Catholic Women and the Public Sphere in Tri-Faith America

I'm happy to introduce our newest contributor today. Karen Johnson is a PhD Candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is finishing up a dissertation called “The Universal Church in a Segregated City: Catholic Interracialism in Chicago, 1928-1963” which looks at the ways Catholics – black and white, men and women, lay and religious – struggled with one another, their church, and their city in order create a more just racial order.  It argues that race and religion in American history are inseparable and always affecting one another, and brings religion into the narrative of the long civil rights movement.  Karen lives in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood with her husband Eric, who teaches high school history (so you can just imagine their conversations), and German Shepherd Logan, who likes to hunt flies and take long walks through the city. Her first post today reflects on her panel on Catholic women recently held at the OAH meeting. 

Catholic Women and the Public Sphere in Tri-Faith America at the OAH.

The 2012 OAH in Milwaukee was, of course, excellent.  I had the privilege or participating on a panel on lay Catholic women and public life in the middle decades of the twentieth century.  What, you might say, there were Catholic women engaged in the public sphere?  As a matter of fact, there were, although sometimes sources about them can be hard to find. 

Mary Henold’s talk, “The Attitude of Sit-With-Hands-Folded-Until Someone-Tells-Me-What-to-Do-is-Definitely-Not-It: Margaret Mealey and the Politics of Reform, 1963-1975,” explored the challenges Henold has had finding sources about how the “women in the pews” responded to the changes brought about by Vatican II.  Unlike the actors who left nice paper trails that populate Henold’s first book, Catholic and Feminist, these actors are somewhat more elusive.  Some sought to redefine what it meant to be a Catholic woman by developing new ways of serving in church and emphasizing that women must grow up and stop being so dependent on their pastors and husbands, while others used Vatican II to justify what they were already doing.  I’m looking forward to Henold’s book about these women in the pews.

Tim Lacy’s “‘A Mind like a Rapier’: Clare Boothe Luce, Catholicism, and the Public Sphere, 1946-1964” explored the meaning of Boothe Luce’s conversion to Catholicism.  Boothe Luce was a fiery Republican who converted to Catholicism under the guidance of Bishop Fulton Sheen (who you might remember as the star of the T.V. show Life is Worth Living) after her daughter died in a car accident.  Lacy asked if Booth Luce’s religious conversion changed her politics.  The answer?  No.  But she did become a little more humble and subdued. Lacy’s paper raised questions about the meaning of conversion.

My paper, “Catholic Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement: Lay Women, Race, and Interracial Justice” considered Catholic women and conversion of a different sort: becoming interracialists.  It showed how an older generation of black and white, religious and lay Catholics marshaled the theological resources of their faith and developed interracial spaces in a highly segregated city where black and white people could get to know one another.  These theologies and spaces enabled Catholic youth like Peggy Roach and others to change their perspectives about prejudice, segregation, and discrimination and gain strength to shape their Church, city and nation.

Jeanne Petite, our commentator, pointed us to the context linking these groups: the rise of what Kevin Schultz has called “Tri-Faith America” - and what Will Herberg pointed to in his Protestant Catholic Jew.  Together, the panels gave a nice depiction of the varied forms of Catholics women’s public engagement and pushed forward the conversation about how gender and race contributed to the shaping of tri-faith America.

I’d like to give a quick plug for one of the best panels at the OAH: “The End of the History Survey Course.”  The panelists, David Voelker, Joel Sipress, Nikki Mandell, and Lendol Caulder – all who have published on the scholarship of teaching and learning - demonstrated how far we’ve come since Caulder’s 2006 JAH article “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey.”  The panelists reminded us that must stop assuming we can cover everything; this model is a living fossil of 19th century “scientific” practices of history.  Instead, they said, we must teach students to think historically by considering the arguments about the past, the power of stories, and the questions historians ask of the past.  By merging content and skill, we can offer our students so much more than just material they will memorize for the test and then promptly forget.  We can help them become thoughtful, knowledgeable, genuine citizens.


Edward J. Blum said…
thanks so much Karen; wish I was at Milwaukee
Luke Harlow said…
Welcome aboard, Karen! We look forward to your future posts.

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