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Sociology of Reli~m 2003, 64:4 515.524

Catholic Women Negotiate Feminism: A Reseamh Note Elaine Howard Ecklund*


INTRODUCTION When I told a professor at a major university that I was studying Catholic feminists she replied: "Catholic feminist, isn't that an oxymoron?" Scholars often expect inconsistency between women who call themselves feminists and adherents of traditional Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam. 1 Yet, how does a woman who is a feminist and a Catholic negotiate living out both? This research provides insight into the dynamics of negotiation between the apparently contradictory identities of women who are committed Catholics and feminists. I did extended interviews in one congregation and asked how women in this church responded to feminism. For those who identified as feminists, I asked how they understood being a feminist and an active Catholic. I found that

Direct aUc o r r e s ~ to E/a/he Hounrd Ecldund, Depamneat of Soc/o/o~, 323 Ur/s Ha//, Come//Un• Ithaca, NY, 14853. E.mail: emhS@corne//.edu. Many thanks to Wendy Cadge, Penn~ Edge//, Dean Hoge, Jenni… Wiley Legath, ]erry Park, Kristen Schult~, Joan WaUing, Tisa Wenger, Robert Wuthnow, and the edicto"and three anonymous reviewers of Sociology of Religion, for insighrful comments on earlier versions of this pal~. This research was presenw.dat the Association … the Sociology of Reli~~~gn,64th Annual Meering. Funding… data co//ecrionu~as sugooned by the L///~ Endou,mem, grant # 1996 1880-O00, Penn3, Edge//, P.1. 1 See Dalu (1985). By traditional religion I refer to the monotheistic faiths and, in particular, those that doctrinally limit the role of women in leadership of congregatiom or denominational stmctures.


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For ~~nen who identify as both committed Catholics and feminists, how do the?l negotiate between these tu~ apparently contradictory identities? I use data from one congregaaon and propose three possibilities for such negot/atª Women re-interpret feminista in light of Catholicism, reinte.rpret Catholicism in light of feminista, of see both feminista and Catholicism as very subjective and individual identities. This work has implications for how scholars of gender understand the place of feminista in the lives of traditiond reli~ous uomen. This stucly also expands the sociology of religion literature by broadening how individualista is understood in the context of congregational



LITERATURE REVIEW Scholars provide three types of insights for how women who ate part of traditional religion respond to feminism. First, some women reject feminista in favor of more orthodox forros of religion (Manning 1999; Neitz 1987). Researchers illuminate the various ways women both embrace patriarchal religion and, at the same time, find areas of power within traditional religious communities (Brasher 1998; Davidman 1991; Griffith 1997; Kaufman 1991). Second, others focus on the challenges that feminist ideologies bring to traditional religion (Stocks 1997). Some of this work looks at the women who bring these changes (Fishman 1993; Weaver 1985). For example, scholarship examines how conservative Jewish women negotiate understandings of feminista in ways that challenge more Orthodox forros of Judaism (Fishman 1993). In addition, the work of feminist theologians offers critiques of patriarchal religion (Fiorenza 1993). Third, research on feminista and religion shows that some religious feminists leave traditional religious communities for new forms of religious expression of expend their principal energy outside of local congregations, in pro-change 2 groups (Berger 1998; Dillon 1999). For example, the Catholics studied by Dillon (1999) remain committed to Catholic doctrines, but are primarily involved in efforts aimed at refonning the Church. Yet, little research on feminista and religion examines how women who remain part of traditional religious institutions and embrace a feminist identity negotiate these identities (Lamont 1992; Thumma 1991; Wuthnow 1991).3 My

2 By pro-change groups, I mean Catholic organizations that reguhrly petition the Vatican for change in Catholic doctrine (Dillon 1999). 3 By identity, I aro addressing speciflcally rhetoric of accounts. My data does not allow discussion of the specific internal processes of change that occur through movement from one identity to another of the interaction of two apparently incongruent identities. See Thumma (1991:334-336), fora discussion of identity

