Whilst women have taken up leadership in Anglican and Protestant parts of the Body of Christ, the Roman Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Churches, has remained adamantly opposed. Yet this has hardly meant that all Catholic women have been quiet subordinates! In fact, Catholic women have played huge roles in the development of Christian feminism, in theory and in practice. Despite the obstacles, many Catholics have indeed always taken a lead and added distinctive contributions…
A major leap forward for Catholic feminism certainly took place when two young women, Mary Kendall and Gabrielle Jeffrey, met at a WSPU greeting of released suffragette prisoners at Holloway. Together with Beatrice Gadsby, they then founded the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS), which, symbolically, held its first meeting on 25 March 1911, on the Feast of the Annunciation. Joan of Arc, who acted as powerful inspiration in so of much the wider suffrage movement, was named as the inevitable patron. Much more distinctively however, unlike other church suffrage groups, CWSS leadership was reserved to women, though men were allowed associate membership. As such, as another pioneer, Leonora de Alberti, later commented, it:
exploded a belief then generally held, that Catholic women could not stand on their own feet.
The CWSS thus both represented another step in the gradual re-emergence of Roman Catholicism into full British society and also, more importantly, a clear rebuke to the idea that Roman Catholicism was inimical to women’s progress. Such an idea was very prevalent in continental Europe, where the Roman Catholic Church had for so long opposed modern ideas. For some it also seemed to be confirmed by the way that suffrage was advanced more quickly in more Protestant lands. Some anti-suffragists indeed argued that giving the vote to Catholic women would just advance the power of their priests. In fact, for some, the existence of a Catholic society for women’s suffrage was seen as a defensive move to limit damage to perceived Catholic ‘truth’ and social morality. Such ‘family selfish’ reasons were found among other religious Leagues but not at all to the same extent. However, the CWSS did not generally espouse ‘domestic feminism’ of the kind favoured by other groups such as the Catholic Women’s League. A closer parallel was the Catholic Social Guild, which (as in the landmark book Christian Feminism, edited by Margaret Fletcher and published in 1915) sought to distinguish between what it called ‘Revolutionary Feminism’ (founded on claims to freedom for the complete self-realisation of the individual) and what it saw as a more healthy ‘Christian Feminism’ (built on Christian principles and seeking for women a wider scope for the development and exercise of their powers).
The CWSS had reached 1 000 members in 1914 (according to the Free Church Suffrage Times in February 1914) though it always struggled with money. It played an active part in suffrage activity and in the movement against the White Slave Trade. It also made some small headway within the Church itself despite resistance for many quarters, including the refusal of Masses for the intention of the Society on some occasions (as at Westminster Cathedral in 1915). Officially it also took a much stronger line against militancy than other religious suffragist bodies. Militant supporters were allowed to be members (and prominent examples were Alice Abadam, M.A.R.Tuker, Joseph Clayton and Francis Meynell) but they were not allowed even to wear CWSS badges at militant rallies. The CWSS also declined to take part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral on similar grounds (CWSS Minutes 13.6.13). Such a viewpoint was rather strange, a Roman Catholic correspondent in an article ‘Should Catholics be Militant?’ in the Suffragette in early 1913:
We should have thought that a Church which has suffered so much persecution and misrepresentation would have learned to hesitate before judging others, especially seeing their whole history (notably in labour struggles and Ireland) is one of militancy. Indeed we have even felt surprise that the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society should have so definitely declared itself non-militant, considering the name of their patron, for presumably Roman Catholics do not believe that Joan of Arc was inspired by heaven to do acts inherently wicked.
As with all first-wave Christian feminism therefore, Catholic feminism of this era had many mixed features. Yet, in one sense it has proved more durable. In addition to offering a model of female-led Christian feminism, the CWSS also later continued into the modern era in the form of the St. Joan’s International Alliance. This organisation has played a major role in both seeking general human rights and developing the movement for the ordination of women. Working internationally, with special consultative status at the United Nations since 1971, its mission has been ‘to secure political, social and economic equality between men and women and to further the work and usefulness of Catholic women as citizens.’
God of all nations,
we give thanks for the founders of the Catholic League for Women’s Suffrage,
for the members of the St Joan’s International Alliance,
and for all who work and have worked for the advancement of women
through the Roman Catholic Church.
Bless we pray all who pray and strive for human rights and justice for women,
and strengthen the hearts and hands of all who are oppressed.
In the name of Jesus, child of the one who cried Magnificat, Amen.