April
12th 2009
Feminism, Catholicism, and American Catholic women’s history

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

franceslocumdaughters
Frances Slocum, a Catholic Miami adopteee, observed in 1837; executed ca. 1863-71 by George Winter. Tippecanoe County Historical Association (www.tcha.mus.in.us/winter.htm)

Kathleen Sprows Cummings has an interesting post at Religion in American History on “Notre Dame’s Laetare Medalist and Catholic Women’s Identity.”  She notes that “[i]n 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.”  Cummings writes that it’s good to see a woman honored–in recent years, the winners have been overwhelmingly men, in contrast to “the medal’s early years, when women were honored much more routinely.”

She goes on to discuss the central point of the post, which is that American Catholic women have frequently been much more likely to identify Catholicism rather than their sex as the reason for any marginalization or discrimination against them.  Moreover, many in the women’s suffrage movement made specific appeals to anti-Catholic bias, so Catholic women didn’t see mainstream feminism as a movement they could identify with:  “the suffrage movement, whose core members were white, middle-class, Protestants, replicated the religious biases of the larger culture in many respects.”  Cummings goes on to note that 

[a]cknowledging 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.

Cummings’ comments resonate because of my experience teaching at two different Catholic universities (although I am not myself Catholic).  At the first one, I was taken out to lunch by the senior woman in the department, a soon-to-retire British historian who was probably hired in the early 1960s.  I asked her what it was like to be a woman on the faculty back then, assuming that she’d share with me horror stories about sexism in her career.  She blinked at me, cocked her head like she didn’t quite understand, and said, “Oh, my being a woman wasn’t an issue.  I thought it was more difficult being a Catholic in academia than being a woman academic.”  At the second Catholic university that hired me, a feminist friend of mine on the faculty used to say that “anti-Catholicism is the last respectable prejudice in academia.”  A number of students I taught there were reluctant to call themselves feminists because they thought that meant being pro-choice, when they thought of themselves as pro-life.  They were  relieved to learn about Feminists for Life–an organization that their priests and church youth groups hadn’t told them about either.

Protestant bias runs deeply and obviously through American history, and I think unfortunately through most of the historiography, too.  It seems to me that what we know of as ”Catholic history” is dominated still by immigration history and urban history, as though Catholics only arrived in significant numbers after the Civil War.  This of course ignores the tremendous successes of Catholicism in North America up to 1800, if we take a continental perspective that includes French and Spanish colonialism and Native American history rather than a narrowly Anglocentric view of American history.  Even if we exclude the regions of North America that are outside of U.S. national borders after 1848, there are a heck of a lot of Catholics in places like the upper midwest, the southwest, and California.  How much of this exclusion is because Catholicism was historically portrayed as a browned and feminized (and therefore a degraded) faith by a triumphalist historiography written for the most part by Anlgo-American Protestant men?  I’d say most of it–and that the intertwining of women’s history and Catholic history may have something to tell us about the marginalization of both sub-fields in the American historical profession and in the dominant “master narratives” of American history.

But, I’m just a neophyte as a historian of Catholicism.  What do you think?

34 Comments »

34 Responses to “Feminism, Catholicism, and American Catholic women’s history”

  1. Lilian Nattel on 12 Apr 2009 at 11:04 am #

    I think that wherever, whenever there has been discrimination, that identity looms large. It’s easy to forget now how much prejudice there was against Catholics, but as recently as the 1960′s, it was an issue in Kennedy’s campaign for president. On the other hand, as a Jewish woman, I am quite aware how much assumptions about secularism (=Protestantism) permeates our culture. Rhetoric about the “darkening” of Canada and the U.S. between 1880 and 1920 was about immigration from the Mediterranean and from Russia: Italians, Jews, Slavs. Today all those populations would be considered “white”. I have to say though that my experience as a woman doesn’t take second place to my experience as someone who is Jewish: they’re intertwined.

  2. Knitting Clio on 12 Apr 2009 at 11:08 am #

    I’d be interested to know where these universities were located. Although I’m at a state university, a large percentage of the faculty and students here are Catholic. This means the university is closed on Good Friday, and I have the challenge of explaining protestantism to my mostly Catholic students.

    As to your larger question about Catholic history — weren’t the Irish the largest Catholic immigrant group prior to the Civil War? If so, wasn’t anti-Catholicism an extension of anti-Irish prejudice?

