"The Status of Women": Two American Catholic Women at the Un, 1947-1972

By Rossi, Joseph S. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2007 | Go to article overview

"The Status of Women": Two American Catholic Women at the Un, 1947-1972


Rossi, Joseph S., The Catholic Historical Review


From the late 1940's until the American bishops closed their United Nations Office in 1972, Catherine Schaefer and Alba Zizzamia, two American lay women, served as both National Catholic Welfare Conference UN Observers and Catholic Non-Governmental Organization representatives for the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations. This article discusses their creation and leadership of a circle of Catholic NGOs at the UN, many of them women, that developed strategies for promoting Roman Catholic teachings on issues of concern for women, and delves into their successes and failures in matters such as the family, marriage and divorce, child and adult education, prostitution, equal pay, birth control, and the status of women in the developing nations.

In an August 1947 memorandum to Monsignor Howard J. Carroll, General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), Miss Catherine Schaefer,1 appointed Carroll's Assistant for United Nations Affairs in October 1946, included the following paragraph:

Special assistance in supplying documentation and day-to-day information has been given to...the National Council of Catholic Women [NCCW], and other interested departments of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, on the matter of consultative relationships [Non-Governmental Organization or NGO status] of international organizations with the [UN's] Economic and Social Council [ECOSOC]. In the latter connection, as consultant to the National Council of Catholic Women International Relations Committee, the Assistant to the General secretary, NCWC, for United Nations Affairs [i.e., Schaefer herself] spoke before the ECOSOC Commission on the Status of Women, on the competence of the International Union of Catholic Women's Leagues [IUCWL] to serve in this consultative capacity.2

The same report documents that the IUCWL, whose headquarters were in the Netherlands, and another international Catholic organization with "the reliability and fitness ... to make a contribution to ECOSOC," namely, the International Union of Catholic Social Service (IUCSS), had already been granted consultative NGO status with the Economic and Social Council. This permitted the IUCWL, the first international Catholic organization to be so recognized, to submit memoranda to ECOSOC on matters within its competence.3

Schaefer was appointed one of the first ECOSOC consultants from IUCWL. This designation was apropos, because it was due to her intervention as the UN consultant from the National Council of Catholic Women, the US affiliate of IUCWL, that the IUCSS had achieved NGO status. Schaefer had been the clear choice for the IUCWL consultant, both because of her familiarity with women's issues and because she was already the NCWC Observer, mandated by the American bishops to monitor and lobby the UN.4

From the start, Schaefer moved with great ease and authority within women's circles at the UN, Catholic or otherwise. Within her first year (1946-47) as NCWC Observer, she spoke at several conferences on women's rights, most notably the Inter-American Commission of Women and the Commission on the Status of Women, the latter established by the United Nations in 1946.5 She also addressed conventions of American women's groups, such as the Biennial Convention of the National Council of Catholic Women, the Supreme Directorate of the Catholic Daughters of America, the Institute on Women in Industry, the Catholic Women's Club of New York, and the Saint Paul's Junior Guild.6 In a prescient comment during the summer of 1947, she remarked on the potential for Catholic influence at the United Nations, anticipating that

As Catholics within the United Nations get to know each other better, and as Catholic organizations, such as the International Union of Catholic Women's Leagues...are admitted to consultative relationships with the Economic and Social Council, the utility of NCWC's Office for U.N. Affairs should increase, in the informational, liaison and other assistance it may be able to render, and in its efforts to integrate Catholic principles into the formal action and atmosphere of the United Nations and of international life. …

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