New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era

New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era

New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era

New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era


American Catholic women rarely surface as protagonists in histories of the United States. Offering a new perspective, Kathleen Sprows Cummings places Catholic women at the forefront of two defining developments of the Progressive Era: the emergence of the "New Woman" and Catholics' struggle to define their place in American culture.

Cummings highlights four women: Chicago-based journalist Margaret Buchanan Sullivan; Sister Julia McGroarty, SND, founder of Trinity College in Washington, D.C., one of the first Catholic women's colleges; Philadelphia educator Sister Assisium McEvoy, SSJ; and Katherine Eleanor Conway, a Boston editor, public figure, and antisuffragist. Cummings uses each woman's story to explore how debates over Catholic identity were intertwined with the renegotiation of American gender roles. By examining female power within Catholic religious communities and organizations, she challenges the widespread assumption that women who were faithful members of a patriarchal church were incapable of pathbreaking work on behalf of women.

Cummings emphasizes, though, that her subjects understood themselves to be far more marginalized as Catholics than they were as women. Whatever opportunities arose for American women in the early twentieth century, these Catholics pursued them not as "New Women" but as daughters of the "Old Faith." Cummings's analysis makes a strong argument for the need to devote more attention to religious identity as a factor in interpreting women's lives.


In 1897, Right Reverend Patrick Ludden, the bishop of Syracuse, New York, shared his thoughts on the study of the past. “Too often,” he observed, “it is his story, not history.” At the time, the bishop was exhorting historians to maintain absolute objectivity, to refuse to allow their “ontological training, religious prejudices, social environment or political predilections” to influence their interpretation of past lives and events. This advice may appear quaintly naïve in a postmodern age. But the admonition of this nineteenthcentury prelate still rings true in another context: historians of U.S. Catholicism continue to write “his” story, overlooking women as historical actors.

Certainly progress has been made in this regard over the past four decades. Until the 1960s, the ecclesial focus of the field had obviously reduced the number of potential female subjects. Since then, reinterpretations of the church as the “people of God” after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the influence of the “new social history” have prompted many historians to turn their attention to the women in the pews. The past decade has been particularly fruitful in this regard. Suellen Hoy, Carol Coburn and Martha Smith, and Diane Batts Morrow are among those scholars who have published excellent studies of Catholic women religious, while books written by Deirdre Moloney, Deborah Skok, and Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown have illuminated the social activism of Catholic laywomen. Another valuable publication has been Gender Identities in American Catholicism, a primary source collection edited by Paula Kane, James Kenneally, and Karen Kennelly. All three editors had already made excellent individual contributions to the field; Kenneally and Kennelly published fine historical surveys of American Catholic women, and Kane’s study of Boston Catholicism incorporated her pathbreaking research on women and gender.

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