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women used various means of identity negotiation to express how feminista was lived out in relationship to Catholicism. Women re-interpreted feminista in light of Catholicism, re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminista, or identified themselves as feminists and as Catholics, and created individual meanings for both. My findings reveal that women have different ways of understanding negotiation between two seemingly contradictory identities. This research has theoretical implications for how women use individual understandings within the context of mainstream religion (Edgell Becker 2000). In contrast to other work, I argue that individualista does not necessarily lead women to practice religion separate from mainstream religious institutions, but rather is an identity that can allow women to remain part of religious institutions with which they disagree.


METHODS From February 2000 through.July 2000, I engaged in research studying women at St. Mary's4 parish (Howard [Ecklund] 2001). This analysis included extended interviews 5 with ten women in the parish, a focus group with three additional women, and interviews with three women who left the Catholic Church, for a total of sixteen respondents. The ten women with whom I did indepth interviews ranged in age from thirty-five to eighty-six and all h a d a bachelor's degree. Nine had a master's degree or Ph.D. Six of the ten women6 described themselves as feminists and all were primarily engaged in their local

negotiation. For an explanation of identity as accounts, motives, and moral boundaries see Lamont (1992:5-8) and Wuthnow ( 1991:49-51). 4 i used pseudonyms for all respondents and the congregation I discussed in dais paper. 5 Each of the interviews lasted at least forty-flve minutes and one lasted over two hours. I personally transcribed each interview. 6 Keeping the women who did not identiff as feminists in the analysis allowed me to situate my feminist respondents within the context of other women, of a similar educational background, who rejected the label feminist.

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work examines how conciliation of identities happens in one Catholic congregation for women who are both feminists and committed Catholics. This research particularly fills a gap in scholarship on the Catholic Church. Research on the Church generally deals with the ways doctrines and Church law change, and alternative expressions of Catholicism develop both inside and outside the official Church hierarchy (Dillon 1999; Seidler and Meyer 1989; Wallace 1992). Yet, exclusive attention to these issues sidesteps the core question of how Catholic women understand being part of a Catholic Church that at least doctrinally has a limited place for women (Winter, Lummis, and Stokes 1994). The Catholic Church is a good case for the study of how women negotiate being feminists and adherents of traditional religion. Doctrinally, the Church has a uniform place for women's involvement in Church activities. While gender roles have loosened considerably since Vatican II, and although there is a severe priest shortage, the Catholic Church remains unwavering in its commitment to a celibate, male priesthood. There is an ongoing struggle, however, over what place women should have within the American Catholic Church (D'Antonio, Davidson, Hoge, and Meyer 2001). For example, nearly sixty-three percent of Catholics think it would be a good thing ir women were ordained as priests (Gallup and Lindsay 1999). Uniform doctrine within the midst of contested views over women's role in the Church provides the possibility of diverse means of identity negotiation for women in local congregations.



FINDINGS Definitions of Feminista: Self vs. Other I found the women who did not identify as feminists gave different definitions of feminism than those who did. Women who rejected the label feminist defined it as "putting women's rights above the rights of others" or "making women superior." For example, Cindy, 38, worked part-time for the congregation and part-time as a homemaker. She told me she did not agree with feminists who, are preaching that women's rights should be foremost in everybody's mind, over and above the family's needs. I aro n o t a subservient woman but I would not describe myself asa feminist either. But I aro n o t out there saying that whatever your husband says should be. I just see myself as an equal person.

Jessica, 44, an accountant, explained: W h e n I think of feminist it is from the seventies. I t h i n k of it as making w o m e n more superior. I don't think of myself as superior. Feminista is women's needs [or] issues as being the most pressing. They ate the ones who deserve the most attention at any time.