  3. Brian Ulrich on 12 Apr 2009 at 11:16 am #

    I can’t comment on Catholicism, but you should take a look at how badly the feminist movement crashes and burns on encountering Islam.

  4. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 11:24 am #

    KC–there’s a long and rich history of English and Anglo-American anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish prejudice going back to the 16th Century. Most 18th C Anglo-American anti-Catholicism fixated on the French, but the Irish came in for plenty of prejudice and invective. (BTW, I taught at the Catholic University of America and the University of Dayton. I think New England is unusual in that it was historically a seat of violent anti-Catholic prejudice that in the 19th and 20th centuries became a center of American Catholicism, via Irish and Portuguese immigrants, and eventually Italian immigrants too.)

    Lilian–Kennedy was our “first” Catholic president, but of course he remains our *only* Catholic president, which calls into question whether or not that barrier was really shattered. I think the thing for Catholic women today is that they frequently feel like they must choose either feminism or Catholicism, mostly I think because of abortion politics. (For example: today I read that the Holy See has apparently informed the Obama administration that Caroline Kennedy would not be an acceptable ambassador to Vatican City because she is pro-choice.)

  5. squadratomagico on 12 Apr 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Different confessional stances certainly influenced the much classic medievalist historiography, with implications that still stand for popular understandings of the period. The very name for the period — “Middle Ages” — derives from a Protestant polemical device to dismiss the “1500 years of stagnation” between the glories of the Apostolic Church, and the rediscovery in the “authentic Christian tradition” in the Reformation. (The secular Protestant version would insert Rome / Renaissance into the above bracketing periods). Likewise, the continuing popular image of the period as an “Age of Ignorance and Superstition” is drawn straight from early Protestant rhetoric about the Catholicism — particularly in critiques of the Catholic mass & veneration of saints / images.

    On the other hand, the Catholic historiographical counterpart to this — the “Age of Faith and Consensus” image (best represented by a rather well-known article by Notre Dame historian J. Van Engen, “The Catholic Middle Ages as Historiographical Problem,” AHR 1986) — is equally as problematic, in my view.

  6. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    Thanks, Sq., for the mini-seminar in medieval historiography! I was wondering about the medieval period myself.

    The traditional periodization of history into ancient/medieval/early modern/modern is really problematic, isn’t it? But, how can we escape it? (I think the phrase “early modern” is particularly problematic in its teleology and self-congratulatory mood. What’s so great about “the modern,” anyway?) But the alternatives are equally distorting: Renaissance/Reformation/Enlightenment, or the “Age of Global Expansion.” The virtue of “early modern” by comparison is that it is secular and not quite as Eurocentric as the alternatives.

  7. mary on 12 Apr 2009 at 12:59 pm #

    Might it also be the case that Catholic historians in the U.S. are simply drawn to other fields based on their faith?

    You suggest in your post that somen American Catholic women consider their Catholic identity to be more important than their female identity.

    It seems that American Catholic women might be less inclined to study (and thus complicate) a field in which they don’t identifiy. Rome is still the metropole for Church history, so Catholic historians might not think to write histories about Native women who converted to Catholicism during the era of the fur trade or Spanish women living in the American southwest.

  8. Indyanna on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    This pretty much resonates with most of what I learned about virtually *all* American reform movements in the long turn from the 19th into the 20th centuries– that they were embedded in and shaped by post-Calvinist Protestant social and cultural ideologies. That did not make, say, progressive era wage-and-hour or child labor laws or other reforms unwelcome or unhelpful to to, say, my Irish ancestors who came over after 1851 and worked in the wire mills and like places. But the point is well taken. I went to a Methodist-themed and heritaged SLAC, and my prof. and advisor on Progressive America (who I still remember fondly, maybe even more fondly as his pedagogic idiosyncracies melt into my own) would occasionally break into a Camp Meeting hymn to drive home a particular interpretive point. As for feminism, this was pretty early on, and what we got on the syllabus was Eleanor Flexner’s _Century of Struggle_. Which was not that old at the time and pretty good.

    Here at Extractive State U., the campus is deserted this weekend, and Monday looms as a sort of vrai St. Monday. This somewhat reflects a culture of long weekends anyway, but it seems pretty noticeable.

