What Can We Learn About Equal Rights
from Catholic Feminists?
Guest Blog: Serene Williams and Kristen Kelly
As a result of our professional experience as educators at a Catholic school founded by women religious, we have a shared interest in researching the history of feminist nuns, especially as it relates to the long political struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment. We have been particularly moved by our direct experience working on women’s issues with an incredibly inspiring nun, Sr. Fran Tobin, RSCJ.
An Important Topic
During our time working as educators, women religious have privately, and publicly, shared anecdotal stories about the feminist activism of women religious that began in the 1970s. These stories were initially shocking, as it is rare to hear about feminist activism by Catholic nuns, especially given the entrenched conservatism of the Magisterium. Even when students learn about the political history of Catholic women in their K-16 history courses, it is often in the context of conservative Catholicism. Activists, like Phyllis Schlafly, and groups, such as the Eagle Forum, who clearly identified as anti-feminist, are routinely highlighted.
We believe it is especially important for Catholic school educators to counter those narratives by lifting up Catholic women who were pioneers in gender justice. Such lessons also contribute to students’ greater understanding of the women’s rights movement more generally. We simply do not want students to miss learning about all the interesting direct actions undertaken over the decades by feminist nuns who supported constitutional gender equality.
Roots of the Movement
Catholic history shows that feminist women religious fought publicly for equal rights throughout the 20th century. According to the iconic Catholic feminist nun, Sr. Margaret Traxler, Catholic women needed to fight political as well as religious revolutions to obtain constitutional gender equality for all women. Indeed, Catholic feminists, and especially women religious, have consistently fought institutional sex-based subordination both inside and outside the Magisterium. Efforts began in an organized way after Vatican II but, during the 1970s and early 1980s, the ERA was of particular importance for these nuns. According to historian Mary Henold, an expert on Catholic feminism, “ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was a major focus of every American Catholic feminist group after 1972, when Congress sent the amendment to the states.”
Importantly, the political activism of Catholic feminist nuns has been surprisingly well documented in both the Catholic and the mainstream press. It may seem as though most Catholics opposed the ERA since conservative Catholics, such as Phyllis Schlafly, are often cited as a major reason for its failure. However, that is not the case. Catholic women, and especially women religious, made a public argument for gender equality through innovative organizations such as Catholics Act for ERA. And, as stated by Jane J. Mansbridge in her book, Why We Lost the ERA, Catholics were more likely to support the amendment when compared to Protestants. Unfortunately, this history is not widely known.
Perhaps one reason is that equal rights for women in the church still have not been obtained. Back in 1980, the New York Daily News noted that “The Roman Catholic Church is not what you would call an Equal Opportunity Employer.” Little has changed since then. Inequality remains entrenched, and women continue to struggle for rights, both in and out of the church. The unresolved issue of women’s ordination offers just one example.
We aim to raise awareness of this important narrative and publicly analyze the political activity of Catholic feminist women religious. We are particularly interested in their political contributions to the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. This blog post will kick off a series of public projects that will continue through 2023. Our aim is to recognize those who have fought for this issue in the 100 years since the ERA was first introduced in Congress. Many Catholic feminists, especially women religious, are humble. They do not brag about their political accomplishments. Our goal is to advocate for a fuller understanding of the role these women religious have played. We also think this will contribute to a broader understanding of the 20th century feminist women’s movement.
Knowing about women religious like Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister Margaret Traxler and Sister Marjorite Tuite is essential to a comprehensive understanding of the political struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment. They are certainly as important to the women’s liberation movement as more famous feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Understanding the political activism of Catholic feminist women religious also honors the continuity of the 20th century feminist movement. Radical feminist activism did not die down by the 1970s. It is ongoing and continues to this day.
Finally, this story is also a timely one. In January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, and many legal scholars believe it should be added to the U.S. Constitution. Sadly, however, many of the Catholic feminist women who advocated for the ERA, such as Sister Donna Quinn who was a leader of National Coalition of American Nuns, are passing away. Quinn’s recent death highlights the urgent need for more attention on the Catholic nuns who deserve greater recognition for their political activism.
Serene Williams earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees in Political Science. For nearly twenty years she has taught a wide variety of political science and history courses. She has written curriculum for many unique history courses including History Seminar Honors: Women in U.S. History and Advanced Topics in Women’s History & Women’s Religion. Serene frequently presents about teaching intersectional feminist political history at a wide variety of conferences with her interdisciplinary teaching partner, Kristen Kelly. Serene is also a prolific Wikipedian who frequently creates pages about feminist history and politics.
Kristen Kelly has a MA in Cultural Historical Religion from the Graduate Theological Union-Berkeley and teaches all high school levels at the Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, California. She created the “Gender & Sexuality in the Bible” course and co-taught the interdisciplinary Women’s Studies courses. Currently she is co-teaching AP Comparative Government and Politics with Serene Williams. Kristen loves collaborating with scholars and teachers and has presented at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, the National Council for Social Studies, and the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians. Kristen loves teaching religion and history from an intersectional lens, focusing especially on gender and sexuality issues.