How laywomen changed the church after Vatican II

Even moderate Catholic laywomen played a role in church renewal, says this historian.

While researching the history of Catholic feminism for her first book, Mary Henold, a professor of history at Roanoke College, stumbled across the work of a woman named Margaret Mealey, a longtime director of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), an organization that included millions of members during the mid-1960s.

At first, Mealey seemed like she fit in well with the other Catholic feminists of the era Henold was writing about—women such as Mary Daly and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. But Henold soon discovered that self-identified Catholic feminists wanted nothing to do with Mealey. They saw the NCCW as a mouth-piece of the bishops instead of as a force for women’s liberation.

When Henold started digging deeper, she discovered a whole movement of women like Mealey: women right around the time of the Second Vatican Council who did not identify as feminists but who were having frank discussions about what it means to be a Catholic woman. “They were pushing Catholic women’s gender identity in fascinating ways, but not exactly feminist ways,” Henold says.

The eventual result of this discovery was Henold’s new book, The Laywoman Project: Remaking Catholic Womanhood in the Vatican II Era (University of North Carolina Press). The book examines how laywomen rethought what it meant to be a committed Catholic and a woman in the years surrounding Vatican II.


What did the “ideal Catholic woman” look like before Vatican II?

If you look through Catholic magazines of this period, it is not uncommon to find pieces that say, “This is what a Catholic woman is”—as if there’s only one. These articles are just a list of characteristics: Her role is at home, she is naturally tuned to motherhood, she is detail-oriented but not big picture-oriented, she is passive and receptive, she is obedient. Catholic women were active in organizations such as the Cana movement, Marriage Encounter, and the Christian Family Movement. These organizations all told them to go out and use Catholic teaching to have an impact, to be leaders in their communities.

Women were also supposed to have a lot of children. It was very common to aspire to have a large family in the 1950s and early part of the ’60s. The ideal Catholic woman would be open to all the children God gave her, regardless of whether her family could financially support many children.

The ideal Catholic woman would do anything for other people. She was self-sacrificing. There was this narrative that “your troubles will be solved if you turn your attention to other people instead of on yourself.” This was true for single women as well. If a woman didn’t have a motherly role, she was told she should find one. That was something the women in my book had to confront: the constant refrain that they always had to be giving up something for their children, husbands, households, and families.

The other big difference is that lay-women before Vatican II were told that the only female vocation was becoming a nun and entering religious life. If you weren’t called to be a sister, then you didn’t have a vocation. Instead, laywomen were supposed to pray for an increase in nuns. They were supposed to go into high schools and talk to their daughters to encourage them to enter religious life.


Altogether, it was a big step for women to talk about something larger during this time. Sometimes that meant a larger role in the church, and sometimes it was talking about working outside of the home—and even that was very risky to talk about in some forums during this period. Sometimes it meant talking about headship: whether men were the head of the household and what that meant. After Vatican II women started talking about all these things.

How did Vatican II change the conversation about womanhood in the U.S. Catholic Church?

Vatican II changed the role of the laity. Yet the church still used masculine pronouns when talking about the role of laypeople. You’d have priests talking to groups of exclusively Catholic women about the role of “laymen.” Women started to ask, “Does laymen actually apply to us? What role are we supposed to have?”

It left a lot of women asking, “What are we supposed to do now?” Because the world seemed to be opening up for women, the church was focusing more on the role of laypeople. Yet at the same time the Catholic Church was not changing its teachings on gender. That’s normal: At times of great change and upheaval, people want gender to stay stable. They want men and women to stay in established roles, because it helps contain the chaos. But the conversation around women’s roles in the church began to change anyway.

What is the “laywoman project”?

For about 15 years—from 1960 to 1975—there was a flood of writing by Catholic laywomen as well as by women religious and some priests. All of it was directed around the questions, “What is a Catholic woman, and what does she do?” As the church moved through the years of Vatican II, the question became, “How does a laywoman contribute to the new project of the Catholic Church?”


If you look at the Catholic periodicals of the day, just about every magazine—including U.S. Catholic—had articles about the new Catholic moment and what it meant to be a Catholic woman during that time. They talked about the “new nuns” all the time. The new nuns talked about what laywomen were supposed to be doing. There was an outpouring of written content. And then there were conferences, speakers, and newsletters being passed around. Catholic women’s organizations were educating their memberships and putting together materials that laywomen could use in parish groups, for example.

Vatican II left a lot of women asking, “What are we supposed to do now?”

