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Public life needs it

An inquiry into the Catholic contribution to the battle for women's suffrage

"To revolutionary feminism (...)  a Christian feminism has been added: Benedict XV in 1919 ruled in favour of votes for women; Bishop  Baudrillart and Fr. Sertillanges  campaigned passionately in this regard (...). In the Senate many Catholics, the group of the Republican Union, and on the other side the parties of the extreme left, are in favour of the vote for women: but the majority of the assembly is opposed." Simone de Beauvoir wrote this in her famous essay The Second Sex .

By recalling the commitment of  the Church’s Pope, of the future cardinal Alfred-Henri-Marie Baudrillart, of the Dominican theologian Antonin Sertillanges, the woman who is universally remembered as the mother of feminism recognized the active support of the Catholic Church towards the extension of suffrage to women. And she hit upon a point that by the mid-nineteenth century onwards characterized this battle in many Western countries: the little-known closeness between Catholics and Socialists.

This was the case in France. But it was also the case in other Western countries. "The democratic parties peep at feminism, pose from time to time as its defenders, but do not offer any organic and sustainable contribution of thought or action,  - we read in the open letter which in 1919 the Italian National Women's Union addressed to the Honourable Antonio Salandra - Only clerical and socialist parties (...) even make room for women in their economic and political organizations. "

Having overcome the initial opposition of the Church (in 1905 Pope Pius X stated that "a woman should not vote but should devote herself to a high ideal of human welfare"), analogously to what happened among Socialists (initially opposed to women's suffrage because they feared the role of Conservative women), in those years an important change in the position taken by the Catholic Church was being defined.

Yet a little later, with the return of Catholics to the Italian political scene, the People's Party of Don Luigi Sturzo - in addition to including a woman within their governing bodies (Giuseppina Novi Scanni, a member of Catholic female trade unionism ) - expressly anticipated women’s suffrage in his programme. Convinced that the widening of participation in public affairs to include women would not have damaged the family, Don Sturzo did not only consider the administrative and political vote "a logical consequence of a participation outside the family to social life and collective interests", but above all he inserted the extension of the franchise within a "dynamic conception" of democracy, seen as "a general element of civil education." Far from being isolated, the position of the People's Party expressed the ability of the Church to grasp the meaning of a female presence able to enrich society democratically.

This opening had behind it not only Catholic tradition (canon law, for example, has been for centuries the only body to equate male and female adultery), but also an indefatigable industry by Catholic women who had clearly demonstrated skills, capabilities and values. Enough to think of the activity of so many young people, mostly teachers or involved in workers’ organization, like Angelina Dotti, Pierina Corbetta or Adelaide Coari (who is famous for her conflict with Elena Da Persico, who was instead fiercely opposed to women's suffrage, which just shows how women have never been either in the past or are now a monolithic block).

Not that, of course, the birth of the People's Party had made the serious concerns within the variegated Catholic world regarding the vote for women disappear. Indeed, women's suffrage seems to play a central role in the attack that " La Civiltà Cattolica" stirred against the programme of the Popular Party in 1919: given that the vote for women is one of the "unquestionable points expressed by the party, but  questionable at least according to Catholic doctrines, and for this reason not to be imposed on the consciences of Catholics", what should be clear is that women's suffrage, far from being a right or a test of democracy, is "a social necessity needed to oppose the supposed conservative votes of women to the generally subversive votes of  the socialists, anarchists or other such extreme parties. "

The path, however, was now laid out. And this well before the clear stance of 21 October 1945, when Pius XII will urge women, in no uncertain terms, to move out of the private sphere: "Your time has come, women and young Catholics; public life needs you ".
For example, writing that “feminism is a matter of bread,” Fr. Sertillanges in 1930 (noted, as we have seen, even by Simone de Beauvoir) argued: “The facts and conditions enforced on women of the whole of the contemporary movement is supporting its cause in a most effective manner, since they are no longer speeches but solid realities that in a short time will knock on our political citadels to make inroads in the name of women. If everywhere, in women's groups, initiatives are developing, responsibilities are being assumed, a broad education is being conquered, if a personal and professional value that will soon become a value of opinion is being constructed, one will not be allowed for long to think of the vote for women  in a purely academic way.”

It is also interesting to remember that the American feminist Dorothy Day - jailed in November 1917 for protesting, along with 39 other women in front of the White House, against the exclusion of women from suffrage – has been proclaimed servant of God. And that the first woman to be part of the City Council of Vienna for the Social Democratic Party in 1919 and, a year later, the first woman to be elected a Member of the Austrian National Council by the universal suffrage which had only just been conquered, was the Blessed Hildegard Brujan.

Moreover, it is a Catholic Italian who pronounced one of the most determined phrases against the specious use that, too often, is still made of women in politics. On the Ist October 1945, during work in the hall of the italian Council, for the first time a woman speaks as a politician.

She is the Christian Democrat Angela Guidi Cingolani. Aware of but not rewarded for the historical significance of her speech, she does not give a speech suitable for the occasion: denouncing how little had been done, and continued to be done for women in politics, Cingolani criticizes the male audience: "Nice words, many have been aimed at us, but concrete evidence of trust in public office are in truth not many. "

Obtained, beside the vote, eligibility for election (at the same time, before, after), among the few western women elected to Parliament, many will be Catholics. For the most part ignored, their crucial work, however, was doubly hindered. Viewed with suspicion by their own parties because they were women they were also marginalized by other women as they were Catholics, and therefore suspected of excessive conservatism. This is the continuation of the story, which deserves to be told in its lesser-known and more surprising aspects.

The task for Catholic women in politics has been and remains a huge one: taking part in public affairs as voters and as the elected, we take a further step every day towards the recognition of the value of subjectivity as a right of citizenship. A citizenship that moves forward and makes us responsible in history and for history. For a secular history which is and remains an integral part of the history of salvation.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 20, 2019