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Glance at a wall in almost any American parish and you might still see their fading pictures: groups of middle-aged women with carefully composed hair, respectable dresses, handbags and strings of pearls, seated in neat rows in the parish hall or around tables at a luncheon. These matrons, the backbone of countless mid-20th-century churches, were exactly the well-behaved women who (the coffee mug slogan suggests) seldom make history. And indeed, as Mary Henold notes in the introduction to her moving new book, historians of women in the 20th century once “focused almost exclusively on those who called themselves feminists.”

The Laywoman Project by Mary J. Henold

University of North Carolina Press

248p, $29.95 

Henold herself was once among this group of scholars, inclined to seek out the stories of women who were exceptional for their times. The Laywoman Project had its genesis in an unresolved dilemma from her previous book. The Catholic feminists she had studied consistently dismissed women like Margaret J. Mealey, the executive director of the National Council of Catholic Women, as hopelessly retrograde. Yet Henold had seen hints in primary sources that this was not necessarily so. Mealey, for example, openly criticized the hierarchy and pushed laywomen to move into new roles in the church.

Henold began to look into the vast archival record of mid-20th-century Catholic laywomen’s organizations such as the aforementioned N.C.C.W., the Theresians and the Catholic Daughters of America, and found that these bourgeois ladies in white gloves were engaged in serious, wide-ranging discussions about Catholic womanhood.

The mainspring of this conversation was the convergence of the Second Vatican Council with the burgeoning feminist movement. Henold identifies the heart of the problem Catholic women faced in the mid-1960s and, in fact, ever since: “[B]ecause the Council made significant changes in the church’s understanding of the role of laity without questioning its core beliefs about gender, its leaders were sending Catholic women contradictory messages.”

If Catholic laywomen were no longer to pay, pray and obey but instead to take a leadership role as laity, how exactly were they to do that “if the church still taught that women’s nature was basically fixed and subordinate?” To answer this question, “moderate” Catholic laywomen set out on a voyage of self-discovery, wrestling with a culture-wide upheaval in gender roles as they did so.

The book’s title, then, refers both to Henold’s own painstaking work unearthing their stories and to the vast, distributed, semiorganized “project” undertaken by her subjects themselves: to discern what their role as laywomen really was. As such, it is a book primarily about changing concepts of women’s vocation during that rapidly moving decade.

The book’s title, then, refers both to Henold’s own painstaking work unearthing their stories and to the vast, distributed, semiorganized “project” undertaken by her subjects themselves: to discern what their role as laywomen really was.

Catholic readers may be surprised to discover that while the “vocation crisis” is the subject of Henold’s prologue, she is discussing not 1968 but 1958. The baby boom had produced an 89 percent increase in Catholic elementary school students from 1948 to 1958, but there were only 20 percent more Catholic sisters available to teach them. Accordingly, from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, Catholic media celebrated religious vocations while occasionally suggesting that married women were to blame for selfishly resisting their daughters’ vocations.

Many laywomen clearly felt the force of this criticism, and some joined a new lay society, the Theresians, begun in 1961 with the explicit purpose of promoting vocations to the sisterhood. Yet by 1969, the group voted to repudiate this goal: It was now to be a society “dedicated to a deeper appreciation of the vocation of the Christian woman”—in other words, Theresians’ own vocations.

How closely would the new “vocation of the Christian woman” resemble the old? Some answers are found in Henold’s study of the N.C.C.W., founded by the U.S. bishops in the 1920s. With 13,000 parish-level affiliates, it was as close as the American Catholic Church got to a universal organization of women, with diverse local membership and leadership (though, as Henold points out, those at the national level—as with most voices represented in this book—were typically white and upper middle class.) While both bishops and Catholic feminists often saw the N.C.C.W.’s role as doing whatever members of the clergy told them to, Henold’s careful trawl through their publications and conference schedules tells a different story. The N.C.C.W., in short, studied Vatican II documents closely and used them “explicitly to question and challenge both their traditional role in the church and their relationship to the hierarchy.”

What did ordinary laywomen, as opposed to the leaders of national organizations, think about all this? Accessing these voices can, of course, be challenging. Henold partly solves this problem with a deep dive into the pages of Marriage magazine, where she finds full-throttle discussions about work (paid and unpaid), sex and authority in the family. While the opinions aired in Marriage were varied, by the end of the 1960s letter writers “no longer took for granted...that God-given complementarity” made gender roles not only unchanging but unchangeable.

Moderate Catholic women’s aggiornamento, as Henold shows, depended on holding women’s liberation at arm’s length while at the same time embracing a call to upend discrimination and, critically, to question the church’s longstanding essentialist views on womanhood. But by the mid-1970s, both the N.C.C.W. and other organizations were facing internal backlash to even this “mild feminism.”

I was born in 1979, at the tail end of this round of conversations. As such, I grew up in a Catholic world that both assumed women’s equality and simultaneously accepted, at least on the surface, the church’s primarily male power structure. Henold’s superb work of scholarship, at once funny, insightful and wrenching, has helped me better understand the currents and tensions underneath the surface of our parish.

It ran on women’s labor and depended on women’s organizational leadership; the school’s religious education curriculum said nothing that I can remember about the separate vocations of men (to headship) and women (to service); and yet the parish did not allow altar girls; and, of course, we never heard a female voice in the pulpit.

My own memories, then, show me neither a church converted to a post-Vatican II feminism nor a church where, as we are sometimes inclined to exclaim in frustration, nothing has really changed. The Laywoman Project shows how my mother’s and grandmother’s generations fought an uphill battle, “confronting and dismantling” essentialist ideas inch by inch. Its patient, charitable, critical, empathetic account of its subjects calls both Catholic women and Catholic men to continue this work.

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