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Strong American Women Part II - Catholic women fighting for the vote

Many women's suffragists emerged from the abolitionist movement. They saw suffrage as a matter of divine justice as well as human rights. Other women viewed the right to vote as not only a political and social issue, but a moral one as well. The movement to win votes saw clergymen on both sides of the debate; many churches, including Methodists, Pres­byterians & Catholics, were divided over suffrage.

Views about women began to change in the early C20th as they struggled for the right to vote, to ob­tain ed­uc­ation and to work outside of the home. Yet the Cath­olic Church rem­ained awkward. So the Catholic Women's Suffrage Society was formed in the UK in 1911 and The Irish Catholic Women's Suff­rage Assoc­iation was established in Catholic Ireland in Nov 1915. But I could not find an equivalent society in the USA.

The suffragist Aimee Hutchinson spoke to a crowd. 
This New York Catholic-school teacher was dismissed from her job for attending the 1912 suffrage parade.

In fact what I DID find in the USA was The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage that was org­an­ised in 1911. Its members included wealthy, influential women and Catholic cler­gy­men, including Cardinal James Gibbons who addressed their conven­t­ion in Wash­ington DC in 1916. "In order to be functional, prosperous and pleasant", Gibbons said,  "American society required men and women to operate in separate spheres of influence: public life for men, and domestic life for women". These realms aligned with what were seen as the inherent natural strengths of each sex. Women were nurtur­ers, moral guardians and peacekeepers, presiding over family and the home. [Note that Gibbons was only the second car­d­inal in Amer­ican history, and therefore a very significant figure].

So although the Catholic Church in the USA did not take an official position on suffrage, very few of its leaders openly supported it. Would a woman in such a parish risk her good standing in the Cath­ol­ic Church and pursue her belief in woman’s equality? Might she be refused Holy Communion? Could her husband be humiliated in church circles? They must have been very brave.

In 1903 the American Federation of Labour’s national convention in Boston created Women’s Trade Union League. WTUL elect­ed as president Bostonian Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, an Irish Catholic labour organiser. O’Sullivan’s leadership was influential in per­suad­ing working-class men to support the suff­r­age cause. Committed to im­proving pay and working cond­itions for women work­ers, the WTUL was the coordinating body for other women’s trade unions. The WTUL established a suffrage depart­ment in 1908 and urged work­ing women and their husbands to attend suffrage rallies. But did O’Sull­iv­an try to appeal to Catholic women?

In the early C20th, progress towards univ­ersal suf­f­rage in the USA seemed very slow. Having failed to secure a fed­eral amendment for equal suff­r­age, women now campaigned state by state.

Before Woodrow Wilson became President in 1912, he was gov­ernor of New Jersey. He wrote a letter to a Vermont news­paper editor about women voting: "I must say very frank­ly that my personal judgment is strongly against it. I believe that the social changes it would involve would not justify the gains that would be accomplished by it." He may have championed women’s equality later, but the women 100+ years ago had no idea that they were on the verge of victory. They only knew that they were not yet free.

In Jan 1917, Alice Paul and the other women of the National Women's Party met at their head-quarters in Washington DC, to initiate fresh protests at the Federal lev­el. Party members signed up for shifts to hold the banners outside the White House during Woodrow Wilson's presidency, even though the winter was freezing. Their banners said "Mr President what will you do for woman suffrage and liberty?"

Retaliation against the protesters intensified, reaching The Night of Terror in Nov 1917 when auth­or­it­ies sent the arrested women to a local workhouse cum prison. The workhouse superint­endent ordered his 40 guards to at­tack the arrested wom­en. The guards beat women, chained their hands to the cell bars all night, threw women into a dark cell and smashed their heads against an iron bed. Dorothy Day was slammed repeat­edly over the back of an iron bench. I mention Day, not only because she was Catholic, but bec­ause she was so radicalised by the guards’ action that she later co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement.

Suffragists picketing the White House in mid-winter 1917.
Source: Library of Congress

As news spread about their suffering, public sentiment began to sway back in favour of the women. Concurrently, the National Amer­ic­an Woman Suffrage Association had continued lobbying for the fed­er­al suffrage amendment, saying it would be a measure of goodwill to the women who were aiding the war effort. After the USA finally joined the Allies in WW1, public sentiment swept against the suffragists as traitors for protesting the president in wartime. By summer, the women began to be arrested, released and often arrested again.

And in the new year President Wilson, who previously had opposed universal suffrage, now made a public statement of support for a women's amendment. By Aug 1920, the right for women to vote finally became law.

The Church remained hostile to women’s dreams because, the bishops argued, women’s place was in the home. Their female nature would be debased by such rough masculine activities as voting. In 1930 Pope Pius XI condemned women’s emancipation as undermining the divinely founded obedience of the wife to her husband and a false deflection from her true and sole role as mother and home­maker. American Cath­olic bishops moved quickly to organise Catholic women in new issues. I wonder what the goals of National Council of Catholic Women Against Liberalism, Socialism and Feminism were. 

Public speech after the Night of Terror, Washington DC
Nov 1915

The suffrage story reminded women that change happened slowly, even more slowly in Catholic countries apparently. The Church was re­luctant to support, or was antagonistic towards wom­en's suffrage. In fact in 1930, ten years after women won the right to vote in the USA, Pope Pius XI (1922-39) condemned wo­m­en’s liberation, arguing it would produce a false redirect­ion from their true identity as mothers and homemakers. Not until 1945 did Cath­olic Italy, home of the Vatican, grant­ wom­en the right to vote. And in other majority-Catholic countries women did not get the vote for ages: in France the vote was granted in 1944 and Belgium in 1948.


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