  9. Sisyphus on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    Huh, how weird — I barely had any clue there _was_ any anti-Catholic prejudice in this country, and that’s growing up Catholic. How much is this regional, I wonder? I grew up learning about the Pueblo rebellions and having the Eagle Dancers come perform ceremonies mingled with elements of the Mass at my public elementary school in NM at Easter, and of course once I got to CA we spent so much time studying the Missions and Spanish/American history that I half assumed we all *were* Catholics out here.

    I certainly haven’t experienced any anti-Catholic prejudice in the academy, but I left the church a long time ago, so that’s hardly surprising. However, the grad students in literature I have known have so overwhelmingly been raised Catholic or Jewish that I think there’s something about those religious upbringings that leads us to textuality and literary interpretation (like when the religious studies grad student who was TAing the early Christianity class mentioned that they weren’t reading any of the bible (this baffled me; how can you learn about it without going to the source text?) and he mentioned that rel. st is overwhelmingly populated with Protestant, lefty-leaning, hippie profs (and basically they all interpret Jesus as being the same way, man.)

    This is getting long and rambly, but to add one more facet of data: here at my extremely secular public UC, none of the students in my class knew that Easter was coming up and they had a question about our reading which had me explaining who Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were from the Gospels. I believe the last survey they did of UC’s student population had the largest percentage of students not having been raised any religion, followed by students who identify as Christian but have not been in a church or affiliated with one in years.

  10. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    Mary–your comment elides historians of American Catholicism and Catholic people, I think (at least as I read it). I would say that it’s not just up to Catholics to write Catholic history, or to be aware of rabidly pro-Protestant bias. I don’t understand your point about American Catholic women and who they identify with–can you please explain a bit more? (I identify with exactly zero individuals or classes of people I study, although a sympathetic imagination is important for trying to understand the world the way my subjects understood it.)

    Indyanna–happy Feast of St. Monday! At least you won’t have the drive Tuesday morning…

  11. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Sisyphus–I would say that your NM upbringing and large public CA uni are not the modal experiences of most Americans vis-a-vis religious culture (or lack thereof). I’m coming to see that religious culture is in part regional, but I’m also thinking that there are probably thousands of religious microclimates within these regions. (That said, the fact that New Mexico was heavily Catholic is completely unsurprising to me–it probably beats New England and the rest of the Northeast hands-down, except for maybe Rhode Island.)

    After having taught at two Catholic universities, I moved out to Colorado where (it seems) only Latinos are Catholic, and the vast majority of whites belong to evangelical megachurches and have little if any sense of Christian history or theology whatsoever. Also, after having grown up in a town where the schools were deserted on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, it’s very strange to know personally more Mormans than Jews. But, this is pretty typical in the West.

    Your story about your uber-secular students reminds me of when I was a graduate T.A. at Penn. The students were assigned to read some sermons from the Great Awakening, and they were concerned that their constitutional rights were being violated. (First of all, this is a history class not a camp meeting, and secondly, even if it were a camp meeting this isn’t a state school.) Seriously. I swear, there is a minority of secular students who think it’s a federal case if they have to read a document with the name Jesus in it, which leaves out a heck of a lot of historical documents before 1900 or so.

  12. Susan on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    As a historian of early modern England, it’s almost impossible *not* to have a Protestant narrative, though there have been recent attempts to redress the balance. I don’t think those efforts are altogether successful, but they have provided useful reminders of how “Protestant” the narrative can be. I think that the reason that Protestantism guides the narrative is that so many historians think all religion is superstition, but that Protestants are less supertitious than Catholics.

    As someone who is an active Episcopalian, I actually think the dominant prejudice among faculty now is anti-religious. But insofar as there is more intense anti-Catholic prejudice, I think it comes from the idea that Catholics just parrot what the Pope tells them: clearly they haven’t spent much time with cradle Catholics! (Curiously, given the history of anti-semitism, there is less surprise at practicing Jews in the academy than at practicing Christians — I think because people connect Jewish life with ethnic identity, which is OK.)

    Like KC, I have to explain religion to my students a lot. When I teach the middle ages, I remind my students that there is an Eastern Church and a Western Church; I try not to use the term “Catholic” until after the Reformation, to make it clear that both what we know as the Catholic church as Protestantism were created in relation to each other. But I still get questions like “Are Protestants Christians” or “Are Catholics Christians”.