These accounts of feminism were similar to those made by traditional religious women in other studies (Davidman 1991; Manning 1999) and confirmed

7 St. Mary's was similar to other Catholic congregations in that only aman could serve as an ordained priest and thus administer the "official" mass. Yet, it had numerous egalitarian roles for men and women in leadership outside the tole of the priesthood, with girls as altar servers and women as committee heads. 8 Winter et al. (1994) studied feminist women who remained committed to their religion despite serious disagreements with their religion's core doctrines. Different from their work, I asked women to provide their own definitions of feminism and examined women who both identified as feminists and women who did not.

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congregation, 7 rather than a pro-change Catholic organization (Dillon 1999). At minimum all attended Mass weekly and were involved in another congregational activity outside of weekly worship. Some chose work for their church as a vocation. The interview data I collected and participant-observations I did for this research allowed in-depth analysis of choices and meanings surrounding choices (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Unlike other research, I allowed my respondents to provide their own definition of feminista (Winter et al. 1994).8 The goal of this research was not to generalize from this small group to the universe of women or even to other women who were both active feminists and active Catholics. Rather, the goal was to illustrate several specific ways women negotiated action within these identities without giving up either.


I definitelythink so. There is no equalityand there is no appreciationfor children. It is a very unfriendlyenvironmentfor children. Later in our discussion, Jill explained that "equal rights for women" was crucial to her definition of feminism. However, her explanation started with a focus on children and not women. These definitions mirror those among some feminists, who have critiqued liberal feminism for its inability to reconcile individual and collective rights (Rothman 1989).

Women Who Re-Interpreted Feminism in Light of Catholicism The feminist women differed in three distinct ways in how they described the intersection between feminism and Catholicism. First, some women interpreted feminista in light of Catholicism. When describing feminism, this sort of woman began by talking about spiritual things like the Bible and theology. For her, feminism was not a secular, academic construct, but very much a spiritual one, and one that was shaped by the scriptures and doctrines of the Church. For example, Beth was one of the pastoral associates at St. Mary's and had joined the Church later in life. Although Beth was at first not sure she would be able to deal with the doctrines of the Church regarding roles for women, after becoming deeply involved in her parish and devoting fifty to sixty hours a week to parish work, she fell in love with her church. She told me, however, that she still considered herself a feminist. Towards the end of our interview, I asked Beth how she described feminism: I think, everything,that if you are goingto teach and preach, people still come out of the o|d theology. Few come froma feministtheology,which is to look at the gospelfromthe point of viewof those who ate marginalizedand who are on the outskirts.Who were women?They ate the disenfranchised.And also to rememberall those who ate with us at the outskirts. It is to make everyonefeel completelyvalid and an equal recipient. God beingthere for all of us, but certainly the poorestof the poor.

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the tension that some religious women have had between feminism's emphasis on women's individual goals and the collective goals of family and community. Their definition of feminista paralleled definitions provided by feminists, who argued that women's rights and personal development were often squelched because of family responsibilities (Friedan 1963). The women that I interviewed, who did not identify as feminists, saw an essential part of their gender identity as upholding family and viewed feminism's supposed emphasis on self as incompatible with this (Kaufman 1991). In contrast, all of the women who d/d define themselves as feminists h a d a similar view of feminism that stressed equality for all rather than an emphasis on women's individual rights. For example, when I first asked Jill, 44, a professor, married and the mother of two children, if she identified with the women's movement she explained:



T h e women I studied saw spiritual negotiatŸ of feminism as more than a theological project (Fiorenza 1993). Their identity-negotiation strategy consisted of selectively drawing on aspects of feminism that were in keeping with Catholicism. This allowed the women to devote themselves primarily to a local Catholic congregation and still feel as if they were expressing aspects of feminism.

