Bridget McBruiser and American Religious Prejudice -- From our New Contributing Editor!


Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is also the Associate Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, and she holds concurrent appointments in the departments of history and theology. Her teaching and research interests include the history of women and American religion and the study of U.S. Catholicism.

Her first book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, will be published by University of North Carolina Press in January 2009. Other recent publications include “The ‘New Woman’ at the ‘University’: Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era,” which appears in The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, edited by Catherine A. Brekus (University of North Carolina, 2007). She is a regular contributor to Commonweal, America, and American Catholic Studies.She has also written an essay about teaching at the intersection of gender and American Catholic studies, which will appear in Passing on the Faith, Passing on the Church, edited by Margaret McGuinness and James T. Fisher, and under contract with Fordham University Press. At present Cummings is working on a book-length study of women and American Catholicism.


Remembering “Bridget McBruiser”: Racial and Religious Prejudice in American History

Kathleen Sprows Cummings
University of Notre Dame

In his op-ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof referenced a recent Pew survey that indicated only fifty percent of Americans are certain that Mr. Obama is a Christian. Meanwhile, 13 percent of registered voters say that he is a Muslim, compared with 12 percent in June and 10 percent in March. Kristof argues, convincingly I think, that this data signifies that religious prejudice is becoming a proxy for racial prejudice. “In public at least,” he writes, “it’s not acceptable to express reservations about a candidate’s skin color, so discomfort about race is sublimated into concerns about whether Mr. Obama is sufficiently Christian. The result is this campaign to ‘otherize’ Mr. Obama. Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.”

Kristof’s piece prompted me to reflect anew on the ways racial and religious prejudices have been intertwined in American history. In my Gender and American Catholicism class today, we analyzed several anti-Catholic and anti-Irish cartoons originally published in the mid to late 19th century. My students, many of whom are Irish American Catholics, were astonished to learn that Notre Dame’s beloved mascot, “the fighting Irish” leprechaun, bears a striking resemblance to the depictions of “Paddy” that regularly appeared in newspapers and periodicals. Like the campaign to “otherize” Obama, the efforts to emphasize the racial and religious differences of Irish Americans were profoundly political in purpose. As Irish politicians began to wield more political power, cartoonists such as Thomas Nast raised fears about how their preponderance would threaten the American ideals of democracy. (In one of his most famous cartoons, “The American River Ganges,” Nast conflates Tammany Hall with St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome).

Aside from political considerations, these cartoons were also designed to evoke the racial inferiority of the Irish. Paddy’s simian features—prominent chin, hairy face, ape-like expression—were tied to the emerging science of physiognomy, whose adherents claimed that facial features provided clues to character. The implications were obvious: among their other liabilities, the violent and underdeveloped Irish were racially unfit to be good Americans.
Most U.S. history textbooks include a reprint of at least one “Paddy” cartoon. Lesser known but equally revealing are the depictions of Paddy’s female counterpart, Bridget. In “Bridget McBruiser,” which originally appeared in 1866, the contrast between the womanly Florence Nightingale and the decidedly unfeminine—indeed inhuman—“Bridget” underscored the “otherness” of Irish Catholic women.[1]

It is no coincidence that Florence Nightingale became popular in the United States at precisely the same time that Catholic women religious, many of whom were of Irish descent, were becoming more visible as nurses (during the Civil War, twenty percent of Army nurses were Catholic nuns). As was the case with Paddy, fears about Bridget’s influence were inextricably tied up in political concerns. When the crusade for women suffrage gained steam after 1890, the specter of both Paddy and Bridget figured prominently in the arguments advanced on both sides of the debate. White, middle-class suffragists argued that if African-American, uneducated, or “foreign” men were able to vote, than their votes were urgently needed as a counterbalance. (Although the racial and class biases of suffragists are now widely recognized by historians, few scholars have paid attention to the significance of the fact that the majority of the foreign and uneducated “undesirables” were Roman Catholic). Meanwhile, anti-suffragists pointed out that enfranchising women would only double the Irish Catholic vote. According to Margaret Deland, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910, suffragists wanted “to multiply by two the present and unconscientious vote which many thoughtful persons, anxiously doubting democracy, believe is already threatening our national existence….we have suffered many things at the hands of Patrick; the New Woman would add Bridget also.”[2]

I explore the significance of these themes in the American past in my forthcoming book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, University of North Carolina Press. But I wonder whether the legacy of Bridget McBruiser suggests it might be worthwhile to explore more fully the gender dimensions of contemporary racial and religious biases, especially considering the variety of ways in which both Obama and Palin are challenging societal definitions of masculinity and femininity.

[1] (James Redfield, "New Physiognomy, or Signs of Character," New York, 1866. In Dale T. Knobel, Paddy and the Republic, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1986, following p. 156).

[2]Margaret Deland, “The Change in the Feminine Ideal,” Atlantic Monthly, March 1910, 299.


Anonymous said…
welcome, welcome, welcome. glad to see you joining the crew and thrilled to read your first essay. (can't wait to see the book!!!). - Ed Blum
Kelly J. Baker said…
Welcome, Kathy! What a terrific post. You have inspired me to use the Bridget McBruiser images along with the "paddy" images in my Religious Intolerance class in the Spring.
Mike Pasquier said…
Hi Kathy! Very insightful post! In addition to its application to the current political climate, I was wondering if you know of any contemporary Catholic immigrant advocacy groups or your standard diocesan priest on the altar who incorporate these types of racist, anti-Catholic, nativist caricatures of the Irish to argue on behalf of immigrant rights today? It seems as though such arguments are usually based on moral and theological grounds, and rarely related to historical contexts. I wonder how Catholics in the pews might respond to such grotesque renderings of their ancestors by those claiming to be "100% American."
John Fea said…
Kathy: I was thrilled to see your post. Nice job and welcome aboard!

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