"As Women With Women": Sisters Negotiating Feminism

(This month Cushwa welcomes recent Travel Grant recipient Jessie Potish Whitish. Jessie's current work combines policy and history; she has recently been part of a project examining fair and affordable housing in Louisville and was part of a research team that developed an exhibit about the 1954 Anne and Carl Braden sedition trial. Her research interests include oral history, women religious, local social movement history, and religion and feminism. Contact Jessie at jessie.potish@gmail.com or on Twitter as @jessiewhitish.)

Jessie Potish Whitish

Lucy Freibert, SCN, as an initiate

In the first year of my master’s program, I learned that one of the founders of our department—Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville—was a Catholic sister. I attended the University of Notre Dame, with Sr. Madeleva Wolff's St. Mary's College right next door, so I am no stranger to feminist nuns in higher education. But a nun teaching at a secular, urban university? That was thrilling to me.

And so began a series of oral histories with Sister Lucy Freibert, SCN. Freibert is a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, a regional congregation based near Bardstown, Kentucky. She entered the community in 1945, received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1970, and taught the first women’s studies course at the U of L in 1974. In many ways, Freibert’s timeline mirrors that of other sisters across the country in the post-Vatican II Church.

In the years during and after the Second Vatican Council, no group within the Church experienced more shifts in their individual lives and collective identities than women religious. The Church had charged sisters with leading transitions in parishes after World War II, and the Sister Formation Conference was already working to increase sisters’ educational attainment and professional development long before Vatican II. But it was only after Vatican II that women religious dramatically changed their dress, worship, living arrangements, community structures, and ministries. As people of God—usually in the form of teachers and community workers—sisters led their local parishes to embrace post-Vatican II reforms and ushered in a more catholic Catholic Church.

During the 1960s and 1970s, sisters faced an equally formidable transitional force: the women’s movement. As they did with post-Conciliar reforms, sisters largely embraced elements of women’s liberation—though not necessarily the label—into their individual lives and their ministries. By the early 1970s, the three largest organizations of women religious, including the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), all had agendas that prioritized women’s rights, and some sisters chose to call themselves feminists.

Lucy Freibert, SCN, as a professor at the University of Louisville
Freibert is one of those sisters; her faith and her feminism informed one another, and she took both into her classroom as a college professor at the University of Louisville. She advanced feminism and women’s studies at the university, was an active leader in the local feminist movement in Louisville, voiced her pro-choice stance publicly, and called on sisters to become leaders in the national women’s liberation movement.

Freibert was committed to her church and her congregation, but she lived and worked—by choice—in secular environments. She left her position at her community’s college to teach at the University of Louisville because the college felt she was too “radical.” In my interviews with Freibert and in interviews conducted decades earlier, she never questions this decision, or her decision to be publicly pro-choice, because she felt she was living both her faith and her feminism. The secular and the sacred were aligned, and she never wavered in either.

At the same time that Freibert was charging ahead in women’s studies and the local women’s movement, her Provincial, Sister Barbara Thomas, was leading women religious nationally as the President of the LCWR, beginning in 1975. When I visited the Notre Dame archives last spring, I found an oral history interview with Thomas, one of many conducted by Mary Daniel Turner and Lora Ann Quiñonez, themselves both leaders within the LCWR. In the interview, Thomas discusses the challenges of navigating the post-Conciliar Church as a sister. Despite it being an exciting time, she struggled with those transitions as an individual woman, as an SCN Provincial, and as President of the LCWR. The women’s movement was a concern for Thomas: “It was an issue out there, in society, and some among us feared getting hooked up with that feminist movement which was a bad worry.” At the same time, however, feminism was an opportunity for personal and ministerial growth because it connected to the social justice mission of congregations and the Church.

Both Thomas and Freibert negotiated their roles as women, sisters, teachers, and leaders—situated simultaneously within both the women’s movement and the rapidly changing post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Both women fostered feminist growth and both were key influencers within their networks; (Freibert’s primarily secular, and Thomas’s primarily among women religious). Freibert and Thomas each engaged with feminism, and for each the personal was truly political. Their personal lives as sisters and as people of God in the post-Conciliar Church fueled their political roles as a teacher and a national leader.

Thomas says that she and other sisters pushed the Church and their congregations forward by “moving as women with women.” This is a powerful statement, especially because the Catholic Church seems to be—and often is—a patriarchal institution. But sisters’ power lies in the margins. As Amy Koehlinger has explained, for example, sisters leveraged their identities on the margins of the Church, womanhood, and whiteness in the struggle for racial justice in the South. Freibert and Thomas both operated in similar margins. As a lay woman, Thomas was not an official part of the Church hierarchy; as a sister, Freibert was not seen as a sexual being or expected to conform to traditional female expectations of family and children. Both women confronted patriarchy within and outside the Church and did so by moving as women with women.

I argue that these margins are a “sweet spot” where religious studies and women’s & gender studies meet. It is within these margins of identity and institution and power that we can examine the deconstruction of gender, sexuality, and even race. Women’s & gender studies so often focuses on transgressions, and in sisters we find women in a kind of liminal space that allows them to transgress the boundaries of gender.

In my interviews with Freibert, I explored how she balanced her commitment to her feminism with her commitment to her faith, community, and Church. I will present this research and talk more about sister in the margins at the upcoming Nun in the World conference, which the Cushwa Center is hosting in London in May 2015. I see this conference -- and emerging historical work on women religious in general -- as a chance to understand how sisters have navigated the complex territories of modernity, negotiating between their multiple positions as women, as Catholic sisters, as workers and builders, and as inhabitants of an increasingly globalized world.


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