Notre Dame's Laetare Medalist, and Catholic Women's Identity

Notre Dame’s Laetare Medalist
by Kathleen Sprows Cummings

In the midst of the controversy surrounding the invitation to President Barack Obama, few people have remarked on the other person slated to address Notre Dame’s class of 2009: Mary Ann Glendon, winner of this year’s Laetare Medal. The Laetare Medal, regarded by some as “the most prestigious award conferred annually on American Catholics,” was instituted in 1883 to honor a person whose witness to the Catholic faith has shaped his or her public endeavors. Let me state upfront that Glendon is an accomplished and faithful woman who well deserves this honor. It’s also high time a woman was named. Aside from Peggy Steinfels, who received the award jointly with her husband in 2003, the last female recipient was Sister Helen Prejean in 1996. The preponderance of male Laetare medalists of late marks a departure from the medal’s early years, when women were honored much more routinely.

One of these early winners was Katherine E. Conway, the Laetare Medalist of 1907. Conway was a prolific writer and successful journalist who became the first woman editor of the Boston Pilot. Conway was also an anti-suffragist, a label that at first seems counterintuitive. As an educated, ambitious, and professional woman, what could she possibly have had against women’s enfranchisement? It turns out that Conway’s aversion to suffrage was rooted in her belief that she was far more marginalized as a Catholic in American society than she was as a woman in the Church. In 1893, she “marveled” that other Catholics had even raised “the woman question,” pointing out that the sanctuary and the pulpit were the only doors the Church had kept closed to her. As a Catholic in the United States, by contrast, she felt herself to be the victim to “utterly unfounded prejudices, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and downright slander.”

Conway and her contemporaries grasped what many historians have since missed: the suffrage movement, whose core members were white, middle-class, Protestants, replicated the religious biases of the larger culture in many respects. Conway, like many of her contemporaries, was highly attuned to the anti-Catholicism embedded in suffrage arguments. This is not to say that she was entirely unaware of the way her life was circumscribed by gender. But at the end of the day, it would be religion, not sex, that would override all other alliances.

Acknowledging this has significant implications for the historiography of American women. While it is old news that “sisterhood” could be splintered by race and class, scholars have not sufficiently acknowledged the power of religious identity to undermine alliances based on sex. I am hardly the first person to make this observation. Ann Braude, a scholar I admire deeply, recently urged historians of U.S. women to transcend “the Protestant frameworks embedded in the field,” noting that “Protestantism often functions as an unmarked category in women’s history because religion is not analyzed as a source of difference, just as whiteness disappears when the impact of race is only considered for non-whites.”

Braude’s challenge raises interesting questions: If women’s historians taught us that men have a gender, and scholars of African-Americans prompted explorations of how whites are shaped by race, is it possible to make an analogy in terms of the study of religion? By studying a minority religion, might we understand how religious difference has impacted the members of the majority religion? Are many of the movements or people historians have assumed to be secular in fact Protestant? And if so, how deeply did biases against Catholics shape their rhetoric and actions? The answers to these questions go a long way in explaining why most Catholic women in the early 20th century believed that women’s rights were best secured “in the Court of Rome,” not through the ballot box.

If Conway and other Catholic anti-suffragists can help explain the American religious past, they might also offer clues to help us understand the presently embattled relationship between religion and feminism. Mary Ann Glendon, for example, has been very critical of feminism, often implying that it is at odds with religious faith. In 1995, commenting on John Paul II’s Letter to Women, Glendon suggested that “a Catholic woman impatient with the pace of change might consider asking herself: “Where in contemporary society do I feel the most respected as a woman, whatever my chosen path in life?” Asserting that she could not “think of any institution that surpasses the Catholic Church in these respects,” Glendon replicated the argument Conway made a century earlier: it is the Catholic church, not secular feminism, that is the best protector of women’s rights and interests. One could argue, and I have elsewhere, that this position was more defensible in 1893 than it is now. But the point remains: Catholic women who refused to join woman suffragists in the early 20th century offer a provocative pre-history of the choice Glendon and many other religious women make to ally themselves with the men who share their faith, rather than with the women who do not.


historiann said…
Hi, Kathleen--great post. Can you give us a link or a cite to the Braude quotes you include here?

I'm skeptical of Glendon's views about feminism today, but I think the core of your analysis (a la Braude) is correct: we need to interrogate the religious biases in nominally "mainstream American" institutions and movements.
Kathleen Cummings said…
Sure. The full citation appears in my new book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era (UNC, 2009)
Ann Braude, “Review of Anne M. Boylan’s The Origins of Women’s Activism,” Catholic Historical Review 91 (2005): 183-4.

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