  13. Lurker on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:57 pm #

    Kennedy may have been our only Catholic president, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kerry came close to the presidency, Biden is Catholic, as is Pelosi, not to mention 5 of 9 Supreme Court justices. Meanwhile, converting to Catholicism has become fashionable among conservatives: Clarence Thomas, Robert Novak, Bobby Jindal, to name a few. (It is fascinating that an immigrant seeking to assimilate would choose Catholicism.) The real story in recent years, in both American life and politics, is the decline of Mainline sects, in particular Presbyterians and Episcopalians.

  14. mary on 12 Apr 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    Sorry, historiann. I am trying to finish a research paper and I wanted to keep my post short. I should have explained it more.

    Obviously, I agree that its not just up to Catholics to recognize an anti-Catholic bias. And I don’t mean to suggest that Catholics are only interested in writing about the Catholic Church.

    I was suggesting that perhaps American Catholics personally identify with two different histories: American history and the history of the Catholic Church. I was also suggesting that they may not necessarily view these two histories as intrinsically linked. There is no Catholic “shining city on a hill” in popular American mythology.

    So basically, I was asking if American historians of the Catholic Church (many of whom are Catholic) tend to ignore the history of American Catholicism in favor writing about Rome. My comment was not intended to suggest that American women historians who happen to be American and Catholic are necessarily prone to ignore Catholic women (although I think it reads that way), but suggest that maybe American historians of the Catholic Church not being interested in writing about American Catholicism on the frontier because their metropole is based in Rome. Does that make more sense?

  15. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    Mary–thanks for the explanation. I understand now. Interesting point about American Catholicism perhaps not being the center of attention for confessionally Catholic historians–I wonder what our medievalists’ friends guesses would be about the religious backgrounds of most medieval historians today? (The ones I know are I think Protestant and Jewish–but I don’t know the religious backgrounds of most historians, so this is just a guess, as well as a very small sample.)

    Lurker–good point on the prevalence of Catholics in government (albeit not the Presidency.) I think it’s especially interesting to consider the makeup of the Supreme Court, which could become even more Catholic since it’s not the Catholic justices who are likely closest to retirement. I still think it’s important to note that Kennedy remains singular as a Catholic President–especially in this moment in our history when so much is made of Obama’s “first” status, a “first” doesn’t necessarily mean that a barrier has been broken forever. Everyone thought that Kennedy would be the first among many Catholic presidents–but it will be at least 50 years before we see another Catholic elected President. (This is likely due to a variety of factors, perhaps foremost among them is the shift of political power from the Northeast to the South and West, where Catholics are a smaller part of the population.

  16. Historiann on 12 Apr 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    And Susan–Happy Easter! I would tend to agree with you that on the faculties I’ve served on, if there is any religious bias it’s generically anti-religion in general (with the caveat you specify if a religion is seen as linked to ethnicity.) That said, I work with and have always worked with a number of devout religious people–Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. But because I am not a believer, it’s quite possible that I’m oblivious to insults that are heard and felt more acutely by my observant colleagues.

    The only incident I think was troubling was one faculty colleague of mine who made a disparaging comment about the church-sponsored community activities that were mentioned in letters recommending students for scholarships and fellowships. I was the author of several of those letters, and those scholarships specifically asked for proof of “community involvement” or something like that–so what if it’s through a church? It was troubling to hear that these activities might have been held against worthy students.

  17. K.N. on 12 Apr 2009 at 4:24 pm #

    There are so many intriguing issues here, but to take up one–the issue of anti-Catholicism being the last acceptable prejudice in academe. To the extent that this is true, I think it stems from the fact that we can’t talk honestly and openly about the role of personal belief in the execution of one’s professional responsibilities. At the end of a recent campus interview, the committee chair, taking me to the airport, said, “I have something that I’d like to ask, but I’m told I can’t ask it.” I knew exactly what he meant: all of my degrees are from Catholic colleges/universities, I currently teach at a Catholic university, and I am a practicing Catholic. I cut to the chase by telling him that I’m not on some kind of crusade, nor am I the product of a grand indoctrination scheme. (It helped when I told him that professed Catholics were in the minority among the faculty of my graduate program.) I said that, when it comes to my work, I’m a historian who happens to be Catholic.

    I wasn’t offended or upset at his inquiry. Reflecting on it later, I realized that I would actually prefer the question be asked and answered more openly. I realize that committees probably can’t do this for legal reasons, but I think that much of the misunderstanding/presumptions stem from the fact that, as the chair indicated, we’re not permitted to ask. Perhaps on some issues such a prohibition in reasonable. But I don’t think it is altogether inappropriate for a search committee to try to find out if a candidate might use the professorship for evangelical ends. Perhaps I’ve known enough profs who have been/done just that–who are, in other words, Catholics who happen to be historians.

