in a demanding job, something will fall through the cracks in other aspects of her life (home, family, personal life).

Laura Essig brings this question of class and race to the discussion as well in her recent post for the Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Brainstorm.  In her essay, “Does Good Mother = Miserable Woman?” Essig discusses a recent study of mothers who practice “intensive parenting” are more likely prone to depression and ultimately are bad parents because they are terribly unhappy as individuals.  They put their children’s needs and happiness above their own to the detriment of their own fulfillment.  This sounds vaguely familiar–vaguely post WWII-1950s-June Cleaver.

Essig goes on to say:

I think the answer is that I could look like June Cleaver if I wanted to. I am white and middle class and could vacuum in pearls and a sweater set if necessary.  For white, middle-class mothers like me there is particular pressure to be “perfect” and somehow perfect means selfless, sacrificing, and preternaturally patient. The reasons this particular pressure is focused on white, middle-class mothers are both historical and contemporary, but have much to do with the invention of the “lady” as a way of creating class and race hierarchies in the 19th century. As “lady” was expanded from nobility to a larger middle class, working-class and poor women were excluded from good mothering (as well as the economic and racial privileges thereof).

This whole question, Essig suggests, is about white middle and upper middle class professional women, but what is the larger concern?  Is our society, culture, whatnot crumbling into ruins because women work?  Are children being warped?  Is the economic crisis the fault of professional women?  Is the fate of the Western Free World once again resting on the diminutive shoulders of women everywhere?  OK, I may be going too far here.

As I thought about this resurrected question of good mother/bad mother, two things come to mind (for me): First, this is all very unfair to women who struggle with whether they should work, stay home with the children, or find some middle ground.  Second, I couldn’t help but think about an essay I read in the early days of my graduate work in women’s history.  It was a state-of-the-field historiographic essay written by Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History,” published in Signs in 1975 (it was a paper given at the Berkshire Conference prior to that).  Lerner traces the development of the field of women’s history over five or so years of existence, going through various methodological approaches.  The one thing that sticks out for me in this article is that she charges women’s historians to ask new questions and to de-center what is considered the norm; these are not new ideas for women’s history, but they were at the time.  Up to that point (and arguably still today) we ask questions and judge past events based upon what is normal for men’s experiences.  Aren’t we still doing that when we keep going back and back and back yet again to this questions of what women should and should not do to have it all?   In the face of other recent rants (a la Rush Limbaugh) about what women should and should not do to be “good women,” what purpose does this serve?

Ultimately, I am as guilty as the next person by once again addressing this issue and not moving to an answer.  I think about the parents I know today who are committed to their children, who decided what is right for their families within the context of their circumstances (economic or otherwise), who may be judged because they don’t work or they do work, and I do not see how this continued debate is helping.

I used the King James Bible version of Proverbs 31 for the title of this post.  The entire passage is here.  I think of this passage when I contemplate historically the role that women are to play in American society.  This construction of womanhood was valued in colonial America, through the nineteenth century Cult of Domesticity, and onto the twentieth century and the myth of June Cleaver.  Today, are women only valuable if they do everything, at home and beyond?