Re-lnterpreting Catholicism in Light o‌Feminista

To be treated the same, not differently [and] to be given the same opportunities. My kids were given the same opportunities. My eleven year old, the boy, he thinks the world is sexist [and] that his sisters have every advantage against men. Talk to him and it is a woman's world, but he wiU learn. It is not. My daughter has had every opportunity at St. Mary's and been well supported. The problems, at this point, are really societal and creep into human institutions, except women's ordination. I am kind of mad. [We have] post-modernism [and] why do we care about women's ordination?.., you know, there is almost, in the more progressive Catholic Churches, every opportunity for women, except women's ordination. And no one, these days, seems overtly upset. They see it as injustice. Lots of men, who would never describe themselves as feminists, will tell you, old men on the flnance committee, will tell you that women should be ordained. But can't we get a retired Bishop to just force the issue and ordain women? Unlike Beth, when I asked Sandy what being a feminist meant to her, she did not immediately start talking about the scriptures. Rather, she explained that feminism was about a more general sense of equality. This ideal led her to fight for the same kind of equality inside the C h u r c h as she fought for outside the Church. This approach to identity negotiation confirmed other studies of religious women, in which aspects of religious tradition were criticized based on feminist insight (Dillon 1999; Fishman 1993; Stocks 1997). It was also similar to the kind of identity negotiation experienced by gay evangelicals ( T h u m m a 1991). However, my findings further showed the possibility of activist feminists being committed to local congregational participation, rather than funneling primary efforts through pro-change organizations. In addition, of the women I interviewed, only those who re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism talked about making changes in Catholic institutions and doctrines. Interpreting Catholicism in light of feminism may lead to a more activist stance than other strategies of identity negotiation.

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Second, other women re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism. Instead of discussing the relationship of spiritual principles to feminism, when I asked them about feminism, these women talked about women's equality in a more general sense. Catholicism h a d a very real place in their lives. But the idea that a woman should be treated the same a s a man was core to how they understood themselves. Catholicism was one of the spheres into which this ethic of equality was carried. Below is Sandy's explanation of feminism:



A n Individual Feminista and an Individual Catholicism

I think I aro uncomfortable with some of the anger that I have heard expressed by some feminists. [The sentiment] 'that all men ate evil and that all men suck.' AII men don't suck, just some of them. I am uncomfortable with those kinds of blanket statements that now we have to blame everything bad on the European white male. They were just following the traditions of their time too. A l t h o u g h she a t t e n d e d c h u r c h with those who did n o t hold her views, Ellen thought people would listen to h e r and accept her advice. She remained part of the Catholic C h u r c h because she felt a sense of c o m m u n i t y there. Ellen also defined Catholicism in the way that made the most sense to her. W h e n I asked if she felt any inconsistency in n o t agreeing with some of the doctrines of the Church, she replied: Not really. Because a lot of these doctrines [were] man-made. If I think of what the basics are. It타I say that I believe in God, what ate the basics? God is love. How you treat other people matters. How you live your life matters. Those ate the things that I agree with [italics reine]. I think we should treat other people with compassion. I like to treat other people how I want to be treated. The basic things I am in agreement with. The things, like, 'priests can't be married.' Well, they were married for a long time. And then, something happened. That's a man-made thing. I don't really feel dissonance about that. Part of Ellen's individual interpretation of Catholicism was choosing what she wanted to believe and practise and what she did not. For example, she had trouble describing her i n v o l v e m e n t a s a C a t h o l i c in terms of hours spent in church, but instead emphasized the time she spent at h o m e memorizing a talk to share at a spiritual retreat. She explained: It's not like here at home, where I have to vacuum, and I don't understand the inherent value in vacuuming. I aro not choosing [what I do] here at home. Whereas at church, I aro specifically choosing, and I don't choose aU of the things that can be done. I only pick specific things to be done. I pick them because I enjoy them, I ~am good at them, or they ate fun.

