Learning About Equal Rights from Catholic Feminists

Posted On 20 May 2022 by Vicki Garlock

What Can We Learn About Equal Rights from Catholic Feminists?

Guest Blog: Serene Williams and Kristen Kelly

[Wikimedia Commons/Edward Kimmel (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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 of feminist activism by women religious throughout 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. Students rarely learn anything about the political history of Catholic women in their K-16 history courses. When they do, it is often in the context of conservative Catholicism, with an emphasis on activists, like Phyllis Schlafly, and anti-feminist groups, like the Eagle Forum. We believe it is especially important for students attending Catholic schools to learn about Catholic women pioneers, as it will contribute to their understanding of both gender justice and the women’s rights movement. Moreover, by not learning about Catholic feminist nuns, students miss hearing about all the interesting direct actions undertaken by feminist nuns in support of constitutional gender equality.

The Roots of Activism

Catholic feminists, and especially women religious, have been fighting institutional subordination based on sex, both inside and outside the Magisterium, in an organized way since Vatican II. According to the iconic Catholic feminist nun, Sr. Margaret Traxler, Catholic women fought both political and religious revolutions as they worked to obtain constitutional gender equality for all women. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was particularly important. In fact, 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.” 

Luckily, 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, and conservative Catholics, like Phyllis Schlafly, are often cited as a major reason for its failure. But, that is simply not the case. As stated by Jane J. Mansbridge in her book, Why We Lost the ERA, Catholics were even more likely to support this amendment than Protestants. Unfortunately, this is not widely known.

One reason, perhaps, is that equal rights for women in the Church still have not been obtained. Back in 1980, the New York Daily News noted, “The Roman Catholic Church is not what you would call an Equal Opportunity  Employer.” Despite the entrenched inequality, Catholic women, and especially women religious, persevered. They continued making a public argument for gender equality and worked with innovative organizations like Catholics Act for ERA to effect change. Decades later, however, achieving women’s rights, both in and out of the Church, including women’s ordination, continues to be a struggle.

A Timely Topic

We aim to raise awareness of this important story and publicly analyze the political activities and contributions of Catholic feminist women religious in the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. This blog post will begin a series of public projects, to be completed by the end of 2023, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the ERA first being introduced in Congress. Many Catholic feminists, especially women religious, are humble and do not often brag about their political accomplishments. Famous feminists, like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, are often mentioned in the context of the women’s liberation movement. But, women religious such as Sister Maureen Fiedler, Sister Margaret Traxler, and Sister Marjorite Tuite are equally important to a comprehensive understanding of the political struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Our goal, then, is to advocate for a fuller understanding of how women religious were part of the broader, 20th-century feminist women’s movement. Understanding the political activism of Catholic feminist women religious also provides a more comprehensive understanding of the movement’s continuity. Radical feminist activities did not die down by the 1970’s. In fact, they persist to this day. 

This narrative is timely in other ways, as well. The state of Virginia ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in January, 2020, and many legal scholars believe it should now be added to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, 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 greater attention to the political activism of Catholic nuns. They deserve better recognition.

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.