  18. Janice on 12 Apr 2009 at 7:37 pm #

    Hey there, Historiann! Neat to see an image from my home county museum (at which my mom used to work) illustrating your topic. Like some of the others, I come to the history of Catholicism from a different perspective — at least two differing experiences.

    I built my early career in the history of early Reformation religious and political thought. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of my time knee-deep in doctrinal disputes and the weighty pamphlets discussing the same. Out of that, I also teach a lot on the subject, covering British and continental Reformation history on a yearly basis. When we deal with the seventeenth century in England, for example, students confront the steep rise in anti-Catholic sentiment and legislation. They also quickly cotton on to the ways in which Catholicism is gendered and racialized (feminine and foreign) in the English Protestant polemics of the day.

    It bemuses many students to learn about the religious discrimination and conflict that occurred within Christianity, right up into the modern era and into the Americas. That’s heartening because they’re not bringing the old sorts of religious feuds to the table but worrisome in that they’re missing entire chunks of their history when they only learn about the secular trends.

    What’s made me more aware, these days, of the importance of confessional history comes out of my recent foray into 19th c. American and Canadian disputes over the Norse discovery of North America — like almost everything I’ve studied, the element of religious bigotry was immediately apparent as WASP proponents promote the Norse discovery as a useful counterpoint to the Catholic Columbus.

    This confessional element surprised me at first (I’d gone into the story expecting to see mostly racial and national elements behind the promotion of the Norse discovery). The anti-Catholicism of some of the American sources, in particular, speaks to a pretty disturbing subtext of the time which definitely isn’t getting enough press in the secondary literature I’ve worked through to date.

  19. mlm on 12 Apr 2009 at 7:40 pm #

    It’s been interesting to read through the comments, as I am just starting to work on a dissertation topic dealing with gender and American Catholicism in the nineteenth century. Absolutely — the teaching and scholarship around U.S. women’s history still has an under-interrogated Protestant bias; yet in wanting to explore topics around Catholic manhood and womanhood, I feel as though I have had to justify my topic much more than when I was working on Protestant women’s movements.

    And don’t get me started on how when I studied Protestants, no one asked me about my religious affiliation; now folks just immediately assume that I am a practicing Catholic (which I am not). This happens within the field, as well — the Catholic history conferences with a mass scheduled at the end, etc.

    So after much hesitation, I’ve decided to forge ahead mucking around in two marginalized subfields because of a simple revelation when I taught a survey course on Catholicism in U.S. History, 1492-present: with apologies to Ann Braude, Catholic History IS American Religious History! So I’m sitting around, reading and writing, and hoping that by the time I’m done there will be even more historians who agree.

  20. John F. on 12 Apr 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    Great discussion. I highly recommend Kathy’s book: *New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era* (North Carolina, 2009).

  21. DV on 12 Apr 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    German Americans also numbered significantly among the pre-Civil War Catholics that motivated the rise of the Know Nothing party. I remember reading a great book by Tyler Anbinder about this in a grad seminar years ago. I also recall posing the question in class that post-civil war anti-Catholicism was even more virulent. The professor shot down that suggestion, saying that anti-Catholicism pretty much died with the Know Nothings. As a young grad student, I didn’t muster the will to contradict him and come back with an example like Pierce v Society of Sisters – from 1925! (This is the same prof who claimed that the resurgence of confederate flag waving in the 1960s was about state’s rights not racism.) Interestingly, I later found out that in addition to being a southerner (and a 19th century historian), he is also fundamentalist.

    I want offer a point beyond my anecdote. In addition to regional differences, the history of Catholicism must surely be a factor in the different experiences of historians over the past few decades. I have the sense that this religion was part of radical social reform related to issues of class and race (I’m thinking of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker and some California organization that helped overturn the state’s miscegenation law) as well as the liberalizing efforts that culminated in Vatican II (and roughly coincided with the election of our first Catholic, Democrat president). The ascendancy of the culture wars – or one issue in particular – seemed to provoke retrenchment where, for example, Pelosi (and Biden too?) has critics who call for her excommunication over her political stand on abortion. Following this trajectory from the ’60s to the present, women and men in academia would have less (rather than more) reason to identify with this faith.

