There is a Public Sphere
for Catholic Women
May 18, 1893 — Congress of Catholic Women, World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago IL
The Catholic Women’s Congress held in Chicago, May 18, gave an outline sketch of the work of Catholic women, beginning with a paper on “The Elevation of Womanhood through the Veneration of the Blessed Virgin,” and closing with the life-work of Margaret Haughery of New Orleans, the only woman in America to whom the public have raised a statue.
The enthusiasm wakened by this congress drew a large body of Catholic women together, who organized a National League for work on the lines of education, philanthropy, and “the home and its needs” — education to promote the spread of Catholic truth and reading circles, etc.; philanthropy to include temperance, the formation of day nurseries and free kindergartens, protective and employment agencies for women, and clubs and homes for working-girls; “the home and its needs” to comprehend the solution of the domestic service question, as well as plans to unite the interests and tastes of the different members of the family. Each active member of the league registers under some one branch of work according to her special attraction. The underlying idea of the league is that Catholic women realize that there is a duty devolving on them to help the needy on lines which our religious cannot reach, even were they not already so sadly overworked. Tens of thousands of our ablest Catholic women are working with the W.C.T.U. and other non-Catholic philanthropies, because they find no organization in their own church as a field for their activities. Every Catholic woman who has had much association outside the Church is frequently met with the question, Why don’t you Catholics take care of your own poor, and not leave so much work for other churches to do for you? The truth is that ours is the Church of the poor, and manifold as is the work of the religious and the benevolent societies, a vast amount has to go undone because there is no one to attend to it. It seems safe to compute that fully one-half our Church members are among the needy, one-tenth of our members are wealthy, and the remaining forty percent, are well to do, who are happily not so far removed from the poor in condition as to be insensible to their wants. Mankind has repeated that the “Our Father” for well nigh two thousand years, and yet the great body of humanity seems only now waking up to the fact that “our father” implies a common brotherhood; that “no man liveth to himself alone”; that we are our brothers’ keepers. Surely then, in the face of these great facts, it can only be through misapprehension of terms that the question is asked “Is there a public sphere for Catholic women?” As well ask “Is there a public sphere for the religious?” since who is so public as the man or woman who gives his whole life, with all its powers, for the good of humanity? It cannot be that the estimate of the Catholic women is so poor that it is supposed that her love of home, her sense of duty and womanly instincts will suffer by her taking counsel with a body of women for a few hours every week as to the best methods of improving the condition of her fellow-women? Catholic women enter into the gaieties, and even the follies, of society. Many lose more money and time for dress and fashion than would be consumed by works of philanthropy. Yet no alarm seems to be taken to the danger of womanliness in this sphere!
Almost every discussion of practical utility to humanity has been set for discussion during the Chicago congresses. Already many vital questions of morals and progress have been ably considered by experts. Many of those experts have been women, and even some of these women were Catholics. Can anyone doubt that the Church and the world have gained by their success? Is not every good thought crystallized into a plan of action — a fresh guidance in well-doing?
However wise or pious a woman may be, she meets with daily problems for which no literature offers solution, but from which the light of other women’s experience may clear away the difficulty. The great power of the age is organization, and nowhere is it more needed than among Catholic women, whose consciences and hearts are so keenly alive to evils that individuals find themselves powerless to overcome. The proof that the Catholic Women’s League is needed is shown by the daily applications for affiliation, and for an organizer to go to other cities and establish branches.
Miss Eliza Allen Starr, ever zealous in good works, writes of the “Catholic Women’s National League”: “This compassionate work, to which woman seems called by her very nature, if left to individuals is likely to be desultory; its continuity depending upon family and personal circumstances; whereas an organization takes the work along through summer and winter, sickness and health, convenience and inconvenience, the one who has dropped out of line under some pressure of necessity takes the work up again, with a feeling of gratitude that all has been going on well in spite of her shortcomings. Our educational charities providing Catholic instruction for our veriest little ones, by taking them from under the feet of laboring mothers in their small rooms and giving them an intelligent use of their hands, so as to prepare them for industrial occupations in every grade for which they may prove to have a capacity — these free kindergartens become nurseries for good mechanics and citizens, for skilled needle-women of all kinds, with whom a taste for beautiful forms and harmonious colors may be fortune; in every case raising the grade of labor by the superior intelligence with which it is pursued. The mercifulness of these day nurseries is only appreciated by those who realize what it is for a poor to leave her unweaned babe all day in the care of her other mere infants, in order to eke ou the father’s wages in behalf of their increasing family. The day nursery takes care of her baby; the kindergarten gives occupation to her restless boys and girls; and after a hard day’s work she returns with a heart and step lightened by finding her children sweeter and fresher for the kindly influences around them all day.” Then again, providing homes for Catholic self-supporting girls has immense importance. In the midst of a life necessarily cut loose from family and friends, this home preserves a Catholic atmosphere —Catholic habits and traditions, establishing a standard of Catholic opinion on all matters instead of a worldly one. One word for our name, “National League.” Thus named because we live under the rule of a league of grand States, and under such rule hand should touch hand, shoulder touch shoulder, from Maine to Louisiana, from the Atlantic to the Pacific; thus adding to the natural force of individual activity a momentum which will be equal, we trust, to the ever-increasing demands upon our sympathies; while upon occasion we shall be found to possess a standing army ready to throw itself into the work suggested by any emergency. Volumes might be written to show the true relation of Catholic woman to humanity; but surely enough has been said to answer the question, “Is there a public sphere for Catholic women?”
Source: “The Woman Question Among Catholics: A Roundtable Conference,” Catholic World 57 (1893), pp. 674-677, 681-684.