The laywoman project was this body of work that proved laywomen were active in the Catholic Church. They were thinking about the church and their role intelligently. They were empowered. Even when the church didn’t particularly empower them, they empowered themselves.

What was so fascinating to me was seeing these women’s courage to ask questions at a time when they were not supposed to ask questions. They were supposed to listen and do what they were told. But for this 15-year period, they didn’t. They took everything they were told and processed it for themselves and for other people.


How did this project engage Vatican II?

What’s interesting to me is that these women do not directly talk about the documents of Vatican II in detail. Catholic feminists were doing this, but they were more likely to be trained theologians. Graduate education in theology at Catholic institutions was closed to women until the late 1960s, except at the pioneering St. Mary’s Graduate School of Sacred Theology, which closed in 1970. So there weren’t a lot of trained female theologians. Women in these big laywomen’s organizations didn’t all feel confident engaging theology or church teaching in depth, but that didn’t stop them from working with the documents of Vatican II.

Their discussion was more apt to be in broad strokes. They would talk about how inspired they were by Vatican II. Over and over again they talk about how they wanted to get going: They wanted to be told what to do and how to make a difference in the church and in the world. When no one told them how to do that, they started telling themselves.


The National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) started to say, “OK, we’ve read the documents of Vatican II, and what they say to us is that we need to start doing different work in the parish. So ladies, stop planning the Christmas bazaar, stop handing out tea and cookies, stop collecting for the missions. What we need to be doing is working for the poor.”

A lot of women threw themselves into ecumenical and interfaith work, something that was very new. They put their energy into more social justice causes. Their magazines stopped featuring women giving charitable contributions to priests and instead used the space to run articles on issues such as race, poverty, and birth control.


Were these women feminists?

Labeling feminists could be a full-time job. Instead of trying to pin down what feminism is and whether these women were feminists, I’m following another trend: These were women who did not self-identify as feminists and yet were still asking questions about gender. At times they pushed boundaries and challenged the expectations surrounding gender, but they didn’t claim the label of feminist for themselves despite having the opportunity to do so.

The conversations these women were having were driven by their faith. They weren’t due to secular feminism but were instead grounded in a desire to participate in the work of the church following Vatican II. Obviously, feminism had something to do with it: It gave them a language, a spark.

Catholic women changed, and they changed themselves, even if the church may not have noticed this.

Some of the differences between the women involved in the laywoman project and feminists are on issues such as abortion rights—especially in the early 1970s after Roe v. Wade. But some are more about tone. The particular women I write about in my book tend to be middle-aged, middle-class, and predominantly white. For the longest time in my head I called them the “ladies in hats,” because in all the photos they’re wearing hats and white gloves and handing checks to priests.


I don’t want to say they were conservative, but they were not writing manifestos. And they were very suspicious of the women who were. They were not about protests or making a scene. They thought it was important to be politic. So whenever they talked about feminism or some of these questions surrounding gender, they would often include a disclaimer: “We’re not like those women who are angry rabble-rousers, who are making such a ruckus.”

That said, they were asking basically the same questions as women in the Catholic feminist movement. Margaret Mealey, the longtime executive director of the NCCW, admitted it. She said, “It’s not that we don’t care about justice for women. We do. We’re just not going to act like the feminist movements do.”

What are some different ways women came to terms with the contradictions between church teachings on gender and the Vatican II focus on laypeople’s vocations?

Women were hearing this message from Vatican II that laypeople should no longer be passive, which went against what Catholic women had always been told about their role—and were still being told. It got very confusing. Most decided in the end that they didn’t want to be passive, because it didn’t fit their new definition of what it meant to be a Catholic.

Sometimes this meant women changed their organizations. Sometimes they retreated from the church, like many Catholic feminists did. But mostly they just asked questions. They raised ideas about the newness of their situation and how their lives as Catholic women could be different.

They also expressed frustration that things weren’t changing quickly enough. They became frustrated that they were not getting on parish or finance councils as fast as they would have liked. It wasn’t until 1971 that women could be lectors, and even then the rule was that a woman could read the epistle, but only if a qualified man was unavailable and if she stood outside the sanctuary gates.

Others responded by building relationships with Catholic sisters. In the past, there had been a large gap between laywomen and women religious. But as laywomen changed their idea of vocation to include vocations outside of vowed religious life, the relationship became less hierarchical. There was a sense of solidarity: “If we’re getting confusing messages about what it means to be a woman in the church, we are going to combat that by sticking together.”

What happened to the laywoman project?

