New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era
Historians of American women's history in the Progressive Era have documented the extensive and multifaceted contributions of Protestant and secular women who used gender ideology as a way to expand their educational, social, and political influences. For many, the quintessential "New Woman"personified [End Page 178] the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century woman who represented and championed these changing ideas and attitudes about gender in America. Kathleen Sprows Cummings, assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, adds her voice to this scholarship in important and significant ways. Challenging past assumptions that Catholic women were absent or, at best, invisible pawns in these events, she widens the parameters of discussion with a finely nuanced interpretation of the activities of four Catholic women, two laywomen and two women religious.
New Women of the Old Faith "challenges the widespread assumption that women who were faithful members of a patriarchal church were largely incapable of genuine work on behalf of women" (p. 4). Seeing themselves as far more marginalized as Catholics than as women, they negotiated the tensions between gender and religious identity,walking a tightrope as they participated in national debates concerning gender ideology, higher education, professionalism, and suffrage. Cummings bases her interpretations on the work and lives of four exceptional women. Margaret Buchanan Sullivan (1847–1903) was a Chicago-based writer who turned her pen toward defending "True Womanhood" from the challenge presented by the "New Woman." Publishing in both Catholic and secular presses, she was a rarity as a woman journalist who had readers both inside and outside the Church. Sister Julia (Susan) McGroarty, S.D.N.de N. (1827–1901), was the provincial director of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and founder of Trinity College for women. Caught amid the Americanist controversies while trying to build Trinity College, she negotiated her way between American bishops who advocated higher education for Catholic women and those who viewed it as the downfall of the traditional Catholic family—a sure sign of the lurking influence of the New Woman. Sister Assisium (Catherine) McEvoy, S.S.J. (1843–1939), was a Philadelphia educator who pushed for greater professionalism and quality for Catholic education, locally and nationally. Finally, Katherine Eleanor Conway (1852–1927), the youngest of the quartet, was a journalist, editor, and public speaker whose words and ideas became representative of the antisuffrage movement of the early-twentieth century. All of these women treasured their Catholicity and saw it as an integral part of their core identity. They worked tirelessly not only to defend the Church from outside assaults but also to challenge gently, and at times strongly, gender parameters within it. Chafing at times from their own social and professional limitations, they negotiated the contradictions and tensions in their own lives as women of the Old Faith who at times functioned in a world of New Women.
Cummings makes important choices by utilizing the life and work of these four women as a way to interpret and integrate the narrative of how religion, specifically Catholicism, informed and influenced women's thinking about some of the most important debates of the Progressive Era. This well-written and finely nuanced book makes an important contribution to scholarship in Catholic history and American women's history. Her epilogue in the last chapter [End Page 179] provides a fascinating jumping-off point, tantalizing the reader to connect these women and their activities to the post-Vatican II world. For these Progressive Era women, the Church provided a sense of purpose and meaning and the best venue for social, spiritual, and intellectual opportunities. In contrast, by the 1960s,"transformations for women in American society had far outpaced changes for women in the church," and Cummings argues that "the seeds of gender discontent . . . would be watered by Vatican II, massive social change, and major demographic transformations" (p. 195). But that is a different story that also needs to be told.