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Catholic women and U.S. politics

· ​Dorothy Day and the other women ·

As the United States approaches the centenary of women’s suffrage, it is appropriate to highlight key moments and figures in the history of Catholic women’s engagement in American politics. Perhaps the most prominent U.S. Catholic woman of the last century is Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. Though not political in the traditional sense— she was a professed anarchist who protested the U.S. government throughout her life — Day and the Catholic Worker had a profound and lasting effect on U.S. political culture. An activist and socialist before her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, Day established the Catholic Worker to encourage intellectuals and workers to live the gospel teachings and to see in the poor the face of Jesus Christ. A loosely-organized movement, the Worker published a monthly newspaper (still in circulation) and opened houses of hospitality first in New York City and eventually throughout the United States, some 230 of which are in existence today. Day opposed U.S. entry into World War II and later the Vietnam War, and was arrested for her protests on multiple occasions, including in 1973 while demonstrating in support of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers on strike in California. Writing in her obituary, historian David O’Brien called Day “the most important, significant, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.” In his address to the joint session of Congress in 2015, Pope Francis praised Day’s “social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed,” and pointed to her as a model for solving contemporary social and political problems.

 Dorothy Day

Far lesser known than Day, but more representative of U.S. Catholic women’s political involvement in the era of Catholic Action, was Jane Hoey (1892-1968). A graduate of Trinity College for Catholic Women in Washington, D.C., Hoey was mentored by progressive priests such as John Ryan, the principal author of the Bishops’ Program on Social Reconstruction (1919) who would later become a prominent advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1936, following stints at the New York City Board of Child Welfare, the American Red Cross, and the New York State Crime Commission, Hoey was appointed to the Social Security Board, a federal agency created to administer programs established by the Social Security Act, a critical piece of legislation in Roosevelt’s New Deal. As one of the top-level executives in Roosevelt’s administration, Hoey helped pave the way for women in the federal government.

The era of Vatican II opened a dramatic new chapter in the history of Catholic women and American politics. Influenced by Perfectae Caritatis, Gaudium et Spes, and other Council documents, Catholic sisters entered the American political arena to an unprecedented degree in the late 1960s. Mary Luke Tobin, SL, one of sixteen women observers at the Council’s third and fourth sessions, was at the forefront of the movement to reorganize the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, the American umbrella organization of Catholic sisters, in light of the Council’s teachings on religious life and social justice. Tobin and other religious women insisted that the spirituality of Catholic sisters “must be contemporary and American.” For many, being American meant working to help the United States live up to its own ideals, using Catholic social teaching as a guide.

Developments in American society also sparked activism among the “new nuns” of the 1960s. In 1965, for example, a number of U.S. sisters converged on Selma, Alabama, to join civil rights activists under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a march to the state capital of Montgomery, to protest restrictions on African American voting rights. Selma not only represented the first mass movement of whites into the civil rights movement, but it also served as a highly visible marker of the church's engagement with the most pressing social problem of the day. Selma's white marchers were disproportionately Catholic, and habited nuns attracted a great deal of media attention. Sister Mary Peter Traxler, SSND (or Margaret Ellen Traxler, as she was known after she reverted to her birth name), found the Selma experience to be so powerful that she was compelled to redefine her life as a woman religious. In an article titled "After Selma, Sister, You Can't Stay Home Again," Traxler urged Catholic sisters to step outside the classroom and convent and work for justice in the world.

In the early 1970s, Tobin and Traxler were both founding members of NETWORK, a lobby organized by Catholic sisters that seeks to apply church teachings on social justice to federal policy. Seeking to harness Catholic sisters’ untapped potential for influencing just legislation, NETWORK emphasized that sisters’ vows enabled them to lobby without self-interest and placed them in a unique position to motivate others within the Catholic Church to assume a more civic responsibility. In fostering cross-congregational collaboration, featuring women-centered leadership, and advocating energetic participation in U.S. politics, the founding of NETWORK signaled a departure from previous patterns in American Catholic history.

With the onset of America’s “culture wars,” issues related to gender and sexuality emerged as controversial topics in American politics. Catholic women could be found on both sides of these debates. Among the most influential was Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016). A writer and activist in the Republican Party, Schlafly rose to national prominence in 1972, when she announced her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed discrimination based on sex and was passed by Congress that year. She established the lobbying organization Stop ERA, and led a well-organized campaign that was instrumental in the collapse of the Amendment after its failure to be ratified by the requisite majority of states.

Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011), a Democratic congresswoman from New York State, became in 1984 the first woman to seek the vice presidency on a major political party ticket when she served as the running mate to former Vice-President Walter Mondale. Notably, Ferraro was the first Catholic Democrat to be nominated after abortion became a significant issue in political campaigns. Like many Catholic Democrats after her, Ferraro claimed to be personally opposed to abortion but publicly supported its legality. Her voting record on abortion drew criticism from New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor.

In the present moment Catholic women are more active in American politics than ever before, though most do not identify themselves as “Catholic” candidates. Italian-American Catholic Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi (1940- ) was elected in January 2018 as the Speaker of the House of Representatives (she also served in that capacity between 2007 and 2011). Like Jane Hoey, Pelosi is a graduate of Trinity College for Catholic Women in Washington D.C. She is the highest-ranking elected woman in United States history and second in the presidential line of succession, immediately after the vice-president. Pelosi presides over a governing body that includes a number of progressive Catholic women who came to Washington following the “pink-wave” of the 2018 midterm elections. Especially prominent is Democratic Congresswoman from New York, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (1989- ), an outspoken critic of the Trump administration. Ocasio-Ortez is most often identified as a socialist, but her emphasis on justice, human rights and dignity is also informed by her Catholicism, and she has cited Jesus' instruction in Matthew 25 to care "for the least among us" as her “guiding principle.”

Another notable Catholic woman active in contemporary American politics is Sister Simone Campbell, SSS (1945- ), the executive director of NETWORK since 2004. In 2012, Campbell organized the first “Nuns on the Bus” tour around the United States to protest the federal budget proposed by another prominent US Catholic, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In the years since, Campbell has continued to tour the country with Nuns on the Bus, engaging Americans in spiritual dialogue about health care, immigration, voter participation, women’s rights, and polarization in politics. The most recent Nuns on the Bus tour departed Los Angeles, California, on October 8, 2018, and held 54 events in 21 states before ending on November 2, 2018, in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, where the vacation home of President Donald Trump is located.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 21, 2020