As a church, we have forgotten that this ever took place. This vast amount of material is never discussed. Instead we keep asking the questions as if they have not been answered already: What is a woman’s gift? What is a woman’s nature? What is her essence?

It’s so discouraging, because I think many people continue to believe that laywomen have no power and no ideas. But there was this really long moment in time when they did go out there and try to change the church.


There’s a variety of reasons this project tapered off. First, the power of Catholic women’s organizations has diminished markedly. The organizations I study in my book—the NCCW, the Catholic Daughters of the Americas, the Daughters of Isabella—used to be huge, but they have shrunk in size and reach. They all still exist, but they don’t have the authority they once did. They don’t bring in young people as they once did. They don’t have as much authority to project their ideas. In addition, these three groups shifted to taking a more conservative overall stance by the mid-1970s.

That’s not to say that Catholic women stopped discussing gender. That’s not true at all. Certainly, Catholic feminist theologians are perpetually talking about gender and Catholic womanhood. It’s just that the large laywomen’s groups are doing much less of that.

I still hear women asking these very old questions: Do I stay or do I go? Can I find a parish where I’m not so angry all the time?

I would say another reason they disappeared is that they were successful. Look at how female essentialism and complementarity were talked about in Catholic media in the 1950s and early ’60s and how they are discussed today. There is an astonishing difference. That didn’t happen by magic. It was because of reader pushback.

The vision of the ideal passive Catholic woman just no longer makes sense for most laywomen in the Catholic mainstream. They know that there is no one list of characteristics that apply to all women that has been given by God and to which women must somehow adapt themselves. The laywoman project helped make that change.

Do you think Catholic women are having similar conversations today?

Yes and no. I think that many women are not reading as widely as they might have in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s not as wide a range of Catholic publications. Instead, people are often limited to what is available in their parish. I think that is a loss.

Yet I still hear women asking these very old questions: Do I stay or do I go? Can I find a parish where I’m not so angry all the time?

Many Catholic women these days aren’t familiar with Catholic feminism and would not care to espouse it. But they are still hurt and angry for other reasons, including the sexual abuse crisis. They ask questions about the empowerment of the laity and why the church isn’t listening to the laity during this time of crisis.


What would you like today’s Catholic laywomen to take away from the laywoman project?

It’s easy to wonder if the conversation actually has changed. We hear a lot of words from the Vatican about the value of women, but there are still the same ideas about women’s essential nature.

Yet there has been change. I have two children in Catholic school. When I look at the materials used in their religious education, it isn’t completely free of gender stereotyping, unfortunately. But there is nothing that says my daughter’s greatest aspiration should be to get married and stay at home with her children. There is nothing that says my son has to train himself to be the head of his household. That’s what they would have been told in 1965. So I absolutely believe that these women had an impact, whether or not we remember that they did.

Catholic women changed, and they changed themselves, even if the church may not have noticed this. Women undertook these conversations when they weren’t supposed to, when they were supposed to let the church tell them who they were. They didn’t march, they didn’t write manifestos. They just asked questions. They quietly decided to define for themselves what it means to be a Catholic laywoman. I think the legacy of this project is that Catholic women learned how to make some of these decisions for themselves without waiting for the church to tell them what is OK.

I want readers of my book to rediscover the history of Catholic women. I want them to know that we have a past where Catholic laywomen felt empowered enough to speak in public about their concerns, aspirations, and ideas about the direction in which the church should go. I think we’ve forgotten that there was a time when laywomen had a voice. Too many laywomen today, I fear, feel like they either have to settle for having no voice or leave the Catholic Church. But these women show us that there was a middle space. It did exist. I want to celebrate that and celebrate those women and the work they did.

I want to remember these Catholic women’s organizations as important spaces for shaping women’s leadership, for giving women a chance to show what they could do. These organizations gave women a chance to get out of their homes and travel for conferences. They wore sashes and banners and went out to cocktail bars. There’s a wonderful story about the Daughters of Isabella being told explicitly not to sing the Daughters of Isabella song in cocktail bars, which can only lead me to believe that they did. They had fun. They enjoyed one another’s company. It was a chance for them to shine and to have an important leadership role in the Catholic Church. These women were a force to be reckoned with, and they knew it.

I want people to read about the laywoman project and realize that women have the opportunity to claim their own authority. These women believed they had the authority to define for themselves what a woman was and what Catholic women could be. That is an important legacy.

This article also appears in the October issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 10, pages 16-20). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Courtesy of Mary Henold