Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement

Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement

Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement

Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement


In 1963, as Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique appeared and civil rights activists marched on Washington, a separate but related social movement emerged among American Catholics, says Mary Henold. Thousands of Catholic feminists, both lay women and women religious, marched, strategized, theologized, and prayed together, building sisterhood and confronting sexism in the Roman Catholic Church. In the first history of American Catholic feminism, Henold explores the movement from the 1960s through the early 1980s, showing that although Catholic feminists had much in common with their sisters in the larger American feminist movement, Catholic feminism was distinct and had not been simply imported from outside.

Catholic feminism grew from within the church, rooted in women's own experiences of Catholicism and religious practice, Henold argues. She identifies the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), an inspiring but overtly sexist event that enraged and exhilarated Catholic women in equal measure, as a catalyst of the movement within the church. Catholic feminists regularly explained their feminism in terms of their commitment to a gospel mandate for social justice, liberation, and radical equality. They considered feminism to be a Christian principle.

Yet as Catholic feminists confronted sexism in the church and the world, Henold explains, they struggled to integrate the two parts of their self-definition. Both Catholic culture and feminist culture indicated that such a conjunction was unlikely, if not impossible. Henold demonstrates that efforts to reconcile faith and feminism reveal both the complex nature of feminist consciousness and the creative potential of religious feminism.


We affirm Jesus and His Gospel as our life focus and that being said, the
[National Coalition of American Nuns] puts society on notice that women
refuse to accept any longer the straw for bricks that we are forced to make.

— National Coalition of American Nuns

The National Coalition of American Nuns (NCAN) was not known for mincing words. in 1972, this organization of 1,800 women religious, probably the most radical collection of Roman Catholic sisters ever put on a mailing list, released its “Declaration of Independence for Women,” demanding “full and equal participation of women in churches,” establishment of new democratic church structures, abolition of the College of Cardinals, “reformation of the present economic and power systems,” and “complete equality for women.” They were so dedicated (and optimistic) that they felt sure they could make substantial progress on these goals by the time of the nation’s bicentennial four years later.

As is clear from the opening salvo of their declaration, the sisters of ncan were self-identified Catholic feminists, that is, women with a dual, integrated commitment to their Catholic faith and to the struggle for women’s liberation. and they were not alone. They were joined in the movement by Mary B. Lynch, a laywoman so devoted to the cause that over the course of eight years she moved six times to six different states to help the movement grow, each time with no viable source of income. the movement also included Elizabeth Farians, a theologian and activist who founded the National Organization for Women’s Task Force on Women and Religion and led it as a Catholic feminist for five years. Ada María Isasi-Díaz, once a . . .

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