  22. Bunnies in Blood : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 13 Apr 2009 at 6:58 am #

    [...] a more serious note, we’ve got a great discussion going about “Catholicism, feminism, and American Catholic women’s history” in the post below–thanks so much for your thoughtful and wide-ranging commentary on [...]

  23. Historiann on 13 Apr 2009 at 7:19 am #

    K.N.’s and mlm’s comments point to the notion that Catholicism remains a “marked” category, whereas Protestantism is not. I wonder what others would think of K.N.’s plea for more openness in talking about religion on job interviews? Personally, I find it strange that anyone would find K.N.’s affiliation with Catholic universities remarkable. (Maybe that’s because I’ve been employed by two of them, although I’m not a Catholic, and have never been asked about my personal faith in job interviews. It has never occured to me that I might have been the victim of anti-Catholic bias in the jobs I was never offered, but I suppose it’s a possibility!)

    Janice–your work on the Norse legend sounds fascinating. I too was innocent of the anti-Catholic implications of the old Vineland stories! There’s a big statue of Leif Erickson on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia just beyond the last boathouse on Boathouse Row as you’re walking/jogging/bicycling away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I really wonder now who sponsored its creation (in the late 19th or early 20th C, IIRC), as it anchors a whole series of statues that represent different periods and themes in American history. (Anyone out there know or care to take a walk to inform us later today?)

    DV’s comments are interesting, although I would say that what’s different about Catholicism (as opposed to evangelical Protestantism, which has been aligned overwhelmingly with the right wing of American politics) is that it is involved with movements on the right, left, and across the political spectrum (from Dorothy Day to Opus Dei, as it were.) Some of the most committed leftists I have known were Catholic academics at my former place of employment, who were very clear about how their faith undergirded their political commitments, but then again on the other hand, part of the migration from left to right of the Genoveses was their conversion to Catholicism. Many would say that that’s a strength of the Church–that it can be a faith home to people across the ideological spectrum. The current Pope is of course clearly aligned with the right–it will be interesting to see where the church goes with the next Pope or Popes. (Will we see a return to embracing Vatican II, or will Benedict’s retrenchment continue?)

  24. Historiann on 13 Apr 2009 at 7:25 am #

    Oh, and p.s. to mlm: good for you for your diss. topic. I think it’s always a good thing to do something that’s new, different, and doesn’t quite “fit” with the field/s you work in as you found them. That’s how we keep moving the ball down the field, friends!

  25. susurro on 13 Apr 2009 at 8:52 am #

    I don’t do Catholic History, but as a Catholic I would say my team in New England was profoundly anti-Catholic including a student group event as an undergrad where the “Christian Youth Group” trotted out a video called “Catholics and Satan.” I have experienced no similar level of disdain on the West Coast (which tends to just be anti-christian in general – just left a diversity training 2 weeks ago where the speech about respecting everyone and organizing in a way that asks “who is left out” “who have I forgotten” was followed by a joke about Jesus that turned into a full on bash fest) or the Southwest which tends to be Catholic majority. The Southeast just assumes you are Protestant, especially if you are poc.

    My experience however is solely mine and I worry about generating outward about how “Catholic women” feel or identify. There are Vatican I Catholics and Vatican IIs. There are radical Catholics and mujeristas and liberation theologists. Most of my Catholic friends are feminists and many of them teach WS or ES but they don’t identify their faith in mixed settings. Feminism can feel unsafe, and therefore unrelated, to women who cannot separate the misguided mocking of an entire faith community from the legitimate critique of patriarchal power in church doctrine or the exercise of discrimination through the guise of the church.

  26. Owen on 13 Apr 2009 at 9:17 am #

    I’m a little late here, but I can’t resist responding to this very interesting discussion. I’m a faculty member at one Catholic institution, about to decamp to another, and I also study anti-Catholicism in American history. So quite naturally, I welcome and applaud all of the new work (and there is a lot of it) illuminating both the central role of Protestantism in American culture and the corresponding history of Catholics and Catholicism.

