Kathleen Sprows Cummings has an interesting post at Religion in American History on “Notre Dame’s Laetare Medalist and Catholic Women’s Identity.” She notes that “[i]n the midst of the controversy surrounding the invitation to President Barack Obama, few people have remarked on the other person slated to address Notre Dame’s class of 2009: Mary Ann Glendon, winner of this year’s Laetare Medal. The Laetare Medal, regarded by some as ‘the most prestigious award conferred annually on American Catholics,’ was instituted in 1883 to honor a person whose witness to the Catholic faith has shaped his or her public endeavors.” Cummings writes that it’s good to see a woman honored–in recent years, the winners have been overwhelmingly men, in contrast to “the medal’s early years, when women were honored much more routinely.”
She goes on to discuss the central point of the post, which is that American Catholic women have frequently been much more likely to identify Catholicism rather than their sex as the reason for any marginalization or discrimination against them. Moreover, many in the women’s suffrage movement made specific appeals to anti-Catholic bias, so Catholic women didn’t see mainstream feminism as a movement they could identify with: “the suffrage movement, whose core members were white, middle-class, Protestants, replicated the religious biases of the larger culture in many respects.” Cummings goes on to note that
[a]cknowledging this has significant implications for the historiography of American women. While it is old news that “sisterhood” could be splintered by race and class, scholars have not sufficiently acknowledged the power of religious identity to undermine alliances based on sex. I am hardly the first person to make this observation. Ann Braude, a scholar I admire deeply, recently urged historians of U.S. women to transcend “the Protestant frameworks embedded in the field,” noting that “Protestantism often functions as an unmarked category in women’s history because religion is not analyzed as a source of difference, just as whiteness disappears when the impact of race is only considered for non-whites.”
Braude’s challenge raises interesting questions: If women’s historians taught us that men have a gender, and scholars of African-Americans prompted explorations of how whites are shaped by race, is it possible to make an analogy in terms of the study of religion? By studying a minority religion, might we understand how religious difference has impacted the members of the majority religion? Are many of the movements or people historians have assumed to be secular in fact Protestant? And if so, how deeply did biases against Catholics shape their rhetoric and actions? The answers to these questions go a long way in explaining why most Catholic women in the early 20th century believed that women’s rights were best secured “in the Court of Rome,” not through the ballot box.
Cummings’ comments resonate because of my experience teaching at two different Catholic universities (although I am not myself Catholic). At the first one, I was taken out to lunch by the senior woman in the department, a soon-to-retire British historian who was probably hired in the early 1960s. I asked her what it was like to be a woman on the faculty back then, assuming that she’d share with me horror stories about sexism in her career. She blinked at me, cocked her head like she didn’t quite understand, and said, “Oh, my being a woman wasn’t an issue. I thought it was more difficult being a Catholic in academia than being a woman academic.” At the second Catholic university that hired me, a feminist friend of mine on the faculty used to say that “anti-Catholicism is the last respectable prejudice in academia.” A number of students I taught there were reluctant to call themselves feminists because they thought that meant being pro-choice, when they thought of themselves as pro-life. They were relieved to learn about Feminists for Life–an organization that their priests and church youth groups hadn’t told them about either.
Protestant bias runs deeply and obviously through American history, and I think unfortunately through most of the historiography, too. It seems to me that what we know of as “Catholic history” is dominated still by immigration history and urban history, as though Catholics only arrived in significant numbers after the Civil War. This of course ignores the tremendous successes of Catholicism in North America up to 1800, if we take a continental perspective that includes French and Spanish colonialism and Native American history rather than a narrowly Anglocentric view of American history. Even if we exclude the regions of North America that are outside of U.S. national borders after 1848, there are a heck of a lot of Catholics in places like the upper midwest, the southwest, and California. How much of this exclusion is because Catholicism was historically portrayed as a browned and feminized (and therefore a degraded) faith by a triumphalist historiography written for the most part by Anlgo-American Protestant men? I’d say most of it–and that the intertwining of women’s history and Catholic history may have something to tell us about the marginalization of both sub-fields in the American historical profession and in the dominant “master narratives” of American history.
But, I’m just a neophyte as a historian of Catholicism. What do you think?