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Last, some w o m e n called themselves feminists, but carefully defined their specific form of feminism. These same w o m e n had disagreements with Catholicism, and defined what it m e a n t to be a C a t h o l i c in ways t h a t they justified t h r o u g h personal interpretation. This type of w o m a n strongly believed the C h u r c h should h a v e a different doctrinal stance towards women's leadership. But, w h e n discussing feminism, they adhered to a qualified feminism. These w o m e n identified themselves as feminists, yet were not as outspoken as other women in their parish or the wider Church. Often they criticized other w o m e n for their more vocal attitudes. Ellen, 43, was a h o m e m a k e r and volunteered faithfully at St. Mary's. She described herself a s a feminist with some reservations:



DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION There were several different ways women lived out their feminism within the same Catholic congregation. I outlined three. First, there was the woman who, like Beth, thought of feminism itself asa spiritual matter. Catholic feminist theologians demonstrated this in their work (Fiorenza 1993; Weaver 1985). Yet, I found this perspective, not in the halls of theology schools, but within the walls of congregations and among individual women who primarily devoted their work to local congregations. Women like Beth developed a way to describe feminism and a way to be feminists within the confines of what they saw asa traditional religious structure. Second, I found women who saw feminista as shaping identity and interpreted Catholicism in light of feminista. Research indicated that women who viewed egalitarian gender roles as of central importance in their lives often left traditional religion to become part of more progressive denominations and faith communities. Women like Sandy, however, showed there was also a way of negotiating identities that allowed a woman who was a feminist to remain a Catholic and participate actively in a local congregation. Sandy made sense of this by working for change within her congregation, her diocese, her children's lives, and teaching about egalitarian gender roles. The above two categories of women hada consistent rhetoric for understanding Catholicism and feminism.

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Women like Ellen saw both their feminism and their Catholicism in individual terms. Yet individualism did not imply a lack of responsibility of a completely private spirituality. Scholars have thought about this type of identity negotiation in a strict sense as "separation" (Goffman 1963). Manning showed that some conservative religious women dealt with patriarchal hierarchy by separating or privatizing their religious lives from the test of their lives (Manning 1999). She thought that a woman who was part of a traditional church and remained a feminist conceivably had a different view of herself in the workplace than she had in church. However, Ellen and other women who engaged in this type of identity negotiation readily admitted they were feminists. They did not try to "pass" or hide their feminism when they were in church. Rather, individual Catholic and feminist identities both were openly acknowledged, yet at the same time re-defined. What Wuthnow (1998) calls "practice spirituality" may be a better way than privatization or compartmentalization to understand the type of individual identity-negotiation women like Ellen experienced. Practice spirituality emphasizes internal spiritual pursuits, such as prayer, meditation, and examining one's desires, rather than strict adherence to a religious institution or set of core doctrines. Even within a Catholic congregation, there is room fora feminist Catholic to create ah individual sense of herself that allows for an identity as both a feminist and a Catholic without conflict.


REFERENCES Bellah, R., R. Madsen, W. M. Sullivan, A. Swidler, and S. M. Tipton. 1985. Habits of the heart: Individualista and commitment in American life. Berkeley:Universityof Califomia Press. Berger, H. A. 1998. A communit'y of witches: Contemporary neo-paganism ancl witchcraft in the Unitecl States. Universityof South Carolina. Brasher, B. 1998. Godly women: Fundamentalism and female power. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. D'Antonio, W. V., J. V. Davidson, D. R. Hoge, and K. Meyer. 2001. American Catholics: Gender, generation, and commitment. Walnut Creek: AltaMira.

