Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement
Mary J. Henold, assistant professor of history at Roanoke College, has written a sympathetic, well-constructed history of the American Catholic feminist movement from the 1960s to the early 1980s. She argues that Catholic feminists, by affirming feminism while remaining Catholic, developed a "distinct branch of American feminism" (3). Whereas the secular feminist movement tended to be anti-religious, Catholic feminists affirmed "we are feminists BECAUSE we are Catholic" (83).
Henold challenges the traditional interpretation that Catholic feminism was merely an offshoot of the "second wave" secular feminist movement launched by the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, instead pointing to another event occurring in 1963—the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council—as its catalyst. In calling for openness in many areas of the church, the council allowed women to challenge the male-dominated institution; the meeting also served as a prime example of that male domination—among the thousands invited to participate in the deliberations, there were only twenty-three unofficial female "observers." In the late 1960s, the first of three stages identified by Henold, Catholic feminist writers such as Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether, while criticizing sexism in the church, were optimistic that the renewed church after Vatican II would provide more opportunities for women.
By the early 1970s, existing organizations such as the Leadership Council of Women Religious, the National Coalition of American Nuns, and the National Assembly of Women Religious embraced feminism, and new organizations were formed such as the Saint Joan's International Alliance—United States Section and the Deaconess Movement (which was for ordination of female deacons). In Henold's second period, from about 1970 to 1978, these organizations tried to "dialogue" with the church's male hierarchical leadership to achieve gains for women in the church. By 1975, these demands centered on and became symbolized by the issue of women's ordination. The first Women's Ordination Conference, held in Detroit, gathered 1,200 women who called for the full priesthood for women.
However, their hopes were dashed when, in 1977, the Vatican issued a declaration definitively prohibiting women's ordination. By 1978, a sense of betrayal issuing from the Vatican pronouncement led to Henold's third period of Catholic feminism, that of "sustained ambivalence," in which some Catholic feminists left the church and most adopted a position on its margins—still considering themselves in the church, but not participating in its sexist institutions.
Henold concludes that although the Catholic feminist movement failed to achieve some of its most high profile goals such as women's ordination, it succeeded in the long run in the development of feminist academic theology and in obtaining female altar servers and many non-ordained pastoral and ministerial positions as the priest vocation crisis afflicted the church.
Henold mines the published writings of Catholic feminists and the archives of their organizations, and makes especially effective use of twenty-three interviews. She personalizes [End Page 304] the movement with about a dozen short but revealing pen-portraits of representative Catholic feminists. Scholars of the American women's movement and the American Catholic Church will welcome this enlightening study.