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Carving Out a Place for HERstory in American Catholicism


Kathleen Cummings, Ph.D., explains why most Progressive Era Catholic women opposed suffrage.
Photo by Joseph McLaughlin

Humility and self-effacement have been expected from Catholic women in a way that has not been expected from Catholic men, according to Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Ph.D.

That humility has caused the historic achievements of sisters and lay Catholic women to go largely unrecognized, said Cummings, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.

But her research is helping to change that. Cummings detailed some of her findings on Oct. 7 at the sixth annual Rita Cassella Jones Lecture, “ChangingHistory: Women in the American Catholic Past.”

As part of her book New Women of the Old Faith (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), Cummings uncovered the story of Julia McGroarty, S.N.D., founder of Trinity College in Washington, D.C.

“What was unique about Trinity was that it was founded as the first independent Catholic women’s college, and not as an outgrowth of another institution,” Cummings said.

While researching the history of Trinity, Cummings came upon an entry for Sister McGroarty in a book titled Famous Irish Women (Lawrence Publishing, 1907). But the book gave scant information on how she managed to open the college, summarizing the effort in a single line: “Sister prayed, and Trinity was founded.”

It was just another example of the humility that nuns had been taught to display. In fact, Cummings’ research has uncovered that many achievements by Catholic sisters have been credited to their local archbishop or some other priest.

Cummings later learned that Sister McGroarty developed her ideas about how Trinity should function through a series of summer trips to Seven Sisters colleges, including Vassar, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. She noted that the story of Trinity came full circle in 2008 when Jane McAuliffe, a Trinity alumna, ascended to the presidency of Bryn Mawr.

By the mid-1800s, slightly more than 1,000 American women had entered the Catholic religious communities, Cummings said. By 1968, the number had swelled to 209,000, the majority of whom provided the human infrastructure for Catholic parochial schools, hospitals, orphanages and asylums.

Still, as the parochial school system began to gain momentum in the early 20th century, nuns were not favored for teaching roles.

“Most religious educators had no qualms about expressing their preference for male vocations,” she said. She noted that at a meeting of the Catholic Educational Association in 1905, education by sisters was called a “patent and material defect of the parochial school system in the United States.”

That parochial schools became almost entirely run by nuns spoke to their ability to work for low wages and willingness to put off furthering their own educations, she said.

Cummings also noted that during the Progressive Era—the period she covered in New Women of the Old Faith—Catholic women were largely opposed to women’s suffrage. To understand why, she focused on Katherine Eleanor Conway. Conway was the first woman reporter in Rochester, N.Y., the first woman editor of the Boston Pilot newspaper and the first woman lay instructor at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind.

“I had difficulty understanding how a woman who had broken so many barriers would be so opposed to women’s right to vote,” Cummings said. “Then I realized it is impossible to make sense of her views on suffrage without understanding her identity as a Catholic.

“Conway divided the world into people who shared her faith and people who did not,” she explained. “She believed the suffrage movement was the latest attempt by anti-Catholics to expand their prejudice.”

In fact, many suffragettes admitted that women’s enfranchisement would dilute the influence of immigrants.

“Few historians have appreciated how the field of women’s studies has been influenced by Protestants,” Cummings said. “But the flourishing of Catholic studies—especially at non-Catholic institutions such as Duke and Northwestern, can act as a balance.

“Catholic women’s stories are important to tell.”

“Changing History: Women in the American Catholic Past” was sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.


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