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They chose a spiritual or feminist rhetoric and interpreted feminism or Catholicism in light of the other. Last, I found women who negotiated identities by identifying as feminists and Catholics on their own terms. While the other women argued for doctrinally consistent positions on women's roles in the Church, these women were not concerned about feminism and Catholicism being consistent with one another. Their view of spirituality was not about a coherent set of beliefs, but a set of pracrices from which they could pick and choose within available Catholic practices. This type of identity account emphasized the diversity in the Catholic Church, not justat the organizational or congregational levels, but also between individual progressive Catholics. This research fits into a larger body of literature on negotiation of religious identities (Davidman 1991; Dillon 1999; Manning 1999; Wuthnow 1991). Remaining committed to a highly institutionalized religion, such as Catholicism, while actively living within the confines of another ideology, such as feminism, requires a cultural account to explain why this is a legitimate decision (Wuthnow 1991). At one level attention must be paid to the larger American cultural rhetoric. American notions of individuality provide something of their own justification. A usual account of individualism does not tell the whole story for the feminist in the local Catholic congregation, however. While some of the women I interviewed had individual negotiations, such understandings did not imply an individualism that fostered practising spirituality separate from mainstream institutions (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton 1985). This way of looking at individualism and religion begins to challenge the "Sheilaism," which scholars like Bellah et al. (1985) argued were characteristic of an individualist attitude toward religion, and made individualist religious beliefs synonymous with separation from traditional religion. Practice spirituality did not lead my respondents away from organized religion. Rather, believing that personal understandings of doctrines were possible even allowed them to remain committed to a Church a n d a congregation that had doctrines with which they disagreed (cf. Winter et al. 1994).



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Davidman, L. 1991. Trad/t/on in a root/ess wor/d: Women mm to Orthtxtox Judaism. Berkeley: University of Califomia Press. Dillon, M. 1999. Catholic identity: Balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edgell Becker, P. 2000. Boundaries and silences in a post-feminist sociology. Soc/o/ogyof Reli~m 61:399-408. Fiorema, E. S. 1993. D/scip/esh/p of ecluals: A critical feminist elddesia-logy of//beratª New York: Crossroad. Fishman, S. B. 1993. A breath of life: Feminista in the Arr~'ican Jewish cornmunity. New York: The Free Press. Friedan, B. 1963. The feminine m~stk/ue. New York: Deil. Gallup, G. Jr., and D. M. Lindsay. 1999. Sur~ying the religu~us lanclscape: Tren& in US reli~ous be//ofs. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing. Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identi~. New York: Simon and Schuster. Griffith, R. M. 1997. God's daughters: Evangelicd wornen and the power of sub~ssion. Berkeley: University of Califomia Press. Howard [Eckhnd]. E. 2001. Women's leadership and/o~a/ty: A case study of six local Catholic congregar/mas. Masters thesis. Comell University, Ithaca. Kaufman, D. R. 1991. Rachel's daughters: Newly Orthodox Jewish women. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Lamont, M. 1992. Money, morals, and manners: The culture of the French and the American upperm/dd/e dass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Manning, C. 1999. God gave us the right: Conservative Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and Onha~x Jewish women grapple with feminista. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press. Neitz, M. J. 1987. Charisma and community: A study of reli~ous commitment within the charismanc renewal. New Brunswick: Transaction Books. Rothman, B. 1989. Recreating motherhood. New York: Norton. Seidler, J., and K. Meyer. 1989. Conflict and change in the Catholic Church. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Stocks, J. 1997. To stay or leave? Organizational legitimacy in the struggle for change among evangelical feminists. In Contemporary American relih~on: Ah ethnographic reader, edited by P. Edgell Becker, N. L. Eiesland, 99-118. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press. Strauss, A., and J. Corbm. 1990. Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techn/ques. Newbury Park: Sage. Thumma, S. 1991. Negotiating a religious identity: The case of the gay evangelical. Sociolo~cal Analysis 52:333-47. Wallace, R. A. 1992. They ca//her pastor. Albany: State University of New York Press. Weaver, M. J. 1985. New Catholic women: A amtemlxrrary chaUenge to tradiaonal reli~ous authori~. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers. Winter, M. T., A. Lummis, and A. Stokes. 1994. De‌ in place. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. Wuthnow, R. 1991. Acts ofcompassion: Caringfor others and helpingourselves. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 9 1998. After heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Califomia Press.

Catholic Women Negotiate Feminism  

Published in Sociology of Religion 64(4): 515-524

Catholic Women Negotiate Feminism  

Published in Sociology of Religion 64(4): 515-524