    At the same time, I am leery of the talk of anti-Catholicism as “the last acceptable prejudice,” for two reasons. First off, as others have noted, the playing field has changed over the past few decades. JFK almost couldn’t be elected because he was too Catholic; John Kerry arguably lost because he wasn’t Catholic enough. There are plenty of religious rifts in the modern US: between evangelicals and non-evangelicals; Christians and non-Christians; church-goers and those who are not observant. But the older Catholic-Protestant divisions are, if not completely gone, less meaningful than before, with the alliance of evangelicals and Catholics against abortion the most telling example. More importantly, I’m bothered that the Church, and those who champion its current positions, use charges of “anti-Catholicism” to silence debate. In short, they claim that anyone who questions church teachings does so not because they disagree with them, but because they are prejudiced against Catholics. This seems to me to be a distortion of history; an attempt to use improper historical analogies to tar modern critics of the church as old-school nativist bigots.

  27. Susan on 13 Apr 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Historiann, when I spoke of anti-religious attitudes, it’s more of the “no one intelligent believes in any of that Christian stuff” than any thing more direct and hostile.

  28. Post Easter discussion on American Women’s Catholic History « Knitting Clio on 13 Apr 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    [...] a blog post of my own right now, I’ll refer KC readers to a fascinating discussion over at Historiann.   I commented on the issue of anti-Catholicism in the academy.  Having spent most of my life in [...]

  29. Historiann on 13 Apr 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    On a related note: Amtrak sells rosaries in their train station gift shops. Is this national policy, or a regional thing I wonder? (I never saw this in 10+ years of Amtrak travel along the Eastern Corridor, but then again, I’m not sure that I was looking all that hard for a rosary.)

    Rosaries are an appealingly low-tech way to keep oneself occupied on a train. Is this what we did before mobile phones and BlackBerries?

  30. Clio Bluestocking on 14 Apr 2009 at 8:02 am #

    It might have something to do with being in a city with that Irish and Portuguese heritage. Also, it was among Easter items and the other color was a bilious Kelly green, so that may have had something to do with their availability.

  31. Historiann on 14 Apr 2009 at 8:08 am #

    A-ha! A seasonal item for Lent/St. Patrick’s Day/Easter. That makes sense.

  32. Flavia on 14 Apr 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    I’m coming to this very late, but it’s a great discussion and one I’m interested in for several reasons. I agree with Susan that there’s an anti-religious tendency in the academy, sometimes especially among scholars who work on religious subjects–I think there’s a real desire on the part of some of those whose work deals with religious topics (I study English Renaissance literature, where there’s now a ton of work on devotional & theological overtones, influences, etc.) to assert that THEY aren’t motivated by confessional special pleading! Even if SOME scholars ARE (and that’s another problem: scholars who think that their confessional background gives them priviledged access to the subject).

    But in my experience, the same ethnic/cultural “pass” that many practicing Jews get from secular academics is often extended to Catholics. I’ve often been reassured that my being Catholic–even a practicing Catholic–isn’t the same as being religious in, you know, the bad way. Lots of secular academics (at least in literary studies) also seem to groove on the aesthetics, ritual, and historical/intellectual tradition that they associate with both Judaism and Catholicism–but that they don’t always permit to Protestantism.

  33. Historiann on 15 Apr 2009 at 8:28 am #

    Flavia–it’s good to hear that you don’t think you’ve been subjected to anti-Cath olic bias in academia, but I agree with you that the equation that some may make that protestantism = religious fanaticism is troubling.

    Presumably, they wouldn’t say that about practicing Episcopalians or Methodists (at least, sufficiently High Church Methodists) or Congregationalists, which suggests to me that the anti-evangelical bias may be about no small amount of class prejudice.

  34. a native daughter on 20 Jul 2009 at 1:47 pm #

    I find it interesting that you used Frances Slocum’s photo with your article. I am actually a directly descended grandaughter of Maconaquah as she is known in my family. I am also a Catholic, although not from my native side. As a feminist her story goes much deeper than that she was both a Miami and a Catholic. She was actually born a Quaker, but was stolen from her family at age 5 by Delaware Indians. She was then raised in the traditional Miami tribal beliefs which she followed until her death. However, due to strong French Canadian influence she and her family did eventually blend Catholic beliefs with their Native ones. Incidently, the fundamentals of each are very similar at their cores.

    She is largely credited with finding a way to outsmart the US government which at the time which outlawed the purchase of land by any native. Instead she came out of hiding and bought the land, as a white woman, and allowed her tribe to live on it in order to escape a forced removal to western lands. She is still honored today by the Maimi Indians of the State of Indiana as a primary reason our tribe still lives on our ancestral lands rather than a western reservation.

    She is not only an example of a American Indian Catholic, but also one of the first true feminists of this county.

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